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Planting Trees: Robert McDonough Wanted to Start Something That Would Flourish

Originally published in Staffing Success Magazine (Sept-Oct 2005)

By Luanne Crayton

The graduate school professor was asking the questions Robert McDonough dreaded most: “Why are you here? What do you want to do?”

Most times the young businessman was able to escape the room before he was called on to respond, but not this time. So he answered, “I want to plant a tree.”

The response was a far cry from those of his classmates. Most of them had enrolled in the MBA program at Pepperdine University for the cachet it would add to their résumés.

“They looked at me like I had said a dirty word,” he recalls. “They thought I was smoking something.” They even laughed, asking him if there was a forestry school at Georgetown University, where he had earned his undergraduate degree.

He explains his response: “I was interested in building an organization—it was important to me. I wanted to see something I was engaged in start off and flourish—with a trunk and branches and vines,” he says. “I used to tell myself that if I just wanted an office, I could have been a dentist.”

In 1965 in Riverside, CA, McDonough planted that tree: He founded staffing company RemedyTemp Inc.

And flourish it has. Forty years later, the company has more than 230 offices throughout North America, with recent billings of more than $520 million.

“One of Bob’s strengths is that he sets goals and accomplishes them,” says ASA past chairman Charlie Sigrist of Stivers Staffing Services, who met McDonough more than 30 years ago through their companies’ membership in ASA. “Lots of people talk about goals. Bob accomplishes them.”

One reason for any company’s success is its employees. Each year, the Remedy employee who makes the greatest contribution to the company receives its highest award and becomes a member of the company’s Redwood Society, an honor McDonough started about 20 years ago. He chose the name redwood because of the company’s location in California and because the tree signifies strength, dignity, longevity, beauty, and value.

ASA past chairman Bob Gibson was with Norrell Services when he met McDonough at an ASA convention in the late 1960s. “Over the years, we became good friends,” Gibson says. “Bob has always been eager to help people grow, and he was one of those entrepreneurs who was driven to fulfill his dreams.”

Branching Out

McDonough says desperation drove him to become an entrepreneur in the staffing industry.
He had just learned that the company he worked for had been sold, and he would have to tell his wife they were moving…again. His career as a corporate vice president had demanded a series of relocations, the latest one to a town near Mobile, AL.

He remembers thinking, “If I’m going to move, I’m going to move on my own terms.” He decided to go into business for himself.

His employer used temporary help, so he was somewhat familiar with the staffing industry. He decided to give it a try. That settled, he just needed to find a location where his business could flourish.

“In the mid-60s, you could hardly pick up a magazine—Time or Life, for example—that didn’t have something about California on the cover,” McDonough says. He concluded, “There must be some kind of opportunity out there.”

He went to the library for more information. “It was slim pickin’s,” he says. After reviewing census data for standard metropolitan statistical areas, he decided to find out more about two cities outside of Los Angeles—Riverside and San Bernardino.

“I wrote to the chamber of commerce in each city and asked for statistics,” McDonough says. “I asked for about 10 different things.”

Eager for a response, he even spent the extra money required to send the letters airmail–special delivery.

“I got an airmail letter right back from Riverside,” McDonough says, “and decided to go there. He credits the decision to “dumb luck,” but says it was the right choice, adding, “I’m still waiting to hear from San Bernardino.”

Deep Roots

McDonough’s dream to plant a tree took root nearly 20 years before he founded Remedy—and long before he had the means to do any planting.
“Don’t you think you ought to get a job first?” his wife asked when a young McDonough first spoke of making a contribution to his alma mater, Georgetown University, on graduation day.

She had a point, but since his grammar school days, McDonough has wanted to make a difference, to give back.

He grew up in Chicago during the Depression. “You couldn’t ask your parents for a nickel because they didn’t have it,” he says. “Nobody had any money, and the McDonoughs had less than ‘nobody.'”

McDonough and his three siblings attended St. Margaret Mary grammar school half a block from their home. Because the family had no money, none of them paid tuition.

McDonough was not a model student. “I was never able to stay within the boundaries at school,” he says. He received his share of reprimands and the accompanying whacks with a ruler, and spent a fair amount of time staying after school. So frequent were the visits to the principal’s office that “we became pretty good buddies,” McDonough says.

Though he tried the patience of the authority figures at the school, McDonough learned lifelong lessons there. As a teenager, after graduating from St. Margaret Mary, he remembers thinking to himself, “Your character—the basics of who you are—was formed there.”

“I always remembered that and felt an obligation to give back. It’s ingrained in me. It’s part of my education.”

Footprints in the Forest

“I’ve always wanted to leave some footprints,” McDonough says. “I always had in mind that I’d build a high school, but I never did.”
Still, his name will forever be associated with education. He did make that contribution to Georgetown University that he mentioned to his wife. His first gift to the university was $5. And in 1998, he gave $30 million to name its business school—the Robert Emmett McDonough School of Business.

McDonough’s friend and ASA past chairman Dick Essey, of the TemPositions Group of Cos., read about the gift in the newspaper. It came as no surprise. “Bob has been very, very generous,” Essey says. In fact, Essey had almost foretold of the gift a few years before.

“On vacation with my family, I was reading the Pelican Brief, by John Grisham,” Essey explains. “Some of the book takes place at Georgetown University, in McDonough Hall.” Essey knew that McDonough and members of his family had attended Georgetown, so Essey called McDonough and said, “Congratulations! They named a building after you.” It turned out to be a different McDonough.

Georgetown hasn’t been the only school to benefit from McDonough’s desire to give back. Recently he learned that St. Margaret Mary school had fallen on hard times and would have to close. Remembering the impact the school had had on his life 75 years ago, he decided to do what he could to help keep it open. He wrote a letter to the school: “The McDonoughs owe you some money,” he explained. “If I make a generous contribution, it will compensate for the unpaid tuition of the four McDonough children who attended during the 1930s.”

That’s just the kind of friend McDonough is, says Gibson. “If you need him, he’ll be there.” No doubt the forest of trees that he has both planted and watered will long bear the footprints of Bob McDonough.

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