Robert L. Severns, 1927-2003
Robert Severns lived with a quiet, unassuming dignity, and
passed away that way this June 17. Along the way, he built
Sierra Chemical, now a division of Scott, from a nascent
startup into a major corporation. He also conceived or
catalyzed several important foundations; raised a fine son
and daughter; and committed many acts of personal charity
and friendship and good, honest business. Any one of those
things, nowadays, is too rare. In combination, they're
The San Jose Mercury remembered him several days later.
The paper ran a 3-inch obituary that must have suited him for
its brevity and understatement. (You can view the obituary
here.) Shakespeare wrote what Severns himself would
probably consider the appropriate eulogy:
They say he summed his count and paid his score;
That much I'll say of him; I'll say no more.
Nevertheless, and despite the fact that he wouldn't want much more than that by way of tribute,
there's more that needs to be said about Bob Severns.
He grew up in central-southern Illinois, somewhere in between the Springfield home of Lincoln and the
birthplace of Ronald Reagan in Dixon. The land is flat and the summers are hot; I lived there. The people
are common-sense; helpful, but matter-of-fact. There is a Swiss lack of pretense and show. Whether by
accident or by environmental influence, this is how Severns wound up.
Graduating from the University of Illinois, with a later postgraduate degree in engineering, Severns,
after serving in the U.S. Army -- where late in his stint at Redstone Arsenal, he used his engingeering
skill to help translate some of the works of Werner Von Braun -- set out as a corporate executive. He
worked for Corning and other companies, and moved with his wife, Helen, to California in 1958.
About a decade later, in the late 1960s, Severns got a call from Sierra Chemical. He went to work
managing production for Sierra, but was soon offered the job of president and CEO. A venture capital
firm that was financing and restructuring Sierra wanted to move the company much more quickly than it
had been into a new line of fertilizers -- the osmocote line of special, coated fertilizers that work like a
time-release vitamin for plants.
Moving new products and new ideas is never easy, especially when you are selling to farmers, so the
old management can certainly be forgiven if its first several years promoting the new product mostly
involved free samples. Nevertheless, the investors were getting restless. They wanted to start seeing
sales soon, and a profit, not too long after that.
"Can you put this in the black in a year or two?," one of the VC investors -- the least sentimental and
least patient class of people this side of hedge fund managers -- reportedly asked Severns.
"I think so," Severns answered. The story may be apocryphal, but it sounds like Bob Severns. Positive,
but not promising what he couldn't deliver -- and, of course, short and to the point. "You need to be
able to explain your business in three paragraphs, three sentences, and three words," he once told me.
Severns had a gentle voice and manner that softened his size (I would guess 6-4, but his son Dave tells
me firmly that he was 6-1. Sometimes people you respect seem larger.) But he also had a glint in the
eye and a hawkish appearance that told you he was quiet not because he had nothing to say, but
because he was a sharp listener. An acquiline nose, and later in life two swoops of hair on each side of
a bald spot, reinforced the appearance of a mind capable of pouncing to the right conclusion like a
Peregrine falcon, even if his aw-shucks-I-don't-know personality was that of an Illinois farmboy.
Severns did indeed put Sierra quickly in the black. By 1971 the company's revenues eked over the $1
million mark. Over the next 20 years, they grew virtually every year. By the time he sold the firm to W.R.
Grace in 1989 for a nine-figure price, Sierra employed about 400 people, mostly in the U.S. but some
scattered around the globe, with annual revenues exceeding $70 million at impressive margins of about
He did it all without accounting gimmics or strong-arming. Or rather, Severns led it all. He was emphatic
on the point that the success of his company was a group effort. As Peter Lynch put it, "most of my
capital gets in the elevator and goes home at night." Whether he quoted it or not, that truism was a
Anyone who visisted the Sierra plant, as I did in 1990, saw this at once. I didn't meet a worker whom
Severns didn't know by his first name, nor one that didn't call him "Bob." Most of them asked how his
family was doing, and he asked them about their wife and kids, most of whom he could name.
