The following article was written courtesy of Construction News, www.constructionnews.net. Spotlight – Robert Ober, Owner, Robert Ober & Associates. May 26, 2016.
SAN ANTONIO – This year, Robert Ober marks 10 years since establishing Robert Ober & Associates as it exists today with its two divisions, Plant Architects + Plant Outfitters.
Though the design build firm bears his name, he insists the company isn’t about him; it’s about the people in the office and in the field. He credits them with making the industrial contractor what it is today.
At 58, he remains active in his business as well as charitable pursuits and personal projects outside of work.
Where did you grow up?
My father worked for U.S. Steel in Gary, IN, where I was born. He later joined a joint venture with Ford Motor Company and worked on building a new stamping plant in Chicago Heights, IL. So, we moved nearby. After that, Ford was building a new stamping plant in Woodhaven, MI, so we moved again.
Later, to start another joint venture between a Japanese steel company, U.S. Steel and Ford Motor Company at the famed River Rouge facility in Dearborn, MI, he transferred there and built that facility, and ended his career there at the River Rouge after 40-some years with U.S. Steel and Ford Motor Company.
So, I’m from a steel family, but his discipline was electrical work, electrical millwrighting and electrical design. I grew up in suburban Chicago and suburban Detroit.
What brought you into this field?
The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, because building cars or making any other product is a manufacturing process and that’s what we do. We are an industrial design-build firm. We do steel fabrication, and we do a lot of industrial raw material handling, but I would say that it’s not that far from where I would have started.
I was supposed to get into automotive design and in fact had a path to do that and chose not to. I chose rather to go out west and attend school for mechanical engineering and trade school as well to work as a mechanic.
Where out west did you go and when?
In 1976, I graduated from high school and went out to Colorado. I enrolled in trade school and took some college classes as well. The big draw was that Colorado had mountains, and I was on a ski team. I was an avid downhill skier and traveled all over with a high school-aged ski team. The idea was mechanical engineering, but it was diesel power actually that I was most interested in at the time. The diesel power industry was growing fast, and it was being looked at for automotive use as well. That was something that intrigued me, so I thought I would explore diesel power engineering.
My father had suggested that if I was going to get into diesel power as an engineer that I receive a tradesman’s ticket in diesel power repair and diesel heavy equipment mechanics. That was the best advice I think he could have ever given me, because you’re talking to a mechanic at the end of the day. I may own an engineering firm that employs industrial architects and engineers of many disciplines but at the end of the day, I am a mechanic. That is how I approach problem solving.
While attending school, an internship became available with an employer that provided crane and construction machinery.
The business was Richard O’Brien Companies, and Richard became (and continues to be) a mentor of mine. Richard owned a number of automobiles and was an automotive collector. So, I caught that bug from him as well.
How did you get into the business you’re in now?
First, through the equipment, through maintenance, then through being a service manager, and then from service into sales, and from sales into management and administration, and along the way, into alternative designs for equipment.
I became kind of a “re-engineerer,” a “re-inventer.” I started inventing accessories and finding different ways to do things. That led me into designing whole plant equipment and our own devices. From the 10 years that I spent at O’Brien, I learned that trade, so I basically stuck with it. I never went into diesel power.
Where did you go from there?
When my wife and I were first married, we went to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where we had an opportunity. We didn’t have any children yet. I was up there for the better part of 13 years. I went to work for some folks and ended up a partner in the business. It was during those years that I really got into the design and the rebuilding and redesign of things.
My wife and I had three children while in Canada: my daughter and two boys. As they neared school age, we had to make a decision whether we were going to raise three Canadians (we loved Canada, and I had no problem staying there, but with two brothers for partners, I was always the odd man out, and really nothing more than that) or three Americans. We just said, “Maybe we will go back to the states sometime.”
So we had that in the back of our minds, and then I was approached, oddly enough, by the owner of a company that is known in the construction industry as “the Dow Jones of concrete.” They own trade shows and expos around the world, and at the time, 17 concrete- and masonry-related trade publications. He knew me as I was the president of a couple of concrete associations at that time, and he offered me an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.
