Interview: Anton Golobic
on Saturday, January 28, 2012
In America you are known as Tony Golobic, Chairman and CEO of GreatAmerica. Tell us about Anton Golobic from Bela Krajina, Slovenia who traveled to Chicago when he was only 17 years old.
Quite a few members of my mother’s family began immigrating to the United States towards the end of the 19th century. My grandfather, Martin Golobic, went back and forth to the United States several times, working and sending money back to the family. For a while he was even prospecting for gold in Utah and Alaska. He would be telling my mother that she really belonged in America. By the time World War II broke out, most of my mother’s siblings were already American citizens. My mother joined them in 1959 and wanted me to follow her. I felt very strongly about the country of my birth and for a long time I didn’t want to leave. Finally I relented, fully intending to return after a few months. However, it didn’t take me long to realize, once I was here, that this country was a land of uncommon opportunities. On my second day in Chicago I got a job. I was making $360 per month. That was good money in 1962, especially for a 17-year-old kid who spoke maybe 20 words of English. The job was dirty and quite dangerous, but that never occurred to me. All I could think was how lucky could I possibly be; one day in this country and I was already making a lot of money. I was in charge of cleaning two gigantic red-hot oil-fired boilers, deep in the basement of a building, balancing myself on scaffolding with a huge brush, trying to avoid burning myself. I didn’t realize that I got the job because no one else wanted it. All I knew was that I stumbled into a world of opportunities.
Five months after coming to America, you joined the U.S. Army. Of the 3 years that you served, 6 months were in Vietnam. How important was this experience for you?
After a few months of working on scaffolding next to red-hot boilers, my enthusiasm for that job started to wear a bit thin. I was a high school dropout, but I knew that I wanted to get an education eventually. Since I spoke almost no English I knew that formal education will have to wait a few years. At the same time, I knew that having an American permanent resident status, I was subject to the draft. So, I decided that I should end my career as a boiler cleaner and joined the U.S. Army. Since I spoke almost no English, my Army recruiter filled out my Army I.Q. test for me and I got a score of somewhere between a borderline imbecile and an idiot. I still get a kick out of that. But that was good enough for the U.S. Army and I became an infantry soldier. Later on as I learned some English, the Army realized that I wasn’t a complete imbecile after all and they sent me to a Noncommissioned Officers Academy and promoted me to the rank of Sergeant. I happened to serve in a quick response combat ready unit, so we were one of the first ones to be shipped to Vietnam in 1965. We landed on the shores of Vietnam in landing crafts and by the time we landed, half of us were throwing up.
Combat experience affects different people differently. I greatly benefited by mine. In effect I could say that it was a real turning point for me. Up to that point I was just a pimple-faced teenager, from a poor background, born out of wedlock who felt bad about himself. I lacked self respect and I didn’t think I was worthy of anything. After 6 months of combat, doing the right thing regardless of the consequences, I started to realize that maybe I needed to re-evaluate how I felt about myself. All of a sudden I started on the road to respecting myself. That was when I started to realize that maybe someday I am going to amount to something.
You obtained BSBA degree in Accounting from Roosevelt University and MBA in Finance from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. When did you decide what do you want to do in your life and how important was it to obtain good education?
I actually wanted to become an artist. I had some talent for sketching and painting and after my Army discharge I got a job as a commercial artist. However, as I grew up without money, wearing hand-me-down clothes as a child, making money was important to me and I decided to study business instead. While in the Army I passed the high school equivalency exam. Somehow, I was accepted to Roosevelt University and I worked full time to support myself while I went to school full time. I received my degree in a little less than 4 years. At first it was hard, but then it got easier and I finished the last year with straight A’s. I still didn’t think well enough of myself to think I should apply to one of the nation’s top graduate schools, but one of my professors at Roosevelt did. His name was Michael Eisner and I will never forget him. He thought me to aim high, to aim for the top because if I didn’t aim for the top I would never get there. What a wonderful American attitude. I started to understand that here, if you’re good enough, if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything you want. In America, the sky is the limit. So, with his encouragement, I applied to the University of Chicago and I was lucky enough to be admitted. I quit my job and through the combination of my savings, government loans and my G.I. Bill I was able to focus on my studies there. My 2 years at the University of Chicago felt like I was in a Disneyland of knowledge. That was a wonderful time of my life. A number of professors there were then or future Nobel Prize winners, some of whom I was actually able to spend some personal time with. Among others, there was the world-class Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, the famous Department of Economics, both places where I used to hang out. And there in the middle of all that was I, a Slovenian immigrant from Bela Krajina. I was in awe. My experience there not only provided me with a first rate education, but it also built my confidence.
