Synergies, Spring 2010
An Investment in Ingenuity: Chuck Rotuno ’86:
By Sarah Hollander
At age 12, Chuck Rotuno got his first taste of being in charge. That’s when he started working at his father’s small grocery store in Oberlin, stocking shelves, slicing bologna, cleaning floors. By the time he reached college, Rotuno was managing the place.
“No matter how old you are, you’re always in charge,” he learned about running a family business. “That’s where responsibility and accountability were born.”
He liked the feeling. There, in the convenience store, he learned that being a leader and a doer went hand in hand. And that without passion and a connection to customers, a business can’t be its best.
Since early on, Chuck Rotuno knew he wanted to eventually run his own business. And, in 2000, he achieved that goal.
Rotuno became the first president and chief executive officer of an e-commerce start-up called OEConnection. The Richland-based company’s software helps connect thousands of auto dealerships and repair shops nationwide with original equipment (the OE in OEConnection). Say Bob’s Chevrolet in Cleveland needs a muffler but doesn’t have one in stock. Bob can go online and search inventories at nearby dealerships instead of waiting for the part from the manufacturer.
Since its inception, OEConnection has earned numerous awards for innovation and growth, including multiple “Best of the Web” awards from Forbes magazine and placement on the Weatherhead 100 list.
Rotuno has also accumulated personal accolades along the way, from being named to the Crain’s Cleveland Business “40 Under 40” class in 2001 and Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2004.
“I wanted to start from nothing,” Rotuno, 46, said of his tenure with OEConnection. “To build a company to 200 employees and 12,000 paying customers, I take a lot of pride in that.”
So how did he get there?
“Begin with the end in mind,” Rotuno said, quoting author and businessman Stephen R. Covey.
Ultimately, Rotuno wanted the nameplate on his office door to say CEO.“Everything I was doing was building to that opportunity,” he said.
So he researched traditional ways to that goal and decided to pursue a business degree with a strong emphasis on finance at Baldwin Wallace University.
Rotuno remembers an important message from one of his mentors at BW, former accounting professor Joe Kaderbek.
Kaderbek pushed students. Scoring 95 on a test was good, Kaderbek pointed out, but that number still represented a five percent error rate in the real world, where numbers aren’t flexible.
“That still sticks with me,” Rotuno said.
After graduating summa cum laude with a finance and accounting degree in 1986, Rotuno started his career at accounting firm KPMG LLP in Cleveland. He discovered that accounting wasn’t his passion, but it was a building block.
Next, Rotuno moved to Rubbermaid Inc., where he made the leap from a pure financial background to management.
Although he probably wasn’t qualified on paper, Rotuno’s boss at the time, George Weigand, gave him chances to grow.
“From the moment he walked in the door he exhibited very strong leadership qualities,” Weigand, now a senior vice president and chief financial officer at Electrolux, said.
“He was anxious to assume responsibility as fast as I’d give it to him,” Weigand said. “There was no question about his passion to grow beyond being a financial person to becoming a CEO.”
The two enjoyed working together and Weigand exposed Rotuno to a broad range of goings-on at the business. They’d sit down to lunch together regularly. Typically, after five or 10 minutes talking about sports and personal topics, they’d drift into shop talk—what’s going right and wrong at Rubbermaid and how would you do things differently.
“Those sessions were invaluable for both of us,” Weigand said.
Rotuno’s passion for business was evident. “That you just can’t teach,” Weigand said. “All you can do is help someone along.”
Rotuno eventually rose to director of corporate finance and vice president of business development at Rubbermaid.
After Rubbermaid, he served as the senior vice president and general manager of Bell & Howell, which later became ProQuest Automotive. That’s where the seeds of OEConnection took root.
Rotuno remembers the early obstacles. By taking the lead at OEConnection, he was in charge of developing Internet-based software for car dealers at an uncertain time for e business.
“Internet operations had a certain luster in the late ’90s that started rubbing off by 2001,” he said.
The risk paid off, though. The new company became profitable in less than two years.
Fifteen years ago, Rotuno said he probably couldn’t connect the dots to where he is today. But that’s not necessarily a drawback.
“What I like about the business world is that you can make soup in a lot of different ways and it’ll still taste good,” he said.
Rotuno’s daughter is working toward a music therapy degree at BW. Like other students her age, she tends to overanalyze the start of her career, Rotuno said.
“I try to peel her back,” he said. “She’s trying to piece together how steps one, two and three will fit together. What you need to know is, is step one a good step.”
At each step, people should ask themselves, “Am I ultimately headed toward my long-term goal?” he said.
Some people can find inspiration from their family background. Rotuno’s family, for example, gravitates toward business. One of Rotuno’s brothers now runs his own business, and another runs a restaurant.
If the family business isn’t a calling, research other options and try different things.
OEConnection teamed up with BW to cosponsor a computer programming contest for area high school students interested in becoming software engineers and programmers. The company wants to encourage local students to pursue computer science at the college level.
Passion can’t be faked, Rotuno said. And even it could, who would want to? Passion is what keeps you going, he said.
“You’re never done,” Rotuno said. “I spend each and every day thinking how can I grow the company to make our products and services even better.”
At OEConnection, Rotuno strives to hire visionaries and doers.
“People have to be willing to grab the bull by the horns, get through obstacles, and get the job done,” he said.
When it comes to promotions, Rotuno has followed in Weigand’s footsteps.
“We try to take our biggest stars and put them in roles where they can shine, even if they’re not obviously qualified on paper,” he said.
The company has earned numerous awards— from the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Society for Human Resource Management, and NorthCoast 99, for example—for being one of the area’s best places to work.
For students thinking about careers in business, passion for serving customers is key.
“And you have to believe that the value you can deliver is superior to your competition,” he said. “Business really isn’t that hard. Customers either like what you’re doing or they don’t.”
The above feature ran in the Spring 2010 edition of the Baldwin Wallace University Synergies magazine.