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By Dorie Cox
Every day, Joseph J. “Joe” Rubano scrolls through his online calendar list of 63 employees to see who has a birthday or anniversary. The chairman and owner of RPM Diesel Engine Co. and Diesel Services of America then picks up the phone to make his personal calls to each one.
“This guy doesn’t work for us now, but he may come back,” Rubano said as he pointed to a name on the screen. “I call him, too. One of our best employees left once, but he came back. He said the other boss didn’t smile.”
Rubano also carries a small laminated list in his shirt pocket in case the computer is down. The names are important to the 87-year-old. Each name represents a member of his family.
Fort Lauderdale-based RPM and DSOA have grown in the sales and service of diesel engines and generator sets since 1961, when Rubano joined with his sister Marie’s husband, Spero Mulligan. Mulligan’s original partners, George Reynolds and Ed Pauly (the R and P of RPM), had left the business they all started in 1956.
“Spero was more of a mechanic, so I said I would take care of the business end,” Rubano said.
That’s when Rubano moved his first wife and two children to Fort Lauderdale. They left Miami, where he worked at Pan Am World Airways — first as a mechanic and then as an industrial engineer — after attending the University of Miami.
Born during the Great Depression in Teaneck, N.J., Rubano lived in the Italian section of Harlem, where his father was a banker. But like many during that time, his father lost the bank and most everything else.
Then, at age 5, Rubano lost his father. As the youngest child of four, he worked to collect rent to earn money for the family. During that time he made a decision that guides him today:
“I think I’m going to be the man in the family,” he said to himself.
That type of care-taking is Rubano’s trademark, and he extends it to family — whether blood, marriage or work-related.
Industry and business grow
At the age of 15, Bryon MacDonald wanted to spend more time in a rock band. Instead, he took a high school job as a substitute parts runner and plumber with RPM. It was a move that changed his course.
“I wanted to play music, but it took me from being in a band to having a career,” MacDonald said. “I’m still here because of me and Joe’s personal relationship.”
Now, 45 years later, MacDonald is CEO/president of the company.
This type of rapport makes for many close relationships, some as close as the four desks in the top management’s office. There is barely space for a person to walk between MacDonald’s desk and those of General Manager Todd Barnes, CFO Bill Deery and the desk Rubano shares with Service Manager Mike Desderio.
MacDonald has been in this office since he worked his way from the parts department to a mechanic’s position, then into the fuel injection department. The room is filled wall-to-wall with printers, file cabinets, boxes and papers. The decades-old gray wallpaper is dense with photos, awards, paintings of boats, a fish caught by Rubano’s brother Vince and an ornate clock from Rubano’s mother. There are cruise ship photos and certificates for the more than 1,000 days Rubano spent at sea with second wife Dolores, his partner of 42 years. He won the first cruise to Mexico about 30 years ago as a prize in a diesel parts sales competition.
The office has the feel of a well-used family room.
“This is my family,” MacDonald said. “We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but we’re forgiving and everybody is working for the better of the business.”
“Our differences stay with the problem, not the person,” Barnes added from the next desk. “That’s Joe’s concept of family.”
MacDonald said it’s important to understand that everyone has a day family and a night family.
“If either is out of whack, it affects everything,” MacDonald said. “If you’re not happy at home, you’re not happy at work.”
Management works hard to find the right aptitude and attitude when choosing new employees, Barnes said.
“We’ve had top-notch employees, but they just didn’t fit in,” Barnes said. Many people apply for work after hearing about RPM’s reputation. “The way other companies treat their employees is our best advertisement.”
Barnes appreciates the bonds, especially how Rubano and staff were supportive when he missed a lot of work in 2014.
“Everything I have I owe to Joe,” Barnes said. “When my wife was sick, he never missed a paycheck. Damn right that’s big.”
Deborah Youngblood joined 15 years ago for accounts receivable and is now office manager.
“Joe feels like a father to me and is like my kids’ grandpa,” Youngblood said with a look of both joy and sadness.
“My twin sister and her husband died; they left two kids,” she said. “I got custody and Joe said, ‘Do whatever you need to do, we will support you.’”
It was not easy as a suddenly single mother of the children she now calls her own. But with Rubano’s support, she never missed a baseball game or a practice.
The Rubano way
If it is the third week of the month, Rubano has a trim to his full head of white hair before he visits the office. He starts in the shop with a stop at every employee’s desk or workstation to see how things are: How’s your health after that illness? How are the kids? How is work?
He takes a few hugs in the office administration area, says no to a guava pastry (but then carries one to his office) and pours his first coffee of the day into a styrofoam cup. He reaches for the notepad in his shirt pocket when a service desk employee offers advice to ease the pain in his toe.
But Rubano hasn’t taken everyone’s advice throughout the years. He knows his way is what has kept his company in business through recessions, fuel shortages and slow seasons.
“I’ve always had this office like this,” Rubano said, as he surveyed the four desks in his crowded office. He once had a manager who wanted to separate the room with partitions.
“I decided not to and the reason is, I want him to know what I know, him to know what he knows and him to know what we know,” Rubano said as pointed to the CEO and the CFO. “So we’re all on the same page. In cubby holes, the right hand doesn’t know what the left knows.”
With the proximity comes transparency and accessibility.
“Any customer or employee can walk down the hall and come in,” Rubano said. “In many companies, you wouldn’t see me. I’d be a picture with a name.”
