R20: Rockbridge slows down to look forward

COLUMBUS, OH—As Rockbridge approached its 20-year anniversary, its leaders wanted to do more than just have a celebration of the accomplishment. Instead, they came up with R20. Hotel Business traveled to its headquarters here to find out more. 

“When we realized that we were coming up on our 20th anniversary, we didn’t want it to just come and go because it is a significant milestone,” said CEO Jim Merkel, who is also one of the company’s co-founders. “We didn’t just want to have a one-day celebration, so we stepped back and we decided to launch a brand called R20, which is really about reflecting, celebrating and showing gratitude for where we are and then planning for the future.”

Merkel said that the company is “slowing down to move forward” by taking a look at where the company is—and where it has been—as it plans for the future. “It is provocative in the sense that the organization as a whole is slowing down,” he said. “What we are saying is that if we slow down, and be strategic and thoughtful, we are going to move ahead more efficiently and effectively and create better future outcomes.”

An early mentor planted the seed of this attitude for Merkel. “He told me, ‘Slow equals fast,’” the CEO said. “I was a little perplexed by that at first, so it really made me think. What he really was telling me was ‘be planful.’ When you are planful and thoughtful, you go faster. That is what R20 is all about.”

The four rocks of R20

The company defined four pillars—what it calls “Rocks”—of what R20 is: Relevance, Relationships, Resilience and Responsibility.

“What we tried to do with the rocks was to set an example,” said Merkel. “After 20 years of Rockbridge, what are our rocks? Who are we and how do we reflect that?”

The company would not have survived as long as it has if not for its ability to remain relevant and adapt. “We have changed and grown; everything that we do has to be relevant to the market, to our team members, to our investors because the world doesn’t sit still,” he said. “If we were doing the same thing that we were doing 20 years ago, we would be out of business. You have to evolve. Part of that is all about staying relevant. That is about reinvestment and curiosity—that is who we are.”

With regard to relationships, he said, “Everything that we do is about relationships—relationships with our team members, with our families, with our investors… We do tough things, we take risks, we have a big responsibility. It is not what you do, it is how you do it. We really value our relationships and we take that seriously.”

For Merkel, all relationships are important to the company, especially those among the company’s employees. “People continue to tell us that they work here and continue to work here for the people,” he said. “That is true. That is purposeful. That is what we did from the beginning.”

He continued, “Truthfully, that environment is what I wanted when I was young and coming out of school and interning with the predecessor to Rockbridge. I wanted to work with smart people who would challenge me and who would help me grow, but also who I wanted to spend a lot of time with.”

It’s important for companies to be resilient. “We’ve done tough things,” he said. “We’ve faced some major challenges—multiple recessions, multiple downturns, issues with performance, internally with team members with tough situations. What we have found is that we have faced those challenges head-on and we have come out the other side better for it. That is about being positive, looking forward, and being curious as to why things happened the way they did, so that you can fix it. We are a very resilient bunch.”

The company hires what Merkel described as Type-A individuals. “They care to do it the right way,” he explained. “When things aren’t going well, they are not shriveling up in the corner. They are coming out and dealing with it and trying to create great outcomes. When you have a team like we do, we often create great outcomes out of tough situations. That really resonated as a rock of who we are.”

As for responsibility, he said, “The impact and focus on the greater responsibility that we have as humans to our society and community has been core to who we are.”

Rockbridge has been heavily involved in a number of causes throughout its 20 years, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Junior Achievement and Pelotonia, for which it has raised millions of dollars for cancer research and drawn in industry support.

“Looking out at who I most respected and emulated, it was always those people who were giving back,” Merkel said. “It wasn’t about ego, it was about, ‘How do we build a better community?’”

He continued, “From the beginning, I’ve had a deep belief that we are given talents and it is our responsibility to use those talents for good. We work and we have a business model that works and creates value, but we also, as a result of that, have relationships, influence and talent that can make a difference. I have always said it is not good enough to make money. It is not satisfying. What matters is who you are doing it with and who you are doing it for. I have always gotten the most satisfaction from the impact that we have had on organizations in our community.”

Looking back

Merkel was one of four partners who founded the company 20 years ago, along with Ken Krebs, Steve Denz and Ron Callentine.

“I was the youngest; the next closest was 15 years older than me,” Merkel said. “I was all-in, excited, ready to go and put my shoulder into it. What I was most excited about was the people I worked with. I knew we had a reason to exist and we were unique in how we thought about the business. So I knew we had a place in the market, but one of the things that we tried to do—and I think we did effectively—is keep our head down, keep doing the things that we know have high odds of success and continue to grow and innovate. When you do that, you end up achieving a lot.”

Krebs, who serves as EVP of the company, shared his perspective. “It’s been extremely gratifying to surpass 20 years in business—a feat many organizations never attain,” he said. “It’s a testament to attracting and engaging high-caliber people in a common purpose and to building an organization on a solid foundation predicated on integrity and trust among its founding partners.”

Looking forward

The four rocks of R20 will continue to guide the company as it moves into the future.

“I am very proud of what we have accomplished, but I do believe that our best days are ahead of us—that we have learned a lot,” said Merkel. “We are a better organization today then we have ever been. Most importantly, we have great people. From the beginning, one of the things that I was blessed with—but that I think is why the organization has been as successful as it is—is that we had four partners who all were great people, with high integrity, all very bright, who worked well on a team together and would come to the table to resolve problems. It was low ego and all about doing the right thing and solving problems together.”

He continued, “From the beginning, we all had a key role to play. That core ingredient of the four of us is what we embody today in a bigger form. It is why we have had such a focus on our team and heavily reinvest in our team from the get-go, really trying to work together so success is unified; it is not singular. That is what I think we have done. But we have also set the table for a really great future because we have focused on looking forward.” HB