AZ State Senator Bob Worsley: The Inspirational SkyMall Founder’s Take on Business, Government and a New Vision for Arizona

September 2, 2015 by Jennifer Woods
If I asked how many of you have heard of (or read) SkyMall magazine, I don’t think anyone would be left without a hand raised! But did you know that one of our very own senators was the founder and brains behind that massively successful business?  I recently caught up with Senator Bob Worsley and left our talk awed by his vision, humility and grace. A rare breed of businessman and political leader, Senator Worsley shared many of his savvy perspectives with me.

A.  Where did you grow up?

Q.  I was born in Salt Lake City but raised in Boise, Idaho. My wife is from Boise, too, and we graduated from high school together. Then I went to BYU after serving a two-year mission in South America. I know Spanish and have lived in Uruguay and Paraguay. I graduated from BYU in 1980 with a degree in accounting and went to work for Price Waterhouse Coopers in Phoenix shortly after.

What were some of your early influences?

I was always kind of an entrepreneur. I was selling newspapers door-to-door when I was 10. I started buying real estate when I was 13. I had a rental agreement with a little old lady in my trailer when I went on my mission at 19. When I came home from my mission, the trailer was paid off and I was able to sell it and some other property to buy our first home. I worked at Price Waterhouse for five years. I left after that and founded SkyMall. As a result, I was awarded Entrepreneur of the Year in 1999. The accounting work was always a side-show for me, as I was really more of a risk taking entrepreneur at heart.

How does a 13-year-old become a real estate investor?

Well, my dad came to me and said, “son you’ve saved up a couple thousand dollars. We can buy this lot close to our home. How would you like to buy it with me?” I said sure, and we put our money together. I eventually sold my interest in that and bought a trailer rental with a tenant and it was a good start to understand how the real world works.

How did your parents influence you?

I was one of seven children - I had three older sisters and three younger brothers. I was the oldest son. For some reason, I had a real interest in making money. I got a job working in hydroponics when I was young, raising tomatoes and cucumbers for a grower. I also picked strawberries and different vegetables in the fields in Idaho. It used to be the young Anglo Saxon kids did the picking instead of immigrants. I was raised in that environment and saved a lot of money to start investing. That was the environment of our home.

Were you in leadership roles when you were younger?

I never ran for anything until I was asked to run against Russell Pearce in 2012. But I was chosen to be the president of a number of different things in our church. I understood leading anywhere from 12 to 30 people. When I was on my mission, I was chosen to be an assistant to the mission president, and was responsible for overseeing 200 missionaries. I quickly rose in the Price Waterhouse office ranks here in Phoenix, and was promoted early. My work spoke for itself to the partners. But I never ran for student body president. It was always my work leading me to leadership roles.

A friend and leadership coach, Len Fuchs has stated: “Leading is a relationship, not a transaction.” Having founded SkyMall, and being a successful CEO, what does that mean to you?

Leadership is leading people - you can’t lead transactions. I suppose you can be a project leader on an IPO or some big transaction, but you are still leading people on a team. So I agree. People are not numbers on spreadsheets; they are people. If you can get their hearts and creative juices going, you will succeed. And if you are a jerk and mean to them, you are not going to get very much and will end up with an unhappy situation.

How did you get involved in politics?

I was minding my own business when I got a phone call from Jerry Lewis who beat Russell Pearce in the recall election of 2010. Jerry asked me to breakfast and I said ok. So I showed up and there were eight people there. Wow! I didn’t even know these people. We made small talk about Arizona and national politics for about an hour, and then Jerry said he had to go and get back to the senate on the floor. But before he left, he said he had one question: “We want to know if you will run for office against Russell Pearce because Jerry is no longer in the district. We need someone to run against him.” This was the end of March, talking about an August election. I said, “Wow, you don’t want me. I’m a business person. I have fired people and probably have enemies out there. I’m the last person you want to have run for office.” I contributed to campaigns – like Mitt Romney – but had no interest in running for office. They asked that I think about it and I left.

Later that day, my wife and I went to Pine, just north of Payson, for an appointment. We were about two minutes from getting out of our car after a two-hour drive and she asked what the meeting was about that morning. I said they asked me to run against Russell Pearce in LD25. And she said, “Wow. We’ve never thought about doing politics.” She said someone has to do it, or he will be right back. We had worked for 10 years with the Hispanic community through our church. My wife said we’ve protected these people, we’ve loved them, we’ve gotten to know them, we know what SB1070 did to a lot of families and the human tragedy of turning Arizona into a police state as far as the Hispanic community was concerned. Should we give this more thought?

So, I called up the guys on Thursday morning and Friday night we agreed to have dinner. Now, there were 25 people. We left the home at midnight and the last question I asked at 11:30 that night was: “Why are you here trying to convince us to do this?” We went around the room one-by-one and it was amazing to hear the stories. People they loved, people they knew, people in school, their teachers and they said this isn’t the Arizona we think it should be. So we went home and slept on it.

Saturday morning, I picked up the phone and said we would do it. The rest of the weekend we began putting together a campaign. We knew Russell was making his announcement on Monday night at a Tea Party meeting and we said if we are going to announce this campaign we need to do it before that. So at 9:00 AM on Monday morning, we put a press release out that we were running against Russell Pearce. He didn’t know who we were, where we came from. It took the steam out of his announcement. The whole day the media was trying to get a hold of me, not him. By Thursday of that week we were ready to talk to the press, had the campaign put together, website finished and it was quite an experience.