Following your studies you started a successful career in the corporate world. Among others, you served as the General Manager of GE Capital Office Technology Financial Services, President and Chief Executive Officer of LeaseAmerica Corporation, and Senior Vice President of Mellon Financial Services. In 1992 you decided that you want to start your own company. What motivated you for this step?
Following my graduation from the University of Chicago, I started my career working for large financial services companies. I worked hard and I was successful, but I wasn’t happy. Down deep, I still wanted to be an artist.
It started to dawn on me that I could be a businessman and an artist at the same time. Andy Warhol’s famous quote confirmed my thinking along the lines that a business could be an object of art. After all, what is art? To me, art is in the mind of creator who uses his imagination to produce a unique aesthetic experience; an object of beauty. My mind started to form a vision of a business that would relentlessly pursue standards of excellence in everything it does and would thus rise so high above all others that it would have no competition. Such a business would stimulate human emotions of all those who are a part of it. It would almost be a living being, brought alive with care and passion of its employees and cheered on by its customers.
I knew that I would have to be in control of building such a business, which I would not be as long as I worked for someone else. For a long time I didn’t have the guts to do it. After all, I had a family to support and I was doing well in the corporate world. But then, when I celebrated my 48th birthday, I suddenly realized that if I didn’t do it then, later it would be too late to build my dream. So, I quit my job and started on the greatest adventure of my lifetime. Along the way, I stopped saying “I” and started saying “we”, because today I am not the only one dreaming, worrying, caring and losing sleep over our company. We have 367 fellow artists building, dreaming and caring for GreatAmerica. This is how we became the largest private independent commercial equipment finance company and one of the most respected in our industry.
When you started the GreatAmerica Leasing Corporation it included you, your wife Magda, and two other employees. Today it is the largest private independent commercial equipment leasing company in the United States with almost $1.3 billion in assets. Where do you see GreatAmerica in 10 years?
I never started this company to build it, sell it and then walk away with a lot of money. We are building this company to last, way past my lifetime and hopefully way past my sons’ lifetimes. We are not motivated by money. However, at GreatAmerica, success, growth and relentless pursuit of excellence is a part of our DNA. It is a part of our organizational discipline that we do not stray away from, no matter what. We know that it doesn’t matter what the weather is outside; is it cold or hot, is the economy strong or weak. All it matters is how we feel in our hearts about ourselves and how determined we are to succeed. Every single year during our 19 years of existence, regardless of economic conditions, was a year of growth, greater success and reaching for new horizons of excellence. We plan to continue this tradition. 10 years from now we will be quite a bit larger and better, without a question. However, we will be more than that. The world is changing all the time and businesses that don’t change along with it will be left behind. We need to continuously adapt and evolve. We have already started other businesses that focus on serving our customers in a variety of ways; human resources consulting, systems outsourcing (not to India or China, but right here to Iowa, where we can do it better than anyone else in the world), servicing portfolios for banks, etc. Who knows what else we will be doing in 10 years. The only limitation will be our ability to do it well. I am 67 years old, but I am as excited today about our future as a 17 year old. Here, in this country, the future is only limited by our imagination and will.
You are known as a strong supporter of transparency in the business world. You do not have your own private office and share the company’s financial statements with all the team members every month. Could the present financial crisis be avoided if every business in the United States shared similar values?
I think one of the biggest issues facing us today is that many business leaders lack a sense of moral responsibility that they should have towards their employees, customers, communities and their other constituencies. Today, it is perfectly acceptable for heads of companies to gamble with other people’s money, lose, yet to walk away with huge severances while ruining the lives of many others. This is really at the heart of the recent financial crisis. Yes, the direct blame for the crisis can be equally shared by many: our Government that actively encouraged wider home ownership, Federal Reserve’s easy monetary policy, consumers buying homes that they knew they couldn’t afford and falsifying their financial information, investment bankers that only cared about their fees and investors that didn’t do their homework, etc, etc. However, I believe that underlying all this was a basic lack of moral responsibility of many in the leadership positions. Sigmund Freud once said: “The reason for so much bad science is not that talent is rare, not at all; what is rare is character.” If I may take the liberty of paraphrasing him, I would say: “The reason for this financial crisis is not that smart businessmen are rare, not at all; what is rare is character.”
