Departed Sierra Bravo leader Bucklin leaves legacy of leaders

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 7, 2010 - 8:20 PM

Bucklin made everyone at the company 'co-presidents.'

Luke Bucklin

Photo: Dick Youngblood, Star Tribune

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Mike Derheim is the new CEO at Sierra Bravo Corp., the fast-growing Web-development firm he helped start in 2003.

Derheim, also senior vice president of operations, accepted the post sadly and reluctantly.

He succeeds Luke Bucklin, 40, his friend and co-founder who was killed late last month in a private plane accident in the mountains of Wyoming. The accident also claimed the lives of three of Bucklin's children.

Derheim, 35, will not succeed Bucklin as president. That title will go vacant at the company, which is one of Minnesota's fastest-growers of the past couple of years. It's added 50-plus jobs, to 160 total, this year alone.

In a note a few weeks ago, Bucklin cited the rapid growth of Sierra Bravo's "Nerdery" Web-design business and voiced his concern that it retain a culture of fun, collaboration and casual.

"I remember a day when there were no managers, no directors, no coordinators and no specialists," Bucklin said in the blog post. "Forget about your titles. Put your business card on the desk in front of you. Look at it. I am here to tell you that this is not your title. This card does not define you. You are a co-president. You are bigger than your defined role, and you are much more than your job title. Play your part. Transcend your title. Be a hero."

Luke Bucklin's legacy may be that he made everybody president.

"Luke believed strongly in empowering people, Derheim said. "He always said if you do the right thing, trust people and spread the leadership, that the right things would happen. We would succeed."

On Friday, Derheim told the troops that he had been selected by the six-member executive team as the new boss.

"Luckily for all of us, a good idea was hatched for succession planning," Derheim told the troops. "One that includes you. Luke's vision of co-presidents emerging from every corner of The Nerdery has already been realized. We've seen it in the great many of you, whether you glimpsed it or not. We need to see you owning this leadership role ... from here forward ... We really do."

Laura Dunham, associate professor of entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas business school, said there's no reason why Sierra Bravo cannot continue to be successful without Bucklin.

"There's little research on this particular topic, but that's not that important," Dunham said. "Bucklin had a strong sense of the culture and the kind of people he needed and about trust and collaboration. His people are aligned with those values. They have their processes in place. He was not somebody wrapped up in being 'The Leader.' It sounds to me like he was somebody who perpetuated the culture and laid the groundwork for a business that can continue to flourish."

It was Bucklin who in 2003 persuaded his co-founders to quit working for somebody else and join him at what he was sure would be an innovative company and a great place to work.

The three, Bucklin, Derheim and Mike Schmidt, all high school graduates and college dropouts, became self-taught programmers. They had worked together building applications that integrate legacy computer systems with the Internet generation for companies such as auto parts stores, electrical and plumbing shops.

They had enough work to keep them more than busy for the first year when Bucklin decided he wanted to add an employee and lease a small Bloomington office for $1,000 a month.

Derheim protested, worried about the added payroll.

"If we can't add an employee and $1,000 rent, then we've got a lot bigger problems," Bucklin said. "No matter how much we do, we have to develop new work."

Bucklin's personality tests indicated that his top two strengths were his ability to envision a future and encourage others to grab ahold of it with him.

The original Sierra Bravo was playing in a very small niche built around a legacy-system model and Web developers who understood old computer systems.

Bucklin and his colleagues re-engineereed Sierra Bravo technology so that Web developers on the front end wouldn't have to know the back-end legacy systems and so that the back-end developers didn't also have to know Web development.

At the same time, the founders carefully preserved the culture by hiring unpretentious, jeans-clad nerds who enjoy learning from each other as they tackle new projects. There is a breakfast bar, good, free coffee and happy hours on Friday at 4 p.m.

The result is a company that will grow revenue by about 75 percent this year to $15 million.

Bucklin was an even-tempered executive who still dabbled in programming.

"We could have heated discussions, but it would always end well," Derheim said. "He liked debate, but he had no malice. He was smart. He listened and tried to bring people with him."

Bucklin, whose goodwill and quiet spirituality calmed things at a sometimes-turbulent growth company, died before he could claim riches. The founders, who paid themselves around $150,000 a year, left the bulk of their wealth in the company.

A couple of years ago Bucklin announced he was going to trade in his rusty, old minivan van for a Porsche. Eyebrows raised around the office.

He bought a Porsche, all right: a 1985 model for about $4,000 that he found on Craigslist.

Bucklin and his wife, Ginger, parents to six kids, lived modestly in southwest Minneapolis. Bucklin also was an instrumented-rated pilot who was studying to be an instructor.

Sierra Bravo a couple of years ago paid about $80,000 for a 1977 Mooney M20J, a four-seat aircraft that the company used to fly development teams to far-flung clients and between headquarters and a new office in Chicago. There were other pilots at Sierra Bravo. Bucklin used the plane for a family wedding and vacation late last month at Jackson Hole.

His wife and a younger son returned to Minneapolis on a commercial flight. Bucklin had quipped to colleagues that one day he would buy a plane that could fit his whole family.

"He was patient and focused on building the company," Derheim said. "He thought the rewards and late-model car would come later. What mattered now was his family and business."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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