"He was a team-builder," his long-time colleague Cleon Johnson recalls. "That was how he built the
Severns was bemused by the rise of corporate flash in the 1980s -- and surely sensed and foresaw its
inevitable by-product, the corporate excess and crashes of the late 1990s. He told me once how J. Peter
Grace descended upon the Sierra plant one afternoon during the Grace buyout.
"Greg, he came in on a helicopter, not a little one but a kind of big, military-style one. Out jumped six or
eight people in suits -- a couple accountants, several lawyers, and one or two little guys that just sort
of seemed to be his personal servants.
"It was like a visit by a prince, or the king of England. You know, I sort of wondered if they were going
to make any money on the place. I guess I figured, they're buying it, so that's up to them now."
Grace re-organized and re-sold Sierra a couple years later for a modest profit. Today, as a part of Scott,
it remains the leader in its field. Time-release fertilizers that eke out of their shell over a period of
anywhere from 10 weeks to 15 months pass out of its doors all over the world, especially for high
value-crops, like Florida strawberries or Arizona flowers, grown where the soil is sandy.
A lot of successful businessmen just retire and live the high life; others engage in an old-age splash of
trendy and ostentatious giving. Severns didn't fit into either category. He started the Severns Family
Foundation, which aided area hosptitals, schools, and the then-just-forming Alexis de Tocqueville
Institution in Redwood City. Along with Eugene Ravizza, and the late Bruce Thompson -- two other guys
so different from Severns, yet in some ways so much like him -- Severns formed AdTI's first corporate
board in 1989.
One of his early concerns was environmental policy, where Severns couldn't understand the lack of --
another Severns keyword -- "balance" in the discussion. Severns couldn't see, for example, the logic of
toxic waste cleanup law. Under these laws, a business that buys a piece of property, which had toxic
waste on it 50 years before it was bought, is now liable to clean up the site -- whether or not it knew
anything about the waste in the first place. Severns had one friend that was essentially wiped out by
this law. It never ceased to bother him.
At the same time, Severns was not against a clean environment. Indeed, his very business promoted
plant growth. He wanted reason. He was a steady voice for sanity.
Thanks to his early sponsorship of their work, such AdTI scholars as Becky Dunlop and Cesar Conda
(now the chief domestic aide to Vice President Cheney) toiled away against bad science and in favor of
sanity and balance. One result was a discussion of the need for cost-benefit analysis of regulations in
government. If a 0.1 percent reduction in some effluent triples the cost of filtering it, is it really worth it?
If a road material like phosphate slag is estimated to kill one person in 100 million from cancer, what
about the estimated 7 lives it saves in reduced highway deaths?
These were the kind of bottom-line questions that Severns focused on when he thought of public policy.
In that sense, he is, to me, a lot like the American people in general. Just a regular, common-sense guy,
who maybe thought about things with a little extra care, and turned them around to a few different
angles before making up his mind. That, my guess is, is how he'd like to be remembered.
In 1994, Congress passed a cost-benefit provision for environmental and other U.S. regulatory
provisions. The law not only did some modest direct good, even under the Carol Browning era at EPA --
it also gave state regulators like Dunlop a handy tool for resisting some of the more absurd incursions
of the federal government and state regulators and legislators. In short, the effort did some good.
Severns then turned his considerable attention to education issues. He never cared a lot for the
voucher debate, in large part, it always seemed, because the people of the voucher movement were
sometimes overbearing, preachy, and even (in a few cases) arrogant.
To be honest, I disagreed with Bob about this. It seemed to me that the whole mix needs to be shaken
up, like the post office or AT & T, before we will ever get The System, or anyone in it with power, to
listen to our polite suggestions and respectful critiques. But as anyone who ever disagreed with Bob
Severns knows, he was a pleasant man to do it with.
First of all, he didn't pretend to agree with you. He just calmly spelled out his differences. Second, there
wasn't a lot of thumping or fluff. "I don't know, Greg -- do you think that issue and those people can
During the 1990s, the typical education donor in America was a mix of Tim Draper -- the venture
capitalist who dumped $20 million into a voucher initiative in California several years ago -- and Lew
Gerstner, the high-profile IBM leader who helped restore the company to profitability by laying off
workers, and led flashy conferences of experts expatiating on "education reform" -- whatever that
Severns was almost the opposite of both. He wanted to help kids read. And he wanted not to be listed
on plaques, given awards, in a word, noticed. (Sorry, Bob, you are likely to get a Tocqueville
Statesmanship Award this year. We've been holding off only because we knew you would probably turn
down any awards while alive.)