That provided a path back to the states. We relocated from the Calgary area to Chicago. My wife is from Chicago originally, so we were happy to make that move. I really was given an on-the-job MBA, if you will. Marketing and business administration were things that I took for granted—my background being all technical and design—and I was actually enlightened to what these trade publications and trade shows were doing for the industry.
I had a two-year contract, and I was counting the days at the end, because I really missed the business development, the selling and design work that I had been involved in previously. At the end of those two years, I parted amicably and started basically what this company has become.
When was that?
That would have been about 1995. I started a company that was later bought out by a company in San Antonio. So, by 2000, we were moving to San Antonio, now under another contract for five years, but this time as a buyout.
I worked there for four years under that contract, at which point I was able to buy my original company back from the parent. The company primarily represented an Italian equipment manufacturer and over time their goals were different from mine, and we parted ways in 2006. At that time, Plant Architects + Plant Outfitters was born as a renamed, restructured company that holds no allegiance to any particular manufacturer, allowing us to truly work with our clients to solve their challenges, instead of always having a fiduciary responsibility to sell a specific brand at the end of the day. PA+PO was a new name but the same basic team of employees. We pride ourselves on working from the perspective of the client, to design-build the best combination of manufactured and custom equipment to fit their needs.
Tell me about your family.
My wife, Suzanne, works at PA+PO with me. My daughter, Caroline, is a teacher in Austin, specializing in autistic children. She’s married to a great guy, Robin, who is in sports marketing and travels around the country with NCAA sports. My eldest son, Ryan, is graduating UIW this month [May] with a degree in business finance and is considering law school. My youngest son, Michael, lives in Colorado, and works with the company on the crews.
What are some of the things you do in terms of community involvement?
I like to be involved, but I really don’t like to be out in front. I’m one of those who believe that if you’ve got 10 cents and you can spare five of it, then put it to work. Over the years, I’ve been blessed. I’ve been very fortunate and had a lot of great mentors along the way, and I’ve had my hard knocks along the way. Any time I’ve had my hard knocks, there’s always been a hand or two, and so I’ve never forgotten that, and I pay it forward.
I established a non-profit organization called De Novo Foundation (DeNovoFoundation.org). De novo is Latin for “new beginning.” I’m very proud of De Novo. It’s one of the partners with Haven for Hope. For years, I would adopt people, if you want to use that term – adopt their dream, adopt their idea, help them out – and some of those folks have gone on to do great things. You don’t have a 100-percent success rate, but the one out of three that succeeds is reason enough for sure. You just never know. De Novo is really the formalization of something that I’ve done for a couple of decades in helping people.
I’m very involved in other faith-based organizations, but especially enjoy real boots-on-the-ground charities.
I’m on the board of San Antonio Sports (SanAntonioSports.org), a wonderful organization that improves the lives of children through sports.
Another notable charitable organization I’m involved in is The Ferrari Kid (TheFerrariKid.org). I’m a car nut, and hearing what they do for kids with cancer got me greatly involved. The organization gives the kids a day to forget about being sick, offering them rides in exotic cars and taking them out for a favorite activity. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s not. It’s a big deal to those families and to those kids. I’m proud to support them, financially and with whatever we can do for them.
Do you give them rides in a Ferrari of yours?
I personally haven’t driven any of the children, but I’ve supplied the cars and I’ve had employees of mine drive the cars. I think it’s kind of neat to let the employee drive the car instead of me.
We know you collect cars. What other hobbies do you have?
You should never make your hobby a business (because then it’s no longer a hobby) but I did just that a little while ago. I took a facility where I housed a collection of cars and turned it into a concierge storage, detailing and restoration service. We take cars that are at a certain level and bring them up to a concours level.
I really do like fiddling with cars, but that’s now a business. I have a full-time curator and staff. It’s called Vault Auto Services. A lot of people just don’t have room or the time to take care of those expensive machines, and so we do that for them. We deliver them to their homes, to the airport, pick them up, clean them, tune them, have them serviced properly, take them to the dealerships if that’s where they need to go.
I do spend some time in Colorado, where we have a place. Whether I’m skiing or just relaxing, it’s a great getaway.