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Life in Escape

Great Falls resident Bob Fifer shares business and life lessons learned in his new book "The Enlightened CEO."

As a young man, Bob Fifer was in a hurry to get things done. After graduating from Harvard University in 1977, the New York City native did not waste any time and went directly to Harvard Business School, graduating two years later at 23. Of course, Fifer did not have time to stick around for niceties such as his May 1979 graduation ceremony — he had already begun working at his first job two weeks prior to commencement day.

"I was in a big rush back then," said Fifer, who has lived in Great Falls since 1984.

From 1979 to 1982, Fifer worked as an officer at Strategic Planning Associates, a strategy consulting firm located in Washington D.C. In 1982, he was the third employee to join the management consulting firm Kaiser Associates, Inc. Two years later, the 29-year-old became Kaiser’s chairman and CEO.

"It was trial by fire," said Fifer, who is now 51 and president of Fifer Associates, LLC.

Over the course of Fifer’s 15-year leadership, Kaiser Associates grew into a worldwide firm with 150 employees around the globe. Halfway through his tenure as chairman and CEO, Fifer decided to take what he refers to as "my first semi-retirement." He was 36.

"When you’re in your 20s and you’re traveling every single day, staying in nice hotels, and eating and drinking at nice restaurants on the company account, it’s fun," said Fifer. "But when you’re in your 30s and you have a wife and two or three little kids at home, it’s not so great."

At the time, Fifer had two of his four children. Continuing in his position as chairman and CEO of Kaiser, Fifer restructured the company in such a way that it permitted him to spend the bulk of his time at home. Thus, Fifer spent the last seven years as CEO of Kaiser driving his children to and from various commitments, coaching their sports teams and attending every single one of their athletic games. In 2000, he sold the company and launched Fifer Associates, LLC.

"The number one priority in my life is my wife and kids, and it always has been," said Fifer.

DURING the last seven years, as Fifer has operated Fifer Associates, LLC from his home office in Great Falls, ruminations on his life planted the seed for a book idea. Fifer had spent almost a quarter of a century as a CEO and dealing with CEO’s on a regular basis, and it had not always been easy.

"Half the time I was right, and half the time I was wrong," said Fifer. "Over the last 25 years, I’ve made some mistakes but I would learn from them. I finally got to the point where I had learned enough that I really felt that I had some valuable lessons to share, and I guess my hope is that I can help prevent other people from making the same mistakes."

Although Fifer spent seven years thinking about the book, it took him a mere three months to actually write it. In the spring of 2007, "The Enlightened CEO: How to Succeed at the Toughest Job in the Business" was published. He co-wrote the book with Gordon Quick. It was not Fifer’s first foray into writing — his book "Double Your Profits" was published in 1993. In "The Enlightened CEO," Fifer advises CEOs to treat their employees with honesty, openness and respect.

"CEOs have to realize that they don’t have all the answers," said Fifer. "The only way to get your employees to respect you is to be the kind of person that deserves respect — I learned that tricks don’t work."

FIFER RESIDES in Great Falls with his wife and four children Danny, 20, Becky, 18, Jonathan, 14, and Amy, 12. It was pure chance that brought Fifer and his family to Great Falls. When he and his wife began looking for their first home in 1984, they wanted something that would be fairly close to Washington D.C. But after looking at several homes in Arlington and McLean, their Realtor asked if she could take them out to Great Falls. At first, the young couple was skeptical.

"We didn’t want to live that far out," said Fifer. "But then we drove out here, and I don’t want to say it was rural, but it was pretty close to rural … and I realized that it was an escape — that I would come home from work every night and it would be like a vacation."

The couple bought the home, and a few years later purchased a larger 15-acre wooded property just down the road. They spent three years designing and building their dream home, moved in and have not left since.

"I work outside a lot," said Fifer. "I work, read, talk on the phone. Sometimes I have two and three-hour conference calls, and I’ll sit on the patio and watch the deer and the birds while I talk — I love Great Falls."