PROFILE: Rob Knapp

May 30, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY T MICHELE WALKER – It was one year ago, May 25, that the murder of George Floyd hit the news. As our nation watched, Rob Knapp was eager to take action. 

“We wanted to fix this problem. This is about a year ago, and George Floyd is happening, and the world is turning upside down. And I’m thinking, ‘We’ve got to do this,’” Rob said at a board meeting for the Knapp Family Foundation, where Rob and his son-in-law were discussing the direction of the foundation. 

The Knapp Family Foundation was created in 2000. “The purpose of it was to fix a problem that I had seen in our industry, which was a lack of diversity,” explained Rob.

“If we’re going to do this, we’ve got to do it right, and we’ve got to do it big. It’s a big problem and it’s a big industry,” Rob said, as he brought his ideas to one of his business associates, Curtis Brown. “Curtis and I put our heads together and we came up with a business plan and started a separate charity called ‘Supernova Scholars.’ We built a little committee, diverse people that knew the business and were currently in the business, and we’ve been meeting since March. I think we’ve got a pretty solid start.”

Rob’s plan was ambitious. The Knapp Family Foundation would not only give scholarships to a diverse population but then help them navigate the difficult next steps through internships, coaching, and mentor relationships to strengthen their future success in the world of business. The idea came from Rob’s years at Merrill Lynch, where candidate pools were in the thousands. “But when you try to hire a minority of any sort, your pool shrinks to hardly anything. I tried everything and I was an abysmal failure. And as you know, I don’t like to lose,” Rob added with a laugh.  

Born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Rob’s family moved to Hingham, Massachusetts when he was five years old. It was the perfect location for young Rob, who was fascinated by history. “Hingham is this cute little town, circa 1640. The church was built out of a ship that brought settlers to Hingham; it’s still in use, called the Old Ship Church. It’s the oldest church in the country in continuous use.”

Sports were important in the Knapp family, but there was a sobering reason behind the focus. “My dad was a diabetic, a childhood diabetic, and I always felt like he was getting us prepared for when he wasn’t going to be there because the lifespan of a type one diabetic was about 40 years back then. He always expected to not be around, so I think he wanted us ready for handling the world at a very young age. He wanted us to be very competitive, and very tough, so we were ready, we were competitive, we were taught to be tournament tough, and competitive at a very young age.”

Tennis was the family sport of choice, with both Rob’s parents excelling at the sport. “My dad was a good tennis player and my mom was a good tennis player. My dad was the Massachusetts Badminton Champion, so he was good with rackets. He started us at age five, six, seven. There were three of us initially and then a fourth came along, and so we played tennis pretty early and we were pretty decent. He would take us up to a place called Twin Lake Villa, and our first job was to go up and demonstrate how good we were in front of all the old people. Then we’d be free to go and have fun. We had to put on a show, so we’d go and play doubles. Then we were allowed to go play golf, which we never played. It was a little nine-hole course and it was great fun. Tennis was more of a business for us, but golf was fun. I do prefer golf now.”

Through sports, the family learned discipline, perseverance, and competition. Rob didn’t have to look past his own family for the steepest tennis competition. “My brother was the number one tennis player in New England. We used to play colleges and all of the private schools. We were Eastern Massachusetts champions, but we lost in the finals. My brother went to several national tournaments. I thought at that time that I was an ‘Also ran’ because I was ranked 13 in New England. We all played competitive tennis in college and my brother was number one, and it was also my younger brother. People think it somehow affected me for the rest of my life. And they’re right,” Rob said with a self-effacing laugh. 

The Knapp boys were a foreshadowing of the Williams sisters in the tennis world. “We actually played each other in college. It was the first time that three brothers ever competed on the same court, so it was Knapp and Knapp versus Knapp and Parker. In the Charlotte Observer, they said that this was the first time that three brothers played against each other, and we did it twice.” 

Tennis and golf were popular with the Knapp boys, but they also enjoyed other sports. “My brother was a good basketball player and I was a hockey player. My older brother was a hockey player, so in the winter we played hockey, and the rest of the time we played tennis. Academics were important, but sports were what really counted. Most families are the opposite, they care about academics and if you happen to be good at sports, it’s great. It was kind of different in our family.”

Rob has no regret and fully appreciates the life lessons that sports brought to his life. “I think sports are so important, in terms of preparing you for life, and you know it did prepare me. I remember playing in tournaments, playing in matches in the heat in college. I’d lose ten pounds in three-hour matches and you’d just be exhausted, but you kept going.”

Rob is a former Navy pilot, having served in the Vietnam War. After the war, he and his brother planned a little trip. “When we both got out we said ‘Let’s go to Europe.’ So, we got out and we went to Europe and we put our tennis rackets in our backpacks.”

