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Charles Rolling

Off to a New Frontier

Ten years ago, Charles "Chick" Rolling found himself out of work, having been downsized by the company he had worked at for three decades. This may not seem unusual in today's climate of constant business re-engineering, but for Rolling, it came at the awkward, in-between age of 55 -- too early to fully retire to live out his days playing golf and shuffleboard, yet too late to start anew at another high-level job.

Instead, Rolling and his wife Joan packed their belongings and embarked on a third option: moving west to Montana for a different lifestyle, one full of unforeseen adventure. While it would've been easy to live a cushy life there -- maybe with skiing replacing the golf -- he chose a path of volunteering and philanthropy that not only took advantage of his new surroundings but reconnected with his former life back east. Call it combining the best of two worlds.

Now 65, Rolling hails from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. After getting his B.S. in aeronautical engineering from Penn State University, he went to work as a flight test engineer for General Dynamics in San Diego, California installing and testing missiles for U.S. defense and space programs.

The country's defense missile program was gearing up full throttle, and Rolling worked at several Atlas missile installations going on throughout the West, taking responsibility for mechanical control and guidance systems. He worked at bases in Omaha, Nebraska; Topeka, Kansas; and Cheyenne, Wyoming. Another assignment took him to Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington -- Joan was teaching school and living there, and the two met.

As field work on the Atlas program neared completion, Rolling came back to General Dynamics' base in San Diego, where he worked in the manufacturing division. He specialized in telemetry control systems for the second-stage hydrogen-fueled Centaur rocket used in the unmanned lunar program. With activity in the missile business stabilizing, he later set out for some additional education and went to the University of California at Berkeley for an MBA.

As Rolling reports, "About the time I finished at Cal, the aerospace industry was really contracting, with the exception of the moon program." Every company besides Rockwell International scrambled for business. "It was obvious the opportunities were diminishing." He interviewed for jobs, both within the industry and outside it, and landed a position at Air Products and Chemicals at the company's headquarters in Allentown, Pennsylvania. "Air Products was a relatively small company, so it was an intriguing opportunity." Their location in Pennsylvania also lured him. Many of the gases Air Products supplied, including oxygen, nitrogen, and helium, saw use in the aerospace industry, so he had some background in the company's business.

Air Products and Chemicals had made a name for itself supplying oxygen to industries such as steel companies and became well known for supplying gases for welding and metal cutting. Now a Fortune 500 corporation with operations in over 30 countries, the company provides atmospheric gases, process and specialty gases, performance materials, and chemicals. It ranks as one of the largest suppliers of semiconductor materials, hydrogen, helium, and select chemicals.

Rolling would go on to work several jobs at Air Products, climbing the corporate ladder and venturing into areas away from engineering. First, he did analytical work in management information systems, cost engineering, and distribution as he gained managerial experience in treasury areas and controllership. Then he managed commercial risk programs, which included insurance procurement, self-insurance development, evaluation of risk, and minimization of exposure for the company's assets and personnel. He later served as an accounting and finance officer for the Cryogenic Systems Division and then the Gases Group. As director of corporate development from 1981 to 1994, he became a senior executive responsible for mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, new venture development, and planning for technology and commercial programs.

The gradual divergence from engineering didn't come from any disdain for the profession, as Rolling explains. "The company was highly technical. Ninety percent of its management were engineering types. Most of us branched out into other fields." Other engineers went into sales, human resources, marketing, planning, and similar arenas.

In fact, Rolling's last position in acquisitions, mergers, and new venture development brought some unique thrills for a technical type. "We were always at the front end of things the company was doing new. I liked that aspect of it. It also provided the opportunity to work across the company entirely. I was at the corporate staff level and had a chance to work with gases, chemicals, engineering and environmental services, new ventures, and R&D people, so it was very broad based." In all, Rolling had a hand in acquiring and divesting over 40 businesses.

Then in 1994, Air Products announced a corporate-wide downsizing. With 30 years under his belt, Rolling was eligible for retirement and financially set, so he retired. He didn't pursue another job because, he states, "I felt I wasn't going to replace the job I had." Later that year, he and Joan moved to Helena, Montana. "It was an opportunity of sorts, looking back on it, just to change life completely from urban to a much smaller community," he recalls. Joan was raised in Billings, Montana, so this would be a homecoming for her.

