December 20, 2014
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A Piece of the Puzzle

UE vice president fundraises for university in former president’s home
Jack Barner is the vice president for development and alumni relations at the University of Evansville.

When Jack Barner crosses the University of Evansville campus, it’s the updates and renovations that stand out to him.

As the vice president for development and alumni relations, Barner’s primary responsibility is fundraising for the university — connecting with alumni and addressing the needs of the university.

“I can walk around the campus and see the impact of this office,” says Barner. “The buildings that are there, we didn’t build those, we didn’t design those, but we kind of helped make them happen. As I walk around campus I can see the scholarship money, the endowment money. It is humbling what people do.”

Barner’s office is located in the John L. and Belle Igleheart Building at UE, which was formerly the president’s home. Built in 1928, the Iglehearts donated the funds for it to be built and his office was once used as the dining room. Wallace Graves was the last president to occupy the home before a new residence was donated in 1982 by longtime Evansville developer Guthrie May and his wife Alice, both alumni of Evansville College (now UE). (Read more about the president’s home in “Among Friends” in the April/May 2012 issue of Evansville Living.)

In his nearly 13 years at UE, Barner’s office has become an extension of his home. Decorating the walls are photographs from the previous universities he has worked, moments most memorable in his career, and of his wife Pat and their blended family.

Barner earned his bachelor’s degree at Siena College in Albany, New York, and his master’s at Saint Rose, also in Albany. He worked as a high school teacher for 19 years before being hired at Saint Rose, Colgate in Hamilton, New York, Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, and finally being hired by former UE president Steve Jennings at Oklahoma City University in Oklahoma — who he later followed to Evansville. He has served as a vice president for three universities.

Barner’s desk was a part of a donation from OFS Brands president and CEO Hank Menke who at one time donated several desks to UE. Two silver medals and a purple heart of his late father John Barner, a World War II veteran, grace the walls. Books primarily on history, wars, and leadership are seen throughout his office. Thumb-tacked behind his desk is a white piece of paper with practices of effective executives from “The Daily Drucker,” written by Peter F. Drucker. There are 15 employees that work in the Igleheart Building.

For more information about the John L. and Belle Igleheart Building and the University of Evansville, call 812-488-2361 or visit evansville.edu.

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Family First

Kevin Schwartz came home to help form Myriad CPA Group
Kevin Schwartz helped form the Myriad CPA Group in 2011.

Kevin Schwartz still has the first dollar he ever made.

Tucked in an old yet rather ornate gold frame against a simple piece of cardboard, it sits atop his desk to serve as a reminder that every task, no matter how big or small, is worth the effort.“I was probably 5 or 6 years old,” Schwartz recalls. “I went to play with a friend, and he and his dad were picking up twigs. I helped for about 30 minutes. He paid me a dollar, and I was so excited to take it home and show my dad.

“He put in that old frame, and I have kept it ever since,” he says. “He told me that if I saved it, I’d always have it to spend. At the time I didn’t realize he was talking about more than just that dollar.”

A love of family and a commitment to hard work has been a running theme throughout Schwartz’s life. Every decision has come back to staying true to those two values — values that led him down the path to being a successful CPA and, now, a partner with Myriad CPA Group, one of the Tri-State’s largest accounting firms.

“When I talk to people wanting to start their own business, I can draw from a lot of experience now,” says Schwartz. “I’ve been through that psychological, emotional process of making those tough decisions. And they are tough.

“When I first started my own firm, I started it from scratch, with experience and knowledge but limited resources. But it was all worth it.

Born in Owensboro, Kentucky, Schwartz graduated from Apollo High School in 1992. A track and cross country stand out, his image now adorns its Athletic Hall of Fame.

He went on to the University of Kentucky in Lexington where graduated with a degree in finance in 1996, but it wasn’t until he attended his brother’s graduation from Parris Island, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in South Carolina, that he finally felt called to a specific purpose.

