In the public sphere for nearly his entire working life, former City Manager Bill Watkins leaves behind retirement for a new career in the private sector.
When Bill Watkins announced his retirement back in October 2010, the former city manager believed he was leaving the workplace all together. But a series of events that began shortly after his announcement would prove destiny had something else in store.
“I had actually planned on retiring retiring,” Watkins says. As it turned out, his retirement lasted all of five months. In August 2011, after a career almost exclusively in the public sector, Watkins became chief operating officer of Riback Supply Co. The privately held company distributes heating, air conditioning and building supplies through its 20 branches in Missouri and Kansas. It also owns Designer Kitchens and Baths in Columbia, Jefferson City and Osage Beach.
“There are a lot of differences and a lot of similarities between a $400 million-a-year city and a company one-tenth the size,” Watkins says. “There’s finance, personnel, facilities, maintenance; all those things come into play here and with the city as well. Some of the advantages, perhaps, are that here I report to one person, and that’s who I need to make happy. In the public sector, you’ve not only got seven city council members but the public at large.”
Watkins says his focus is on keeping prices competitive while building and maintaining relationships with customers, both from the wholesale supply side of the business as well as the retail side. Although contractors, plumbers and other subs are Riback Supply’s primary customers, the company began bringing retail customers into the mix in the 1980s with the opening of its DKB showrooms.
“DKB is one of the projects that we took on quickly,” Watkins says. “We’re actually making some very significant changes at the Jefferson City location.” Recently, the company purchased a building that will house its DKB showroom together with its plumbing supply outlet. (The HVAC supply outlet will move to 912 W. McCarty St.)
“We think the Christy Drive location is better for servicing the greater Jeff City area,” he says. “Secondly, we think that by bringing the plumbing side and the showroom side together, we’ll be able to provide a whole lot better service for our customers, be they somebody who’s thinking about remodeling a kitchen or are from the trade side.”
It’s a setup that’s been successful at the company’s Osage Beach location. Consolidating the supply and retail sides has allowed Riback Supply to remain competitive in a changing market. Factors such as the 2008 economic downturn and subsequent slowing of the construction industry, as well as competition from big-box chains, have contributed to that change.
A new chapter
Riback Supply was founded nearly 100 years ago by Morris Riback, a Polish immigrant and grandfather of current President Marty Riback. It was Columbia’s first plumbing supply house and now employs about 140 people companywide.
“Marty Riback is still very involved with the business,” Watkins says. “He takes more of a 10,000-foot approach.”
Over the years, he says, Marty Riback has relied on a COO to run the company from a day-to-day perspective. That day-to-day becomes a lot of strategy, he adds.
The company’s previous COO, the late Ernie Gaeth, was responsible for Watkins’ brief retirement. Gaeth had known and worked with Watkins for a long time. In the late 1980s, when Gaeth was president of the Chamber of Commerce, he was influential in bringing Watkins onboard as vice president of Regional Economic Development Inc. Later, when Watkins was city manager, they worked together forging a partnership between the city and the University of Missouri. After Watkins announced his retirement, Gaeth approached him about becoming his successor at Riback Supply.
“Ernie called and asked if I ever thought about working here,” Watkins says. “I felt it wasn’t appropriate to do anything until I actually left office.” So Gaeth asked Watkins to call him later if he was interested.
The offer was unexpected and bittersweet. Gaeth had been diagnosed with brain cancer, a tragedy that was compounded by something Watkins and his wife, Kathy, were facing at home. Kathy was dealing with a life-threatening illness herself. Her battle with breast cancer had precipitated Watkins’ decision to step down as city manager.
“When my wife got sick for the final time, my plan had been to retire and then be her caretaker for a number of months,” Watkins says. “My contract with the city said six months notice, so when we decided to give notice, we really thought we probably had another year, year and a half to go. It didn’t work out that way.”
