The Fixer. That’s not the title on his business card. It should be.
At 83, still active in his management consulting firm, Bob Bliss built a long and successful career based largely on reviving lost causes, both in business and higher education.
A name familiar to Charlestonians, he served two high-profile stints in Charleston, first to resurrect foundering Morris Harvey College in the mid-1970s and later to boost the business division and MBA program at the subsequent University of Charleston.
His rise to academic prominence started at his alma mater, Adrian College in Michigan, where he created a thriving alumni program.
After Army duty, he landed at Michigan State, where he organized the country’s first and largest National Merit Scholars program. Next, he responded to a call from Northern Michigan University to bolster lagging enrollment. Mission accomplished.
He eventually oversaw Merit Scholarship programs in the nation’s colleges, saved a diesel distributorship company, started his own diesel components re-manufacturing plant and, 30 years ago, opened his consulting firm.
Remembering a shy, undersized farm boy with a severe stutter who rode a pony to a one-room school, he marvels at his success.
Bravely enrolling in college speech classes, he overcame the speech impediment through song and sheer determination. Even then, he was a fixer.
“I was born in Adrian, Michigan. We lived in the city, but when I was 6 or 7, my dad decided he wanted to be a farmer. He was a mailman and mom worked in a plant building B-24s for the Air Force. They decided to keep their jobs and move to a 180-acre farm about eight miles outside of Adrian.
“I learned to drive tractors at the age of 9 or 10. Mom was in charge of 500 chickens for laying eggs. Dad had to milk the cows every morning and get milk ready to be sold, plus the plowing and everything else that goes with a farm.
“I had a pony named Jerry. I rode my pony to my one-room school. I learned a lot in that one-room school. I fell in love with reading because my teacher would force us to read.
“I stuttered severely. I couldn’t say three words. When we sold the farm and moved back to Adrian, I had to go seventh grade. All of a sudden, I got into this huge school and I’m this little short kid who can’t talk. There was a lot of harassment. Kids can be cruel.
“My dad wanted me to go to college. I said I was going to work at the post office where I wouldn’t have to talk to people, just put the mail in the box.
“My dad said if I didn’t go to college, I had to move out of the house and find a job. I didn’t like that. The guidance counselor sent my application to Adrian College.
“The president was our speaker at graduation and he started announcing scholarships to Adrian College. My name was called. I wasn’t a brilliant student. I was amazed.
“My adviser said I could choose two elective courses. One was introduction to speech. I said I would take that. I don’t know why I do these things.
“In speech class, the first thing you do is stand up and talk about yourself for about two minutes. There were 15 students. I was the 13th to speak. My two minute talk probably took 15 minutes. Afterward, the teacher said, ‘Are you sure you want to take a speech class?’ I’m very competitive because that made me mad. I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ I ended up minoring in speech.
“It dawned on me that the one time I did not stutter was when I sang. In high school, I played trombone. I ended up playing trombone in a dance band. During rehearsal one day, just for fun, some of the kids started playing a song and I got up and sang.
“I decided if I could sing and not stutter, I would write all my speech class speeches and in the bathroom or wherever, I would sing four or five lines before I started stuttering again. After a while, I could speak the whole page without stuttering too bad.
“I majored in business but took all the speech courses Adrian had to offer. I announced all the football and basketball games my last two years in school. I gave talks to local clubs. I was vice president of the student body.
“An insurance company and a bank wanted to hire me. Our new college president asked about my plans after college. I said it was up in the air. He said, ‘How would you like to stay here and be assistant to the president?’ That sounded better than bank teller.
“My full title was assistant to the president in charge of alumni relations and student services. They didn’t have an alumni office. He wanted me to create one.
“The first year, we had five alumni groups set up outside the state. We had a capital fund drive. I wrote the alumni magazine. I had student orientation and orientation for the parents.
“Then Uncle Sam tapped me on the shoulder. I went in in June of 1957. There were 180 of us in Detroit from all over. They told us we were all going to the Far East, which meant Korea or advising a little country called Vietnam.
“We ended up in Fort Polk, Louisiana. I had qualified for Officer Candidate School and pilot and helicopter training. If I accepted any of those, I would have to be in the military for eight years. The college said they would hold my job. So I just decided to be a private and go through the two years. Most of our training was how to kill people because they knew where we were going.
“I went to Arkansas for administrative and more combat training. The last week, they wanted us all in the auditorium to read off orders. Everyone called was going to the Far East. The last day, there were three of us left.
“The base commander said, ‘Bliss, I don’t know who in the hell you know, but you have been assigned to NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs.’ It blew me away.