“I had no military interest at all,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t even come from a military family. But it was my senior year. I was 21 and going to be graduating in a few months. I was trying to figure out what kind of professional job I wanted to take. That’s when I watched my younger brother graduate from Parris Island (Marine Corps Recruit Depot). I decided, then and there, on the drive back, that I wanted to join the military and serve my country, too.”

He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, a small base whose overall purpose is to provide support to the B-2 Stealth Bomber. In civilian’s terms, he acted as a liaison between those who needed to spend money to support the B-2 Stealth Bomber and the lengthy federal guidelines to which they had to adhere.

He spent his nights working on a graduate degree from Central Missouri State University, now the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Missouri, says Schwartz, and volunteering to help troops with their tax returns.

But after four years in the military, opportunity came knocking, and Schwartz was offered a position with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the country’s Big Four accounting firms.

“It was my dream job,” he says matter-of-factly. “I mean, the training you receive at a Big Four accounting firm, the people you meet, the projects you get to work on, it was a really awesome experience. My goal was to stay there and try to make partner. I was in St. Louis. I was relatively close to home, but then everything changed.”

Schwartz’s grandfather died in 2002, and the then 28-year-old began questioning the goals he had set for himself. Family suddenly became more important, he said, than continuing to climb the Big Four corporate ladder.

“It was really the first time I’d thought about life and how important family is,” Schwartz said. “I just felt like I needed to be closer to home.”

So after a year of soul searching, Schwartz quit his Big Four job and moved home to Owensboro. He started his own accounting firm, Schwartz CPA Group, and a year later met his wife, Rebecca, also a CPA.

He focused his energies on growing his small business, picking up clients and even took on businesses from as far away as Northern Indiana. He was elected president of the Kentucky Society of CPAs and was named the Owensboro Chamber of Commerce’s director and entrepreneur of the year.

He also got involved in the Owensboro community, serving as a Chamber board member, on the board of trustees to Brescia University, treasurer to the Owensboro Rotary Club, and he sits on the executive board to Junior Achievement of West Kentucky. He was on the Downtown Development Committee and is treasurer to the Western Kentucky Botanical Garden.

Then in 2011, Schwartz was at a training seminar when he met a group of four other like-minded CPAs from the Tri-State area, each with a love of community but each also with their own special brand of expertise in the field.

Their friendship grew and flourished, and later that year, the men joined to form Myriad CPA Group, a company with a broad tax and accounting-based service with offices in Owensboro, Evansville, and Henderson.

“Everything has gone so well,” Schwartz says of the partnership. “The accounting industry, public accounting, is very fast-paced, and there are lots and lots of challenges.”

But with his professional life finally coming together, Schwartz began losing control over aspects of his personal life. The one-time track star put on nearly 60 pounds. Then, in early 2012, he vowed to make a change and hired a personal trainer. He took up running once again, and he and his wife began eating clean, organic foods. In a year’s time, he dropped nearly 10 pant sizes and 60 pounds. Today, he logs 20-25 miles per week.

Schwartz turned 40 in April, and when he looks back on his journey he’s humbled by how far he has come. The decision to return home was a difficult one, but as it turns out, the path to success doesn’t always come by way of the Big Four.

“I can’t believe how fast time has gone by,” he said. “I spent all of my 30s growing the business, staying active, staying involved. And that makes you really appreciate time because it has absolutely flown by. But I guess that means I’m having fun and enjoying doing what I’m doing.

“What I find myself reflecting on more than anything,” he said, “is that the more you give, if you give with the right heart, the more that comes back to you.”

For more information about the Myriad CPA Group, visit myriadcpa.com.

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Amy Rivers-Word

Hometown: Evansville

Job: Proprietress at Lamasco Bar and Grill, co-owner of Let The Good Times Roll Pedal Bar, co-owner of the soon-to-open The Dapper Pig, and president of the Franklin Street Events Association.

Resume: Middle school science teacher, Evans Middle School, 1997 to 2003.

Family: Daughter Isabelle, son Andrew, and sweet dog Lucy.