Generator technician Ronnie Cline started with the company 21 years ago and said Rubano’s way is the rule.
“He is old-fashioned and a stick-to-the-way-it-was-when-it started guy, so it stays that way,” Cline said. “That’s good in one way and bad in one way, but the main thing is customer satisfaction. We get customers from other businesses here almost every day.”
Once a colleague interested in working with Rubano spent several days assessing the company’s procedures.
“He said, ‘You could make a helluva lot more money,’” Rubano said. “My ears perked up and I asked, ‘How’s that?’ “
The man told him he treated his employees too good. When he said that, Rubano was done with him.
“I’m in a happy environment with happy employees. Half of them would not be here if I did it his way,” Rubano said.
On his 68th birthday, Rubano received an inscribed plaque that hangs behind his chair: “From your employees as an expression of appreciation for your understanding ways, your sympathetic nature and most of all for your constant leadership and inspiration to us all.”
Rubano hopes the importance of treating employees well came through in his acceptance speech for the Golden Anchor award presented to him at the June dinner for the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, a group in which he is a founding member.
“You be good to your business and your business will be good to you,” he said. “Naturally, you’re in business to make money, but it’s not about the money. I wanted to own my own business, something in me just wanted to build things.”
Many of his practices come from personal experience.
“I have been ignored in a business, so we train our people to be this way: When customers walk into a strange place, let’s greet them, make them feel relaxed,” Rubano said. “Say, ‘Have a coffee, I’ll be right with you.'”
It’s that personal connection that sets his company apart. He will “never, ever, ever get a robot telephone system.”
“The phone is our most critical tool,” Rubano said. “When you say you’re going to call, call. Follow through. Do what you say you’re going to do. Don’t say, ‘I’ll get back with you’ — tell them when. Do it, even if you call and say, ‘I don’t have an answer yet.’”
Eric Johnson, a diesel technician with the company for 33 years, knows the challenge to meet Rubano’s expectations. He recalled a Friday night at home when he got a work call.
“The captain of this yacht in the Bahamas says, ‘You need to get parts and get here,'” Johnson said. “I’m thinking, ‘Call someone else.'”
Instead, Johnson finished dinner and packed. He called his co-workers. One booked the airline ticket, one gathered the parts and one drove him to the airport at 6 a.m. on a Saturday.
“Later the captain said, ‘I know I was hostile,’ but now he is a customer,” Johnson said. “It’s the company mentality.”
Johnson has high regard for his co-workers’ responsiveness and said it is key in such a competitive industry with high-profile clients.
“When customers come in and meet these guys [the staff] — I mean, you see — they’re easy to deal with and that’s how a new relationship starts,” he said.
Mechanic Roy Kunz started work at RPM more than 30 years ago and said Rubano is generous to both staff and customers.
“He could have been harder on a few people,” Kunz said. “He goes out of his way, but sometimes he bends too far. He’s never a hard boss. But, that is part of the reason our reputation is good.”
Slowing but on the job
Several employees worry about what will happen when Rubano retires, although they admit most people Rubano’s age retired decades ago. Jose Escoto, the fuel injection manager, is one.
“Joe is active in the business even though he lets his people run it,” Escoto said. “He still has a part of all big decisions, but you would think he would retire. I admire him. He’s here at 6:30 and he brings customers through to show them around. He is very proud of the shop.”
Injection technician Jeff Gillespie, a 25-year employee, likes seeing Rubano on the job, making his morning rounds.
“Joe knows what he’s doing; he’s always smiling and he has good things to say,” Gillespie said.
CEO MacDonald said Rubano has fostered the employees so they are the best at doing their jobs no matter what.
“He set up the company so it goes on without him,” MacDonald said. “If something works, why fix it?”
Is there anything that worries Rubano?
“Not with this crew,” he said. “I’m in good hands.”
He is reflective when he talks about his staff, the old days of the business and especially his family. Life is very different from how it was in the 1930s black-and-white photo by his desk that shows him as a boy with his father before he died at age 52. It has taken Rubano years to work through the toll of being a caretaker in a traditional Italian family.
Rubano said he used to have a temper, but he has changed. He credits some of the transition to talking more about his life, as well as listening to others.
“I feel calm now,” Rubano said. “I like to talk; it’s like flushing out.”
CEO MacDonald has known Rubano since the 1970s and remembers his temper at the office.
“But he said right and correct stuff, so you couldn’t argue,” MacDonald said. “He doesn’t get angry anymore.”
Rubano has mellowed, agreed office manager Youngblood. She has seen her boss upset at things he feels strongly about, but never about the business.
“If there’s a problem, he says we can fix it,” Youngblood said. “There’s nothing I could do that would cause a major problem.”
She paused and laughed, “Well, he does give me that look when he catches me smoking.”
Youngblood searched for the words to describe how she feels about her boss and the company. Instead, she held out her hand to display the diamond ring she was given at the annual company award dinner, the one where employees dance to the song, “We Are Family.” She received the ring for 15 years of service.
“Joe and Dolores picked it out,” Youngblood said. “They said the center represents me and the curves represent their arms around me.”
Gillespie, in the injection department, is not at a loss for words. He sums up what many said about their boss and the business.
“This is the best job I ever had and I have worked for seven different fuel shops,” he said. “Joe is the best boss ever.
“I do think he’s irreplaceable,” Gillespie said, as he took a break from cleaning a part. “I wish he could live forever.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.