Robert Gabel – Shepley Bulfinch
After a lengthy career in senior management, what’s a restless businessperson to do if the rocking chair doesn’t seem so inviting? Robert Gabel chooses to stay fresh on a board of directors.
The spry 60-something has been doing so for over a year as one of three new people on Shepley Bulfinch’s revamped seven-member board. The principals of the national architectural and design firm, which has four studios, were introduced to Gabel’s know-how in financial matters and risk-management when he sat in the C-suites of environmental engineering and consulting companies. Shepley Bulfinch recruited him in late 2021, a year after Gabel ended his decade-long stretch as chief financial officer at Haley & Aldrich.
While it’s too early to assess Gabel’s impact and that of the two other outsiders, he says a fresh perspective is always in order and notes increased interaction between the board and stockholders.
“Inertia’s a powerful force,” Gabel tells Vision in January. “Rather than doing things the same way, let’s find new ways to meet our promises while doing a better job.”
Not that this is a foreign concept at Shepley Bulfinch, which has put its stamp on many landmarks and institutions across the country, but Gabel says the time seemed overdue to tweak the business model. Since its founding in the late 19th century, the firm had been governed by an all-internal board and only recently did its principals commit to more corporate rigor.
“Only not a full corporate model,” Gabel says from his home in Danvers, Massachusetts. “The principals still own 80 percent of the firm but now they must evolve for today’s business environment while still focusing on the people who make it work.”
Translator at heart
As for what Gabel brings to the board, he emphasizes it’s not just being a one-trick CFO pony. He says he’s got to prove his worth through the spectrum of risk management and financial expertise he’s garnered over 35 years—some of it in industries that Shepley Bulfinch serves.
“I’ve always understood numbers,” he says. “Financial analysis is really about translating the language of accounting to the language of business and giving the businesspeople the information they need in a way they understand.”
Gabel’s methods added up at Haley & Aldrich, as they did at other companies. At H&A, he reorganized the capital structure to reallocate risk and open opportunities in construction and technology, had a hand in selling off a dynamic division that outgrew the firm’s business model and mentored a former Stantec vice president, Don Craig, to succeed him as the man minding the coffers.
He is just as proud of how his efforts helped position H&A to join others in extracting a carcinogen from groundwater. “A most rewarding project,” he says, noting that that toxin, PFAS, never breaks down and can contaminate groundwater around airfields.
Prior to H&A, he held another CFO role in the Boston area, at GEI Consultants Inc. for 13 years. He helped transition GEI from the founders to the next generation while building capital as GEI contributed to the urban remediation of tar residuals from coal-gasification plants that dated back to the 1890s. Shepley Bulfinch also having a history of transitioning properties, Gabel says he feels among kindred spirits.
Although Gabel no longer needs to be at a desk from 9 to 5, he’s never really retired. The past few years he’s been an independent consultant for executive management, a role he’ll continue as long as it doesn’t conflict with Shepley Bulfinch. Should other companies need to fill a board slot, he’d be all ears.
“It’s a good balance for someone my age,” he says of a board position. “One of the beauties is it’s not a cliff. It allows me to give back to the industry that provided me with opportunities throughout my career.”
At Shepley Bulfinch, Gabel says the principals share his outlook that client-service rather than revenue drives a business. There’s some irony, he acknowledges, in a career moneyman like him making such a statement, but as long as the firm and Gabel can agree that the bottom line is a measure of success rather than success itself, they should be on the same page.
Patience can be another virtue, Shepley Bulfinch often undertaking large, complex projects on behalf of hospitals, universities, life science research facilities, mixed-use housing and more. Gabel notes that the new University of Houston Law Center, which he recently toured, had consumed five years of planning and four years of fundraising before construction could commence.
But Shepley Bulfinch would seem to have enough clientele to withstand time constraints and other complexities. The firm has nurtured relations with clients through its studios in Boston, Houston, Phoenix, Durham, North Carolina; and Hartford, Connecticut. In New England, Harvard and Yale universities are just a couple of its long-time clients, as are Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital and other renowned healthcare providers.
So, Gabel’s confident that Shepley Bulfinch will last another century or more. In a sense his role is a cherry atop a career he began by earning an MBA from the University of Chicago. That followed his graduating St. Lawrence University with degrees in philosophy and economics—articulated wisdom and the supply/demand graph do complement, he says.
After seven years financial analysis in manufacturing at Ronson and North American Philips, Gabel moved to the Boston area for a 12-year stretch with Metcalf & Eddy Inc. Then came him being CFO at GEI and Haley & Aldrich.
Motion remains the potion for his professional and personal life alike. He’s seen too many contemporaries at a loss for what to do upon exiting the workplace. Much as he enjoys skiing, gardening and travel, there’s still the mind to exercise and what’s been a happy home life to sustain.
“My marriage survived retirement,” says this good-natured father of four grown children. “This allows separate time for my wife and me. We had never been 24/7 together.”
View this feature in the Vol. III 2023 Edition here.
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