Former Blues exec helps ensure the past

March 30, 2009
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Dale Robertson likes to be on his toes. As CEO of the Public Museum, his office is a reflection of his style. No traditional desk here; instead a bar-height slab is crowned with a computer. A bar-height desk chair is nearby, but it’s cast aside so he can stay on his feet.

It’s clear that, like the river outside his window, Robertson is always moving.

“It’s sort of my nature; I like to move,” he said. “It works for me.”

Last year, Robertson moved from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, where he’d put in nearly 20 years, to become leader of the nonprofit organization that runs the museum. Formerly part of the city, the museum’s municipal financial cord was cut in July 2006, although close ties remain. The museum now relies primarily on ticket sales and fundraising for its $6.5 million annual budget.

“I decided to follow my heart and the passion, and ended up taking over what was a newly created position,” said Robertson, who had previously volunteered as board chairman.

Founded in 1854, the museum is one of the oldest in the nation. The $39 million Van Andel Museum Center opened on Pearl Street in 1994 with a lead gift of $3 million from Betty and Jay Van Andel. The previous location on Jefferson Street SE is now used for storage and archives. The public museum also oversees the Voigt House Victorian Museum as well as the Native American Hopewell burial mounds along the river to the west.

“The city of Grand Rapids still owns the building, all the facilities and the collections. The Friends/Foundation then took on the responsibilities for really the operations, maintaining the facilities, collections and so forth,” Robertson explained. “There is a 99-year lease, with an option to renew for another 50 years. So it’s contemplated this would be a long-term, friendly, cooperative relationship. And that’s how it’s been, frankly.”

In fact, the change has fueled a process of self-examination, from by-laws to organizational structure to a review of the permanent exhibits. The American Museum Association re-accreditation process is under way, which is a review of the museum’s best practices.

Organization: Public Museum
Position: CEO
Age: 51
Birthplace: Wyandotte
Residence: Cascade
Personal/Family: Wife, Sonja; four children, ages 9 to 17
Business/Community Organizations: Economics Club; Downtown Rotary
Biggest Career Break: Being hired right out of college as a legislative aide by former state Sen. Jim Desana.

“When those changes occur, it always gives an institution the opportunity to take a new look at itself, which is just natural, and I think it’s healthy. And so we are going through that process now. We took an organizational audit. We’re now into a strategic planning process,” he said.

Robertson said the staff is always seeking ways to enhance the visitor’s experience.

“Our attendance is up; it’s been going in the right direction,” he said. “If we’re doing our job right, if you are coming here, it should be an enjoyable place, it should be educational, it ought to be inspirational. … I think the challenge is to be able to sustain that kind of interest regardless of what’s going on in the economy, and make sure that we have compelling programming and exhibits.”

The current traveling exhibit “Dinosaurs: Just Imagine!” presents robotic dinosaur models with the features Robertson thinks are important.

“The typical way that has been done in museums across the country, you know, it’s … sort of a natural habitat background. Well, we kind of knew what the age range is this would typically appeal to. So the backgrounds are all about reading and drawing. … There’s a book, ‘Danny and the Dinosaur’ that’s a backdrop to one of the dinosaurs. … Another one is how to draw a dinosaur … and there’s a place where you can have a chalkboard where kids can do that.

“We took it and put in an entirely different background. I’m not aware of anybody doing that any place in the country.”

Robertson, whose wife, Sonja, is a former teacher, said the museum staff always considers how people perceive the information presented, from designing exhibits to appeal to a variety of learning styles to incorporating the latest brain research.

“Going forward, we’ll go through a process of evaluating all of our exhibits here,” he said. “It’s making sure that we’re getting all the input and expertise that we can, so that when you come here and you see an exhibit, it’s the full experience.”

Long-time director Mary Esther Lee is leaving the museum for retirement. Robertson said there are no plans to replace her.

“She wrote the book on dedication. She’s definitely a model,” Robertson said.

Starting in September, the museum will host Leonardo da Vinci’s Machines in Motion, a display of about 40 machines built in Italy from the inventor’s 15th century manuscripts.

Born and raised in Wyandotte, a suburb of Detroit, Robertson grew up as the only child of Vern and Irene Robertson. His father worked at Wyandotte Chemicals Co., now BASF Wyandotte, and his mother was a dental receptionist. In his office, Robertson keeps a photo of Wyandotte’s massive chemical plant. Not only did his father work there, but Robertson spent his college summers there, shoveling soda ash.