Even though they were short on money, they didn’t let that stand in the way of having fun and adventure.  

“We would take trains, but then when we got to the Mediterranean from Barcelona over to Italy, we thumbed. We went to Frankfurt, Holland, Amsterdam, London, and over to Paris and Marseilles, and then around Barcelona. When we went to Paris, we always had our tennis rackets. Whenever we’d thumb, people would pick us up and we’d play some tennis. They’d ask us, ‘Are you guys any good?’ And we would say, ‘Yeah we’re pretty good,” Rob said with a grin. “And so they’d take us to their clubs in Switzerland and everywhere. It was wonderful because it just opened all those doors.”

Rob credits the Navy for providing him with the training to combine his athleticism and intellect.

“It was really interesting because the Navy provided me with the ability to use my athletic and my intellect together. In college, I used my tennis as sort of a way to vent my athleticism, but then I could use my athleticism to do my job as a pilot. It became the first time I was ever able to put those two things together, academics and athletics. It was a reason to study. If you failed to study and prepare in the Navy and then you go up and fly, you could kill yourself, so you learned the material. That was kind of a revelation for me.”

The Navy was a special place for Rob and it’s also where he met the love of his life, Marcia.“Yes, we met in the Navy. I think she fell for the uniform,” he said with a chuckle. “Those years were just great fun and then we came back and it was time to grow up. I met a nice young lady and we decided to get married. Marcia takes care of me, takes care of our children, Courtney and Christopher. She was the corporate wife and did absolutely everything. She ran the show and ran the house and ran the kids. She’s multi-talented and she’s been very involved in the Boca Grande community, from the Women’s Club and all the things that they do on the Island. She’s the one everyone likes. Everybody likes Marcia.” 

Rob went to work for Merrill Lynch in 1972 but still stayed in the service for the next seven years. “That felt good. I continued that part of my life, and then started my Merrill Lynch life and became a Lieutenant Commander. I retired … well, I didn’t really retire, I just sort of went inactive and then eventually just retired.”

Rob believes in the adage, “Bloom where you’re planted,” and worked for Merrill Lynch for 35 years. “Wherever I was planted was where I was. I never thought about moving from Wake Forest University or moving from the Navy or moving from Merrill Lynch. I just wanted to make a go of it wherever I was. I say that I ‘graduated’ from Merrill Lynch, I don’t call it ‘retired.’”

During the years at Merrill Lynch, Rob and a group of colleagues developed a program called “Supernova.” It came from a need to fix things. 

“We were not giving the level of customer service that I felt we needed to provide,” he explained. “And people were stealing some market share from me. Being the competitive person that

service that allowed us to retain our market share and gain market share. We had tremendous success, to the point where the firm recognized it and my sales manager and others encouraged me to go to New York where I presented it to the president of the firm. He loved it and said, ‘Okay, take this around and do a test with another couple of regions.’ When that worked, we took it to the entire country.” 

“After I retired, or rather graduated, people called me and asked, ‘Supernova. Where can I get something in writing?’ So, I wrote a book about it, about my experience, called ‘The Supernova Advisor.’ It was about the adventure of what we had done together as a group, and I wrote it as a story as opposed to a business book.”

“Supernova” was just as successful with other companies as it was with Merrill Lynch. When asked to put together a presentation, Rob created a workbook based on his first book. “I had to do it in one weekend; a 12-week training program in a weekend. I said, ‘Okay, I’ve got a program.’ And they said, ‘Great, we’ll hire you.’ This was UBS, United Bank of Switzerland, which is the domestic division. I spent the next seven years teaching them the ‘Supernova Process,’ went through the entire country twice, all the regions twice. Now I’m doing the same thing with Morgan Stanley, which is fun.”

Rob was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia later in life. CLL is a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow that progresses slowly over time. It impacts the body’s immune system and during this time of COVID-19, Rob has had to be especially careful. However, it hasn’t slowed him down, as he still bikes regularly, plays golf and is passionate about the Tom Cross treks across the country, and even serves as the trip photographer. “Yes, I’m part of the hiking crew. I did that for about 10 years. Taking photos with Tom Cross, it’s the thing I miss the most.”

Rob is doing well today, but he did have a flare-up about 10 years later. “This particular drug was developed for my cancer. It’s not chemo and you take it in the form of a pill. I took that for about a year and now I’m fine.”

