Q&A: CEO Dick Woltmann's Retirement
After 47 years of dedicated service to Bay Area Legal, CEO & President Dick Woltmann has announced he will retire at the end of 2023.
We sat down with Dick Woltmann to discuss his history with the organization, as well as the future he envisions:
How did you begin working at Bay Area Legal Services? What about your background brought you here and made you interested in the mission?
I came to Bay Area Legal Services in 1976 from a legal aid program in the state of Washington, Northwest Washington Legal Services. I ended up recruiting myself into a position in Seattle that served the elderly. That particularly interested me, because during my time in Africa with the Peace Corps, I witnessed how the elders were treated with great respect and dignity - something I did not necessarily see in the United States. I thought this would be a great position, so I recruited myself and developed their senior team. After some time, I decided to come back to Florida because my parents were here, and I had friends from school here. I applied for a position at Bay Area Legal, and I was hired to, in effect, set up an elder law unit where there was none.
When did you become CEO of Bay Area Legal?
I became CEO in 1980. I felt there were many unrealized opportunities to improve and increase client services and to create a more collegial work environment. I felt that I could do that and therefore I applied. We had a small staff with a $700,000 budget. And in a nonprofit like Bay Area, more than 80% of the money goes to provide staff who then help clients. So to me, the big opportunity was to get more resources in order to serve more clients.
What are three things you've learned from your career over the years?
One of the things - probably the most important - is the importance of relationships, both internal and external. And two would be the significance of the hiring decision at every stage in the organization, from hiring a receptionist to the people who are behind the scenes, to the attorneys, and even though it's not hiring, the selection of the Board of Directors. Getting the best people available is one of the most important things. Third, I would say has to deal more with nonprofits, is the absolute necessity of having a squeaky clean fiscal operation that is never in a gray area. If you look around over the years and see which nonprofits went belly up, it's been because of fiscal. It wasn't because they delivered mediocre services, which would be terrible - it's because they had fiscal problems. To me, that's critical. And I've always had fiscal people who absolutely agree with that. Don't try to push an edge, stay in the white zone. Every audit we've ever had has been squeaky clean for 43 years.
What are you most proud of accomplishing as CEO?
Overall the best thing has been taking a small law firm with a $700,000 budget and becoming one of the largest law firms in the Tampa Bay region with a projected $14-million annual revenue in 2023. The sole purpose of these funds is to help people with significant problems who can't afford an attorney, so there has been a major increase in services that have been delivered to people. And of course, we now have many particular projects that serve significant elements of the client population like elders, domestic violence survivors, veterans, children, small businesses and nonprofit organizations and, most recently, victims of disaster. It's that growth that I'm proud of. When I started there was no Veterans Team, Volunteer Lawyers Program, Family Law Team, or Housing Team. There was no Development Team, HR Department, or Tech Department. We didn't have endowments or a grants writer. And the list goes on. That's what I'm most proud of - building that. Everything we've done and every expansion, it wasn't to bring more money into our pockets, it's been to increase and improve services to our clientele.
What do you envision for the future of Bay Area?
Bay Area is going to have a great transition. There's going to be continued growth and services to clients and continued improvement as a place to work. I was reading a book review in the New Yorker just a couple of weeks ago. This historian, Montefiore, had written a book and said: "Succession is the great test of a system. Few manage to get it." Well, we are going to get it really well. Joan will do a great job. Jena will do a great job. We've got a series of new young leaders and they're going to be great. There are people here, some of whom, maybe many of them, who will lead Bay Area for the next 20 to 30 years. And that's just tremendous.
I think the succession is going to be fantastic. I think the future's going to be great. Our mantra is to strive to continuously improve and increase our services to our clientele. That, I think, is the future of Bay Area Legal Services. That it will continue to improve.
What will you miss about being CEO?
The daily opportunities. The main job of a CEO is to identify the major threats and the major opportunities for their organization. And so identifying those threats and identifying those opportunities and then working to resolve the threats and to realize the opportunities on a daily basis is very exciting. It's a constant array of new hands so it's intellectually challenging. To be able to do that with people that are fun to work with and good at what they do and also want to achieve excellence is great. I never wanted to be on a sports team that wanted to lose, you know, I've always wanted to be on teams that valued excellence. So being able to work on threats and opportunities on a daily basis with really committed people who are wonderful at doing that, it's just fantastic. I will miss that a lot.
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