Published June 17, 2008
Volume 16, Number 6

Vision, Humor, and Family Propel Robert Gray and Firm to Success

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

For the past 22 years, July 4 has had a special resonance for Bob Gray. That’s the anniversary of the day he formally severed the ties to a comfortable position in the corporate world and struck off to launch Robert Gray & Associates, a Hacienda firm specializing in utility consulting and design. “It was my own personal Independence Day,” he says with a chuckle that reflects his characteristic wry humor.

Also characteristic is the fact that the move was as carefully deliberated as it was inspired by a sound vision. “I had been with another company, Rosendin Electric, since 1970, doing a similar kind of work. Some people suggested that I get into the design end of the business. After prayer and much discussion with my wife--and anybody else willing to talk--we made the change.”

The “Point People”
Gray & Associates designs and engineers the power, telephone, cable, and street light systems for new development projects. The work is both intricate and critically important, requiring expertise in a mix of disciplines--utilities, civil engineering, construction, and the regulatory environment. From his long tenure in the industry, Gray saw how he could streamline the process for developers by aggregating and integrating the disparate systems in a single-source approach.

“During the design and engineering phases, we become the point people for our clients so they don’t have to deal with the utilities and other entities independently,” he explains. “Our staff is made up of people with a variety of backgrounds. Because they bring different perspectives to a project, we are able to do a lot of brainstorming in-house, and a lot of cross-checking.” The organization obviously thrives on this kind of collaboration. “Someone is always coming up with a better idea,” he enthuses.

Recognition of individual employees’ strengths and talents has a lot to do with why the firm has done so well. “I have been lucky and successful surrounding myself with really good people,” he remarks, adding, “I’m incredibly proud of the men and women working for us. They are very hard working, with a good sense of humor—and very little turnover. You couldn’t be with a better bunch.”

Several other figures have provided a source of inspiration, professional and personal, over the course of his life. First and foremost was his uncle, Al Vermeer, a professional cartoonist, “the smartest, most interesting person to be around,” Gray relates. “He studied world events and was talking about Viet Nam back in the 1950s. He was a great intellect and had a wonderful, funny outlook on life.” Gray’s former employer, Louis Rosendin, was another strong influence. “He was a very good business leader, and probably one of the best money men I’ve ever been around. He treated me very well as an employee—but I also made him a lot of money,” he points out with a laugh. Also high on the list of people he admires is Hacienda developer Joe Callahan, with whom Gray worked as the business park was being developed. Gray singles out Callahan’s vision and enthusiasm for special praise. “A lot of what you see around Pleasanton—not just on the north end but also downtown--was Joe’s doing,” he confides. 

Gray’s concern for the human dimension of the workplace is evident across multiple fronts. “One of the reasons we’ve done well is our hands-on involvement. Our people spend a lot of ‘windshield time,’ getting out in the field and being onsite. A project involves not just drawings and files, but real people and real development. On each project we take a sense of ownership and do things the right way for the client, saving time and money as best we can. As regulated as our world is today, this is not an easy task.”

To offset some of the stress, the firm has a family-friendly orientation that encourages flex-time and gives employees rotating three-day weekends. Several engineers work remotely, whether from a home office in Pleasanton or at the north end of the Sacramento valley. “With today’s electronics, we don’t miss a beat. It’s like the person was just five feet away,” Gray comments.

A Family-Centric Orientation
Even though the extended weekends come at the cost of a longer work day from Monday through Thursday, Gray relishes the extra time it gives him and his wife Leilani to retreat to their vacation home in the Upper Delta. “This is our sanctuary,” he says. “We go up there, throw a fishing rod in the water or take out the boat, and forget about the concerns of life.” They are often joined by their four grandchildren, who range in age from 19 to almost two. “She speaks water, the little one,” he comments, and when he mentions later that Leilani grew up in Malibu and misses the ocean, the genetic link becomes clear.

Gray met his wife on her first day on campus at San Francisco State, and they continue to enjoy and inspire each other after two children and 43 years of marriage. Instead of being the exception they are the norm among their friends, most of whom appear to share their secret to longevity as a couple: “Pick the right person to begin with, and then work on the relationship,” he advises.  A sense of the give-and-take in their household emerges when he talks about another hobby, wood-working. “My wife will let me have any power tool I want as long as I make something,” he quips.

In 1965, while still newlyweds, Gray and his wife bought a house and settled in Pleasanton, lured by the then-more-affordable real estate prices. Both their children--son John, who is unmarried and living in Lake County, and daughter Teri, who indulges her love of horses from a home on the Delta--were raised here. Ten years ago, after becoming empty-nesters, the couple decided to move to Brentwood, where they built a new home in a development for seniors. They love the friendly, welcoming posture of the neighborhood. “If anyone is hungry or lonely out there, it’s their own fault,” Gray teases. They also love the physical environment, the ponds and wildlife that punctuate their golf-course view. “It’s a wonderful place to live, a lot like Pleasanton was in the 1960s, a small town that is growing like crazy, but also well run.”

Not a golfer (Leilani “dabbles”), Gray also enjoys the model railroad he built in one of the bedrooms, obviously a labor of love. “This one is probably the 12th or 13th I’ve had over my lifetime and was about eight years in the making,” he says. “It’s my own domain, but it’s here to share with the grandkids.”

Although Gray and his wife live in a senior community, they are hardly ready to dial down their active lifestyle. The firm, which “is enjoying incredible growth right now,” just moved into its third Hacienda office, with a custom floorplan and more space than before. He might spend a few hours less in the office, but he’s often out in the field on projects. “Leilani and I are fairly youthful and active senior citizens,” he remarks, and to prove his point he references the name on her wave-runner, Grammy’s Hot Rod. “I see an ongoing course in the future--no plans for retirement are imminent.”

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