Talking Shop with T. Robin Cole of The Rite Group

Monday, May 2, 2011
T. Robin Cole III is president of The Rite Group. (Fred Lynch)

T. Robin Cole of The Rite Group left a Wall Street career to come home to Cape Girardeau and take over the family business. He is an advocate for small businesses in Southeast Missouri and works to help local low-income families through his efforts with Habitat for Humanity.

Question: How did your career evolve to get you to where you are today doing what you do now?

A: After starting my studies at Southeast Missouri State University, I graduated in electrical engineering from Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn. My first real job took me to New York City, where I designed classified military weapon systems. During that time, I did graduate studies in finance at the Stern School of Business at New York University, and soon after came a 30-year Wall Street career in the credit markets. Those were exciting times, during which I raised a family and devoted myself to the challenges of a demanding career. Once my children were grown, I began thinking of ways to put distance from the grinding intensity of city life in search of something more, and my father's health was fading. Having spent early phases of my life doing well, I longed for a better balance between doing well and doing good. The opportunity to convalesce my father and the family business beckoned in several good ways, and the past eight years accelerated my happiness in most every way.

Q: Your business, The Rite Group, went from selling copy machines to being a resource for all kinds of business technology from copiers and printers to business phone systems to video surveillance and intrusion/fire alarms to door access controls to paperless document imaging and website development and even office furniture. What prompted this shift in your business strategy?

A: Yes, photocopiers were the core of our business for 36 years, and remain important. Now these devices often combine copier, printer, scanner and fax all in one unit, and of course, this combination means keeping these devices healthy, fed and operating at peak performance is more urgent than ever. As global cost pressures have encroached on businesses, sometimes with a vengeance, and as their need for faster communications compels them to adopt email, wireless, broadband, text messaging, scanning, electronic banking, paperless document imaging, etc. we have been encouraged to respond to their wider needs. Businesses need a partner they can count on to do the right thing, not more frustrations with finger pointing when something goes wrong. As a result, we adopted an honestly different approach becoming a Business Technology Solutions Integrator. We no longer look for a potential customer who needs something we sell, but help enterprises define their needs and then help them select among alternative solutions that integrate and play well with their existing infrastructure. We install their choice and guarantee they will work.

Q: You are known as an advocate for small businesses. Describe the role small businesses play in both our local and national economy.

A: Small businesses, those with 50 employees or less, are known for pioneering innovation and that innovation engine expands our employment base like no other. Our children depend on job growth to find a good future, and small businesses open the doors creating that future. We work with the Coalition for Economic Prosperity and Jobs, a Missouri-based think tank that works across the state to nurture economic opportunity and job formation, and yes, against laws and regulations that may impede economic development and opportunity. We seek new, fresh, dynamic ideas and a dialogue across the political spectrum about them in our search for solutions that enhance Missouri business competitiveness, new job opportunities and prosperity for Missouri's citizens. We promote these ideas at CEPJ.org.

Q: Tell me about your work with the Department of Natural Resources Small Business Compliance Advisory Committee.

A: We serve as an unpaid appointee on this Committee personally charged with representing the public-at-large on statewide Air Quality matters. The Committee's mission, mandated by federal legislation, is to help small businesses who are or may encounter troubles complying with existing or new clean air regulations. We help Missouri's DNR staff members understand when Air rules and regulations, often written with larger enterprises in mind, may impose excessive or unintended burdens on small business. You know how small business people can feel a sense of drowning under governmental paperwork, and we are lucky Missouri's DNR now works diligently every day to minimize unnecessary paperwork impact on small business. Our Committee also fosters a working climate of cooperation between regulators and those being regulated. We also encourage widely distributed communications about new rules and regulations to give all interested parties time and opportunity to learn and cooperate to find ways to improve our air quality with a minimum impact on jobs. We will all have opportunity to work together constructively to implement EPA's soon to be released Ozone reduction regulations; so Air challenges just keep coming.

Q: You have been actively involved with Habitat for Humanity. What drew you to this organization and what impact have you seen it have on our community?

A: We volunteered with Habitat here for six years, now ended, and I thank my uncle, Bob Bohnsack for introducing me to Habitat in 2005. Volunteering and giving alongside Habitat's donors and volunteers has been one the most rewarding experiences, almost incomparable. So many good people volunteering and giving to help working people buy a home and create new cycles of independence for their families. A sharing of hope and effort helping good working people help themselves. Nothing we have been involved in has ever contributed more happiness to us, and we encourage everyone to step forward and take a turn with this wonderful organization.

Q: How and when did you become interested in flying? What do you enjoy most about it? Where is the most interesting place you've flown yourself to?

A: Yes, I've been an active pilot since my days in Memphis, over 45 years ago, and I've flown nearly everywhere in the lower 48 states for both pleasure and business into most of the busiest airports and to many small ones. I fell in love with the exhilaration of its freedom, with its discipline and adventure, right from the first. When I consider all the places in every corner of this country and in between that I've flown my family to, those are nothing but the best memories of all that we have done. Maybe the wild thunderstorm and landing at the wilderness rock-strewn, grass strip near Anaconda, Montana, and the flight to Gasp? Peninsula, on Quebec's Northeastern Atlantic coast, rank just a bit higher in my recollection of adventures. If you like adventure, there's nothing like flying yourself to feel freedom's thrill, keeping your senses young and alive.

Q: When someone asks you how you're doing today, you always answer "It's the best day of my life." What is the source of your optimism and positivity?

A: One of my blessing is to have been coached by an internationally renowned positive psychology expert on Happiness, Dr. Paul Lloyd here at Southeast, who by very good fortune is my friend and fellow Rotarian. He's coached me, how, what steps to take, each day to live my life well lived, and that's given me a new tools, and greater appreciation for, and yes, more gratitude for the good things in my life like my delightful son and daughter, Rob and Lauren, and my best friend, Jeannie. He's helped me elevate my senses about everyday good things, distracting my attention away from irritating ones, and how to avoid taking anything fun for granted.

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