It would be safe to say that Amy Rivers-Word is ubiquitous on the Evansville social scene. Her Lamasco Bar is one of the premiere music and drinking establishments in the region. Her relentless work promoting Franklin Street through the Franklin Street Events Association has helped make the West Side a destination for the entire Tri-State. Her next projects include the human-powered Let The Good Times Roll and The Dapper Pig, a Haynie’s Corner restaurant with former Farmer’s Daughter (Princeton, Indiana) owner Sarah Wolfe. This daughter of teachers has learned a lot on her journey. One chat with this driven woman tells you there’s a lot more to come.

You are an Evansville native. Tell us about growing up here.
I went to Memorial. I grew up in the Lincolnshire neighborhood which is right by Reitz Memorial High School. My mother is a Vezzoso, which is a deep West Side family. My grandfather’s business, Allied Erection, was right here on Franklin Street, which is kind of cool.

It was fun. I’m the oldest of seven brothers and sisters; that in and of itself was constant entertainment. It was a great childhood. There was always adventure. My Italian roots means fabulous food and we absolutely embrace family.

When did you start to think you could be an entrepreneur?
I became a teacher and worked seven years in Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. I thought that was my only life path. But in college I bought a duplex to help get me through school with renters upstairs, so that spirit was there.

My aunt called me one day to tell me she was selling Lamasco — not in any way, shape, or form to sell it to me — she just wanted me to help spread the word. This was August of 2009. I had a dream that night that I bought Lamasco and turned it into a music venue and changed all the things. I thought, “My parents are going to absolutely kill me.” I told them that I wanted to quit teaching and buy a bar. I asked my entire family to give me 24 hours before they gave an answer. Everyone was absolutely supportive.
It was mine four weeks later.

What types of things that you’ve confronted in your business journey you weren’t expecting or prepared for?
I always use the analogy from an engineering standpoint that a bumblebee is not supposed to fly, but the bumblebee doesn’t know it’s not supposed to fly.

Well I didn’t know that buying a restaurant during the greatest economic collapse since the 1920s was probably not the greatest fiscal decision. Having no hospitality experience, having no restaurant management experience, except I waited tables at the Ponderosa when I was 15. I didn’t know how epically it shouldn’t have worked. That really worked to my advantage. I’m a good problem solver and a good people person. When you put those things together that’s a huge part of what this industry is. I make tons of mistakes, but I try to never make the same mistake twice. Obviously, luck is a huge part of it.
And hard work.

What is your vision for your community?
The West Side was originally Independence, Indiana. That goes to the German roots and the self-sufficient nature and taking care of each other. People talk about “West Side Pride” and it’s been here for 150 or 160 years. It’s not somebody’s “vision.”

I had someone say, “We don’t even know what you’re excited and cheering about but we are jumping on your team!” You can become a champion for something very quickly and I think that’s what I’ve been able to do. Now we’re telling our story in a much better way than we have before. I love being able to be our No. 1 storyteller. We are all little beacons of light out there on Franklin Street. We put those lights together and there’s a shining mass you can’t help but see.

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Music Maker

Monte Skelton remains active in music post-college
Monte Skelton

Seven years ago, Evansville Living caught up with music prodigy Monte Skelton, who was at the time a University of Evansville student envisioning a future that would somehow involve his gift.

Since Skelton, now 28, was featured in the July/August 2007 issue, he has seen that dream become a reality. The musician, who plays 22 instruments, has worked since 2010 teaching music to students in kindergarten through sixth grade at Joshua Academy, a charter school in Evansville.

“I always had a passion for teaching for music but I never expected for it to happen,” says Skelton, whose favorite music is contemporary jazz and R&B. “I never expected to get a good teaching job and I am very fortunate to stay in Evansville.

“The best thing is giving kids the opportunity to learn about something they may not be exposed to if not for a music program — finding the diamonds in the rough and just seeing the sparkle in a kid’s eye — seeing that is phenomenal.”

Skelton stays busy teaching during the day and playing music in the evenings. He plays in two groups — Factor: Primo, a pop fusion band, and a chemistry-filled duo of Monte & Shelly with singer Shelly Long. Skelton plays bass in Factor: Primo along with fellow Evansville natives Patrick Preston, Ed Sein, and Chasen Little.

