High Risk, High Return

Robert Cawly’s career has taken twists and turns that he couldn’t have predicted when he started as an accountant more than 30 years ago. Cawly (BSAC ’76) has applied a unique skill set as an innovator, visionary and big-picture thinker to launch and grow a number of successful ventures.

The decisions he made along his career path might not be the same as those looking for a safer, more predictable route. Cawly says he’s never opted for easy choices. He typically sought out a challenge or an outlet to use his abilities in a new way.

“A lot of the decisions I made were based on how to apply the skills I developed over my career,” he says. “To be successful, you have to be a quick study, know how to diagnose a problem and put corrective actions in place.”

Cawly has many characteristics of innovators in business. Gina O’Connor, an associate dean at the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, studies innovators and says people like Cawly are passionate about what they do and often very persuasive about new ideas or ventures.

These business innovators “feel more of a sense of control over their lives than many of us,” says O’Connor, the author of the book “Grabbing Lightening: Building a Capacity for Breakthrough Innovation.” “They’re looking for what they want to do in this world and they have the self-confidence that they can make it happen.”

Stepping Off the Career Ladder

After serving as a U.S. Marine during the Vietnam War, Cawly began his post-military service in accounting for the federal government. He attended Strayer University in the mid-1970s and took a job at Price Waterhouse & Co. He earned his CPA license, made partner in 1986 and became deputy to the vice chairman in 1989.

Though he was successfully climbing the ladder, he made a bold decision to move to Dun & Bradstreet Corp. as chief operating officer and senior vice president of its technology division, where he oversaw a sophisticated analytics system used to determine whether businesses were likely to succeed. Through his work, he established contacts with investment capital firm Safeguard Scientifics and its CEO, who invited Cawly to pitch a business idea.

In 1994, Cawly says he wrote up a one-page business plan, proposing a company that could increase the worth of its business IT investments using a value-sourcing method he created. He left the meeting with a 50% joint venture with Safeguard and a strong endorsement of his model.

The decision to leave the security of Dun & Bradstreet wasn’t hard, Cawly says, “Although my wife told me I was nuts for leaving … and then nuts for mortgaging the house,” to finance his new business. But by the time his new company was three days old, Cawly had secured two new Fortune 500 customers and half a million dollars in contracts. In 2000, Safeguard sold the company well beyond the initial investment.

“You have to be cognizant of the risk, but you can’t be consumed by it. People are often so consumed by risk that they never challenge themselves.”

Cawly then launched Executive Venture Partners, an advisory firm providing business planning and investment funding to entrepreneurs. His clients were major universities, national research laboratories and multi-national corporations looking to increase the value of their intellectual patents by starting new ventures. After seven years there, Cawly was convinced by his business partners to return to his operations roots and took a job as the vice president of operations and technology for Northern Power Systems, a wind turbine manufacturer. It didn’t matter that Cawly knew nothing about wind turbines, he says. He knew how to run a business. “I wanted to see if I could run a company again,” he says. “It’s a lot different doing it yourself than advising people how to do it.”

The TakeAway

Throughout a career of never playing it safe, Cawly has developed some strategies for innovative business decisions.

Take risks: Cawly rarely took the safe route in his career, but he says what might look like a perilous career choice to others didn’t feel that way to him. “I don’t look at these decisions as risks,” Cawly says. “I look at them as opportunities.”

Do your homework: “At his core,” says Tom Ramunno, CEO of computer firm NEO.Perses, who has worked with Cawly and considers him a mentor, Cawly “is an accountant.” That means he approaches his ventures and his work with “the rigor of accounting,” whether it is a multimillion-dollar deal or a small baseball memorabilia company that Cawly recently started. “He does his homework and he runs the numbers,” Ramunno says.

Don’t be afraid of failure: Confidence in your own talent is key, Cawly says, but it’s also important to remember that you don’t have to have all the answers: you can learn on the job or find someone who knows the topic. “A lot of people say entrepreneurs are born, but it’s a taught skill,” he says. “It really is about how you deal with issues that have the most to do with your success.”

Win people over: John J. Norton, the vice president of strategic sourcing at Raytheon Company, who has hired Cawly as a consultant, says his ability to both develop and execute strategy wisely puts people in his corner, even when he’s an outside consultant. “Bob can get people to believe in the goal, to show them what needs to be done and how to do it,” he says.

Challenge yourself: Cawly says he finds it important to test his own abilities and strengths and to consistently ask himself if he is being challenged. “You have to be cognizant of the risks, but you can’t be consumed by it,” he says. “People are often so consumed by the risk that they never challenge themselves.”