“Relentless” is how Bob Klonk describes the work ethic that was born from a childhood of scrimping and settling and has driven him to strive to outwork everyone for more than 45 years.
As The Council’s 2023 board chair, he joined Leader’s Edge for a conversation on the changes he has seen in the employee benefits industry, Oswald’s 2020 merger with Maryland-based RCM&D, leading through a pandemic, and his role in the greater Cleveland community.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Well, the process lasted a long time, but I look at it this way: anytime you can go into business with one of your best friends, it’s a great time. It was a pleasure to partner up with Bob Cawley [chairman and CEO, RCM&D], whom I’ve known for over 20 years. We both had older firms, over 100 years old, steeped in legacy, steeped in being privately held; ours happened to be employee-owned. We live for that, we live for being privately held, we believe in that model. But we both had agencies that had older senior leaders, and the chance for perpetuation was going to be hard. Ours could have perpetuated, but there would have been a lot of debt handed down to the next generation. And it’s not as much fun to run an agency that’s loaded up in debt. You can’t really grow that much.
So we decided the best way to do it would be if we merged the platforms together to create a new platform with both of our agencies and then we recapitalized a part of our company, brought in a minority partner to help us use equity instead of debt to buy out some of the senior debt and try to move on. We’ve created a platform now for the next generation—Bob’s firm is over 130 years old, mine is almost 130 years old—we want to make sure it’s here for another 100 years. This platform is designed that the next generation can continue to perpetuate. We’re 70% employee owned, and we’re going to remain at least 70% employee owned. We’ve got a great partner, and we’re very excited about the future.
It shaped it a lot. I learned at a very young age I had to settle for certain things. I watched my mother have to settle for certain things, as I would call it. And they weren’t first-class things. They were second, third class and down, and you scrimp and you run out of money at the end of the month for food, and you’re trying to figure out what you’re gonna make for dinner until the Social Security check comes in. You watch all those things happen, and of course it shapes you a little bit. I never wanted to do that in my life. So you fight harder to make sure that you never have to settle. I think it pushed me more to say I’m not going to settle, I’m never going to settle, I’m going to make sure my family never has to settle for second best.
It’s just built a tenacity in me that there’s no finish line with me. I’m gonna out-hustle you. My father always taught me before he died, never get out-hustled. Somebody might be better than you at something, somebody might be more talented, but don’t ever let them out-hustle you. So I always made sure, since the day I started in this business, you might be smarter than me, you might have more years on you than me, but you will never outthink me, you will never outwork me, because I’m relentless. I’m relentless, and I won’t stop until I succeed. That attitude is what’s propelled my career for all those years. And a lot of it has to do with how I grew up.
It’s a tough question, because I’ve served on a lot of boards over the years, and each one has a different place, serves a different part of the community. So it’s really hard to say which one’s more important. I’ll give you two examples.
I’m currently chair of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. You say that to somebody, and they say, “Oh, that’s fun, you get to go to sporting events, you get to go to games,” but the Sports Commission is what draws events to Cleveland. All the different amateur events that have gone on—the women’s NCAA Final Four that’s coming to Cleveland in 2024—we have to win those events. We had the NBA All-Star game, we had the NFL Draft. All of those are brought by the Sports Commission along with other things like volleyball tournaments, wrestling tournaments—all of those things that are brought to the community create hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of economic development for the community, the restaurants, the hotels, all the other things that survive on that. You forget about that when you just hear “sports”; you don’t realize the almost billion dollars that the Sports Commission has brought to Cleveland since its inception over the years.
There’s also Northeast Ohio Medical University. I was appointed there by the governor. I served on the board for nine years, and I was chairman for two years. I watched great work that the small, urban medical university was able to do. I was also blessed with being the head of the search committee for the new president. We brought him on three years ago, Dr. John Langell, and he has done wondrous things. Watching the evolution of that and how many more young people, especially in underserved communities, are able now to go to medical school, are able to find a way to do that and get back in their communities and treat the people that they grew up with, seeing that stuff, that’s really cool. So, each one serves its purpose. I’ve been privileged to serve on some great boards.
Well, I’ve followed a lot of great other board chairs over the years, and it’s an evolution. We’ve had a great leader in Ken [Crerar] for over 30 years now for The Council. So my job is to make sure that we continue to shepherd a very clear vision for the future for The Council as we transition over the course of time that is very clear for the membership and for The Council staff. What does that vision look like as we go forward? As board chair, I believe that I represent the membership and I have to make sure the membership’s thoughts and what they want to accomplish are also represented by myself and the rest of the board.
On a personal note, I am not thrilled with the lack of integrity in our business over the last several years as it relates to organizations not honoring non-solicitation agreements. We see it in the paper all the time. It’s highlighted with all these lawsuits and these lift-outs, and it’s ridiculous. We have contracts, we all sign contracts. We are a profession, OK? We all sign those non-solicitation agreements, and we should agree to them. You want to hire talent from my place or any other place? Go ahead if they want to go, but don’t steal the business. They have a contract. Let’s honor those. I would like to see that come to bear a little more, because I just think it’s a stain on our profession. So personally, that’s something I would like to champion a little bit more. I don’t know how many people will back me on it, but it’s just something that I believe in.