“My father always said don’t go into business with your family, it’s a bad idea,” ad executive Rob Buchner told me over an early breakfast at Hotel St. Giles in Midtown Manhattan.
Growing up in a third-generation baker’s family in Aurora, Illinois, Rob watched his dad work in the small confines of a hot kitchen that he ran with his four brothers.
Rob and his older brother Mike, 50 and 52, respectively, paid no heed to their father’s warning. In 1989, Rob allowed himself to be wooed away from ad agency Campbell Mithun to work on the Porsche account at local competitor Fallon, which happened to be his brother’s workplace of five years.
“I was unsure whether or not we should be working for the same company,” Rob said, “but really the idea of working on Porsche was just too seductive for a 25-year-old guy who likes cars.”
So the Buchner boys worked side-by-side in the halls of Minnesota-based but internationally renowned Fallon, which has worked on clients including United Airlines and until recently, Cadillac. But two years ago the hierarchy changed and Rob began answering to Mike in his new role as CEO.
Rob, of course, said he “couldn’t be happier” when his brother got the job and that it was the “obvious choice” given his five more years at the agency and “very deep, father-son like relationship” with co-founder Pat Fallon, “but I [still] wanted to run a company,” Rob said.
So now he is.
For the first time in 24 years, the Buchner brothers are parting ways. Rob is going literally one block away to take on the role of CEO at a different ad agency. He’s going back to lead Campbell Mithun.
“From my old office at Fallon, I can look across at my new office at Campbell Mithun, a block away,” Rob said. Waking up at 3 in the morning to work in the bakery every weekend since the age of 9 has completely killed his taste for sweet menu items. It also programmed his body to wake up before 5 every day without an alarm.
That latter is going to serve Rob well as he overhauls Campbell Mithun’s image from local Midwestern shop to “dominating national force that competes broadly for major, major business.”
With his kids already grown, this is the new baby and there’s no time for relaxing. No matter, though. Rob has only taken one two week vacation in 28 years.
The “One Buchner In A Room At A Time” Rule
When Rob’s move was announced earlier this summer, the press angled it as brothers facing off to helm rival agencies.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be the head-to-head competition that everyone would like to believe that it is,” Rob said.
And in spite of their close proximity, Mike noted that he “couldn’t remember the last time Campbell Mithun and Fallon were in a pitch together … but we’ll be in it to win it if we’re in it.”
To Rob and Mike, their journey seems a whole lot less dramatic and exciting than the outsider might think it is.
“I’m sorry to disappoint, but Mike and I have never been competitive with one another or else we wouldn’t have been able to coexist within the same company for 24 years,” Rob said. “I can’t think of a single time where we’ve had major, major conflict.”
In fact, it seems as if they barely even saw each other most of the time at the agency.
The two brothers started down a similar account management path, but that meant that they each dealt with their own portfolios individually. They also developed different niches within the industry, Rob continued. Mike became immersed in the operations and finance aspect whereas Rob was a front room, business development guy.
“The truth is there were probably some points there, you know, in the ’90’s when we didn’t see each other for weeks at a time,” Rob said.
“Literally for the first 15 years we worked together we didn’t really cross paths,” Mike said. “We’d see each other at office and agency functions, but we had our own accounts to manage.”
And according to Rob, “Fallon is not a lunch culture, never has been.”
As the company grew from approximately 75 to 600 employees, gaining offices in New York, Hong Kong, and Sao Paolo, their interactions were limited virtually until the end when Rob began to report to Mike.
And even then, checks were put in place.
“Mike and I were never in the same pitch room together,” Rob said. “We always said only one Buchner in a room at a time.”
The rule was instated to make sure that the clients never felt awkward or ill at ease regarding their relationship, although Rob added, “It was probably more us than them.”
“After working together for so long, we probably take for granted how unusual it is to have two siblings who are CEOs in the same city,” Mike said.
Is There Only Brotherly Love?
Boring as brotherly love sounds, Mike and Rob insist that among the four Buchner brothers — one is also in the marketing world while the other works in finance — there was no bullying or rivalries. They credit good parenting and a strong foundation in sports, primarily baseball and football, for their functionality and ability to peacefully work as a team.
“I know it’s kind of hard to believe,” Mike said. “Neither one of us even pursued each others’ girls.”
Although considering that Rob has been with his wife Leslie since he was 16 and Mike has been with his wife Margie since high school, too, that’s pretty credible.
All four brothers studied at the University of Illinois, and even though Rob and Mike were both in the same frat, ATO, at the same time, Mike assured me, “I recused myself from hazing my brother … I wasn’t directly involved.”
Mike and Rob live close by, have overlapping friends, take joint vacations — they even designed and built a home together in the woods.
Here’s What They Disagree About
Even after chipping away at their positive Midwestern demeanors, the snarkiest they ever got towards one another was when the issue of lawn maintenance — that’s right, lawn maintenance — came up.
Here’s how the Buchners think they’re different:
Rob: “I like the chainsaw, tending to our pool and gardens. Mike hasn’t cut his lawn or shoveled snow in 20 years.”
Mike: “I have a lawn service and he makes his wife and kids do the lawn. I don’t think that he’s doing the lawn cutting.”
Rob: “Ask Mike about the NFL — he’s a highly technical fan. He’s a rabid Bears fan. On every Sunday of the season he’s in his mancave from 10 until 10 glued to DirectTV Sunday Ticket. Me, I’m on a lake casting for Muskie or cycling.”
Mike: “I’m loyal to my NFL team. He might be a Vikings fan if he’s in the playoffs, but if not he’s less so. I’m a Bears fan through and through.”
Mike: “He’ll take the farthest spot in the parking lot so he doesn’t get his door dinged, but I’ll take the closest one to the store. He’s more particular than I am.”
Their approach to problem solving differs, too. “I might be a little more patient and he might be a little more impatient,” Mike said. And that will impact how they lead differently.
“Mike is a very contemplative executive,” Rob said. “He is a great listener; he’s soft-spoken. And that’s a rare quality in this field. There’s a lot of blustery bullshit which I think we’ve always pushed off against. I may put myself out a little further than Mike. I might embrace a little more personal risk in what I say and how I do things. And that’s ok.”
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