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Exclusive: Who is Robert W. Truland? We take a closer look

Tuesday - 8/26/2014, 11:44am  ET

The D.C. region's largest electrical contractor abruptly shut down a little more than a month ago, forcing more than 700 employees to find new jobs and dozens of general contractors and sureties to find replacement firms to finish out the company's work.

And yet, more than four weeks later, Truland Group Inc. CEO Robert W. Truland has made no public remarks on the subject outside of a meeting of the company's creditors earlier last week. I had hoped to talk to him after the meeting, to get his thoughts on the lives Truland touched over the years, the impact its abrupt shutdown had on so many of them, and his role as chief executive presiding over the company through its final day July 21.

Truland's attorney, Whiteford Taylor & Preston LLP lawyer Christopher Jones, cut off his reply before he could get the first word out. A few more "no comments" followed as I tried to ask those same questions in other ways. To be sure, it was only my latest attempt to try to get official comment from Truland, and as a reporter, I'm used to getting no commented on stories like this one. But interviews with several Truland executives and former employees over the past few weeks have helped to form a rough sketch of the man who started working for the family business in 1960s and was elevated to CEO roughly 16 years later.

First, some surface observations from last week's appearance. Truland's expression and tone remained largely the same as question after question was posed to him. He had had weeks to get ready, and to take advice from counsel, before the creditors meeting. And he had the advantage of not having to look directly at creditors. That's because he was seated in the center of a table facing a wall, and the roughly two-dozen creditors assembled beside him except when posing questions, at which point they were given a seat at the table but not directly in front of him.

Still, his responses were brief and clinical. When it came to some questions about the inner workings of the company, he had to consult with other experts on the total number of employees the company had when it shut down and who oversaw the company's 401(k) and health plans. He even stumbled over how much he was making a week in salary before offering up $25,000.

Indeed, his interaction with Truland headquarters staff, I have been told, was minimal, with that role delegated to the heads of the company's various divisions. One member of the company's payroll staff told me that, even in the best of times, Truland wasn't one to kibitz. If that's so, he wouldn't be the first CEO or company owner to be a hands-off manager, or one that lets his lieutenants run the show.

One former employee, who sat in on the company's weekly bid meetings at which Truland also attended, described the man this way: "Not disassociated, but standoffish, very 'You don't fraternize with the employees' sort of person," said the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Rarely did you get complimented by him, but rarely would you get scolded by him, either."

Some have theorized that Truland, 71, relied too much on upper management to run the business and that was part of what led to its downfall — the people around him did not sufficiently warn him of the company's tenuous financial position. Truland himself said last week he refused to believe the company would have to shut down until it was too late. Had he known, the anonymous employee speculated, he would have taken actions to correct the company's course much sooner.

"He is, by nature, a conservative person, so I would be flabbergasted to hear he knew the risks," this staffer added. "He was very hands-off. He wasn't an electrician, he didn't go to school for electrical engineering or anything like that" and so was dependent on others for guidance.

Walter Truland Sr., Robert's grandfather, started what was then Walter Truland Electric before World War I. Robert Truland started with the company in the 1960s and took on an increasingly expanded role leading up to 1976, when he replaced his father, Walter Truland Jr., as CEO and renamed the company as Truland Systems Corp. I haven't been able to learn much about Robert Truland's early days leading the company but am open to comments from those of you who were with the company back then.

Off the job, Truland and his wife, Mary, are Germantown residents. Their 61-acre farm is assessed at about $1.3 million. Truland and his wife took out a $4.2 million mortgage on their property in May, according to Montgomery County land records, around the same time the company was said to have started working with turnaround firm Protiviti to help restructure its finances.

Philanthropically, Truland is president of The Lost & Found Horse Rescue Foundation Inc. and Mary is vice president, according to its Form 990. The Trulands posted an update to the horse foundation's website dated Aug. 4 in which they noted: "Now we come to the point where unfortunately we can no longer support Lost & Found, and we are reluctantly compelled to wind down the population, especially the horses, as they have consumed the greatest percentage of our funds." They also wrote they were "going back to our roots with a dozen or so donkeys populating the pastures."

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