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Making a Bid for Success

Robert Tomlinson, Jr., MBA’82 (M), president of the nation’s second largest online auction house, has risen far in business through a simple philosophy: “We learn a lot about being successful in kindergarten,” he says. “Work hard. Smile. Keep an open mind. Love what you do.” From that foundation, Tomlinson has indeed prospered.

He is president of uBid.com, which specializes in discounts on leading brand-name manufacturers. uBid has grown so fast that it has become one of the largest e-commerce online auction houses — second only to eBay Inc. — with 4.5 million registered customers and over $1 billion of merchandise sold. “Every day is a challenge; I am excited about the demands of heading such a booming industry,” Tomlinson says.

 
“Every day is a challenge; I am excited about the demands of heading such a booming industry.”

Tomlinson has ample reason to be energized. In 2002, he was chief financial officer for Forbes.com in New York City and was hired by CMBi to bring uBid to profitability with an eye on selling it to a third party. “I commute Monday through Friday from Newark [airport] to Chicago; it’s an easier commute than to New York City.”

Tomlinson so enjoyed the work of “fixing” the company that he convinced the owners of uBid to make him a partner and secured a large principle through private funding. In April 2003, Tomlinson took private ownership of the company along with the Petters Group in Minnetonka, Minn. He was forced to make difficult cuts in staffing, but through his leadership the firm began to make progress. “In December 2003, we made our first quarterly profit; I gave every employee a bonus for their hard work that started us on our road to profitability.”

It is that kind of openness and generosity that has guided Tomlinson throughout his career. Two weeks after earning his undergraduate degree in accounting from Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J., Tomlinson began working in the financial audit group of Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City. “I was an internal financial auditor who did everything but ‘banking’; the position gave me the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the United States, Canada and South America. I loved the international exposure and reveled in the opportunity to broaden my horizons.”

The horizons stretched further when Tomlinson moved on to Young & Rubicam. “I did not want to get stereotyped as a banker,” he says. His new position allowed him to continue the travel he so loved and exposed him to international projects in the direct marketing field. It was while working at Young & Rubicam that Tomlinson earned his Certified Public Accountant license and decided to “eliminate competition in my career path by growing and broadening my opportunities academically and career-wise.”

It was this decision that led Tomlinson to Fairleigh Dickinson. “Even though I traveled 80 percent of the time for my job, FDU had a weekend program that gave me the amazing ability to continue working and attend school on Saturdays for my graduate degree.” Additionally, Tomlinson cites FDU’s proximity to New York City and the international business focus. “Combining the finance degree with my travel in my work really gave me the opportunity to broaden and enhance my graduate-degree experience.” And, he adds, he met his future wife, the former Susan Bartolett, while attending the University. She graduated in 1981 with an MBA in marketing. “It made things a lot more interesting having my girlfriend in many of my classes!”

“I fully support any employee willing to work and attend school at the same time. In fact, I make it a point to hire any person with that degree of commitment.”

Tomlinson’s commitment to growth and education has translated into a commitment in his current job. “I fully support any employee willing to work and attend school at the same time. In fact, I make it a point to hire any person with that degree of commitment. I believe it truly changes a person and makes them a better employee.”

After graduating from FDU in 1982 with an MBA in finance, Tomlinson joined a small start-up company called American List Council, Inc. (ALC), a direct-marketing company based in Princeton, N.J. He helped launch the young company as its controller and “knew intuitively that direct target marketing would become a way of life for marketers.” Tomlinson was on the ground floor of what would become a boom in targeted marketing of business lists. “We started with absolutely no money and grew to $180 million.” ALC was voted the fastest growing company by Inc. magazine from 1986–88 and managed more than 500 lists for publications like Forbes and U.S. News & World Report and nonprofit organizations including the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and the ALS Association (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). “It was a wild time; we had to figure out what we were doing all the time from a human-resources perspective while simultaneously managing a fast-growing company.”

With the growth of ALC, Tomlinson became its vice president of finance, chief financial officer and a principal in the company. “I was a leader in a business,” he realized. “It was no longer just about me, but about the employees that worked for me. I realized that I worried about the people who work for me and found that any decision I made had to be carefully weighed with the interests of the people who comprised the company.”

 

Tomlinson’s vision and insight stem directly from the guiding influences of his parents. His father was an electrical engineer and superintendent of the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) railway system. “My dad helped build the PATH into the World Trade Center (WTC). As a child, I would accompany my father into the WTC work site, and he would explain the whole system and how it worked. Although he passed away, he would have been especially saddened by the losses of September 11.” Tomlinson also credits his mother, a “homemaker raising seven children and a bank branch manager,” with instilling a deep work ethic and commitment to a job well done. “My parents gave me a wonderful legacy that gave me the courage and dedication to see me through my career and life.”

Tomlinson’s dedication to his own family remains as strong as the one his parents exemplified. While trying to emulate his parents and share important lessons with his son, Christopher, a soon-to-be freshman at Boston University; daughter Logan, a high-school freshman; and son, Drew, a third grader, Tomlinson is also looking forward to the continued growth of uBid. It is that balance between personal commitments and professional aspirations that has made him someone worthy of admiration.

M.D.

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