By Kevin Kutz
Cathe Rommel is not a fan of heights. She’d rather not be on a ladder, much less a roof. Yet that’s exactly where she found herself in the early days of Arlington, Washington-based BestWorth Rommel Inc., because that’s what was needed to deliver for customers. Along with husband Dan, she has established going the extra mile as a tenet of the company they founded together in 1983.
You see their work every day — they design, build and install the canopies and exteriors for gas stations, convenience stores, car dealerships and more. Most of it is built with environment-friendly and occasionally capricious aluminum composite material (ACM), which in layman’s terms is a thin sandwich of recycled cans and garbage bags. One of the top ACM brands is Alpolic, from Mitsubishi. ACM is known among industry insiders as origami for construction projects. With the right skills, just about any shape, size, color and effect is possible.
BestWorth people are experts with it. As their reputation for quality and service has grown, they’ve expanded into interior work for Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, for art museums in nearby Snohomish and New York City, and homes in La Quinta, California, and Camano Island, Washington They’ve become the preferred partner for LEED-certified architects who want to respect the environment, push the envelope on design, and deliver on time and on budget.
But that isn’t the only reason why BestWorth is special. It’s a powerful, living-proof example of a business thriving because of leadership virtues applied, inspiring loyalty among employees, managers, customers and partners, and that ethic of extra-mile effort Cathe demonstrated atop roofs and ladders in the company’s first days.
Dan and Cathe started BestWorth Rommel after Dan had spent several years in the industry. Their commitment to customers, to building a business with integrity, was forged by their faith, their upbringings and Dan’s experience as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
“The Army taught me to resolve to accomplish the mission, come what may. I learned how to count on people, and how to earn trust so they could count on me. And I learned the best leaders are the ones who’d do anything they’d ask you to do. If you’re out there in the cold and wet, they’re out there in the cold and wet,” recounts Dan.
In the early days, if any work was going to be done, it would be done by Cathe and Dan. So they worked together on ladders, on roofs, carrying loads together. It’s a testament to their character and marriage that they look back on those years with fondness and humor.
After only a few months in business, they were able to start hiring, which gave new dimension to their principles of leadership, and a new sense of responsibility for employees and their families.
“You feel responsible. You’ve got to have work,” said Cathe. “[Employees] have families to feed.”
During those first years, that’s where second-guessing entered in, out of worry for their people.
Dan explains: “When you’re that small of a company, either you have too much work and you say, ‘My goodness how are we ever going to get this all done?’ or you’re finishing up a job and saying, ‘Now we don’t have anything to do!’ So I’m either doing the work or out getting the work — or actually doing all of the above at the same time.”
With growth comes new challenges, often when a customer asks “Can you do this?” and you say “Sure!” to something you’re only sort of sure you can do.
In November 1995, that challenge came from Brown Bear, a renowned car wash franchise throughout the Puget Sound. Said Brown Bear: “We’re rebranding and we need new exteriors. Can you replace all 17 of our units? At the same time? Overnight, so we can shut down for the night and they’ll all be converted before we open the next morning?”
Said Dan: “Yes, of course!” (Gulp)Dan and the entire Bestworth team worked with Brown Bear to pre-position all the necessary materials on the roofs of the units prior to the big night.
Dan recalls: “The night of the installations, the weather was horrendous. We divided up into eight teams of two, with one person at the office to coordinate. The only thing that kept us all going was we knew our teammates were just as miserable. It became a point of pride that nobody stopped, nobody quit — despite being soaking wet after the first 45 minutes. Our people were so awesome. We noticed another contractor who had responsibility for a different project, the street signs. His people were struggling, but he stayed in his pickup truck, warm and dry.”
To Brown Bear’s delighted surprise, BestWorth delivered on time and on budget, with the final installation finished around 6:00 the next morning.
Challenge met, and surpassed. A turning point for BestWorth.
With leaders willing to endure hardship, BestWorth’s employees demonstrate loyalty and commitment, above and beyond the call of duty. Dan recalls a moment just before Christmas one year when he was faced with overdue accounts receivable, and not enough cash to make payroll.
