A youthful approach

'Retire' is not in the vocabulary of RWD chairman Deutsch

April 22, 2008|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN REPORTER

Think technology business, and you'll likely imagine a company run by a 20-something or even younger upstart.

At RWD Technologies Inc., a Baltimore consulting and training company, the founder turned 84 in March.

But don't ask Robert W. Deutsch about his retirement plans. He doesn't have any.

Deutsch is just as active in the company today as when he founded it 20 years ago. Deutsch, who gave up his chief executive duties four years ago but remains the board chairman, oversees the private company's research and product development efforts.

"If I can't contribute, I will retire," Deutsch said recently from his office at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's research park. "I'm comfortable that I could make my contributions, even though I'm old. I'm a lousy golfer anyway."

The story of RWD's creation is company lore.

At 63, Deutsch was out of a job. As he tells it, he was fired by the company that bought a majority stake in his first business, General Physics Corp., which trained nuclear power plant operators. Deutsch, a physicist and nuclear engineer, founded the Columbia company in 1971 and built it into a $115 million business.

Not ready to give up, Deutsch sold his 24 percent ownership in General Physics and launched RWD in January 1988, a month after he was ousted. Last year, RWD reported $189 million in sales. It employs 1,200 people abroad and in the U.S., including 260 in Maryland. The average age of RWD's work force is mid- to late-30s.

Bill Thomas, a professor at UMBC's Erickson School, which focuses on aging issues, says Deutsch exemplifies a wave of older Americans forgoing retirement for second or third careers. Senior citizens now have more choices about how they want to live, whether it's running a company or pursuing some other interest, he says. Others are forced to work because of higher health care and other costs. "The old, traditional view of aging is looking at older people like machines on an assembly line and eventually you wear down and should be put down under the tarp," Thomas said.

"People say 60s is the new 40s, 50s is the new 30s," he added.

RWD Chief Executive Officer Laurens "Mac" MacLure Jr., who succeeded Deutsch in 2004, offers a theory about Deutsch's endurance: Retirement is boring."He knows by being engaged in the business, it's prolonging his longevity and keeping him sharper. And he loves what he does. The old expression 'If you love what you do, you'll never work another day in your life,' he believes that. That's 90 percent of it."

The other 10 percent? "Because he got forced out of his last company, he said, 'I'm going to show them that that wasn't a fluke,'" said MacLure, who is 51.

For Deutsch, it was unfinished business. At the time of his firing, Deutsch says he was making plans to pursue other industries where General Physics could make its mark.

"I wanted to go into automotive. Everything we've been doing relative to nuclear, we could apply to the training of technical people," he said. "I could see that as a big area. I never got a chance."

So Deutsch built RWD around training workers to use emerging technologies that are becoming common to every business.

The company trains workers to use software and other technology that helps run the business as well as develops products. It also helps manufacturers work more efficiently and increase productivity in assembling new cars or consumer products. One of its largest clients remains Chrysler, which enlisted RWD's help early on.A growing area of RWD's business involves using efficiency techniques commonly associated with manufacturing to help hospitals and health care professionals improve patient care and safety.

Ann Gengler, an internal management consultant at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Fairview, said RWD is helping the hospital improve its employee orientation for critical care nurses by figuring out the best ways to deliver knowledge and procedures to new workers - whether it be through new technology or traditional instruction.

"They have positively challenged some of our thinking about how we do things," Gengler said.

The company's competitors include Accenture and IBM.

Deutsch took RWD public in 1997, but it struggled during the economic downturn that began in 2000. Companies pulled back on training budgets after overspending for the Y2K computer disaster that never materialized.

Sales dropped to $97 million in 2003, from $133 million in 2000. In 2003, the company went private. Besides buying back the shares he did not already own, Deutsch, who along with his family owned 66 percent of the company, also guaranteed a $6 million line of credit as RWD worked to turn around its business, MacLure said. Deutsch now owns 84 percent of RWD.

During the past several years, its international business has grown as RWD increased training of oil refinery operators in places such as Dubai and Kazakhstan.

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