But rather than take up an easy retirement on a ranch, Rolling chose another route because he still had a desire to keep working and contributing, and he felt energized by the new surroundings. He launched into a flurry of volunteer work. As he explains, "There are just a number of things easy to get into, and once you're into it, you can find yourself responsible for things in a hurry. There's a little less bureaucracy involved with things. It's easy to jump in and get started."

For starters, Rolling works for United Way as a board member, treasurer, and campaign solicitor. He also helps the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), a nationwide volunteer organization that counsels, mentors, and advises small business owners. Sponsored by the Small Business Administration, SCORE has 12,000 members and 500 chapters. "I got involved and almost right away ended up as chairman of the chapter. It's a rewarding experience," he reveals.

On another front, Rolling took up skiing when he moved to Montana. "I became kind of an old rookie. It's never too late to start," as he puts it. He took it so far as to become involved with the National Ski Patrol as a ski patroller, instructor, and officer of the local patrol. He patrols at the Great Divide, a local community resort at Helena, assisting skiers who sustain injuries or otherwise need help and teaching other patrollers outdoor emergency care and how to handle a toboggan for carrying injured skiers. "It's not a big time resort, but we have as much fun as anybody."

But perhaps of all his activities, Rolling's work with SCORE relates the most to his career and brings the most satisfaction. He delights in telling how his local chapter helped a couple of engineering firms.

Principals at the Helena office of Olympus Environmental, an environmental engineering firm, sensed that the company's owner would shift focus to markets closer to the company's headquarters in western Washington, resulting in staff cuts. Three of the principals decided to buy the firm's three Montana and Idaho offices and create a new company, Olympus Technical Services. They needed assistance putting the company together and establishing an employee ownership incentive program, and SCORE helped on several fronts. Their performance has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, and today, Olympus Technical Services has 16 employees and provides a range of environmental design, remediation, and response services to the Rocky Mountain area.

Another project involved a management buyout of the engineering division of ASARCO, a major producer of nonferrous metals and specialty alloys, including copper, zinc, silver, molybdenum, cadmium, selerium, and tellurium with plants in Montana and Texas. SCORE advised on buyout terms, company structure, financing, and business planning for the new company in what Rolling calls a "very rewarding case."

As if volunteering wasn't enough, Rolling's new life next took a philanthropic turn. He and Joan had sponsored programs at Penn State before, one in liberal arts and one in engineering. He approached the deans of the respective schools about what to continue supporting or the possibility of a collaborative program between the two. The Rock Ethics Institute had formed within liberal arts in 2000. "The two deans said this might be an opportunity to use the institute to bridge to engineering and help along a program in engineering that would introduce ethics into the curriculum. It ended up an ideal thing," Rolling recalls. "When that subject was mentioned (ethics), it felt really satisfying to us."

The Rollings underwrote funding and were asked to become members of the institute's External Advisory Board. Their gift initiated a program for the school of engineering to bring experienced professionals to campus to work with faculty and students in developing a deeper understanding of ethical issues related to engineering. In workshops, faculty members learn how to integrate ethics content into engineering courses they teach.

Reflecting on his move to Montana, Rolling says with a touch of understatement, "it has worked out very well for us." He adds, "I have a nice balance in the things I do. With my SCORE work, I can stay involved with business kinds of questions. With the ski patrol work, I get involved with the physical aspect of things and being outdoors. Real community work comes with United Way. I work for the chamber of commerce at the visitor center, so it gives me a chance to visit with people coming through Montana on vacation. I enjoy each of these activities, as they are varied, involve different constituencies, require different skills, and provide much personal satisfaction."

The modest Rolling downplays the accomplishments of his volunteer work. But when you add that to his work in integrating the study of ethics into the engineering curriculum at Penn State, it becomes clear he's having far more impact than he knows in his new life. It has turned into a productive second career for someone downsized at mid-life, and a fun one to boot.


Progressive Engineer
Editor: Tom Gibson
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©2004 Progressive Engineer