Bob Basten -  Work hard, fight hard

Bob BastenPosted December 31, 2002 in ALS News
Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune By Janet Kidd Stewart Chicago Tribune staff reporter December 30, 2002

Against enormous odds, Bob Basten always chose his destinations. Now, destiny has found him.

Orphaned at 16, the Northbrook native lived alone while finishing his sophomore year at Glenbrook North before moving in with relatives in Minnesota, where he then studied hard enough to earn an academic scholarship to St. John's University.

Coming from a small, Division III school didn't stop the nearly 6-foot, 5-inch defensive tackle from walking into tryouts with the Minnesota Vikings after graduation. He signed as a free agent and played a season on the practice squad.

After football, he turned to business. By age 33, Basten was running American Express Tax & Business Services, a Minneapolis-based arm of the financial giant that was consolidating the accounting industry--at times against its will.

Always a risk taker, Basten was on to a new challenge by the time he was 36: forming one of the nation's largest middle-market accounting firms by rolling up several private regional companies and taking them public with an initial public offering.

When the 1999 effort failed at the 11th hour, he spurned a few solid job offers back in corporate America, deciding instead to try to convince his partner firms to form a private company, despite the IPO failure. It worked.

Today, Basten's brainchild, Centerprise Advisors, is a $170 million operation based in the Loop. The company, which has more than 1,000 employees across the country, caters to midsize corporate clients, most of them private companies. It is the nation's 14th-largest accounting and professional services firm--a list that includes the major U.S. public accounting firms. And its division that does forensic accounting for big, public companies is exploding in the wake of the corporate governance disaster--Tyco and Enron are former clients.

In June, Basten, 42, was sitting atop a profitable company that had increased revenues more than 10 percent in each of its first two years in existence. He was just beginning to relax a bit when his next great challenge hit him squarely in the foot. For about a year, he'd been bothered by a drop foot, and then he started losing muscle control in his hand and shoulder.

Diagnosed at the end of June with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, known commonly as Lou Gehrig's disease, Basten has just a few years of life left, by most estimates.

The degenerative disease, according to Dr. Teepu Siddique of Northwestern University, strikes one in every 600 men and one in every 800 women, a fairly high incidence rate, but only about 200,000 people in the world have it at any given moment because it is always fatal, usually within five years. It attacks the brain's motor neurons, causing progressive weakness, loss of muscle control, paralysis and, finally, death. The mind and the senses, however, remain intact throughout the progression of the disease.

Though the famous baseball player had the disease six decades ago, remarkably little is yet known about its cause, and there is no cure.

Upon hearing the news, the confirmed workaholic took his first two-week vacation ever, a trip through France and Italy with his wife, Faith, and their two children: Emily, 15, and Jack, 12. He didn't cry when he told the family about the disease, but he wept Aug. 8 at a special company board meeting to announce the news to his investors and board members.

"While I have always believed that it would be naive to assume that I wouldn't get some bad along with all the good I've received in my life, I admit that this news was tough to take," Basten wrote in a memo to his staff days later. "Thankfully, I've come to realize that life is full of choices and that life itself is only 5 percent the cards we're dealt and 95 percent how we play them. As a result, I choose to play to win."

Playing to win

Basten has now committed all of his entrepreneurial skills to raising money for ALS research in hopes a cure can be found in time to help him, or at least help those who follow him.

He's the first to admit slogans like "playing to win" can ring corny and hollow. Gehrig's life, and the movie, have already been done, after all. But the sayings ring hollow only until one considers the way Basten lived his life before he had the disease. Even then, he never seemed to have time to play it safe.

As he led the effort at American Express to consolidate the accounting industry, he walked headlong into opposition from longtime independent accountants who viewed consolidation as selling out to corporate America.

And when he ventured out on his own with several financial backers, he encountered similar resistance at first and myriad setbacks, including the pulling of the IPO just hours before it was ready to hit the stock market in 1999.

After an initial inquiry about the rollup agreement, the Securities and Exchange Commission cleared the venture for pricing, but the deal was scuttled because backers didn't think it would draw enough investors, who were enamored at the time largely with Internet-related start-ups.

"He faced a very skeptical audience in the accounting industry," said Julie Lindy, editor of Bowman's Accounting Report, an industry publication that recently named Centerprise to its "Best of the Best" list for, among other things, the firm's profit record.

It is the first industry rollup to be named to the list. "There was a perception at the time he started acquiring firms that you were selling out the profession if you joined. There was a stigma of disloyalty almost, but he got some of the most prestigious firms in the business to join him," Lindy said.

