Alumni Interview with Robert Cornish

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Entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki once said, “The best reason to start an organization is to make meaning; to create a product or service to make the world a better place.”  This statement certainly has proven true for Northwood University alumnus Robert Cornish. Since his graduation in 2002, Robert has started three companies and recently co-authored his first book, What Works. For a university focused on entrepreneurship, free-market thinking, and ethical business practices, Robert is a picture perfect Northwood graduate. I first met Robert in November when I sent him a happy birthday wish and we connected on LinkedIn. Robert was featured in the Texas Campus’ Alumni of the Month newsletter, and as I learned more about his experience at Northwood University and how it has affected his professional career, I realized that this was an incredible story to share. Robert agreed to interview with me for this piece and I walked away from the phone call feeling inspired and proud to be a Northwood Texas Knight.

THE NORTHWOOD EXPERIENCE

Our conversation began with Robert sharing a little bit about his discovery of Northwood. From a young age, Robert was an avid car lover. Robert shared his dream of one day owning his own car dealership to a family friend, who was an owner of a BMW dealership in Robert’s hometown of Milton, Ontario. Hearing this dream, Robert’s friend suggested taking a look at Northwood University. Robert’s entrepreneurial spirit made high school a confining experience, but after looking into Northwood, his opinion of pursuing a college degree had changed.  He sent in an application to Northwood right away and decided to attend the Texas campus.

“Honestly, I really have a lot of affinity for the Texas campus. You know, how it’s small and kind of tucked away. You get there and right away the atmosphere is very ‘businessy’ and professional.” In Robert’s Alumni of the Month profile, he mentioned the impact that the professional dress day each week was something that really impacted him. This expectation of professionalism stood out to Robert and he shared his appreciation of how “…everything [at Northwood] is about somebody’s potential, essentially, and what Northwood could do to make its students more industrious, more entrepreneurial, and to look outside the box at your big, hairy, audacious goal.” This expectation, combined with a professional attitude and work ethic, is what sets Northwood apart from other schools, in Robert’s opinion. “By the time I was halfway through Northwood, I thought quite easily that it was just as good or better than a Harvard education because of the professional way they nurtured the students and encouraged their dreams.”

FROM DREAMS TO REALITY

Working at a Sewell automotive dealership in Dallas as a student led to Robert’s first full-time job after graduation. After this eye-opening experience, Robert launched his first company, which began in Texas and eventually moved to Arizona. He then moved on to his next company, a real estate consulting firm that became a million dollar company. However, he soon realized that real estate and investments were not for him. He took some time to reflect back on what he truly wanted to do and realized that he had a lot of drive towards marketing and advertising, having studied at Northwood. This is became the start of Richter.

After generating the idea for the company, Robert quickly began planning how he would launch his business. Robert and his business partner put together what he referred to as a “battle-plan” and set up a website, a 1-800 number, and furnished an office, all within 72 hours. “The thing my business partner and I have in common is that we are extraordinarily fast. And once a decision is made, we don’t hesitate. We move very, very quickly.” Robert handled the sales and administration side while his partner handled delivery. After scrolling through a binder full of business cards and utilizing his LinkedIn connections, Robert and his partner built up their clientele, leading them to secure $2,000 their first week and first-year earnings of $380,000. They have been on a vertical climb since.

What sets Richter apart, like most companies, is its niche. “Companies need new business; we knew that for sure. You need to bring customers through the front door. So that was the area we decided to focus on.” Robert encourages any new entrepreneur to decide on their niche: “Know who you are. Don’t try to be everything for everyone. Be focused on what you do specifically, define your value proposition, do that, and don’t get distracted.” In Robert’s words, Richter’s value proposition aims to “help focus attention for our clients, get them connected to the right people, and help drive new business through the front door, new relationships.”

DO WHAT WORKS

In addition to balancing a successful company and a family, Robert and his business partner, Wil Seabrook, recently celebrated the publication of their first book, What Works. When I asked Robert to describe the book, he explained that the title really summarizes it all: “We just do what works. We’re focused on that. If it doesn’t work, we don’t do it.” Robert’s good habit of journaling eventually became a collection of experiences in which he did what worked and experienced success. “I have constantly been writing things down since college; literally, with a nice pen and paper. What will happen is that I’ll be in the middle of something and we’ll solve a major problem or I’ll have an epiphany over something, and I’ll just grab a pen and paper and write it down. I do this because I want to remind myself of what works, and what was successful. The constant in business, whether you’re doing well or not, is change. You have to understand and identify what that change is. For me, I wrote down all the different things I did and went through as we were going and made really valuable notes to myself to reflect and see what worked and what didn’t.”

Having read many different business and marketing books, Robert really reflected on what he himself would like to read in a good book. Rather than “fluff marketing concept(s)” that aren’t necessarily pertinent, as an entrepreneur, Robert aimed to share beneficial and useful information that someone could “sink their teeth in, take, and apply.” His real life experience and relevant, proven strategies really leads the book to be something that David Hassell, CEO of 15Five, describes as “...a no-nonsense playbook for today’s CEO” and a “great one to keep close to your desk to reference often.”

FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS

Robert did have some specific advice for Northwood students: “Decide on your path, what you want to do. Focus on what you’re specifically passionate about and understand what you’re good at, what you like to do, and align your study path for that. Focus on what you’re learning and doing at Northwood and then take that to the nth degree. Be a complete professional and go in. Don’t take a casual attitude to it. Certainly have fun, but completely dig in and completely take it seriously. Not for the sake of just getting good grades, but for the sake of launching yourself forward so you can apply it on your path. And I think if you decide on a professional viewpoint and decide what you want to do on that path; that alone is going to prepare you for the work and hustle that it takes in the real world to succeed.”

One of my final questions for Robert was who inspires him. Many have served as role models for him but one person who stands out is Richard Branson, the chairman of Virgin Group, which manages over 400 companies. He shared his admiration for Mr. Branson’s global perspective, charitable nature, and his ability to see business as a “platform for other people to play and win.” Robert models after this philosophy by surrounding himself with people who he can help in reaching their potential. Much like Northwood did for him.

After Robert and I ended our conversation, I immediately felt inspired by what I had heard.  Here was a man, an entrepreneur, a Northwood alumnus who discovered his passion, utilized his skills, filled a niche, and grew an idea into a one of the fastest growing agencies in the country. These achievements were not accomplished by shying away from the many opportunities presented to him but embracing them to the fullest. Play-by-play notes on these accomplishments have led to a successful career that will continue to grow. I am confident that Robert will continue to inspire many others with his story. Not only with his book, What Works, but through his passion, work ethic, appreciation for individuals, and respect for business. And, I hope Robert continues to keep writing, giving us all a role model to gain aspiration after.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertmcornish

- Natasha Elder