“I was told to meet Maj. Faulkner on Monday at 9 a.m. The major said I was scheduled for an interview with Gen. Francis Uhrhane. He said, “Don’t forget your military protocol: ‘Sir, Private Bliss reporting.’ ”
“The general was sitting behind a desk in this huge office and Maj. Faulkner saluted. I walked around the desk, shook the general’s hand and said, ‘How do you do, sir. I’m Bob Bliss.’ Maj. Faulkner about had a heart attack. The general just stood up and said, ‘I’m Francis Uhrhane, have a seat.’
“My job was to sit outside his office and oversee all incoming and outgoing messages worldwide. I had high security clearance. It was a great job. I played basketball with the base team and traveled all over the country, played football and played golf with the general.
“I was back to Adrian in admissions for about two years when I got a call from Michigan State. They hired me as associate director of admissions. We created a National Merit Scholars program, the first in the country. We ended up with 800 Merit Scholars at Michigan State, which created a lot of interest nationwide.
“I got another phone call, this one from the president of Northern Michigan University in Marquette. He said they had a problem. The school is up near Lake Superior. Nobody wants to go there because it’s cold. They wanted me to create a formal admissions and financial aid office.
“We took it from 4,000 to 8,000 students in four years and started the Merit Scholar program and averaged about 15 Merit Scholars coming in.
“The National Merit Scholarship Corp. asked me to come to Chicago and head up a National Merit Scholarship program in colleges. Since we started it in Michigan, other schools were doing it but with no oversight. I was the guy who said yea or nay to the college that wanted to sponsor Merit Scholarships.
“After two years, the Merit board elected me corporation vice president and asked me to work with Fortune 500 CEOs to get them involved in employee-child scholarship programs that their companies would sponsor.
“A headhunting firm called and said they had a private college in difficulty and asked if I would be interested in looking at a college presidency. I keep getting phone calls. I rarely apply for a job, which is kind of cool.
“They said it was a little school called Morris Harvey College. The faculty hadn’t been paid. Students and faculty were leaving. They offered it to the state free of charge and the state turned them down.
“Two other people they’d interviewed for the presidency walked away, but I said I would take a look. I was getting bored. Everything I was doing at National Merit I could do on the phone.
“If anything, the problems were understated. This was 1975. The board chairman said not to worry about raising money, that he was going to do that. I started working hard with the faculty and the townspeople.
“We had it going pretty good, but the faculty wasn’t happy because no money was coming in. I called 10 people I knew who were presidents of their corporate foundations. I invited them to come see the college. All 10 accepted. I had them here all weekend. Saturday night, I asked them if they would be amenable to looking at a $1 million grant from their foundation for Morris Harvey. They all said yes.
“I was so happy. But the board said we weren’t going to take the money, that those people would want to come in and run the college and that was the trustees’ job. I knew then I was dead.
“One of the trustees asked if I was married to education. I said I’d gotten into education on a fluke, that my degree was in business.
“He said he had a business, but he was a salesman and not a businessman. He asked if I’d come help. I resigned from Morris Harvey and went to work as vice president for Everett Call. He had a Detroit Diesel-Alison distributorship, R.C. Call, seven branches in four states.
“After about a year, the company was going bankrupt. Sales were up 25 percent, but expenses were going up 50 percent.
“The bank was going to shut it down. Everett had suggested that they let me become president of the company. I took it from a $1 million loss to almost a $2 million profit in 15 months.
“I was making money for them, so why not make it for myself? So I bought the company. A year later, I started a second company, Bliss Enterprises. We remanufactured diesel engine components. Within three years, we were doing about $8 million in sales.
“After about 10 years, I sold them both and hung out my shingle as a management consultant. I’ve been working for colleges and universities, corporations and businesses large and small for the last 30 years.
“I ran into [UC president] Ed Welch and said that I’d like to come talk to a business class. He gave me a date. When I got there, he said I was going to talk to the new provost, Charlie Stebbins. We hit it off.
“He said the business division was having problems. Would I like to be chairman of the business division? They also had an executive management master’s program that was dying and he wanted me to take that on, too. I started that Friday.
“After four years, I had graduated over 400 executives. I was there from 2005 to 2010.
“Everything I’ve done has been by accident, meeting the right people at the right time. The ability to cross-learn between education and business has been a real asset. If you can manage people you can manage any company. I’m a nut on the people side of business.
“Imagine — I was the shortest guy in class in high school. I stuttered. I was just going to go work for the post office and stay out of the limelight. Some of my friends say I’m the luckiest person they’ve ever met.
“I’ve been married to Susan for 41 years. I’ve got great kids and grandkids.
“I’m never going to retire. There’s always something to do. I want to live to be 100 and still be going the way I am now.”