He Did it His Way: PAN’s Chairman of the Board on Business, Philanthropy, and Opportunity

April 2011 Monthly Message

- He Did It His Way: PAN’s Chairman of the Board on Business, Philanthropy, and Opportunity
- Turning a Difficult Meeting into a Successful Advocacy Experience
- Medtronic and Eli Lilly Announce Drug-Device Collaboration for Parkinson’s Disease
- April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month
- PAN Advocate Jean Burns Given Bonander Award at Unity Walk
- PAN Director of Development / Individual Giving Featured on Comcast Newsmakers
- SAVE THE DATE – 2011 Morris K. Udall Awards Dinner
- Parkinson’s in the Media


Ron GalowichIt started with a law practice and a parcel of land in the Midwest, and grew into a career of building a successful law practice, as well as software, IT, healthcare, waste management, cable television, and real estate businesses.

A self-described “guy from Joliet, Illinois,” Parkinson’s Action Network (PAN) Board Chairman Ron Galowich co-founded a major healthcare cost-management company, First Health (which went public in 1987, and was sold to Coventry Health Care in 2005 for $1.8 billion). In 1996, he founded and was Chairman of Initiate Systems, a software company focusing on identity management and related infrastructure tools (which was acquired by IBM in March 2010 for an undisclosed amount).

After Galowich was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a number of years ago, PAN Board member Mort Kondracke introduced him to PAN, and after a few years of PAN Board service, he became chairman in 2009.

In addition to his PAN chairmanship, Galowich is currently the chairman of both the Madison Realty Group (a real estate development group) and Madison Group Holdings, a funding and investment entity for new business opportunities.  He is also an experienced Airline Transport-rated pilot who flies jet aircraft, and has logged more than 7,800 hours of flying time.

He believes he owes his success to being able to recognize opportunity, and what to do when it comes knocking.  PAN Director of Communications, Carol Blymire, interviewed Galowich about his business success and importance of philanthropy:

Carol Blymire:  Have you always known you’d be a successful entrepreneur and businessman?

Ron Galowich:  No.  In fact, from the time we were in high school, my twin brother and I knew we wanted to be lawyers or doctors.  We felt our parents couldn’t afford to put us through medical school, so we decided we’d be lawyers.  We anticipated we would be practicing law all our lives. Then, after active duty in the Army, my brother and I came back to Joliet toward the end of 1960 and opened our law practice.   A family friend who owned a parcel of real estate he was going to develop into residential lots became one of my first clients.  After starting development of the parcel, this friend passed away unexpectedly, and overnight, along with a full-time law practice, I became a major residential and commercial land developer in Joliet. My twin brother passed away in a tragic airplane accident in 1975.  As the years went on, I found a special passion and talent for real estate and business development.

CB:  So you set out to build a law practice, and suddenly also became a land developer.

RG:  Yes.  It was all about being opportunistic and knowing when it was the right time to make a move, and the right move to make.

CB:  Do you believe people are born with certain traits, including strong instinct and the ability to recognize opportunity, and do you think that’s what’s helped get you where you are today?

RG:  Absolutely. I am not sure whether you are born with or acquire a tolerance for risk, but that is one of the major elements you must face early on.  First Health’s success came about in another opportunistic event.  While I was practicing law, my best friend Dr. Bob Becker decided he wanted to start a cost-containment company and invited me to co-found it with him. We did it and struggled for two years while I raised an equity round and asked another friend, Jim Smith, to become the CEO.   I’d met Jim many years ago when I was developing a shopping center and needed one more lease in order to close on the loan for that project.  Nearing a critical funding deadline, I was negotiating with a prospective tenant who decided to go to another city.  So, I decided to take the franchise for the pizza parlor that tenant was proposing in order to fulfill the leasing requirement.  As a result, I met Jim, who owned 23 of those franchised pizza parlors. My business was a failure and Jim’s were successful, so I learned pretty quickly that he was a very smart businessman. He was selling his company when Dr. Becker and I created First Health, so I asked Jim to become the CEO of First Health.  With his direction, it became a huge, 6,000-employee company and a winner on the public markets and later in a sale.  My point: if I had not done the deal to open the pizza parlor in order to save the shopping center and had not met Jim, who knows where First Health would have gone.

CB:  You’ve built and managed businesses in a broad array of industries.  From 1981-1990, you ran the Pritzker Family’s real estate operations. Prior to that, you developed, managed and sold Illinois’ first permitted sanitary landfill to Waste Management, and in the early 1970s built Illinois’ third operating cable TV company, which was sold to Teleprompter Corp.  What’s the common thread among software, IT, healthcare, waste management, cable television, and real estate?

