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Down to Earth

Turnaround expert Bob Rolfe is now Tennessee's Commissioner of Economic and Community Development

Bob Rolfe
Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development

Bob Rolfe has never forgotten one of his first jobs: ditch-digger. Vanderbilt University was dropping cable across the campus, and Rolfe was part of the crew that dug the trenches. “In some cases, we had machinery,” he recalls. “In other places, it was the good, old-fashioned shovel, straight into that limestone.”

Rolfe’s career as an investment banker might have seemed a world away from the manual labor of his early jobs. In 18 years with J.C. Bradford & Company, he executed more than 200 transactions with a combined value in excess of $1.5 billion. But when Bradford was sold, Rolfe and hundreds of others “had to go reinvent ourselves,” he says. “The world changed, and we all retired our suits and put them in the closet.”

He spent the next 15 years building a reputation as an expert in turning around small, struggling companies. “The common denominator was that they were underperforming, underachieving, undercapitalized, under-everything,” he says. One was a healthcare information services organization. Another handled Medicare Part B claims processing. Another dealt in office products. Then he served as CEO of Medical Reimbursements of America, which provides specialty reimbursement solutions to improve the performance of hospitals.

It wasn’t ditch-digging, but it was hard, roll-up-your-sleeves work. Ultimately, Rolfe reversed the fortunes of each of his companies and successfully sold them.

His experience made him a logical choice when Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam asked him to serve as the state’s Commissioner of Economic and Community Development — a position he continued to hold under Haslam’s successor, Bill Lee.

Dealing with large, international companies, Rolfe says, meant that he started wearing suits again. But he’s still as down-to-earth as always. “I don’t have any fancy profile,” he says. “I’ll always be ‘Bobby.’”