Skelton says he has been fortunate enough to gain a large group of loyal followers in Evansville that attend the many festivals and venues he plays, often as a saxophonist.

For more information on Monte Skelton, visit monteskelton.blogspot.com.

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Country Music Legend

Kenny Rogers is coming to town for holiday concert
Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Kenny Rogers, with Linda Davis, will perform 7 p.m. Dec. 7 at The Ford Center.

You would know the husky voice from Houston, Texas, anywhere, of course. Kenny Rogers was calling me from the state of Washington, where he would be performing around his 50th show of the year, the following night. On Dec. 7, Kenny, 76, and special guest Linda Davis will bring their “Christmas & Hits Through the Years Tour” (Roger’s 33rd Christmas tour) to The Ford Center.

I began by telling Kenny (as he insists to be called) that I saw him perform, with the Gatlin Brothers, on April 27, 1982, at Evansville’s Roberts Municipal Stadium.

Those were good times. I’m sorry I won’t be bringing along the Gatlin Brothers in December, but I think you’ll like the show. Evansville is a beautiful city; I’ve performed there five or six times.

What will concertgoers in Evansville experience on Dec. 7?

Linda Davis is such a sweetheart; she’s such help for me. The first half of the show will be hits, and the second half of the show will be Christmas. The show also will feature local choirs. It’s not Christmas ‘til the choir sings. (The Signature High School choir under the direction of Tyler Simpson, and five students from Scott Elementary School, with their director, Benjamin Boyer, will perform songs with Kenny and Linda, according to Steve Glassmyer, band leader with Kenny Rogers Productions.)

You’re one of the hardest working people in the business. And you have identical twin 10-year-old sons! How do you do it?

The older I get, the more I work. Yes, I have twin boys, Justin and Jordan. Normally it seems they couldn’t care less about what I’m doing on the road, but today, when I just talked to them, I couldn’t get them off the phone. I thought I was going to be late for this call. They say that twins at my age will either make you or break you. Right now I’m leaning toward break.

Please tell me about your wife, Wanda.

She’s a very sweet girl. We’ve been together 22 years and have been married 17 years. She’s an identical twin herself — that is very rare — an identical twin having identical twins. We live in Atlanta. Wanda’s sister lives here, too, and that’s the reason we live there, too, as Wanda’s not leaving.

You and your old friend Dolly Parton, also very popular here, have partnered again for the title track of your new CD, “You Can’t Make Old Friends.”

The title comes from a story. Many years ago, William King, of the Commodores, visited my Athens, Georgia, farm with his young son, Ryan Hanna King. Not long ago, I ran into Ryan in California; he is an actor, working in the business. He told of how visits to my farm made an impression on him, and remarked, “I realized then, you can’t make old friends.” I was so touched by that statement and I knew it would make a great song. The next day I was in New York and saw Don Schlitz (“The Gambler”), who agreed to write it. The very next day I received this incredible piece of music that was tailored just for Dolly and me.

By the end of the year, Kenny and his band will have performed about 80 or 90 shows. In January, they’ll start a world tour in Australia and New Zealand.

Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Kenny Rogers, with Linda Davis, will perform 7 p.m. Dec. 7 at The Ford Center. Visit ticketmaster.com for ticket information. An exhibit, “Kenny Rogers Through the Years,” is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, through next summer.

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Taking Aim

Local gun maker produces historical replicas
Marvin Kemper painstakingly crafts each of his Kentucky Rifles inside his one-man shop in Posey County.

For gun collectors, the Kentucky Rifle is a prized possession. The golden age of the Kentucky Rifle was from 1780 to 1830, but antiques can be hard to find. In his shop just outside of Blairsville, Indiana, Marvin Kemper makes stunningly accurate recreations of old longrifles as well as his own creations.

Kemper spent 20 years working in the non-profit field. But he wanted to make rifles full time, and when he finally had a backlog of rifle orders big enough 18 months ago, he took the leap. His one-man operation is named Liberty Longrifles.

