From retail and restaurants to tech and media, contractors to coworking spaces, large, small, and everything in between, a diverse array of businesses call Alexandria home. In our blog series, Growing in Alexandria, we sit down to talk with businesses and business leaders around the City to learn more about who they are, what they do, and why they love it here. When our President and CEO was named as the 2019 Business Leader of the Year by the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, it gave us an idea. Over the next several months, we will be rolling out a new series of interviews with some of the past Alexandria Chamber Business Leaders of the Year. We will be talking leadership advice and how they have seen the business environment change in Alexandria over the years.
Lonnie Rich was the 2014 Business Leader of the Year. Lonnie has been around Alexandria for many years- he was member and chair of the Alexandria Democratic Committee and a member of the Alexandria City Council from 1991 to 2000, and is a Partner at Rich Rosenthal Brincefield Manitta Dzubin & Kroeger, PLLC. We sat down with Lonnie to learn more about his varied history with the City, and talk about his thoughts on the future.
AEDP: To get started, can you share your favorite thing about Alexandria?
Lonnie: I have lived in Alexandria since 1976. I lived a lot of places before moving here but what is amazing about Alexandria is has all the benefits of a small town and, at the same time, the benefits of a huge metropolitan area. Anyone that has an artistic or intellectual interest, can be satisfied here.
One of the interesting things that has happened since I have been here is that Alexandria has become the intellectual property capital of the world with the US Patent and Trademark Office, the National Science Foundation and now the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus. I would say that we are becoming the Silicon Valley of the East Coast – the center of the innovation network that extends to Fairfax and Montgomery counties.
Another interesting thing is that Alexandria has a very high per capita income but we are a very open and liberal city. We are a city that is relatively diverse and thrives on that diversity. A lot of people are familiar with the movie Remember the Titans about T.C. Williams High School. When the film was made, it was about issues between black and white students. Now, there is no majority at the high school; it is a little United Nations. Students at T.C. Williams speak 120 different languages at home. As someone that grew up in the south, I can say that having raised my children in Alexandria, they had a much more enriching experience than I did growing up. Alexandria helps make the world smaller because we live near and interact with people from all over the world and we can see that they really are just like us.
Another thing that I love about Alexandria is that it has such a long history of good government; I attribute this to the Byrd Machine. It is a good, honest government. Alexandria has had few scandals and by and large all elected officials are doing what they believe is in the best interest of the city, and they are not acting for personal gain or because they have been improperly pressured.
AEDP: We often learn best from others- what is the best piece of professional advice you have received from someone else?
Lonnie: I once hired a consultant to help me with the operations of my law practice, which deals in wills, trusts and estates. Typically, I would draft documents and send them out to my clients, ask them to review and then contact me when they wanted to come in and sign the documents. In reality, people would get this thick stack of documents and then just let them sit around and not take action. The consultant told me that when I have the clients in my office for the initial meeting, I should set the time for them to come back in and sign the documents. That advice has made doing business so much easier.
The other piece of advice I received was a piece of marketing advice. Someone pointed out to me that lawyers’ best source of business is from other lawyers. Naturally, you would think of other lawyers as your competition. In a sense they are, but many lawyers do not do what you do. If someone asks a lawyer if they practice a certain type of law, and they don’t, then they can refer this client to another lawyer that does. This revelation about how to market ourselves completely changed our approach to attending bar meetings. Additionally, we can get business from lawyers that do the same thing we do but they have a conflict, or they might be with a big firm and a matter is too small for them to handle but not for us.
AEDP: We know you have been a source of inspiration and motivation for many other Alexandrians- can you share the best piece of professional advice you give to up and coming leaders?
Lonnie: I would say that getting involved with the Chamber and getting to know other business people is incredibly important. As a business, you realize that you do work with a lot of other businesses and with employees of those businesses. The Alexandria Chamber of Commerce is such a good way to meet, sustain and build trusting relationships with other businesses. These relationships help keep you in business.
AEDP: What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment?
Lonnie: I am proud of certain things: I have been in business for a long time, I have never borrowed money, I have never missed a payroll and there have only been two times over 25 years ago that I have ever had to put my money into the business to make sure we made payroll. I am also proud that I have been able to practice in this city and also follow other interests. For example, I had a full political life – I ran campaigns, I was chair of the Democratic Party, I was on Alexandria city council. In 2000 I decided not to run for reelection and it was the best thing to ever happen to my law practice! These days, instead of politics, I read, memorize poetry, and study as much as I did in college or law school. I enjoy what I do at work but I also enjoy my hobbies at home.
AEDP: In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing businesses today?
Lonnie: I don’t think there is one challenge. Business has been challenging since the beginning of time. I think the one thing that is always a challenge is whether a business owner can live with uncertainty. As much as we talk about technology and all of those external changes that can make business difficult, it still comes down to whether someone can move forward in the face of uncertainty. I will use myself as an example – I have been in private practice since 1980. I have never known two months out what I was going to be doing or who my clients would be. That is uncertainty!
AEDP: Finally, how has doing business in Alexandria changed since you were the Business Leader of the Year?
Lonnie: Amazon and Virginia Tech is huge; it is the biggest thing since the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The development on the waterfront has also been significant; it is so much more vibrant today than when it was just warehouses and chain link fences.
To learn more about Rich Rosenthal Brincefield Manitta Dzubin & Kroeger, PLLC, visit their website.