We went from having no interest and being clueless to being in the thick of the most contentious political race in the State in six days.

It is the quite the testament to you that all of these people had faith in you to run for office.

They were hopeful. It was a complete gamble (smile).

What do you see as the biggest opportunities for our state?  And, the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge for Arizona is to get on the same page about who we want to be when we grow up. We are a young state. And I’ve been very frustrated since the day I walked into the senate about the lack of vision. I know Governor Brewer had her Four Cornerstones and I’ve met with Governor Ducey and encouraged thinking about where we are going.

I have started AZ2112, which is what we will look like when we turn 200 years old. We talk about population, education, infrastructure, public safety and I’ve been trying to get traction to get our best brains around this. People are working on education for next year. But where are we going instead of one or two years ahead? I think that is the biggest thing we need as a state.

Donald Trump came here and to Alabama because he knew he could get big crowds that were anti-Hispanic to talk about his immigration plan on the border with the wall. Is that the Arizona we want to be? Is that what we are known for? Or, is this the state with the great weather, super bowls, big companies, diversity, welcoming, and engaged in successful trade with Mexico? Imagine the state of Washington going to war with Canada. We have that same size border with Mexico. We haven’t embraced who we are. I think we are adolescent, so we act impulsively and stridently. There is some decorum and vision that I would like to see moving forward.

What are some key insights you have learned along the way about working with fellow elected officials and constituents?

I’m surprised at the game playing, the backstabbing and the alliances. I would have thought coming from my background that everyone is here to do what is best for the state, self-interests aside. But there is rampant politicking going on behind the scenes. I’ve offered my skills, my time to help on several things. But because I beat Russell Pearce, I am still blackballed. It’s hard to get things done. I supported Governor Brewer’s Medicaid plan and that solidified that I am not a true conservative. So you live with this. It’s frustrating to be a talented person and not be allowed to do something with his talent. That is the greatest frustration.

In addition to serving as a state Senator, you are the CEO of NZ Legacy. Could you share more about the organization and how you became such a steward of our land? 

We own 100,000 acres of land and 1M acres of mineral rights in Arizona and New Mexico. So we are one of the largest landowners and the largest mineral rights owner in the state. These are 100, 200 and 300-year-old assets. Much like the Native Americans, we are not here just for our lifetime, but are here for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. So when I sold SkyMall and bought this business in 2002, we stopped doing some things that looked like short-term gains. For instance, they were carving up big land parcels into 30 acre parcels – no roads, no infrastructure. To me, they were just creating a huge ghetto – you see it going to Kingman. So we stopped doing that.

I wanted to wait and figure out the right thing to do with the land that would create jobs and be beneficial. I am a big believer in using wind, solar and other resources so we entered the renewable business in 2005. We are the largest producer of baseload renewable energy in the state, and sell to APS and SRP. We thin the forest and take wood chips, pine needles and bark and things that no one else can use into our plant and make electricity. We make all of the electricity for the White Mountains using forest thinning to make their forests healthy so it doesn’t burn to turn on their lights. By burning it in a boiler with bag houses and other pollution controls, there are literally zero emissions. We are taking care of the forest, the watershed, making the air cleaner, and creating jobs. We just opened the largest sawmill in the state three months ago and we are creating another 20-30 jobs cutting the lumber and using the byproducts to make electricity. We are the only ones in the state doing this.

Do you have any favorite expressions?

I love the proverbial comment that, “the people perish if there is no vision.” My second favorite saying is that “time kills deals.” You gotta go fast. If there is a marriage that seems like it’s going to work between two companies, you find that they typically don’t work out if they drag on.

You are very involved in the community. What are some of the causes you are passionate about?

I am very involved in the community. One of the causes I am passionate about is a project my wife and I are working on called Consolari. It’s a Latin verb that means to give consolation or comfort. We lost a grandchild three years ago and in that process, our daughter who lost the child became involved in singing in a choir. She learned that singing in the choir helped her be able to heal. It was very powerful.

So we have started an effort to build a large Lincoln Center West in Mesa. We just went into escrow on the 15-acre property last week. We have been working with Lincoln Center for the last three years and have put about $2M of our money into it with the idea that we will create a campus where music heals. We think it can heal our state and our communities. We will have a lot of Hispanic and Latino arts from South America and embrace the culture of Native Americans, as well as traditional high arts from Europe and the United States. We think music and the arts can be the bridge. There is a great saying that people who are singing together cannot fight – at least while the music lasts. So it is one way to have some peace.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about a career in public service?

Mitt Romney said to do public service when you don’t need the money. Because you come with a more settled feeling, you are not conflicted with job offers down the road. If you come down here and you are set financially, you tend to make more mature decisions and have a less self-interested view of everything you do. So I like Mitt Romney’s rule that you do public service when you are finished with your money-making efforts. Once you are kind of retired, then it’s an ideal time to serve because you can be more pure in your motives.

And any advice for an entrepreneur?

Things will take three times longer and cost three times more than you thought. That is my wife’s rule. Every business we have started has taken three times more money and three times more time than we thought it would take. So plan on that.

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