“I was working a corporate job and I have a master’s degree, but I wanted to do something that I loved,” he says. “I was traveling, and I’d always take a satchel full of my gun books, and sit there and study the pictures I’d looked at 100 times before. And I think that paid off in my interpretation of original art.”

Kemper says there are three types of buyers: those who want a rifle for show, those who want it for shooting, and hunters. Each rifle takes 120 hours or more of work, and Kemper usually has several projects going at once.

“I get projects that are all about historical duplication, and I do rifles that are totally interpretive,” says Kemper. “Somebody will say ‘Just make me a fancy gun. I don’t want a copy of anything.’ So I will do my own thing.”

Kemper’s father made more than 3,000 Kentucky Rifles, but he worked with just two basic patterns. Kemper’s designs are far more complex. Each one is handcrafted from a curly maple blank, with brass butt plates and trigger guards. The guns are decorated with brass and sterling silver. Kemper also crafts pistols, again modeled after the post-Revolutionary War era.

Specialists make the gun barrels and flintlocks. Kemper handles everything else. That includes the patch boxes — used to hold the greased patches wrapped around balls as they are placed into the gun barrel. Kemper says buyers now expect historical accuracy.

“Back in the 1950s and 60s, the Internet didn’t exist, and neither did all of the color books that have come out,” he says. “A Kentucky Rifle was a Kentucky Rifle. Nowadays, people are pretty smart. They’ve done the research.”

Most Kentucky Rifles were actually made in Pennsylvania. They earned their name when they were used by Kentucky soldiers in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.

The rifles work almost exactly as the originals would have two centuries ago. They are muzzle loaded and are fired using gunpowder and a flintlock. The inside of the barrels are rifled with spiral grooves, spinning the ball and making the guns extremely accurate to 200 yards.

Kemper receives most of his business from word of mouth. He travels to shows and conventions for longrifles, some attended by thousands of people. He’s shipped guns as far away as Germany.

For more about Liberty Longrifles, visit libertylongrifles.com

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Horses and Hockey

Ron Geary has enjoyed business success
Ron Geary sits in front of the grandstand at Ellis Park. Geary bought the Kentucky racetrack in 2006.

Ronald Geary, 67, has done a bit of everything. During his very decorated career, he’s been a certified public accountant, a lawyer, served in a Kentucky gubernatorial cabinet, been the president of a bible college, and CEO of ResCare, a very successful, Forbes Magazine-recognized health care services company. And even after retiring in 2006, he didn’t stop. He bought Ellis Park, determined to make it a crown jewel of Kentuckiana, and a few years later, started a minor league hockey team, the Evansville IceMen.

As with seemingly everything Geary touches, each has grown exponentially under his leadership. Ellis Park now draws as many as 8,000 people on its busiest days, and the IceMen are enjoying national recognition in the East Coast Hockey League, a 28-team league with a national footprint playing premier AA hockey.

We sat down with Geary, a Louisville, Kentucky, native now living in Henderson, to talk about his professional success and the future of the IceMen and Ellis Park.

Why horses and hockey?
(Laughter) Well, I’m a Kentucky boy, so I really enjoyed horses as a kid. And I always wanted to buy horses. I have a brood mare operation. I bought a couple of wonderful mares, and my son researched stallions. We have eight horses now that we’ve raised. Some have been good, some not, but all of it was fun. And as for the hockey, people are always bringing me investment opportunities, many of them from nontraditional niches. So when a young man brought the idea of hockey to me, told me about the success of Swonder Ice Arena, about single A hockey, something I knew nothing about, I dug into it. And like many packages that have come to me, I decided it was something I could do in stages. I felt like it would be a great thing for the community. There isn’t much to do here in the winter, and I believed that Evansville really wanted a good, winning professional team of some type.

