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Blaha is brash, bold, but don't compare him to Trump

June 22, 2016 Updated: June 22, 2016 at 9:00 pm
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photo - Robert Blaha
Robert Blaha 

Robert Blaha, the self-made Colorado Springs millionaire, is boisterous, articulate and ready to take on the world - whether by co-founding what he hopes is the next Berkshire Hathaway, teaching leadership or running for U.S. Senate.

In an unorthodox election year, Blaha - one of five Republicans in the June 28 Colorado primary - is willing to mix things up with blunt talk and attacks on his opponents and the media, inspiring comparisons to Donald Trump.

"I don't like the Donald Trump comparisons, to be honest," Blaha said in an interview. "You haven't heard me talk about other people's wives and my hands and locker room towel snapping. I think you can still be incredibly direct and say what you're thinking without being offensive."

Like Trump, Blaha has been critical of reporters, accusing them of being asleep at the wheel during the primary race and failing to cover it adequately or draw distinctions between the candidates.

"When you get done today, if you say I'm the same person as everybody else ... I mean, there's just no way," Blaha said in an interview. "I've been with some of the largest corporations in the world, traveled the world, written books, been around, raised seven kids."

Eric Sondermann, an independent political commentator, called the Senate race "a complete and total crap-shoot." With five candidates, the winner is likely to limp through the primary with under 30 percent of the vote.

But Sondermann said Blaha has been able to distinguish himself.

"He's one of two who is self-funding, so he has a voice out there. He has semi-decent exposure on television," Sondermann said. "He's trying to be the Trump of the race with his guarantee, with his willingness to be politically incorrect."

Blaha is guaranteeing that if he fails to cut the deficit, reduce illegal immigration and implement "meaningful" tax reform after one term in office, he will not seek re-election.

Blaha's record supports his self-confidence.

The walls in his Colorado Springs-based office are covered with photos of his family and memorabilia from a career marked by both corporate climbing and gutsy entrepreneurship.

"I'm at a place in my life where I know who I am. I'm not 30 years old - how old is Jon? - I'm not 34 years old," Blaha said, referencing his youngest opponent, Jon Keyser. "I've raised seven kids, I've started numerous businesses, I've lived around the world, I've worked for the top companies. I know who I am and I know where I come from. I'm looking forward to being able to take this and put that into service."

Blaha has run for office before. In 2012 he took on incumbent Rep. Doug Lamborn in the 5th Congressional District. Lamborn won the primary with 62 percent of the vote.

He now runs Human Capital Associates, a high-end consulting firm for corporations like Lockheed Martin, to help teach leaders Lean and Six Sigma principles. Blaha wrote "The Archer Chronicles: Achieving Organization-wide Commitment to Change," and co-wrote other manuals about process improvement.

He also helped co-found Integrity Bank and Trust in Colorado Springs and a spinoff, Integrity Wealth Management, a Monument-based investment operation overseeing about $400 million. Blaha said he's trying to build a wealth management firm with New York City capabilities and Midwestern values.

Blaha operates like a motivational speaker, trying to change corporate cultures and implement efficiencies.

"I don't like going into an organization that everything is running great and you've got the right leadership, you've got a great process," he said. "Where's the fun in that? Think about how complex some of this stuff is that we're going to be able to do in the Senate. It's really going to be fun to try to fix it. ... The more complex, the more difficult it is, the more fun it is."

Born in a small Iowa town, Blaha played football at the University of Iowa and worked Ford Motor Company doing shift work.

"It was a real wakeup call," he said. "Tough unions, tough people, tough environment, crazy hours. I learned a whole lot that was different than Iowa."

Then he went to Monsanto, which produces genetically modified seeds for global produce and agriculture. He worked on the chemical and process improvement side.

"I never was in seeds, that's important," Blaha said, noting he's been attacked for his time with the company known for its patents that restrict farmers from reusing seeds.

From there he moved to Engelhard, as the head of a central Georgia mining operation extracting kaolin, a mineral used to coat paper, strengthen plastic and a number of other things. He said that because profit margins were high, he was able to build programs for people who couldn't read and write and really support the community.

"By now we've been through Detroit to Cincinnati to Alabama to St. Louis out to New York City, northern New Jersey, New York and now we're down in central Georgia," Blaha said. "We're having kids. Moving about every two years. The phone rings, it's another opportunity and we're going," he said.

He then went to Asea Brown Boveri Flakt, where he was a senior vice president in the environmental department manufacturing scrubbing systems for coal-fired power plants.

"The technology in coal is very sophisticated," Blaha said. "And that's one of the reasons why the war on coal here in Colorado is really crazy because some of the cleanest coal in America comes from Colorado, and the EPA is pretty much killing the industry."

Blaha says he "sometimes" has faith in industry to do the right thing, but he said sometimes government oversight is needed.

"There's people who cut corners and I was fortunate in my years and years ... I only worked for one or two people who I ever had questions about their morals and ethics," Blaha said.

He had been a vice-president of a major Fortune 500 company in his early 30s and a senior president by 35. He and his wife Susan had seven kids, were living in high-end subdivisions, flying on private planes and "living the life" when he had a change of heart.

He was 37.

"We look at each other and say is this really what we want out of life, is this really what we want to wind up doing?" Blaha says.

So he quit.

They bought land in Colorado Springs in 1993 and started over from scratch.

The B;ahas wielded chain saws and built the basement and foundation of their home, hired a contractor for the rest, and finished the rooms one-by-one as they found the money.

Lydia Barbara, who is helping manage her father's campaign, said she remembers this as a very hard time for the family. All nine Blahas were crowded into a three-bedroom house.

"People always attack him for being this Trump billionaire, but he really did work from the ground up," she said. "People don't talk about the sacrifices he made for his kids."

Blaha's kids have attended debates and spent time on the campaign trail with him.

"There's nothing selfish about his decision to do this," Barbara said, about her father's decision to run for Senate. "This is the most unselfish thing. It's hard for me to be with him because I see how much he brings to the race. How much he brings to our country and I, frankly, think he's too good for Washington D.C. They don't deserve him."

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