“My managers and I huddled together, and we agreed we would all just skip a paycheck,” remembers Dan. “One of the crew walked by just then, and said ‘You’re not getting paid? Well, I’m not getting paid either, if you’re not getting paid.’”*
*(Happy ending: later that day, they received an overdue payment for $300,000.)
Enter Charlie LaNasa, pictured at left, who came on board in 1995 as chief financial officer after a successful career in the shipbuilding and petroleum industries in San Diego and Seattle. He arrived with depth in those industries and breadth as a manager — he’d been a part-owner and general manager of a ship repair company, and a general manager of a company that constructed service stations. Immediately he became more than just another executive — he became part of the family atmosphere the Rommels had been nurturing all those years. And while eventually he bought the business when the Rommels decided to retire, his primary investment was emotional as much as financial.
“A few years after Charlie joined, we went through a tough time, and Charlie left,” said Dan. “He got a job somewhere else, but he’d keep coming back. He’d come back and work with us on the weekends just to keep us going.”
To underscore the point: Charlie recognized the Rommels couldn’t afford him, so he found another job (as CFO of a local shipbuilding and repair contractor) that enabled him literally to volunteer for BestWorth on his own time.
In 2001, Charlie returned to a formal role with BestWorth under an arrangement that ultimately allowed him to take ownership of the company. Upon his return, he directed new investment toward machinery and production capacity that allowed the company to compete successfully in new projects and industries. He brought new energy to networking across its primary target industries and to more formal marketing and sales campaigns to build the BestWorth brand and profitably grow revenue. His combination of savvy investment skills, hard work, marketing acumen and empathetic, inspiring leadership fueled growth for BestWorth and helped it weather the down times.
The Great Recession of 2008-09 hit the business hard enough that the smart executive move would have been a massive layoff. But instead, the Rommels worked out a new payment arrangement on the loan Charlie had taken to buy the business from them, and Charlie himself absorbed the financial hit of the sales downturn — all so their employees could keep their benefits and their 40-hour workweek salaries.
While adapting to change, they learned how to maintain enduring principles. The slogan Dan had coined in BestWorth’s early days — “Excellence by Design” — continued to ring true across hiring growth, new capital investment, leadership changes and times of economic boom and bust.“Origami for construction projects” is not merely a clever moniker — it illustrates the profound technical and engineering challenge of custom fitting sheets of composite recycled metal and plastic to buildings to look great and protect against the elements. According to 30-year BestWorth veteran and chief design engineer Keith Chang, BestWorth doesn’t just trust the specs like some contractors might; they go out to each project and take a custom measure to account for the tiniest irregularities. BestWorth engineers and metalworkers then rout, bend, weld, attach, package and ship to the job site, transforming the long, flat sheets into the canopies, cladding and coverings for customers — all within 1/16th of an inch tolerance to the original custom measure.
This attention to detail has engendered longstanding customer loyalty.
“The economics they provide are very clear. My clients have been extremely satisfied,” said Eric Jones, president and chief executive officer, Foushee & Associates. “I know what to expect from BestWorth. They’re predictable, dependable and cost-effective — and those are very good qualities for the construction industry.”
With all that Charlie had done to build the business and extend the Rommels’ legacy, as time passed he recognized it was time to think about transition, and a legacy of his own. The regular stream of suitors’ pitches had become noise to him in recent years, until an old friend — interestingly, the same person who originally introduced Charlie and Dan to each other, back in the 1990s — suggested he meet Scott Smith, the president and chief executive officer of new Kirkland, Wash.-based private equity firm OneAccord Capital.
Charlie entered into dialogue with OneAccord Capital with high standards and clear goals: Were their values consistent with his own, which are grounded in his Christian faith? Would they invest in and care for BestWorth people, who long ago transcended into extended family for him, rather than mere employees? Did OneAccord Capital’s leaders know what they were doing — i.e., were they sophisticated in terms of vision and operational excellence, yet also show enough humility to be willing to learn the business? Would they do right by BestWorth’s customers while also extending into new markets? Could he imagine them becoming not just investors, but friends?
“BestWorth is special,” said Charlie. “I needed assurance they understood that.”
