Robert Rosen | Crain's Pittsburgh

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Robert Rosen


The MPN Research Foundation supports scientists who are looking for new ways to treat rare form of blood cancer that affects an estimated 300,000 people. Robert Rosen and a group of other patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms founded the organization in 1999. The foundation has raised more than $10 million for medical research.

The Mistake 

I was in the commercial real estate business for 35 or 40 years. I became president of what, at the time, was the largest independently owned commercial real estate company in Chicago, called Frain, Camins & Swartchild 

When I was young in the business, I was always overly concerned about money and making sales, the bottom line. I was a smart, aggressive kid, but I had very little business experience. I was naïve about how relationships work in the business world. I didn’t really consider the feelings and the needs of other people, both in my business and in my personal life. It’s the old story of the pursuit of money at the expense of other things.  

One event has resonated with me for decades. I had a mentor, a boss who was wonderful to me. He cared about me in a way that I didn’t deserve as a young kid. He helped me find clients, and he helped me work through deal issues. He would bring in major development projects and major sales, and, from time to time, hwould include me in his projects, even though it was gratuitous on his part to do soThis was during the early years. I really owed him a lot.  

He came to me and asked me to make a charitable contribution to the building of a hospital that was being managed by a friend, both of mine and of the office. I turned down the request. It would have been easy to do it, but I was feeling cheap and also independent. I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do.  

He asked me again. I said, “No, I’m not going to do it.  

It made a difference in the relationship—and not in a positive way. He started to look at me differently. He had been very good in helping me start my business, and he started to back off a bit. It took me a while to get it. I was just so focused on money and not on relationships.  

The cheapness is what resonates with me. I felt bad about that for years.  

I try to lead by example.

The Lesson: 

I’ve seen [my former mentor] on and off for most of my life. One day I took him for lunch and told him that I appreciate everything that he did and that I was sorry about that incident. It was a great lunch, a hard lunch. He looked away and didn’t know how to respond. But I said it to him twice, and I know he heard me 

Now I try to lead by example. 

I always wanted to do something in the nonprofit world. But I could never find an organization that operated with the metrics and efficiency that I was used to in the business world. So I started my own nonprofit, the MPN Research Foundation. It advocates and funds research in a little corner of the medical world. It’s become a very effective organization, and it’s a chance for me to change my priorities, my relationships with other people.  

I do everything. I founded the organization. I do fundraising and strategy, patient outreach. Relationships are just as important in the nonprofit world as in the business world. You’re dealing with donors who are like customers and pharmaceutical partners, associates and staff. [For fundraising] I do a soft sell, which is building relationships, finding areas of common interest and spending time to build confidence.  

Photo courtesy of Robert Rosen.

Follow the MPN Research Foundation on Twitter at @MPN_RF.

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