BY MARK HOUSER
He helped turn a nearly broke Butler company into the largest specialty pipe and tube distributor in North America, and in the process, got himself on the cover of several trade magazines. But none of that makes Norman Gottschalk Jr. '67 light up quite the way he does when he remembers the job that paid for his accounting degree at Robert Morris.
"I had an orange juice route. And I can still remember the numbers for that. Before I took over, the last guy in the truck was selling 62 bottles a week. When I left, I was selling 230 bottles a week. Whenever I had any time between studying, I would take this bottle of orange juice and knock on doors, and get people to taste it," Gottschalk says.
"Even though my degree is in accounting, I've always been a salesman."
The president and CEO of Marmon Distribution Services, Gottschalk is the recipient of RMU's 2012 Heritage Award. The university's highest award is given for distinguished achievement that brings honor upon the alumnus and his or her alma mater.
Gottschalk's company buys large quantities of steel pipes and tubes from mills, keeping it in warehouses and delivering it overnight to customers in pieces cut to order. The inventory runs the gamut from enormous pipes big enough to crawl through to pieces a person could bend bare-handed, and it is used to make pumps for oil and gas drills, framing for tractors, tubing for locomotive engines, armor for military vehicles, even material for an artificial heart.
The company has been in an expansion mode since Gottschalk took over as CEO in 1989. From eight locations then, it has grown to 61 locations in the U.S. and Canada. But despite his natural gift of salesmanship, Gottschalk decided not to push too hard with his grandson, Brett Carb, when the young man was deciding where to go to college.
"I was worried that he was going (to choose RMU) only because I had gone there and I was somewhat successful," Gottschalk says. "What happened is, Brett went to a college fair, and he came back and said, 'The only one that was nice to me was Robert Morris. I want to tour it.' I said, 'Okay, but I want you to tour some other schools too.'"
Gottschalk attended classes downtown, so the campus tour took him by surprise. "My mouth just dropped. I couldn't believe this was Robert Morris. It's a real university. I've been lucky enough to spend some time with the teachers and Greg (Dell'Omo), and the caliber of the whole school and teachers has really just grown. I'm really proud that I'm even a little part of it."
Carb, now a junior at RMU, is perhaps closer than most to his grandparents. He has lived with Norm and Pat Gottschalk in their Fox Chapel home for the last seven years, since the death of his mother, Laura — the oldest of their six children. Even in the years before that, he still spent most weeks with them, since his mother suffered from kidney ailments and could only manage to care for him on weekends.
Carb says his grandfather, despite his busy life as an executive, always made time for him. "I'm not the best basketball player, but I played basketball in grade school. And he would be out there every night — he brought a medicine ball — and we would take shots with the medicine ball. We were always working on that, getting better."
The Gottschalks' first love is boating, and for many years they have enjoyed taking their boat on voyages, whether down the Allegheny and Ohio rivers or sailfishing off the Florida coast. Sometimes it can be a distraction, since grandpa isn't shy about texting. "I'll be sitting in class at 9:30 a.m. and I'll get 10 pictures in the middle of class, and it's my grandpa with a fish this big in his lap," Carb says. "And then I'll go back a month later, and the captain's like, 'We went out last time and caught some big fish!' And then we'll go out and catch some really little fish. And I'm like, one day I'll catch my big fish, but my grandpa's probably caught five without me."
Gottschalk says he has appreciated having a child grow up in his house again, though it's quite different from the first time around. "Everybody always says grandkids are just so much nicer than kids. Grandkids are easier. That's probably because you can watch them and give them back," he says.
"We've got a lot of grandkids. Brett's the only one that lives with us. But you get the same feeling towards Brett — even when your toolkit disappears and you don't know what happened to it, that kind of stuff — you still have that feeling, you just know that you love him."
"I think maybe it's because you're older, you appreciate it more. It's better the second time around."
Norman E. Gottschalk Jr. Heritage Award
Robert Morris University gives Norm Gottschalk '67 its most prestigious alumni award.