The IceMen have evolved much over the last few years. How do you see this latest ECHL affiliation providing even further benefit?
If you would have told me six years ago, when we were just a single A team, that we would be in one of the top three leagues in the country and Evansville would have a national reputation for being a hockey town, I would have said you were crazy. It’s just one of those things, everything has fallen into place, and a lot of it is because Tri-State residents, mostly Evansville residents, are really proud of their team, proud of the fact that we have a nice arena, great fans, a respectable growth-oriented franchise. I think we have some exciting times ahead of us.

You’re around professional athletes a lot. Do you enjoy that?
Yes, I think they are a special, rare breed. I like them. They’re competitive, which I am, too. They always find a way to do their best. You’ll see players, some maybe not as good as others, but they find ability from desire. They have an uncanny way of finding a way to win just because they want it more than the other guy. And that’s what life is all about.

What changes have you seen at Ellis Park since purchasing it in 2006?
We immediately set out to get national attention. So we bid on and won the chance to host a National Claiming Crown (in 2007). For that one day, the best claiming horses in the country came to Ellis Park, a whole day of racing. And on that day, we had the biggest day at Ellis Park ever, almost $700,000 in purses and $5 million in bets. It was the first time Kentucky had hosted the Crown and that got everybody back to thinking about Ellis Park on a national scale. From there we did everything we could to expand our coverage. And at the track we tried to do some new things to attract people, make it more fun, family-oriented. We set up picnic tables with umbrellas, tents, trying to give it a county fair feel. We added the popular camel and ostrich races, wiener dog races. And since then we’ve gone up substantially in attendance every year.

What does the future hold for Ellis Park, and how do you make sure it continues to compete with riverboat gambling?
We think the instant racing machines we now have can be the key to accomplishing that. We are close to getting a referendum on the ballot that would allow the people of Kentucky to vote to allow casino gaming at racetracks. Indiana Downs in Shelbyville and Hoosier Park in Anderson called themselves racinos with both slot machines and electronic gaming. They’ve done quite well, and we’re hoping that would allow us to continue being competitive.

Of all the roles you’ve held, which has brought you the most pleasure?
It has to be a tie between ResCare and working in public service. ResCare because it helps people with disabilities, and its mission was so strong, to help people live the best they could, be as independent as possible. It was such a wonderful thing to see so many of the clients we served lead more fulfilling lives. But I also enjoyed the public service aspect of being in a gubernatorial cabinet and being a secretary of revenue for Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. I loved that he was fiscally conservative. He said he wouldn’t raise taxes, and even though his administration led during a massive recession, he still kept his promise and just allowed us to run government like a business. We cut expenses and did a better job of collecting delinquent taxes. I just loved that. I felt like we were doing what was best for the state of Kentucky.

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Eclectic Evidence

Warren’s successful tourism career decorates office in the Pagoda
Bob Warren, executive director at the Evansville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Working in the tourism industry, there is no shortage of fun for Bob Warren.

Proof of his prolific career decorates his office at the Evansville Convention & Visitors Bureau, where he’s worked as executive director since 2011. Warren started working in tourism in 1987 and was the director of tourism in his native city of Galveston, Texas. He also worked as the president/CEO of the Panama City Beach Florida Convention and Visitors Bureau, and came to Evansville from visitgalena.org, an organization focused on marketing the city of Galena, Illinois.

In Warren’s office are mementos from his career such as a program where he judged the Miss Texas contest, which featured Eva Longoria in 1999, a shovel and hardhat from the Hilton DoubleTree Hotel groundbreaking in Evansville, a framed caricature by Doug Harmon, executive director of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, signed by all the board members and presented to him at his final meeting for the Texas Travel Industry Association, as well as many other items.

“I’ve had a very successful career in this industry,” says Warren. “I think it does put me at peace to have all the things I have experienced in my career in the office with me. It feels like home.”

Warren’s office is located in the Convention & Visitors Bureau, 401 S.E. Riverside Drive, in the Pagoda, which was designed by architect Harry Boyle of the firm Brubaker, Stern, and Boyle and built by contractor Charles Kleiderer in Sunset Park in 1912.

