The Warren Group owes some of its success and longevity to its CEO falling off a mountain.
Timothy Warren Jr., current CEO of company and the fourth generation of Warrens to work in the business, has never lost his wanderlust, but he did need to take a break.
“I graduated [from Bowdoin College] and taught high school math for a year, and then decided to do some car traveling. I had worked during the summers in restaurants, mostly as a cook, so I knew anywhere I went I could find a temporary job,” he said in a recent interview reflecting on his nearly 50 years with the company his great-grandfather founded. “I crossed the country four times and drove to Guatemala to bring my college roommate back to his home country. And then it all ended when I fell off a mountain in Glacier National Park on my first day off from a summer job. My mother had to come get me in Montana. That was a little embarrassing at age 23, 24.”
After recuperating in Maine, Warren joined the company at its Boston office in 1973 at $3.30 an hour as general dogsbody – but not for very long.
“I’d been there for maybe six months or a year,” he said. “My father was pleased and he was bragging about me, and either my uncle or my grandfather told him I was grossly underpaid and I should get a raise immediately. So, I got bumped up to $6 an hour.”
Warren soon took over management of the book publishing company from his grandfather, Keith Warren. When that branch was sold in 1987, Warren’s attention turned to modernizing the data business. By 1986 technology had progressed to personal computers, a much more affordable method of storing and analyzing data than once state-of-the-art mainframe predecessors.
“The first year we had full records entered into the computer was 1987,” he said. “We started entering the data on those big five-inch disks – they were literally floppy – so we were passing floppy disks back and forth to load them into different computers and be able to print out galleys for the newspaper.”
The next hurdle presented itself in the form of assessor data. The company originally collected deed and mortgage information, but without the assessors’ description of the property, there was no way to know what the property contained.
“You’d have the address, the buyer, the seller and the mortgage stuff, but you had no idea if it was, [for example], a single-family house,” he said. “You could generally tell from the deed whether it was a condo or not, because it would have a unit number.”
Matching those records “enhanced things quite a bit. It was also very slow. We used to put out maps of where we had these enhanced data sets, we were very proud to get 30 of them. We were trying to focus on the more populous towns and cities, but then like Framingham just wouldn’t give you their file and so you’d have this hole in the map, which looked kind of stupid.”
Warren’s Top Five Vacation Spots:
- Greece. “[My wife] Sarah and I went to Athens, then the Peloponnese [Peninsula], then three islands. All but the best-known and most popular [island] were fabulous. We didn’t care too much for Santorini. It was beautiful, but there were too many people.”
- Turkey. “We spent three or four nights in an inland section of Turkey called Cappadocia. All of Turkey was great.”
- India. “We made a business trip, although only three days was actually business and we were there for three weeks, to India. That was colorful and fascinating and totally baffling, too. It’s an image that would be true for the whole country and all aspects of it. … That was a fascinating, gorgeous place, but baffling in terms of how it can sort through the chaos.”
- Morocco. “We drove to the ancient city of Fes. Fes is a walled city … It’s like a maze that we didn’t really figure out very well. But we loved it! When we went to leave, we had parked our car outside the wall. We got in the car, we knew where we wanted to go, we knew what highway we wanted to get on – we drove around for two hours and ended up exactly where we started. Sarah jumped out of the car, ran over to a taxi driver and told him that we wanted to get out of the city and go to such and such a place. He didn’t understand a word of what she was saying, but he could tell that she was distressed. So, he called a friend who spoke English, and he told he the driver what we wanted to do. He drove and we followed the taxi until we got on the clearly marked highway that we knew was going to take us where we wanted to go.”
- California. “I used to take backpacking trips with my brother Peter. We started off with three- or four-day trips in New England, but after three or four of those we realized there wasn’t anything new or different we hadn’t done together or on our own. The weather was iffy and the trails were crummy, so we started hiking out west. I think the best was, we did about 100 miles of the John Muir Trail, which is in the Sierras in California. That was absolutely gorgeous. We packed up everything we needed for seven nights and headed off on the trail.”
From that foundation came many of the products the company sells today. Still, there is no standing against the relentless tide of technology. Thus, the data was digitized and put online.
“It was a dial-in service with, I think it was called, 2400 BOD modems,” Warren said. “We had all kinds of problems. The system would go down and people would call after hours, or call me at home on weekends. The office in Framingham wasn’t staffed 24 hours a day, so we’d have to try get ahold of someone to go reset the computers – just like we still do when something goes down. “
Then came the website, “and just like every other software project we’ve ever undertaken, that took years,” he said. “It was [current employee Joe Chan] who was writing all the code, working at that time for another company. We finally got it up and running and it was very successful.”
A Long Path to Retirement
Warren began his succession planning nearly 20 years ago, when the business consultants the company hired told him, quite bluntly, that he was a micromanager and damaging employee morale.
“There was a general feeling that the company couldn’t grow with me managing the way that I had been,” he said. “I wanted too much control, I wanted to review everything and make all the decisions … and people weren’t empowered to take risks or run things on their own without my eyes right on what was happening.”
Rather than scoff at this information, as many micromanagers no doubt would, Warren took it to heart. Indeed, he was cognizant that at his current pace, he would burn out in a few years. A major restructuring of the company began, and over two years Warren reduced his direct reports from eight to one, current president David Lovins.
Warren told the board of directors – comprised then and now of Warren family members – the transition would extend his time with the company 15 to 20 years. Those two decades are nearly over, and Warren is preparing to reduce his active engagement in the company next year.
“I’m giving up the CEO role, but I’m still going to be on the payroll,” he said. “Right now, I’m full time and I’ll be 20 percent probably by the end of first quarter next year.”
As Warren transferred more responsibility to Lovins over the years, his time was free to explore the love of traveling that brought him to the company in the first place. Warren’s current Zoom background is a photo of his bookcases, packed with travel books and maps of places he’s been and plans to go.
Timeline: Real Estate and Banking’s March Through Mass. History
A Family Formed
There’s been a lot of reflection as the company’s 150th anniversary and Warren’s retirement coincide.
The Warren Group has a long history of long-term employees, as well as enduring connections made at its former headquarters in Fort Point. Many employees retire at the company, including sisters Winnie Church and Virginia Coulter, who worked there for 50 and 70 years, respectively. Coulter was the only employee to work for all four generations of Warrens.
The atmosphere and company culture at 280 Summer St. was truly special. Though Warren himself didn’t socialize much – still recollecting the micromanager accusation – the rest of the staff “worked together and played together, and enjoyed each other.”
The company has seen engagements and weddings between former staff members (now with babies); several husband-and-wife teams; friends recruited by friends; and a father-son duo. (That duo includes Bill Samatis, who “retired” and is still a contracted graphic designer who puts together Banker & Tradesman and its sister paper, The Registry Review, each week.)
It’s also hosted several boomerang employees, who worked for the company twice or sometimes three times. And there has been sadness, including deaths, divorce and one very traumatic company reorganization. But the friendships formed in the crucible of a family business endure.
“It was fun to work with my family members, and I don’t think every family business has been that lucky, to have people who are willing to let their sons or grandsons do what they wanted to do, to find their own path, to design their own job even,” Warren said. “So that was a real joy, the closeness of my father and my grandfather working in the same office. That was certainly very special.”
Cassidy Norton is Banker & Tradesman’s associate publisher, and a 13-year veteran of The Warren Group. She may be reached at email@example.com.