Rob Perez is one of Boise's most active citizens, serving on the board of the City Club of Boise, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry and the Boise State Foundation. He's also president of the Arid Club and a recent addition to the Greater Boise Auditorium District board. Perez is also the founder, president and CEO of Boise-based Western Capital Bank, which recently merged with Northwest Bank, stretching its customer base through the Pacific Northwest.
But Perez still sees himself working behind a bench in a Mountain Home shoe shop, as apprentice to a master craftsman.
How old were you when you began making shoes?
I went to work at the age of 13. I was the only apprentice who stayed because the shoemaker was very hard on us. I was there for 10 years.
Isn't shoemaking nearly a lost art?
Masters start to see their trade as an art form and the creative process takes on a different dimension. My mentor, Ralph Turner, integrated philosophy with his business. He had a library in the back of the shoe shop, filled with books about Buddha and the writing of Kahlil Gibran. We would be making shoes and he would stop and ask me, "What do you think the relationship is between truth and beauty?"
Did you take great pride in your work?
I remember walking across the street to make our deposit into the Idaho First National Bank, and my hands were stained with dye and my apron covered with glue. I could see the tellers rolling their eyes as I walked in the door. And here I am all these years later as the president of a bank.
Did that experience inform how you see customers?
When you're serving, you're subordinating to someone, and that's a form of communion with another human being. There's no greater calling. I learned that in a shoe shop.
In your 30-plus years in banking, you've seen two serious recessions. Have you seen colleagues or friends suffer financially?
Not a week goes by that I don't get a call from someone asking to sit down and talk about his or her challenges. The struggles are less this year compared to last year, but the problems facing some businesses continue to be relatively pervasive.
You're currently sitting on the board of the Greater Boise Auditorium District (a position Perez agreed to take when Mike Fitzgerald resigned in March) but you'll need to decide sooner than later on whether you want to run for the same seat next year.
The term expires in May 2013. When they solicited me, I told them I had to see how well the GBAD board would function.
Can you appreciate that a number of citizens look at GBAD and scratch their heads?
The past two years have not included the board's finest of moments.
The board needed to see itself as a team, and I feel the board today is working very effectively. I believe we've made some significant strides by engaging with important stakeholders, which GBAD hasn't necessarily seen as partners previously. I'm talking about the City of Boise and the Capital City Development Corporation.
What's the chance of dirt being turned for a new auditorium, convention center or new meeting complex in the next five years?
For the better part of two years, that discussion hadn't really progressed.
There's a recognition today that we couldn't continue to just study, study and study. We need to make a decision if there's a need, if we can afford it and if the community supports it. If not, quite frankly, we shouldn't be collecting a 5 percent room tax.
Are you close to determining that need?
We know there's a need for more space today. But I also think the board is getting greater clarity of what we can afford. Shopping for a $1 million home makes no sense if you're only qualified for a $200,000 mortgage.
Might a new hotel be integral to any future plans for a new auditorium?
Convention goers don't like to spread out too much, so we need to have a substantial hotel presence near that space.
If you want to see those plans through, you'll need to decide soon if you want to run for another term.
If I can help because of my business and finance background, and we have an effective team, I'll feel really good about running. As it sits today, there's a high probability that I will.
Did you ever run for office before?
Only student government.
Speaking of which, I want to show you a sketch that we found in the Boise State digital archives. I think this is you in 1979.
I had pretty long hair and a mustache. I looked like a Sandinista rebel.
Who was this young man?
I don't know. He's vaguely familiar. I don't think that young man had too many plans.
Are you a proud alumni of Boise State?
If it hadn't been for Boise State, college education would have been very difficult to come by, given my economic background. Frankly, I now work in an industry that makes loans for a living, but I was always taught to be debt averse. My work in the shoe shop and as a resident adviser for all four years of college allowed me to pay for school.
As part of this year's homecoming weekend Friday, Oct. 19, you'll be honored as a distinguished alumnus.
It only means I'm getting older. Recognition is nice, but no one here at the bank knows about it.
What's your favorite part about being a bank president?
I like to solve problems. I had a client come to visit the other day and I was walking through the parking lot because I was taking the trash out. He said, "Rob, wait a minute. What are you doing?" I said, "The trash needs to be taken out."
Do you still think that you're making shoes, figuratively?
It took me a while to figure that out. The most satisfying thing I ever did was make shoes. I'm a shoemaker first and a banker second. When I came to that conclusion, it changed everything.