Kathy died on Feb. 22, 2011, during Watkins’ final weeks as city manager. During their 37-year marriage, they raised three children who are now grown and live in Columbia, Kansas City and Eau Claire, Wisc. Memories of those years filled the home that they shared, and when Kathy passed away, Watkins found them to be overwhelming.
“I couldn’t stay in that house,” he says. “A good friend helped me find a house on a property with 10 acres.” The property, outside of Rocheport, allowed Watkins to pursue an interest in planting and cultivating fruit trees while remaining relatively close to his office in Columbia. He also remodeled the house, which gave him the opportunity to experience his business from the customer’s point of view.
As it turned out, the opportunity would prove valuable — and once again unexpected. While furniture shopping, Watkins ran into Elizabeth Freese, an architect and acquaintance he had worked with in the past.
“It was kind of funny,” he says. “I had just bought a new house and needed new furniture. We ran into each other at Ashley Furniture. I had an extra ticket for a jazz concert over at Murray’s. We just kind of hit it off.”
They married in August of 2012, combining homes and winding up with more furniture and household items than they needed. They had two or three of everything and resorted to garage sales and donations to Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity, Love INC and the public library.
“We cannot pull our car into the garage yet (as of late July), but we’re making progress,” he says. “I had 25 years of stuff, and I think Elizabeth had lived in her house for 15.”
The changes in Watkins’ personal and professional life have no doubt helped him step back from his former job. He says that current City Manager Mike Matthes walked into a tough situation. Not knowing the community, he didn’t have local support mechanisms in place.
“He certainly has his own ways of skinning the cat,” Watkins says. “But I have to tell you that when I retired, I decided to absolutely, completely walk away. I just felt like that was the fair thing to do.”
Rather than become a distraction, Watkins has shifted his community involvement to nonprofit organizations. He serves on the board of the Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises, formerly the Sheltered Workshop, and is board chair of Columbia’s Youth Empowerment Zone, which helps at-risk youth develop life skills and seek employment.
“I think YEZ is doing excellent work, particularly with a population that’s often hard to reach,” he says. “Some of our folks are people who have either just come out of incarceration or are headed in that direction. This is one of the most at-risk populations we have.”
At-risk youth have a lot to do with Columbia’s increase in violent crime, he says. He supports a solid police presence but also the YEZ approach, which he says needs to come from a non-law-enforcement organization.
“Increased police presence alone won’t work but neither will just the YEZ approach,” he says. “I am not trained as a police officer, though I did take the Columbia Police Citizen Training, which I highly recommend, but I can provide some assistance from the other side.”
Working through YEZ involves leveling the playing field by giving at-risk youth the skills and support that that are missing at home, says YEZ Executive Director Lorenzo Lawson. Rather than a welfare program, he calls it an empowerment program.
“Bill was pretty significant from the birth of YEZ,” Lawson says. “At the time he was city manager, and there was a lot of youth violence going on. Bill saw the value of the program. He saw that we were making a dent in this huge problem.”
Since then, Lawson says, YEZ has helped more than 300 of its participants find first-time employment or enroll in school. In addition, business and community leaders involved in the organization have gained insights into the underlying causes of crime.
“Our Executive Director Lorenzo Lawson tells stories, and he’s well enough connected that I think he’s right on,” Watkins says. “I don’t see that way of life regularly. I can’t experience it, and when you hear people talk about it, it’s hard to believe that’s really the way it is here.”
One such story involves a string of convenience store robberies last spring, all of which were caught on tape. Lawson’s perspective is that the perpetrators had just gotten out of prison and couldn’t find employment. With little hope of finding jobs, they turned to crime, knowing that if they went back to prison, their families would at least receive benefits.
“It’s a horrible story, but I think that in some cases, it’s probably true,” Watkins says. Stories such as these illustrate why putting a cop on every corner wouldn’t make a huge difference, he adds.
“I remember hearing lots of stories from very respectable people about ‘driving while black,’” Watkins says. “That, to me, is unacceptable. There’s got to be a balance. I think this community wants that balance. They want to be safe, but on the other hand, they want a community that’s open, responsive and fair.”