Robert Holmes was a risk-taker who jumped motorcycles, raced cars and boats and flew airplanes, but he was also a meticulous man who organized the condiments in his refrigerator alphabetically. And he was a skilled entrepreneur.
Holmes, who died Nov. 16 at 91, served in the U.S. Navy Air Corps and returned to work for Xerox and help build the Holmes Corp., now based in Eagan.
Born two years before the beginning of the Great Depression, Holmes was a driving force in the postwar era, first working in sales for Xerox and then striking out on his own to build a company that helps professional organizations create training and certification programs.
He was perfectly dressed and charismatic, but also outgoing and generous with strangers, and lived by the principle that the best way to keep customers happy was to keep employees happy.
“He was like a throwback lead character from a 1960s novel,” said his son-in-law, Rhett McSweeney. “The svelte executive.”
Holmes grew up in Brooklyn Center, and as a child he picked vegetables for pay. At the age of 9, he decided to buy the vegetables he picked from the farmer and sell them himself.
“He had his own little gig going,” wife Gayle Holmes said.
Throughout his childhood he spent summers in or near Hastings with his uncle. At 13, he worked on his uncle’s farm and did everything the adults could do, his wife said.
“He loved the gratification of being treated as an adult, as a man, and trusted,” she said.
Holmes’ father was a contractor, and the family moved to Minneapolis when he was a child. After he graduated from Roosevelt High School, he joined the U.S. Navy Air Corps toward the tail end of World War II. He was stationed in Hawaii and loved the neatness of military life.
“The order and the cleanliness of making your bed, and pressing your uniform, that was something that was important to him,” his wife said.
When he returned from military service, he sold used cars and flew airplanes for the Hinck Flying Service.
Holmes used the G.I. Bill to get a degree in business at the University of Minnesota and worked for years in sales at Xerox. In 1970, he co-founded the Golle & Holmes Cos. with his friend John Golle, a colleague at Xerox.
In a written reflection, Golle recalled that the first time he met Holmes, Holmes was haggling with a carpet company that had mistakenly removed his office carpet.
“I was taken by how calm and polite he was to the carpet company that had made the mistake,” Golle wrote. “An ounce of honey was more powerful than a gallon of vinegar.”
After he bought out Golle, Holmes launched the Holmes Corp., which kept growing and has repeatedly been recognized in the Star Tribune’s Top Workplaces. Holmes retired in the early 1990s.
“What he taught me was to treat everyone equally,” said Tom Schmelz, now one of the owners of the company.
Holmes’ first wife, Patricia Callahan Holmes, died in 1986. They had no children. He later married Gayle Osterhus, who was president of Courseware International, one of the operating companies under the Holmes Corp. umbrella. He became close to both of her children, who took his name.
“One of the ‘challenges’ of our marriage was that he liked to go to the airport and not know where we were going to go,” Gayle Holmes said. “I wanted everything laid out. He was willing to just take off on an adventure at a moment’s notice.”
Holmes had been in hospice since March. He is survived by his wife and her two children, and five grandchildren. Services have been held.