You are known to nurture a strong bond between the leadership and the employee team members. You hand deliver paychecks twice a month to the entire Cedar Rapids office. Your company rewards hard work and provides continuous training classes to its employees. As a result, it is consistently ranked as one of the best places to work in Iowa. How important is it to work with the team that cares about the company?
I think I am an intelligent and capable businessman, probably better than many, but I by myself could never have achieved what we have jointly built from nothing and are still building at GreatAmerica. Yes, I could have built a much bigger company in a lot shorter period of time. Buying companies, merging them together and then selling them is not all that difficult.
But building a company that will last, that is continuously growing and reaching for new horizons of success no matter the economic times, a company that is respected by its customers as well as its competitors is a completely another matter. I couldn’t have done it by myself. This takes the hearts and minds of everybody here at GreatAmerica. I personally deliver paychecks to everyone here so I have the chance to thank them for their hard work and their care; to tell them that I appreciate them.
Every year we hire about 30–40 new employees. However, we are very selective in whom we hire. Because we are known as a desirable place to work, we get many applications and we select only about 2% of them. We look for character and attitude. Once we bring new employees aboard, we take them through a lot of training that is ongoing and we treat them well and with respect. One of our GreatAmerica principles (we have 10 of them) is: “We share rewards”, rewards of our company’s success. The better GreatAmerica does, the better everyone working here does. We pay good wages and in addition, everyone in the company, from our receptionist to me, gets a bonus that depends on our previous month’s success. Our employees are really the ones that are running the company. They are empowered to make a lot of decisions over what goes on. For example, although I am the Chairman and Chief Executive, I can not hire anyone that our employees will not accept. This is their decision and if I want empowered employees, I must respect that. In addition, we have committees that run different aspects of our affairs. I am only in charge of our strategic direction, of making sure that we do not stray from what made us successful in the first place and I am the chief cheerleader.
In 2008 Cedar Rapids experienced a historic catastrophic flooding. Your office building had to be evacuated with only a few hours’ notice and your staff couldn’t return for over three months. Such events would lead many businesses to relocate. Yet, you decided to come back and eventually purchase the building. Tell us about the connection between the GreatAmerica and the community?
As I said earlier, we owe our success to our employees and our Eastern Iowa community. We will never forget this and no matter what, we will always be a worthy, supporting member of our community. Rebuilding downtown Cedar Rapids means that employers like us need to stay in downtown. This is our corporate responsibility.
In addition, we do our part in financially supporting a number of social and cultural organizations here and we encourage our employees to do volunteer work in our community. I am proud to say that many of them do.
This country, our Iowa community, our customers and our employees made my dream come true; the dream that I so much wanted to achieve. I owe a tremendous amount of responsibility and loyalty towards them.
You and your wife Magda are also strong supporters of a number of educational institutions in and near Cedar Rapids, for example, Mount Mercy University, Coe College, Cornell College and Kirkwood Community College. Tell us about your scholarship fund and the importance of a quality education for the future of American companies.
I very much believe that everyone who deserves should have the opportunity to get a good education. I feel very fortunate to be given the opportunity to succeed. Yes, I worked hard and I was determined to succeed, but a number of people in this country took a chance on me. America is truly a land of opportunities for everyone, regardless of whom they are, that wants success badly enough and I want to do a small part in making sure that this continues. The future to American competitiveness is knowledge. We have good institutions of higher education here in Iowa and they deserve our support.
Tony Golobic is also a member of the Board of Trustees of Coe College and Mercy Medical Center. He serves on the boards of directors of CRST International Inc., Orchestra Iowa and National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library. In the past he served on the boards of directors of Village Bank & Trust Company, Equipment Leasing and Finance Association, Equipment Leasing and Finance Foundation, Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival, and Eastern Iowa Enterprise Council.