August 2, 2005 in Business

‘Mr. and Mrs. Itron’ helped raise a prodigy

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

Rob and Randi Neilson are the Spokane power couple you’ve never heard of – unless you are in the power business.

The two have worked a total 38 years for Itron Corp., the Spokane Valley maker of utility metering systems. Last week, the Neilsons announced they plan to turn off the lights in their offices to focus on the family and community activities set aside while they helped build Itron into a company with $500 million in annual sales.

The year Rob joined, 1983, Itron did $3 million in business. The company had 35 employees in cramped Post Falls quarters that doubled as offices and manufacturing plant. He had not yet completed work on his master’s degree in marketing from Eastern Washington University.

“I never imagined Itron would be the company it has become,” says Rob, who will retire as chief operating officer and president. Both titles will go dark when he leaves. Randi is vice president of marketing.

Itron Chairman LeRoy Nosbaum credits Rob with the reorganization and strategizing that lifted the company out of a business funk in the late 1990s.

Randi, he adds in an internal memo to Itron employees, did much of the branding and market positioning, including industry and government relations, that also contributed to the company’s turnaround over the last five years.

“I know of no one at Itron or elsewhere that has devoted as much of their personal time, energy and talent to work than Rob and Randi.” Nosbaum writes. “In many ways, these two are Itron.”

“They call us Mr. and Mrs. Itron,” says Randi, who joined the company in 1990 after four years at American Sign & Indicator. She was director of marketing at AS&I, one of Spokane’s pioneering high-tech companies.

In fact, the two met at Itron. They married, and together raise a 13-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter from Rob’s previous marriage. Both will be getting a lot more parental attention as Randi and Rob ease up on the long hours and frequent travel they’ve dedicated to a company and employees they call an extension of their family.

That family was ailing in the later 1990s as utility deregulation sapped earnings and forced the company to lay off 200 employees.

“That was the hardest thing on me, and I took it very personally,” Rob recalls.

“It’s hard to let a few people go for the good of the rest,” Randi says, but she adds that a gesture by Rob had much to do with a resurgence in employee morale after a drumbeat of bad news.

In June 2000, she says, Rob ordered up 66 feet of Subway sandwiches – paid for out of his own pocket – and everybody picnicked on the lawn in front of Itron’s Sullivan Road headquarters.

“That was truly a turning point,” she says.

Itron, after losing money in three of the four previous years, had turned a profit in 2000’s first quarter. Nosbaum had become chief executive officer in March. Michael Chesser, Nosbaum’s predecessor, had undertaken a restructuring based in large part on a plan developed by Rob. Itron has hardly looked back since. The company’s stock, which traded below $4 per share in November 1999, has sold recently for more than $53.

“It was really perseverance that got us through it,” Rob says. He and Randi also praise the leadership of Nosbaum, as well as the overall quality of the managers they will leave behind. Both have agreed to stay on past their formal Dec. 31, 2005, retirement dates to wrap up projects and remain available to Nosbaum and the rest of the management team.

Rob’s responsibilities will be split between leaders of Itron’s hardware and software divisions. The company has begun an internal and external search for someone to replace Randi.

“The possibilities for this company are boundless,” says Randi, noting that Itron continues to seek out new customers and new applications for its meter-reading technology.

The Neilsons say they have thought about their own futures only in outline form.

Rob, 49, already sits on the Eastern Washington University Foundation board, and next year joins the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce board. Randi, 42, is a member of the University of Idaho Advisory Board.

Both say they want to do more in the community. They have been advisers to lawmakers and regulators on energy policy, and would like to remain an information resource on the electricity and water industries. Although there have been inquiries about whether they would be interested in becoming consultants, the Neilsons say they have been too involved in their work at Itron to dwell much about their future professional careers.

“More than one-third of my life has been here,” Randi says. “We’ve sacrificed quite a bit.”

Her mother, Paula McDonald, is an author, and Randi says she may try to team with her on children’s books. Fundraising for cancer research is another possibility.

Even though their careers with Itron will soon be behind them, they do not expect to sever entirely their ties to the company. Certainly, not their emotional ties.

“We’re going to be in the front row of the cheerleading club,” Randi says.

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