Published June 19, 2001
Volume 9, Number 6

Dave Rhodes Finds Rewards in Creating Success Not Only for Himself But for Everyone at Unisource 

By Jay Hipps
Network Editor 

There are as many different roads to success as there are successful people but some of these paths start out more unusually than others. For Dave Rhodes, now vice president and general manager of Unisource's Pacific Southern Market Area, being late for class is what started him on his career. 

"We had football practice in the morning and it was tough to get from the showers to class on time," he recalls. "The only class you could be late to without being severely dinged was print shop. I wasn't even interested in printing I just knew the teacher was flexible."

As it turned out, he discovered an interest in the printing business which eventually led to an interview with a printing company through a friend at school. After continuing his education through an intensive printing management program at Pasadena City College, he went to work as a sales trainee for Zellerbach Paper Company in 1974. 

He still has fond memories of his early days in sales. 

David L Rhodes"I thought selling was all I ever wanted to do. As I was out there in the territory selling, I thought 'Why would anybody ever want to give this up? This is the greatest job in the world. You get to determine your own hours, you determine your work schedule, and you determine your own success and therefore your earnings,'" he says. "It was a fabulous way for a young person out in the world to make a living." 

It wasn't long, though, before the company saw a shake-up, two senior managers left, and Rhodes was called in to fulfill that position. 

"My first reaction was, 'You guys are crazy why would I give this up?' Then I realized that this was my chance to get on the ladder early in my career, and in fact that's what happened. In my first ten-plus years with the company, I was the youngest guy in the company to do that job." 

In retrospect, it's obvious that it was a textbook career move and a wise choice. It also broadened his perspective as to all that was involved in his business. 

"If you're a salesperson, you think you're the answer to most situations and that if people left you alone, you'd be fine," he says. "When you get inside the business and learn more about all the moving parts, you learn there's a lot more to an enterprise than just the sales skills. 

"I mean, it's crucial and it's essential to have people who are proficient in that area but if the rest of the organization can't back up the promise or value proposition you don't have a business." 

He moved up in the organization quickly in subsequent years, moving from merchandising manager to marketing manager and finally division manager. He and his wife moved to Portland along the way and he watched as his company was sold first to Sir James Goldsmith and then to Mead Corporation. 

"It was real interesting. For 19 years I only worked for one company and then in about six months, I worked for three yet never changed locations." 

Once the dust settled, he was offered the position of president of the Northern California market area and brought his family to Northern California, after which he joined Unisource as vice president of marketing for their printing paper division for the western region. Following a reorganization within Unisource, he was on the move again this time, to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the company's corporate headquarters, as the senior vice president of their printing paper business. 

"It was an exciting time. I was a corporate officer when Unisource spun off as a public company," he says. 

They struggled their first two years as a public company, though, and became the target of a propane distribution firm called Amerigas. That attracted the attention of Georgia Pacific, Unisource's largest supplier, which became a competitive bidder and eventually purchased Unisource in 1998. 

Before the purchase was finalized, however, Rhodes had an opportunity to return to California. 

"I had really gone back to headquarters hoping to become the president of the company," he says. "It became evident that was not in the immediate future and so I was anxious, wanting one, to get back to Northern California, and two, to get back to line management." 

While some might see that move as a step down, Rhodes isn't one of them. 

"At corporate headquarters, you had a lot of responsibility for things on a theoretical basis, but in reality the people at the field operations really run the day to day business," he says. "Here, we can immediately see, touch, and feel the impact of our actions and our directions. In a corporate environment, it's a lot easier to become consumed with the good deed and disconnected from what actually took place." 

The feedback from that communication and leadership is what defines business for Rhodes. 

"You have to communicate your goals and the importance of every part of the organization," he says. "If you're able to do that, you bring the organization together as a team as opposed to a bunch of independent entities going in different directions."

Rhodes' attitude towards his job is very different from that of his carefree days as a sales trainee. While he still enjoys his work, he also recognizes the full impact of his work in leading a $1 billion sales organization. 

"There's about 300 employees that operate out of the Pleasanton facility it's sales people or folks in accounting, billing departments, our warehouse, and our drivers that make up our enterprise. I think of those employees as 300 families, not just as 300 people."

"To the extent that the enterprise is successful and grows, you provide new opportunities, advancements, promotions, wage increases and all the things people work to achieve." 

While that attitude may put Rhodes under a lot of pressure, it also provides him with some of the most satisfying aspects of his job. 

"Your responsibility is well beyond your own career it really is to enhance and rewards others' careers in order to make the enterprise successful," he states. "I think that's the rewarding part of business: to see people grow and develop and not only enrich their lives but the lives of others around them through the job that they do and how they perform." 

That's certainly an attitude that Rhodes' employees will respect and appreciate.

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