Catching up with ARTA’s new CEO, Marek Robinson

ARTA: First off, tell us about your name: Marek. It seems like a typo.

Marek: Yeah, I’ve never heard that one before. The simple answer is that it was in a name book. My mom liked it and chose it.

The more complex answer is that there was quite the battle between my mom and dad over what to name me.  My dad, forever a hippie (and this was in 1968), wanted to name me ‘Now’.  He had changed his name to ‘Today’, and he felt that ‘Today’ was the father of ‘Now’; it made a lot of sense to him.

Fortunately, my mom won that battle; otherwise, I would probably still be in therapy for all of the teasing I would have received as a child. Anecdotally, my dad went on in life to run for Sheriff in a small, rural town in Arkansas. His campaign slogan was: “Today Robinson, Tomorrow Sheriff”. Apparently, small, rural towns in Arkansas were looking for something more substantive than a good slogan; he lost.

Speaking of interesting names. ARTA? It sounds like what people sound like after a little too much tequila.

ARTA: Yeah. Okay. You win. I wish your dad had been around to name ARTA. Let’s move on. You guided back in the 90s and now here you are again. Anything happen in between?

Marek: Well, quite a bit actually. I started working on the river in 1989 and guided through 1994.  During the course of that, I finished college and followed the sun by guiding in Central and South America in the off season. In 1993, while guiding in California, I met Tori, who would later become my wife. We bought some property in Coloma, built a house, and got married in 1996. I started a career in sales in 1995, and, as I like to say: “It worked out”. I started in inside sales for an alarm equipment manufacturer and was promoted to outside sales and they moved me to Santiago, Chile for two years. Tori and I lived in an apartment and used every weekend to travel around the country.

ARTA: [interrupting] Wait, slow down, this is amazing. I don’t know whether to ask about guiding in the 90s or living in Chile or inside sales or alarms. So, tell me about the moment you met Tori.

Marek: Oh, this is a great story.

Tori and I actually met briefly in 1990 (but she would deny this forever – see below). Her former fiancé was good friends with my buddy Rusty Grimm and they all came out to kayak in California and a group of us ended up boating the Tuolumne together.

Fast forward three years and Dick Linford [co-owner of ECHO, the company that Marek guided for] calls me up and asks: “Hey, what do you know about Tori Pillinger?” I told him I had only met her briefly a few years earlier, but I remember her being social and super athletic (she was a downhiller on the US ski team and had probably worked out more by the time she was 21 than most people will in an entire lifetime). Dick decided to offer her a job if she could make it out to Placerville for our guide orientation. Rusty and I were badass Tuolumne guides back then and were on our way back from Groveland to Placerville after running some high water Tuolumne Trips (probably). Walking into the guide house was like coming home. It was spring in California and everyone was in town from wherever they were for the winter. Looking across the room, I saw countless familiar faces, and one new one: Tori. I immediately recognized her from years before (I’ve been told that my memory is pretty astounding). She was standing next to Theo, Rusty’s fiancé so I casually walked up, gave Theo a hug and introduced myself to Tori. I said, “Hi, I’m Marek.”  She smiled and said, “I’m Tori.” I said, “Yeah, we met a few years ago on the Tuolumne.”

She promptly responded, “Hmmm, I don’t remember that.”

I was crushed. Scraping my ego off the floor, I said, “Well, it’s nice to meet you. Welcome to ECHO. Have a great night.” and walked away.

What I didn’t know until later was that when Rusty and I walked in the door, Tori looked at Theo and said, “WHO is THAT?!?” I was hooked and “coincidentally” (air quotes), there were a lot of opportunities for her to come down to the Tuolumne with Rusty and Theo in the next couple of weeks. After two weeks of her trying to remain single and me falling head over heels, we were supposed to go kayaking with Rusty and Theo when both of them came down with some “random illness“, leaving Tori and me to paddle the South Fork together. Just the two of us. That was it.

ARTA: That is a great story. But back to the saga. After two years in Chile…

Marek: I got promoted again, moved home, and ran our business in Latin America. After a number of years of traveling internationally, Tori and I had our first child, Stella, and I took a more local sales role on the west coast.  A couple more years and second daughter, Zoe, came into our lives. I continued to work in sales and Tori worked as an ER nurse. Living in Coloma gave us a lot of opportunities to get on the river and it was always an integral part of our lives. 

One of the advantages of having a career as a traveling salesperson was the frequent flier miles and hotel points. We had a saying: “Whoever dies with the most frequent flier miles, LOSES”, so it was our annual mission to find some exotic place and use our frequent flier miles to return to our dirtbag roots. I got pretty good at trading a business suit for board shorts and our adventures continued. We backpacked around Everest and large parts of South America, and when the kids were older, we rode elephants in Thailand, camels in Morocco, watched soccer in Barcelona, surfed in Baja, Bali, Nicaragua and the Philippines while also learning to sail and snorkel in Tahiti and Tonga.