“It’s the coolest office I’ve ever had,” Warren says of the Pagoda, which was remodeled in 1995. The office spaces also underwent a $300,000 remodel in October 2012, which lasted around eight months.

The lower level holds the administrative offices, a conference room, and a reception area with oriental red lighting hanging from the ceiling, a river stone wallpaper, and grey, white, and red accents to highlight the Pagoda and the Ohio Riverfront. On the first floor is the visitor information area with staff to answer questions, exhibits, and brochures.

Warren has two years left on his contract and says he plans to retire and most likely relocate to Florida with his wife Vickie of 30 years in May.

“What’s going to occur here over the next 10 to 15 years is exciting,” says Warren. “With the Indiana University medical (education and research partnership expansion) and convention center hotel, you’re going to see more activity, a more robust Downtown. I won’t be here to see it, but I see continued growth just with what we have on the table right now.”

For more information about the Evansville Convention & Visitors Bureau, call 812-421-2200 or see visitevansville.com.

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The Road Less Traveled

Evansville native shares his story of becoming an unlikely CEO
Fred Cook shares his journey of growing up in Evansville.

Fred Cook didn’t grow up knowing he wanted to be a CEO, but he had the courage to figure it out along the way.

It’s this kind of life education, or learning as you go, through travel, different career ventures and failures, and personal relationships that helped him advance his position at Golin, one of the world’s largest Public Relations firms. More than 25 years ago, the Evansville native started as an account supervisor in the Los Angeles office of Golin before moving to Chicago 11 years ago to become the company’s third CEO.

But Cook, a 1967 graduate of Harrison High School and Indiana University in Bloomington, didn’t join the corporate world until age 36. Prior to that, he worked at several odd jobs including chauffeuring drunks home from bars, substitute teaching in Los Angeles’ worst schools, serving as a cabin boy on a Norwegian tanker, and many more hilarious life pursuits as he went.

Cook shares his unusual path in his book, “Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO,” which was released in April (see Evansville Living September/October Shelf Life). In keeping with his unorthodox style of doing things, Cook plans to use all the proceeds from his novel and speaking engagements to fund what he calls an “un-ternship.” Golin will hire a staffer and provide the funds for him or her to experience the world for six months before returning to work at the company. It’s a method that has never been done before, says Cook, but he’s willing to invest in someone’s life education.

Evansville Business caught up with Cook to talk about his Evansville influences, new book, and how he became an unlikely CEO.

You pull so many of your experiences that you write about in your book from growing up in Southern Indiana and Evansville. How did that time influence you later in life?
Evansville culture was a huge influence for me and being an Arc Lanes rat and hanging out with dropouts and delinquents, it was my first exposure to people totally different than me, who had different socioeconomic conditions. Some had been in prison and in reform school; it was just such a cast of characters and I learned so much from them about so many different things. Many of them remain my lifelong friends.

That first exposure to people who had a totally different view on life opened my mind. My whole life since then I have been attracted to people different than me and perhaps that’s why I’ve been good at working with people and that all goes back to Evansville.

“Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO” has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post, as well as many other national publications. What kind of feedback have you been receiving?
I just spoke (recently) at the University of Florida. Afterward, a lot of students came up to talk to me, and their reaction was of relief and reassurance and that’s very rewarding for me. I think they are all very stressed out about their careers and about the demands their parents are placing on them. They are relieved to hear there is more than one path to success and when they see my story, combined with a little advice that I give, it helps send the point home rather than just saying what you should do. It is about what happens to me and it makes it more real and more tangible for them.

In your book, you say you never took a business course and barely graduated from college, what would advice would you give to millennials furthering their education?
Looking back, I wish I had taken a business course or two. It probably would have helped me a lot. I do think school experience is very important, but I think life experience is equally important. A lot of young people coming into the business world today have great educations, but they don’t have much life experience and that’s what they need to work on.

Schools don’t teach enough about personal relationships and working with people and the skill level on the job, and I’ve found that’s the most important thing — how you deal with other people. I have a chapter in my book called “Enlist an Entourage.” It’s about how you have to surround yourself with people you trust, and people who will do everything they can to make you look good, everyone needs to nurture that kind of team. I don’t care how good you are at what you do; you can’t be successful by yourself. It is impossible.