For all these questions and more, Scott and OneAccord Capital’s leadership and investor team had to pass muster with Charlie as people of integrity and faith, which mattered more to him than the price. Once satisfied, Charlie and Scott agreed to terms, and on May 22, 2017, OneAccord Capital announced the acquisition of BestWorth-Rommel through its Solomons Fund investment branch. Charlie retains an ownership stake and remains as an advisor and board member.
“At OneAccord Capital, we are operators who buy companies, and we have the perspective of the operator when we position new acquisitions for growth,” said Scott. “This resonates with owners selling to us, because they have a stronger level of comfort that business will be cared for, the employees, customers and partners will be cared for, and we’ll lay a foundation for growth and turn it into something more than it is.”
Scott can barely contain his excitement for the future: “My first visit to BestWorth was eye-opening because I saw so much opportunity. We have a culture of people who are very good at what they do, and Charlie and the Rommels did an amazing job to bring BestWorth to this point. I can’t help but be excited about the road ahead.”
From left: OneAccord Founder Jeff Rogers, BestWorth Founder Dan Rommel, Bestworth Owner Charlie LaNasa, BestWorth President Mike Eskridge, OneAccord Capital President and CEO Scott Smith
OneAccord Capital has installed a new president, Mike Eskridge, a U.S. Army veteran with many years of senior executive experience in manufacturing. Over time, his mission will include extending BestWorth’s current industry leadership into new markets where the company’s expertise in architectural ACM and corporate imaging exteriors are an advantage. Scott and Mike believe BestWorth is poised for substantial growth that would lead directly to new job creation at its headquarters in Arlington, Wash.
“When I joined BestWorth, what I noticed immediately was a sense of mutual ownership, a commitment to quality and a customer-first approach. There’s an attitude of integrity and excellence already here in the building,” said Mike. “Now we need to build upon that, to expand outside our traditional markets. We’re leveraging our expertise and experience especially with architects by demonstrating we can start with anything they send us, from detailed specs to a drawing on a napkin.”
Acquiring BestWorth fits OneAccord Capital’s ongoing focus on a market segment it believes the institutional capital industry overlooks: small, profitable companies owned by retirement-age entrepreneurs who want to extend their legacies while protecting their employees and local communities. OneAccord Capital’s strategy is to build long-term value over a ten-year-minimum time horizon — another departure from the traditional norms of the private equity industry, which generally drives for quick-turnaround results.
“For years, researchers have pointed to a growing trend of baby boomer owners who are reaching retirement age and need to find the right transition path. The numbers are large: tens of thousands of these businesses in the Pacific Northwest will change hands over the next several years,” said Jeff Rogers, a OneAccord Capital co-founder. “Yet the capital markets generally are not focused on this type of organization, which puts the companies, the employees and the local communities in jeopardy. OneAccord Capital’s mission is to help close the gap.”
OneAccord Capital’s leadership and Solomons Fund investors are successful entrepreneurs and veteran corporate executives who bring more than a century of operational experience and an aligned set of values that center on stewardship and long-term vision. For BestWorth in particular, they bring relevant industry know-how in construction, automobiles, retail and marketing.
“We see the Monday after the Friday, the day one after the close, both for the business owners and the business itself,” said Darin Leonard, a OneAccord Capital co-founder. “We understand these are extremely difficult decisions for successful business owners who have poured their lives into their companies and communities. We have the perspective and know-how to navigate the complexity required for a successful transition, and to get the business itself to the next level.”
The story of BestWorth is about great people investing in one another as they invest in great work. It’s the tradition of Dan out with his crew installing canopies in negative-40-degree winters in Alaska and 115-degree summers in central California, of Cathe emptying everyone’s garbage cans every night just for the sake of offering service, and Charlie getting to the office early in the morning to make coffee for the team.
Mike Eskridge and OneAccord Capital intend to add new chapters of inspiring servant-leadership, taking BestWorth to new heights — the kind Cathe will enjoy.
Kevin Kutz is Principal of KK Strategies LLC, a communications strategy firm based in Redmond, WA. Drawing from a career that extends from the political realm to Fortune 500 companies, startups, nonprofits and most recently Microsoft, he builds and implements communications campaigns that help organizations of all sizes achieve their goals.