In between, we fueled our souls with multi-day family rafting trips and local river runs. My career continued to “work out” and I wound up as Vice-President of Sales running a $450M national sales organization. Then it all changed in 2017. Tori passed away after a six-year battle with breast cancer and I quit my job to be a stay-at-home dad. We always planned to travel and show our daughters the world, so I continued that plan and in 2018, I turned 50 and completed my goal of having traveled to 50 countries and all 50 states (my daughters have been to 35 countries and they’re only teenagers). We capped off the celebration by chartering a sailboat and cruising around Tahiti. Since then, I used my time to get more involved in my community and to coach the high school ski team.  So yeah, a lot has happened. Life has a way of continuing on.

ARTA: [speechless]

Marek: You okay?

ARTA: [stammering] Yeah. Sorry. That’s amazing. I think we’ll have to do a follow-up interview. Or four. But we’ll stick to the river theme for now. You’re like the Austin Powers of guiding. It’s like you were cryogenically frozen and now you’ve come back to guiding and it’s “the future”. What changes have you noticed?

Marek: Off the top, I’ve noticed a few of the same trucks, rafts, and even a few guides. Some of the rapids and canyons have changed. Some of the changes are subtle and some more pronounced; just reinforcing the dynamic of nature. And, while there are a few changes, one of the best things is the fact that there are a lot of things that remain the same. River trips offer such an incredible and authentic experience. Getting outside with friends and family creates a bond unlike many other experiences and it is so encouraging to see that has remained a constant throughout the years. Our guides are as passionate as ever and their sense of community and camaraderie is inspiring.

ARTA: Any similarities between the multi-million-dollar alarm industry and the non-profit whitewater rafting world (besides the obvious ones)?

Marek: Is think the dress code is the most similar. That, and the use of virtual meetings! I thought my days of webinars and conference calls were behind me, but it’s almost as if the whole world is doing things virtually these days.

The other big similarities are around ensuring a joyful customer experience and employee (river guide) delight. In a large corporation, you end up running “your own business” so to speak and you can set the bar for what your customer experience looks like. Running a sales organization, you also realize how your team is the primary touch point for your customers. Working to make sure your team is thriving is an important part of delivering a great customer experience. Lastly, I spent a lot of my years working with small businesses. Whether you’re a rafting company or a security company there are a lot of similarities in small business.

ARTA: Speaking of sales teams and river guides, any cross-over skill sets? You know, would you rather take a river guide into a corporate sales meeting or have a salesperson guide you over Clavey Falls?

Marek: That’s an easy one. I’d take a river guide to a corporate sales meeting. River guiding is hard work and requires a unique skillset. You’ve got to be adaptable. You have to keep your cool when things go sideways. Communication is another key crossover skill. As a guide, you get used to safety orientations, camp orientations, etc. so standing up in front of a group becomes second nature to you. That’s a really valuable skill that many people underestimate. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great salespeople out there, but I’ve only met a few that I’d even want in my boat going over Clavey and even fewer I’d want guiding it!

ARTA: Did you ever daydream about the river when you were pedaling security systems?

Marek: Not only did I dream about it, it used it for analogies regularly. I used it to keep me grounded. When preparing for a big presentation or having to go on stage in front of 1,000 people, I would often remind myself that even if I fail on stage, I won’t be surfing a hole at high water at the end of it.

ARTA: Personally, I might take the surf. What is your favorite memory of the river from your first go-round?

Marek: I have so many fond memories, but I’ll put them in two categories. First, the friendships. When you work on a crew on a river, they become your family.  Some of my best friends in the world are from when I was guiding thirty years ago. We can go without talking for months, or even years and when we reconnect, it’s as if no time has passed. I had the opportunity to do a trip last summer with some friends I hadn’t seen in years and it was as if we’d been on the river all summer together. Second, the mornings.  For me, morning was always my favorite time on the water. Being the first one up in camp and watching the morning unfold. The canyon light. The subtle sounds and the smell of fresh coffee outdoors. I miss those things and I’m really looking forward to getting them back in my life more consistently.

ARTA: Damn, man, stop. You’re making me homesick. I can’t wait to get on the river with you. And not just because I don’t really like to get up early in the morning. [awkward laughter] You know: that’s the difference between the Sales Department and the Marketing Department, right? [awkward silence]. Okay, moving on. Let’s talk about that trip we’re taking together. If you could bring any six people in the world, who would you invite?

Marek: One: Michael Franti; I love his music and music always makes for a great trip. Two: Rusty Grimm; he and I guided together, and I did a trip with him last summer; he always instigates thought-provoking conversation, and I feel like I get smarter just sitting next to him. Three: Zach Byars; Captain Fun, and he’s pretty good at music and river rescue in case anything happens. Four and five: My two daughters; they love all of these people and watching them experience the canyon warms my heart. And six: Richard Branson; I find him quite inspirational and I bet he’s got some stories to tell.

And, of course, if I could pick anyone, it would be Tori. For all of the obvious, and not so obvious reasons. We met on the river and spent a lot of time on the river over the years.

ARTA: Wow. Thank you. I’m really looking forward to that trip. And I was just kidding about not liking to get up early. 🙂

Marek: Like you were just kidding about my name being a typo?

ARTA: Well, look at the time! I’m sure you have things to do (and I probably need to look for another job), so we’ll wrap this up. Before we go, I just want to say that I think ARTA is in good hands.

Welcome back to the river.

Welcome home.