His approach to problems like this was penetrating, but basic. It frustrated him to know that 50 years
ago, spending a fraction of what we do today for pupil, kids generally learned how to read. Today,
spending on public education has zoomed, much of the money goes into regulatory bureaucracy -- and
basic skills continue to decline. Bob Severns kept asking the same basic question: Why can't The System
teach kids to read? He patiently waited for an answer, but he didn't just wait. He did something.
Through Tocqueville and later other work, he often supported research on broader themes, but he
never lost his focus on the basic, bottom-up facts. In the mid-1990s, he discovered and took an interest
in a series of gradually-stepped readers -- small books each of which added a new letter or sound to a
student's vocabulary. The readers not only incrementally built up basic skills from a to z, as it were, but
allowed for measurement and verification -- Johnny is up to # 27 and has passed the test, Julie is up to
#31, and so on.
When one school, Cesar Chavez Elementary, grudgingly implemented the program for a year, reading
scores improved from 15 percent of students at grade level to more than 30 percent. I asked Severns
how he felt about that. He told me he was disappointed. I said, "Bob, 15 to 30 is not bad." But Severns
wanted to do better. What would make you happy, Bob? "I don't know, I guess 100 is unrealstic but I'd
like to see 70, 80 -- you'd think something well over 50."
I still think Bob should have taken a little more heart in taking something from 15 to 30. But it speaks to
his Joe-Friday like persistence that it bugged him so much it wasn't a 70 or an 80.
Severns thus not only had an engineer's and businessman's affinity for figures and definite
measurements, but, one might suggest, an idealist's inclination to aim high. His politics were
conservative, by today's lexicon, but of a moderate sort. Bob Severns was practical more than a
preacher, an idea man but not an ideologue.
In recent years, Bob Severns was involved in starting the Lexington Institute, an important voice on a
number of policy areas, especially military and security issues, in Arlington, VA. He became close friends
with an old close friend of mine, in fact my best man, Mac Carey -- a bright and well-organized fellow
who helped give me my start in politics in 1982, as I later gave him a start in the think tank business in
1993. It was a pleasure to watch the two of them become friends. I do not think it was too much to say
they loved one another. Watching them on military junkets, one would have thought they were a couple
of fraternity brothers.
There's a tendency to talk about someone as if the most important things in their life all involved you.
Then again, you talk about the things you know. These observations concern events that took up
maybe one percent or less of Bob Severns's life. Yet I feel I knew him well, and understood the man at
the core. I hope those who knew him the best feel this is not an inaccurate or ungenerous portrait, and
I trust Bob himself will not accuse me of "going a little overboard."
Some years ago, another good friend of mine and Tocqueville's, Bruce Thompson passed away. (Now
there is only Gene Ravizza and me, from a group that also included Severns, George Champion, and
others.) Bruce, more of a genius and innovator than a manager, left a confused tangle behind at his
business, Pacific Western. Like Sierra, it was a well-conceived operation, owning properties in such
then-low-priced cities as Denver and Portland, but somehow, it kept struggling to get liquid.
Severns was happy to jump in with Ravizza and get the operation back on a stable footing. It would be
too much to say that it was a major turnaround story. But it survived. How many real estate trusts did
that in the last 20 years? This was an act of charity as much or more than an act of business. It said a
lot about the character of both these men, and friends, that they were willing to take on this task. I
know that Bruce's wife Sue, and their children, benefited greatly from Bob's helping hand, and are
It is said that the virtuous man is one who does the right thing when he thinks no one is watching. Bob
Severns led his life that way, doing the right thing, but not for display, and in fact, generally, as silently
and unobtrusively as possible. He leaves behind a fine son and daughter, and grandchildren; good
friends, good works, and good causes -- in short, a lot more capital and wisdom and general good
feeling than he consumed, or than was here when he started.
They say he summed his count and paid his score;
That much I'll say of him; I'll say no more.
-- Gregory Fossedal
Supporting education with
a focus on early literacy