RG: The common thread was to find someone who had the knowledge and ability to run each of these diverse businesses, along with my instincts that there was a business there to find.  Each of those businesses came to me by way of an opportunity someone presented to me, or I discovered with my friends and colleagues.  I knew I had the ability to create the entity, begin to run it, and then staff it with the right leadership.  The one common element is that I had a lot of risk, a lot of trepidation, and a lot of stress.  But ultimately, I really enjoyed every single of one of those projects.  I never had a moment of ‘I can’t do this.’

CB:  You mentioned leadership.  What makes a good leader?

RG:  A good leader surrounds themselves with people who know more than they do.  Then, they give them the authority to run what they know best and not nickel and dime them.  Also, when I hire someone, I ask, “Are you a nice person?”  I won’t hire anyone who isn’t nice.  If you are smart and nice, you will hire people who are smart and nice, and that goes all the way down the line creating a company of leaders and senior management that engenders loyalty, hard work and reduces internal strife.

CB:  Who are business leaders young people can look up to today?

RG:  Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Jack Welch, and were he still alive, Jay Pritzker.

CB:  Did you have a mentor as you were “growing up” professionally?

RG:  Bill Brady, a lawyer in Elgin, Illinois, was my mentor and role model as a lawyer.  He was an outstanding attorney: professional, smart, and a great human being.  Bill, along with Jack Boyle, a  lawyer who gave me  my first job right out of law school and before I went into the military were important role models and gave me a really solid foundation when I began building my law practice and  businesses.

CB:  Tell me about your military service.  That’s not something you see as much these days on a business person’s or elected official’s resume.

RG:  Back when I was in college there was a military draft and you were either drafted or you joined ROTC in college.   I joined ROTC and was commissioned in the Ordnance Corps as a Second Lieutenant. I spent ten years in the Army Reserves – not all on active duty -- first in the Ordnance Corps, then in the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps.  The military was a great tool in my growth because it taught discipline and leadership.  I don’t know any place today where you can get taught discipline and leadership like you can in the military.

And, being in the Army presented yet another business opportunity for me.  My brother and I were stationed together in Aberdeen, Maryland and we went through Ordnance Officers’ basic training.  During that time, we were assigned to the JAG office. We practiced military law the entire time we were there.  In addition to being trial counsel for General Court Martials, we were the general counsel for the Post, so anytime a soldier had a civilian problem, we were their lawyers.  One time, I helped a soldier who was having trouble with a local car-repair shop.  When he came to thank me he said he’d be heading to Joliet, Illinois in a few weeks, as he was being discharged.  He worked as the credit manager for the area’s largest Chevrolet dealership, and when I moved back to Joliet after the Army, his dealership was my first client when I opened my own law firm.

CB:  You’ve had an incredibly successful career.  When you look back on your life, what are some of the biggest defining moments?

RG:  Certainly, on a personal basis, there was having children and establishing a family.  As relates to other matters, one I am most proud of was my leadership role in building two new YMCAs in Joliet, one of which is named after my twin brother. Another is being a founder of the Joliet Junior College Foundation. I’m also active on various charity and hospital boards, and basically the big moments for me are the ones where I’m doing something that really matters for other people.

CB:  What role has philanthropy played in your life?

RG:  I was raised with the belief that we should share what we have and that you give what you can, whether it’s financially or of yourself.  I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so sometimes my parents just gave of themselves.  But it’s always something we did.

CB:  Was being diagnosed with Parkinson’s a setback for you?

RG:  If you have PD, you need to look on the positive side.  It is not cancer (I had kidney cancer 25 years ago).  I look at having Parkinson’s as creating an opportunity, as it’s introduced me to so many wonderful people like Amy Rick (PAN CEO), and Dr. Abe Lieberman (Director of the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center and the Movement Disorder Clinic of Barrow Neurological Institute), and  so many others that I wouldn’t otherwise have met.  I’m lucky as I only have PD and not something much worse. Would I rather that I not have PD?  Of course, but I do not have that choice.

CB:  What is the most important role you can play as Chairman of PAN?

RG:  Support for the staff and people who accomplish the work -- the same as you would do in a for-profit business.  Too many non-profits have Board members who want to run the entire entity.  You can’t do that when you’re on the Board.  Instead, you should help set the goals and be there to support the staff to let them achieve those goals.

CB:  What does PAN do best?

RG:  Raise awareness, and educating Congress and the Administration, as well as state governments about PD in order to help them make better decisions in the federal budget and state participation.  But the awareness-raising is key.  I don’t care how many people have a disease, you really don’t pay attention to it unless it strikes you or your family, and there’s somebody doing something to make you aware of it on a daily basis.  Everybody is going to be diagnosed with something in their life.  I had polio and hepatitis as a child, and as an adult I’ve had cancer, and now Parkinson’s. 

I hope that in the future, there will be more entities like PAN, run by a no-nonsense, let’s-get-the-job-done leader.  It’s been wonderful to be the chairman of the board of such an organization that does such great work for the Parkinson’s community.

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