They say the wheels of government move slowly, but Bob Francis’ new corporate employer moves quickly.
Francis started work Thursday for Hood River Juice Company, just three days after resigning as Hood River city manager.
“I am really excited about this opportunity,” Francis said of his new job as chief operations officer for the fast-growing Hood River company.
“We believe that hiring exceptional employees is the key to the continued success of the company,” said CEO David Ryan.
“We see value in Bob Francis as an outstanding individual and someone who will be a great asset to the growing needs of Hood River Juice Company.”
“I’m excited to go to work there,” Francis said. “It’s one of the fastest-growing employers in Oregon, and maybe it’s part of the grieving process. On May 4 I lost my dad and I was never able to grieve, and then lost my job — and I was part of that — and I grieve over that; but I’m excited about this opportunity.”
Francis started work for Hood River nine years ago, after coming from Stroudsburg, Pa. He announced his resignation from the city June 24, effective July 8, citing difficulties working with Mayor Arthur Babitz and other council members.
City Council called a special meeting July 3 to discuss a possible mediation plan, which it presented to Francis in regular session July 8, but Francis declined and said that night he would resign and work with the city in a transition plan, saying he did not trust Babitz and doubted most council members were sincere in wanting to make changes in how they relate to the city’s management and the rank and file.
(Francis has been back to city hall at least once since July 8 to assist Planning Director Cindy Walbridge.)
He had asked council June 24 and again July 3 if it wanted him to remain as city manager, and none of the elected officials answered the question directly, placing their answer within the framework of a pending personnel matter and pursuing a potential mediation process — one that would never take place.
July 8 was a tearful evening for Francis, and he still speaks of “grieving” for the end of a job he loved with the City of Hood River, but his unemployment lasted less than 72 hours. On July 5, Ryan called up Francis and asked to meet, and two days later Francis agreed to a job offer.
“He was ‘out’ but now he is definitely ‘in,’” Ryan said, referring to the July 10 “Francis is out” headline in the Hood River News.
Ryan said he watched matters unfold and what resonated for him was Francis’ statement to the council to let him know if they did not want him so he could find employment “where my talents are recognized and appreciated.”
“He asked the question over and over: ‘Do you want me as your city manager?’” Ryan said Thursday. “They had their chance to answer, and all they had to say was, ‘Yes, Bob, we want you as city manager; we have some things to work on but we do want you,’” Ryan said. “But they didn’t say that, and they don’t know what they’re missing. A really great asset was sitting right in front of them, and they did not see it.”
Ryan had attended both meetings, and was among those who testified in support of the city keeping Francis, pointing to the “strange bedfellows” phenomenon of both he and Hood River attorney Brent Foster joining others in calling for Francis to stay.
Several years ago it was Foster, representing Friends of the Gorge, who pursued a successful lawsuit against Ryan’s company over effluent issues at the company’s former facility on Country Club Road. (The company has since moved its production to a facility at the Port.)
“I did not want to take him away from the community,” Ryan said, “but they (the city) were willing to let him go; I know how valuable Bob Francis is to the whole community, and I knew I wanted him to be in place where he can continue to serve the community.”
When asked if the job was in the works prior to his resignation, Francis said it was “out of the blue,” but acknowledged that last fall he had joked with Ryan, when the juice company was dealing with an issue with its effluent, that he should hire Francis as a consultant.
“So, months ago it was kind of like a joke but it keyed in his mind that if there was ever an opportunity he would make the opportunity happen,” Francis said.
In addition to his job, Francis has served as president of Rotary, board member for United Way and Tsuruta Sister City program, and on the board of the Columbia Center for the Arts, among other volunteer roles.
Now, one of the most familiar faces in local government embarks on a new role in the private sector.
Francis said he will miss the 54 people he worked with at the city, “including the parking tickets issue.”
“I went from college into the Army and from the Army immediately into government work,” Francis said. “Since 1978 I’ve worked for government, including the past 20 years in city management, and this is going to be a really cool thing.
“Although I expected to retire with the city, now I will retire with Ryan Juice. In some respects it makes me more well-rounded.”
Francis said, “What I think would be good about that is once I learn how to make juice, I think the shift is going to be pretty much the same as city management: I’m still running a big operation that still deals with infrastructure, and still deals with employees.
“I think the change is that I’m not working for seven; I’m working for one, a president and CEO, and once I know the operation it gives (Ryan) the advantage to leave and pick up other customers and whatever else he can do to bring in more business, and he leaves someone to run the operation — not that it has not been running well, because he has an excellent operation and excellent employees; but when he’s somewhere else he doesn’t have to worry about good decisions being made.”
But first Francis has to learn to make juice.
“I gotta learn about that, about transportation issues, and I think it’s part of my job to start going out to the county and get a hold of successful orchardists and know the product we’re bringing in, and go to Duckwall-Pooley or wherever David is getting his product, and ask, ‘How does all this fit together?’ I need to take a look at that and understand everything. To me that’s pretty exciting because I’m learning something new.
“In my time at the city, there were times people would tell me, ‘You just don’t understand private business,’ and now, I will get a first-hand look at the corporate world,” Francis said.
Francis said Ryan pointed out that the company “is like a small city” in that “we have our employees, our infrastructure, our problems and our pluses.”
Francis’ first two tasks with Ryan’s Juice were to meet with production managers, and then with officials of the Port of Hood River. Francis hopes to use his positive relationship with Port Executive Director Michael McElwee as a bridge with his new employer.
“One of the things that distresses me about leaving the city is the incredible partnership between myself and Michael and (county administrator) David Meriwether,” Francis said. “We have been able to do things that had never been able to be done in the past, and that’s one of the things I feel bad about when I left.
“I think the special relationship Michael and David and I have is just terrific, and I hope the next (city manager) that comes in will do the same. It was one of the things that not a lot of people realize; the partnership we formed enabled us to really get a lot of work done.
“Although I am going on to something else, I will still have the partnership and with Ryan Juice and the port they have to work hand-in-hand, and I’m excited to be able to talk to Michael and David in a different venue.”