“Only in America can you start a business in your basement and grow it to $100 million a year.”
It is rare to find the combination of an influential leader whom has made such a positive indelible mark, mixed with a humble recognition of their impact and influence. Bill Grube however is one of those leaders. A number of years prior to the famous NIZ legislation, he launched into a major redevelopment project in the heart of downtown Allentown to create the impressionable 6-story restaurant, now Hook Seafood & Grille.
Grube’s time-honored and selfless model in contributing to his businesses by caring for his team members and treating them like family has been the primary reason for his great success. He feels that his main purpose in life is to help those around him, a mission he fulfilled in his initial business venture, Night Vision Equipment Company. Grube designed products visible through night vision gear to help soldiers differentiate between the ally and the enemy. Literally thousands of American lives have been saved as a result. After selling his company, Grube switched gears and jumped at the opportunity to invest in creating a brighter future for center city Allentown. He has been a unique leader, making many sacrifices as one of the earliest adopters of Allentown’s renaissance.
Walking through the front door, looking through a tranquil water display, one sees the grand Hess’s chandelier spilling into the main dining room from the open second floor, creating a sparkling effect of grandeur and warmth. The host of the day reinforces this warmth while welcoming guests at Hook Seafood & Grille. It’s a jewel of a restaurant that could be found in Upper East Side of the big apple, but instead graces the downtown of the little apple, Allentown, located just across the street from the historic and majestic Miller Symphony Hall.
I met with Bill Grube for our interview and I was reminded of his genuine kindness and warmth. We nestled into one of the second floor restaurant booths, received some warm fresh bread, butter and chilled water and then were swept into our profound interview…more like a reflective conversation with a friend.
OLSON We are sitting together in this interview because somewhere along the line of your life, you evolved into a leader. Was that an evolution that began in childhood or in business?
GRUBE That is a long evolution. I didn’t see it when I was younger, as I was introverted for a long time. However, over the years I became confident in my business skills and learned how to interface with employees and customers. I don’t look at it as leadership, I look at is as being guided…and things evolve on their own.
OLSON You mentioned that your “becoming a leader” evolved sometime after you had employees. Most people think they are a leader by the mere fact that they have employees. Not you?
GRUBE I never really looked at it as a leadership role, more as a guidance role. When I had my own business it changed everything. My job was to mentor them and pull them together as a team, that kind of thing. If you call that leadership then yes, but without them I had nothing.
OLSON Tell me about how the vision came together, your business idea crystallized, for you previous company?
GRUBE I worked for a company in their marketing department and we were sold. One of my learned hobbies was making a few pieces of night vision surplus items. I figured I don’t know if I can work for the company that bought us, so at that point, if I can make one of these pieces of equipment a week, I can make a living. It started in my basement…I was literally making them in my basement. The last year I was in business, 22 years later, we were doing $100 million a year in sales. No place in the world that someone where I came from could accomplish that but in America!
OLSON Did you grow up in the Lehigh Valley?
GRUBE Yeah, graduated from Allentown High School before it was William Allen. I’ve been all over the country but I liked this better than any place I’d been so I stayed.
OLSON There are many styles of leadership; can you describe how yours has been over the years?
GRUBE A lot of my style has been to truly care about employees. Every morning I went in and said “good morning” to each employee, and I could tell what kind of day they were having…if they had a personal problem or if they were happy. I just knew who needed guidance or help. As time went by, they looked at me not as the president or the boss but as a family member. That means we care about each other and then in turn, we cared about our customers.
OLSON So you just valued and cared for your employees because that’s what they wanted?
GRUBE Yes, most of all, people want to know they are appreciated and that they aren’t scared about their job, but that they’re part of the team. That is what will build this business.
OLSON Now you don’t have that business anymore…is Hook Seafood & Grille your primary business venture, and are you using the same methodology back from Night Vision years?
GRUBE Yes this has taken more of my time. I’m putting more of my influence here. And definitely, I won’t change something that won for me in the past, and I enjoy the role of caring for employees and being in a mentor role.
OLSON I have trials in my life that have galvanized me into growing as a person and a leader…have there been trials in your own experiences that have shaped you?
GRUBE Yes I have had them, but I don’t remember them because I put them behind me. That was then and this is now. I don’t dwell, I move forward.
OLSON Who are you the biggest fan of?
GRUBE That’s pretty easy, three people. Jesus Christ, Ronald Reagan, and my grandfather.
My grandfather because he raised me…I was raised by my grandparents. He was an older man that tried his best to raise me. It’s not easy when you are an older guy raising a young kid around 10. His name was William we called him Pappy…Nana and Pappy. He taught me to hunt and fish.
Reagan was a great American. He didn’t lie to us. He was truthful and firm. He had the attributes of a leader that if I could emulate I would want to do that. I trusted him as a leader.
Jesus would be a tremendously long conversation…but let’s leave it at he’s changed my life.
OLSON Do you have any weaknesses or areas of self awareness you think about?
GRUBE Sure, you grow in that way whether you’re a leader or not. I mean every day we face challenges and become self aware by realizing the results of our actions. I can see in myself if I’ve perpetuated something and then seeing the results of the situation makes me take a look at myself. It’s hard to change who you are, you have to nibble at the edge.
Sometimes you might take a big bite. So learning through mistakes is part of self awareness. Sometimes it’s hard to be aware of what they are and sometimes it takes years to find out what they were, but you have to address them you can’t just sweep them under the rug.
OLSON What is the importance for coming downtown and creating such a beautiful facility that we haven’t seen here for a long time?
GRUBE In the process of building Hook, partially through a God-thing, I realized I was building it to improve the community. I wanted to show that there are people who have faith in this town that will commit large dollars to doing great things downtown. We want this restaurant to be a shining light and beacon of hope in the community. Remember, this was before the NIZ and we had no idea the NIZ was coming, so it was a mission.
OLSON Personally, as an entrepreneur and faith-filled man, I am thankful you have jumped into Allentown, right smack in the middle of the community to be a positive difference maker. So what kind of legacy are you hoping to have as a leader?
GRUBE What I want to leave with my children and my family is philanthropy. My wife and I have both served on a lot of boards. We have put a lot of heart into children’s causes, things like children’s hospitals. What I want to teach them, no matter what you do or what you have or don’t have, you always have got to give something. It doesn’t have to be money, but it has to be something from you. This is the same with Allentown. I want people to understand that giving of themselves and giving and investing some of their treasures for others raises everyone else up. If I can be any kind of a role model here, then I have served my purpose here!
On that note, Bill had to slip downstairs to the main dining room where his wife was waiting to have dinner with him. What a genuine man I found Bill to be and his heart for making a positive impact was contagious. That’s what I call leadership…getting out in front, being bold, doing things others won’t, and hopefully blazing a trail so that others can follow onto new frontiers.