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Bob Elmen reflects on life as entrepreneur

Via Argus Leader : Entrepreneur Bob Elmen doesn’t take on a business venture without thinking it can succeed.

And the same goes for his latest project, a book he recently wrote and published on Amazon.

“We expect a lot of sales,” the 85-year-old said, smiling.

But he’d still consider it a win if some young people – maybe college students, but especially his grandchildren – read “Fifteen Fortunes: An Octogenarian Reflects on Life as an Entrepreneur.”

It already has sold dozens of copies.

“I was working on it all the time. I’ve got all kinds of information in my head all the time,” said Elmen, who owns Sioux Falls-based Elmen Enterprises and built one of nation’s largest rental equipment companies.

He sold the Elmen Rent All chain, which included 47 stores in 12 states, to industry leader United Rentals in 1999.

Elmen Enterprises still owns 23 rental stores under the name Appliance & Furniture RentAll. It also owns KTTW-TV, the Fox affiliate in Sioux Falls, and storage units and properties in four states. The company has about 100 employees from Michigan to Wyoming.

Elmen is president and chairman of the board of the company that evolved from his father’s single store. Lloyd Elmen founded the business in 1950 and ran it during the day, working nights at John Morrell & Co., where he was the meatpacking plant’s first college graduate.

Bob and his late brother, Jim, joined their father in the business and went on to lead it together for years.

“Jimmy was more of a hands-on guy,” said Dan Moser, who worked for the company for 25 years and ended his career as one of five managing partners. “He saw the little things. Bob was a big-picture guy, and between the two of them it was a great set-up.”

Elmen’s goal in business was fairly simplistic – build wealth. In his book, he writes, “As a boy, I dreamed of being wealthy someday and was certain that if I just had a million bucks in the bank all my problems would be solved.”

But, he continues, “Over the years, I have tried not to confuse the pursuit of wealth with the pursuit of happiness – and to remember that ‘the happiness of pursuit’ is just as important as ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ ”

The 1950s presented an opportunity to grow rental businesses, as a large crop of new homeowners needed trailers to move their belongings, and tools and equipment for fixing up their houses. Between 1950 and 1975, the number of employees grew from one to 100 and volume grew 100 times over.

A voracious reader, Elmen was an early believer in computerization, said Tom Whalen, the company’s controller since 1976.

Even then, “we had an old IBM computer,” he said. “We were trying to compile a bunch of information on equipment and how much it was bringing in, always looking for data and information to help us improve what we were doing.”

Much of the book focuses on Elmen’s approach to management. His military career in the Navy taught him the value of managing complex operations, mission and vision.

His leadership philosophy centered around empowering his staff.

“I always thought he did so well because he was a great manager of people,” said Vance Goldammer, Elmen’s attorney of more than 35 years. “He gave them an opportunity to do well. By the end, I’m sure there were stores he may never have visited or visited once and then let them handle.”

Elmen gave managers “a tremendous amount of flexibility,” Moser agreed.

“He put what the expectation was out there and allowed us to get to that expectation. There wasn’t a lot of corporate structure. He prided himself at getting the right people in the location.”

Elmen trusted his team implicitly. When the company was selling to United Rentals, the buyer moved up the closing. Elmen refused to cancel a trip to take his grandchildren fishing and missed it.

“He trusted his brother Jim and Tom Whalen and me to get the ship in,” Goldammer said.

Whalen read “Fifteen Fortunes” and said it clearly communicates qualities and characteristics of a successful entrepreneur.

“I thought he did an excellent job. I was impressed,” he said.

Elmen also believes in employee ownership – a theme of his book. Managers received base pay plus a bonus of 25 percent of their stores’ profits. They could invest their bonuses and become stockholders in the company as well.

“His old saying was you work as an employee one way. You work as a manager another way. And you work as an owner a third way,” Moser said. “So he afforded many of us in the corporation to buy in at a variety of levels, and it’s exactly true.”

When the company was sold to United in 1999, it was 51 percent employee-owned. The 464 employees received $44 million for their share. The average employee received $94,218 in their retirement account, although many took home significantly more.

“There was (an employee) who started pretty much the same time I did in 1975, and he did a variety of things, and when the ESOP cashed out, when we were sold, he was literally in tears,” Moser said. “He had no idea (of the size of his share).”

As for his own fortune, Elmen and his wife, Rita, plan to leave nearly their entire estate to their foundation. Over the years, they have supporting a wide range of causes.

The Elmen Center at Augustana University is named for the family. Elmen helped fund the visitors center at Good Earth State Park at Blood Run, and “there have been huge donations to lots of other projects,” Goldammer said.

His success in business didn’t come as a real surprise, Elmen said.

“I just knew it was a lot of work, and I knew how to do the work,” he said. “I just knew it was there, and I’d have to go after it.”

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