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Robb Mulberger: On Staffing World, Selling Soup, and Studying the Lessons of History

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN STAFFING SUCCESS MAGAZINE (JAN–FEB 2005)

By Luanne Crayton

“Chairing the convention committee is one of the best jobs in ASA,” says Robb Mulberger, president of NRI Staffing Resources, based in Washington, DC. “That’s why I’ve done it twice.”

In October, as chairman of Staffing World 2004, Mulberger greeted attendees at the opening ceremony in the nation’s capital. “You’re in for a great convention,” he said. “The keynotes and workshops will give you solid, practical information that you can put in place Monday morning.”

Unparalleled Opportunity

Mulberger, a certified staffing professional, has served on the ASA board of directors since 1990 and was chairman in 1998.

He left “big footsteps to follow in,” says Kathie Hanratty of Jaci Carroll Staffing Services, who succeeded Mulberger as ASA chairman. “Robb is a thoughtful, principled doer who has shown extraordinary leadership in our industry and our association,” she says.

His motivation is simple: You get out of something what you put into it. “As an entrepreneur,” Mulberger says, “if I don’t look out for my company, no one else will.” That’s why he participates in the association and relies on the resources it provides for his business. And that’s why he has missed only two conventions in the past 21 years.

From Confab to Convention

When Mulberger first began attending the ASA convention, it wasn’t really a convention at all, he says, but more of a “gathering, a confab.” Over the years, the association has matured and the convention has become more sophisticated, he says, adding, “We’re getting better at providing in-depth, meat-and-potatoes content, especially for C-level executives.”

Hanratty says, “Staffing World 2004 offered something for everybody, regardless of your position and regardless of what discipline you focus on.” She says the success of the convention is a testament to Mulberger’s leadership and love of learning. “Robb has deep roots in the industry, but he still wants to learn and grow, and to help others learn and grow.”

Mulberger points to the special keynote session in the executive learning track, presented by Manpower chairman, CEO, and president Jeff Joerres, as one of the educational highlights.

“Whether you agree with what he said or not,” Mulberger says, the convention provided a platform for “a significant industry leader to share his vision in a noncompetitive manner.”

How’s Business?

“Staffing World is a great place to talk to people in general—and to seek out people in your specialty,” Mulberger says. “Where else will you find so many people in the industry?”

It’s impossible to attend every workshop, but “I never miss a breakfast, lunch, or dinner to talk to people,” he says. “As time goes by, you begin to recognize more and more faces.” When he sees those faces, he inquires, “How’s business?” and responds to similar questions about his company. “After eight to 10 conversations, you get a good idea of trends and benchmarks,” he says.

Mulberger talks to suppliers in the expo hall to find out “who’s buying, who’s not.” And just as he does with his peers in the industry, he builds lasting alliances. “Not a vendor, but a friend,” is how he refers to one industry supplier with whom he has done business for 20 years.

He empathizes with owners of small firms whose businesses rely on their presence in the office. “People with smaller businesses find it hard to get away,” he says, adding that a three-day family vacation is difficult to schedule, never mind a three-day convention.

Still, he encourages all staffing professionals to be a part of Staffing World, even for one day. “It’s an unparalleled opportunity,” he says. “Don’t let it slip by because of the pressures of the day to day.”

After-Dinner Dip

Mulberger looks for this year’s convention in Orlando to be even bigger and better than the one he chaired in Washington. But he has no intention of repeating this memorable networking event from a previous convention in Florida.

“After the black-tie closing banquet, four or five of us decided to retire to an alcove under the waterfall in the pool,” he recalls. “And in our infinite wisdom, we thought it would be a good idea to clean out the minibars in our rooms.”

The festivities attracted a bit of a crowd. “We had 15 to 18 people by the time everything ran out,” he says.

They also attracted the attention of a security guard, whose presence dampened the merriment. “Well, you’ve got quite a party,” he commented, sending the revelers on their way.

Soup to Staffing

Mulberger got into the staffing industry “by accident” in 1968. He was selling Campbell’s soup to supermarkets in Philadelphia. And he wasn’t happy. The big company mentality simply was not for him. So he answered a classified ad and was hired by a small permanent placement franchisor in need of a trainer.

“My job was to hire and train staff for new offices, and to have the operation in the black on a cash basis in 12 weeks,” he says. He opened 54 offices in six years—in “San Francisco, El Dorado, AR, and every place in between.” He often juggled more than one at a time. “I’d spend a couple days in Salt Lake City, then Denver, then on to Kansas City, MO, and back to Salt Lake,” he says. “I had wardrobes all over the place.”

Of this entrée into the staffing industry, Mulberger says, “It was extraordinary training and a lot of fun.”

He then joined Snelling & Snelling, where as president of its Employment Services Group, he logged upwards of 100,000 miles annually, flying among the company’s 600 offices. “I lived in an airplane,” he recalls. Some 20 years later, he says, “To this day, I have no real desire to board a plane.”

In 1982, the next opportunity arose. The president of NRI was looking for someone to eventually assume the reins of his company. The possibility appealed to Mulberger, so he got on board. Things went well, and in 1985, he organized a buyout of the company.

“Since then, we’ve done some smart things and some not-so-smart things.” he says. “But I’ve never looked back. It’s been a great experience, and a bunch of fun along the way.”

A Lid Like Smokey’s

Mulberger maintains his youth by keeping up with his two children, ages 7 and 13, and their school projects, field hockey games, and other activities.
He’s a big help with their history assignments because he is an amateur Civil War historian. “It’s a great laboratory for success and failure in management—almost better than an MBA,” Mulberger says.

He has read volumes about the war and its central figures. He has pored over the wartime correspondence of four of his ancestors from Pennsylvania who fought. And he has visited their final resting places—including one in Arlington National Cemetery.

Being a Civil War historian also involves setting foot on battlefield soil. In March, Mulberger and his daughter will spend two days in Gettysburg, PA, touring the national military park and visiting the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous address.

Mulberger’s desire to impart his love of learning extends beyond his family and his industry. “If I ever decide to hang up staffing,” he muses, “I’d like to get one of those Smokey Bear hats and serve as a guide at a battlefield park.”

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