Rob is healthy today, but is protective of his immune system and has put travel on hold for now. “I’m sort of stuck for a while. We planned a trip to Oregon and I had to cancel it, but that’s okay. Mother Teresa said we don’t have problems, we have gifts. We’re all going to get a little present, and cancer in a weird way is kind of a gift. It made me deal with fear like I had never dealt with it before. I overcame that and it gave me a real sense of purpose.”

Through all of his teaching and coaching, Rob has found the opportunity to be, as he calls it, “a better human being.”  

“My friend, Jim Lehrer, he interviewed 80-year-olds and he asked, ‘What would you do differently if you had to do it over again?’ And he said the three things that came out most were, 1. I would take more time to reflect. 2. I would take more risks, and 3. I would live with more purpose.”

“I had the blessing of having that in my head for a long time, probably 20 years. So when it comes to the second half of my life, I certainly want to keep those things in mind. Reflect a little bit, and live with more purpose, and take more risks. I don’t think I want to take risks in terms of COVID, but when it comes to everything else, the biggest threat in life is fear. If you had no fear, what would you do?”

 Of all the places in Rob’s life, Boca Grande and the people he has met, have been an inspiration. 

“The people here are so interesting. There’s so much history and there are so many interesting people.”

It was Rob’s friend Larry Wilson that brought him to the island. “Larry is a writer. He was my inspiration. He lived in Boca Grande and I had hired him for about ten years. Whenever I went in to take over new territory, I would hire Larry. He had a program called ‘Play to Win.’ It was an experiential learning course that taught you how to make better decisions, better choices. We were in the business of transforming lives by leading and managing and we wanted people to be better off because of their interaction with our team. It just changed our mindset.”

It was Larry who invited Rob and his family down to Boca Grande for a weekend. “I was down in Naples, and you know, I never accepted those invitations, but I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go. It’ll be fun, I like Larry.’ So I visited him for the weekend, and he offered us the use of his condominium for a week. This was in Boca Bay. So, we used it and I said to my kids, ‘What do you think?’ And they said, ‘What do you think we think? This is great!’ We bought a condominium in Harbor Shore. Now we’re in Pilot Point and we love it.”

Larry has since passed away, but his work remains with Rob to this day. “We were very good friends. We would have coffee and talk for three hours about life. I still use a lot of his material in my coaching. He permeates all my books.”

“Just think about the people who are here in Boca Grande. It’s almost like their obligation to tell their story. When I tell my story, trust me, it sounds like Rob just skated through; this was so easy for him, but none of it was easy. I had ADD, all these challenges. I had trouble reading. I was not a great student, it was all really hard for me. But you know what, I did it all. And now I’ve got three books with my names on them.”

Sharing his story is Rob’s way of being an inspiration to those today who may be struggling. “I think that sort of thing can be an inspiration to kids who have struggled a little. They might give up too soon. That’s why I think sports are so helpful because if you’re not going to be a superstar academically, you can be a good athlete. It gives you the confidence to persevere and go through it instead of quitting.”

As you can imagine, retirement for Rob isn’t the same for most people. “That was the original plan that I’d work two days a week. I’m still doing that. I coach Monday and Wednesday, and we have our team meetings on Monday.”

“Retirement is a very weird thing. I think it’s a sad thing for most people. I think they don’t go to something, they go away from something very meaningful to them. They try as best they can and they enjoy their golf and their friends, but it’s kind of like admitting that you’re old. And why would you admit that you’re old? I never will,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.

Rob spends the summer season in Nashville. “Courtney is my oldest and then Christopher is my youngest. Courtney is here in Nashville and she has a daughter, Juliet and she lives with her husband Simon. Christopher lives in Oregon with Kate and they have a daughter, Charlotte. She’s a 1-year-old. I try to spend almost every afternoon with my granddaughter. It’s my time for teaching her golf, and tennis. Her dad’s a musician and her mom is a good tennis player and a swimmer, so she’s a really good swimmer. At age 7, she can hit the golf ball really well.”

The Knapp Family Foundation is looking for students with “The Right Stuff.” 

“These kids have to be carefully selected, and we’re trying to do everything we can in the selection process to get the ‘Right Stuff,’ like the astronauts,” Rob said enthusiastically. “Right now, the success rate for a diversity hire is terrible. It’s probably a five percent success rate, but there are things you can do. We think we can go from a five percent success rate to a 95 percent success rate by making sure that we pick the right people and train them and then they can be on teams and have the skills to be of value to their team.” 

Rob is at a point in his life where it’s all coming together; the sports, coaching, business, leadership in business and the Navy; it is all being put together for the greater good, and as Rob said, “To fix things.”

“My Chief Operating Officer said to me, ‘Rob, is this how you want to spend the rest of your life?’ And I said, ‘Yeah! This is great.”