“Soda ash is sodium carbonate. It’s used in making glass and detergent,” he explained. “Kind of a funny thing to me now, or interesting thing, is that Wyandotte Chemicals used to ship just a bunch of (soda ash) out to Amway (for) making detergent.”

At Wyandotte High School, Robertson ran track and cross country, played saxophone and clarinet and participated in student government. The latter would portend the career he followed after graduating from Michigan State University’s James Madison College in 1979.

“I always had an interest in politics, government, public policy. When I got out of Michigan State, I was lucky enough to get a job as a legislative aide for a state senator, actually the state senator from Wyandotte, Jim Desana,” who now is mayor of Wyandotte.

“That was phenomenal,” Robertson recalled. “I was a 22-year-old kid, serving as a legislative aide. He ended up being the prime sponsor for a major worker’s comp reform package that was passed in 1981, and I was right in the middle of all of that.”

Robertson began attending Cooley Law School in Lansing, and landed a job working for the Legislature for what was then the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce.

“The Detroit chamber had an interest in many of the traditional kind of business issues at the time, the cost of unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation insurance, taxes, tax levels and so forth,” Robertson said.

“Health care began to become an issue, and then I was hired by Blue Cross Blue Shield to represent the Blues in Lansing and in Washington.”

Robertson spent about a decade representing the state’s largest health insurer in the capital cities. “I found myself constantly testifying in front of committees and interacting with the regulators, and it really gave me a pretty good background in the whole operations of the company and how it works in its core businesses. So when the opportunity opened up here, it just seemed like that was the right next step for me,” he said.

He arrived in Grand Rapids 10 years ago to build on the expansion of BCBSM’s presence here established by Chuck Zech. Robertson oversaw a staff that handled not only sales and marketing, but calls from policy holders, doctors and hospitals from all over West Michigan, and eventually the Upper Peninsula.

He made the decision to consolidate three BCBSM offices at the former Steketee’s building on Monroe Center NW. Landing the Blues and its 300 or so employees was considered a major advancement in the revitalization of downtown Grand Rapids. The renovated, 108,000-square-foot building was completed in 2004.

Robertson had been growing increasingly dissatisfied with the geography of the local Blues staff. Employees were in two locations in Cascade Township and in a small office downtown.

“There just wasn’t the kind of interactions that I thought we needed, and the efficiencies I think you can get out of that,” he said. “The Blues has relatively lower market share here than in its other markets, particularly southeast Michigan. And the population had grown, doubled, in West Michigan … so there were opportunities here for the Blues.

“It seemed … to help reach its goals, it really needed to put a stake in the ground, that they were committed. So this was … a move to show a commitment.”

John Wheeler of Rockford Construction suggested a renovation of the defunct department store.

“For me, the light bulb just went on,” Robertson said. “It would be big enough and would have the capability of installing a call center.

“People knew this building and there it was, empty. And it was literally in the heart of the city. Everything just came together … and the corporation embraced the project.”

Robertson said that while BCBSM had “a lot of success” with large groups in West Michigan, the small group market proved to be a challenge following an insurance commissioner’s ruling. For many years, as a state-regulated nonprofit, BCBSM was allowed to reject an entire small group if it did not capture 75 percent of its employees. When the insurance commissioner ruled that BCBSM could no longer do that, it found commercial insurers cherry-picking healthier employees and leaving the sicker, more expensive workers for the Blues to cover.

“It really impacted the company,” Robertson said.

Then, in 2006, BCBSM CEO Dick Whitmer retired and was replaced by Dan Loepp. Other leadership changes ensued. Jeff Connolly moved to Grand Rapids to handle sales and marketing, and Robertson became vice president of emerging markets and innovation, using the West Michigan market to test new ideas and products. By fall 2007, Robertson’s retirement date was set for the following April 1. Robertson started looking for a new job.

“The entire circumstance surrounding my leaving, which was amicable, is really between me and the company. I don’t think it’s appropriate to say anything beyond that,” Robertson said.

“I ended my time at Blue Cross on April 1 and started here in August. It was a non-traditional choice.”

Robertson, who lives in Cascade Township with his wife and four children, spends a lot of time on family activities and likes to work out at the YMCA.

He said he feels gratified that the museum has garnered enough support to survive as a nonprofit.

“It’s phenomenal, what we’ve got — not only this institution: the art museum, the symphony, the zoo, the ballet, the Civic Theatre, Meijer Gardens. It’s all part of that fabric of the community that makes West Michigan a great place to live. I think our future is solid.”

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