How did failure and your many different odd jobs help you reach your position as CEO at Golin today?
It’s depressing when you fail. No one wants to. But every time you do it, you get a little stronger and you gain a little more courage because you find out you didn’t die.

Failure opens doors for you, because when something fails, you are forced to try something different. I’ve done that a dozen times and each case, I’ve learned a lot from the experience whether I was successful at it or not.

Interviewer Jim Church has been friends with Fred Cook for more than 50 years; they both attended grade school at Harper Elementary School and high school at Harrison High School.

For more information about Fred Cook’s work at Golin, visit golin.com.

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Bob Koch

Bob Koch is the Chairman and past CEO of Koch Enterprises, a global, diversified, privately-owned corporation. The business has been in the Koch family since his great-grandfather George founded it in 1873. He also is the president of the Koch Foundation and Signature School and a board member of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. He is past chairman of the University of Evansville, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, and the Catholic Foundation of Southwestern Indiana. He has served as a director or board member for several public companies, including Vectren Corp., Fifth Third Bancorp, and numerous local non-profits. He helped start the Community Foundation Alliance and the Evansville Regional Business Committee.

Koch’s family also is active in the business. Son Kevin Koch is the president and CEO of Koch Enterprises, brother-in-law Jim Muehlbauer is the vice chairman, son David Koch is the president and CEO of Brake Supply, and daughter Jennifer Slade is the Secretary of the Koch Foundation. In addition he has a son-in law, two nephews, and two husbands of nieces working in subsidiary companies.

Your family history is an interesting story. Can you comment about that heritage and your family’s background?
Five generations ago, George and his father, mother, and eight other siblings, left Germany to come to the U.S., in 1843. The family ran a winery over near Mainz, Germany, and that winery is still in business. They built a building in 1820, and our cousins still live there and make wine in it today. We’ve been to visit with them a couple of times, and they’ve come here a couple of times.

Your name is synonymous with education in Evansville. What drew you in that direction?
It was in the mid ‘80s when our children were graduating from high school. We counted that in their last six years of school, school had been cancelled about 90 days because of bad weather and there were no makeup days. At the same time our companies were experiencing higher scrap and rework costs because of simple errors in math and communications. If we were going to get better in our companies, our schools had to do better. We started by forming a Business-Education Committee, which new Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. Superintendent Phil Schoffstall and I co-chaired. Local businesses worked with the school corporation to reduce the numbers of students taking minimum requirements for graduation and get students to take more advanced classes.

You serve as the president of Signature School and its science center bears your name. What was your goal with getting involved there?
Phil Schoffstall and the EVSC school board had a retreat in which they came up with the idea of Signature School. The school would be part-time, located Downtown and would offer advanced classes and be available to juniors and seniors from all area high schools. To attend you had to sign a promise to try to do your best at this school. We were trying to raise the bar by making school, while rigorous, also exciting, fun, and engaging.

Some in the local “education establishment” later tried to close the school. What was the reasoning at the time?I’m not sure. It was not what I expected. But about that time, the State Legislature passed a new law enabling charter schools. And the parents and teachers asked if Signature could become a charter school. And that was the start of it, about 12 years ago now. Signature now has 330 students and is at capacity. Signature would like to expand but we rely heavily on local donations to operate the school. Charter schools receive only about 66 percent of the funds that traditional public schools get.

What is your role with Koch Enterprises today?
Today I serve as chairman and senior advisor. Also when I had ultimate responsibility for the company, there wasn’t much time for me to do creative work on our products or processes. But with Kevin taking charge, I’m back doing creative stuff.

What do you think Evansville will look like in the future?
I think in the long future, Evansville is really going to prosper. I think water is going to be the next short commodity, like oil is now. In some places it is already. We are blessed with having the Ohio River here, and I think river cities are going to prosper, and I think Evansville is well positioned to take advantage of that.