A certain chemistry

Charm. Charisma. A certain kind of chemistry. They don't teach that in business school, but it is clearly what set Basten apart, even at an early age.

Often the social ringleader in school, Basten was always a great storyteller and many times the instigator of pranks, recalls college buddy Joe Kiley, who also was a former AmEx colleague and still works for the firm in Minneapolis.

"He always wanted to talk business, though, too. He loved it. The risks people take [in corporations] are nothing compared to what Bob is willing to take on. I remember when he decided he was going to take his shot going it alone, at the same time he did it he bought a new house. He just has tremendous self-confidence and is a natural-born leader."

Basten credits his mother, Janelle, with that.

"If I would get a canker sore, she'd say, now Bobby, don't complain, because only geniuses get canker sores," he recalls with a chuckle. (Basten's mother died of colon cancer. His father, Robert, died when Bob was in fourth grade, from heart failure. There is no family history of ALS.)

"He was innovative and sure of himself, even when he didn't deserve to be," said Mark Ernst, chairman of H&R Block, who hired Basten at American Express.

"Nothing was going to stop him. He was always willing to do whatever it took," said Ernst, who asked Basten and his family to move twice in 10 months right after joining American Express. When the Centerprise IPO failed, Ernst tried to convince Basten to give up and join H&R Block.

"He wouldn't even engage in discussions with me," Ernst recalls. "He couldn't leave those people."

Vulnerable at times

Even with an overwhelmingly positive attitude, Basten does admit to some very human moments.

"After I was diagnosed, I had to figure out what the hell I'm going to do. What am I going to do with my family? The business? What am I going to do personally? As much as I try not to, I define myself physically. I'm tall, athletic. And with this disease there's nothing wrong with your mind but you're trapped inside this body that dies. I'm thinking, 'This sucks.'

"I'd be lying to say it never bothers me. I see people walking down the street carrying a cup of coffee and balancing a briefcase in the other hand and I'm jealous. I don't get angry about it much, but occasionally I do."

He can still walk with the aid of a cane or walker and still drives. He dresses himself, though it takes up to an hour.

Having given up the day-to-day operating duties of the company to Rick Stein, one of the firm's founding partners, Basten remains chairman and still commutes to the Chicago home office regularly from his Minnesota home. He is helping to find a permanent successor, and has formed a charitable organization called Playing to Win for Life Foundation for ALS research. It has raised about $250,000 and hopes to bring in $1.5 million next year through several benefits and events.

Entrepreneurial bug

"I can't get this entrepreneurial thing out of me. This whole area of entrepreneurial philanthropy is where I am now--going after high-buck folks who have an interest in backing a research venture," he said.

He's on the board of governors at Johns Hopkins' ALS center, and keeps in contact with Siddique, the prominent Northwestern researcher who has made several ALS discoveries in recent years, including a research model in mice that is used throughout the country to work on a cure.

"We don't know what tomorrow will bring, but this is a very hopeful time," said Siddique.

Ernst recently had dinner with Basten, who calmly laid out his strategy for raising research money and fighting the disease until a cure is found.

"He talks about it like business," Ernst said. "He's figuring out all the steps."

What winners do

The man is the mission. There are no typical regrets about not spending more time smelling roses or about working too much.

"My family respects that having purpose is what it's all about," he said.

Faith, who is part owner in a bookstore, confirms that attitude.

"Maybe right at first I was a little angry at all the time he'd spent working," she said. "I felt like with this disease he was going to spend all his remaining energy on business and then I'd get what was left. But we're all so independent. Frankly, when he spends too much time at home he starts bugging us," she says with a laugh. "There are stressful times, of course, but I'm fine. And that has a lot to do with Bob. He just doesn't feel sorry for himself."

He has opened up more of his emotions, though, in business and in life, and he said that's helped in both endeavors.

"Financial-services commercials make me cry," he said. "I tend to tell people more how I feel and that I appreciate them. My style is a little warmer, and I've found it works well in business to drop that guard and be comfortable with who you are."

Today, Basten takes every opportunity to tell people they are winners.

"I was talking to a small group at the company the other day and I said, "What I see here is winners. In the face of unprecedented change in our industry, you have stepped up and made good out of it. This is a horrible economy, but it's our job to make clients more successful. Winners do that.'

"You know, forget business and do this same thing with your kids.

"I said to my son, Jack, after he lost a game. I said, forget this one baseball game, you are a total winner and I love winners. That's about building self-esteem in people, and it's a powerful thing."

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune