4.10.2010 | printed in the Spring 2010 issue of VITAL magazine
Those who know Rob Skjonsberg are quick to point out his work ethic, love of the land, and ability to communicate with people from all walks of life – ideal characteristics for the Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at POET.
Skjonsberg learned those life lessons at an early age. Growing up on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation in northeastern South Dakota (where his mother is a tribal member), he was taught to work hard and respect the land, like generations before him.
“We cut wood to heat our house and we hauled our own water,” Skjonsberg says. “We hunted and fished, not for sport, but so we could eat.”
By the time he was ten, Skjonsberg was spending summers working on his uncle’s farm in Minnesota.
“I earned money waxing combines, picking rocks and chopping ragweed,” he says. “I used it to buy school clothes and fishing poles.”
“It sounds tough, but it seemed pretty normal,” he adds. “With a last name like Skjonsberg, which is obviously Scandinavian, and a mother who’s a tribal member, it made for a diverse upbringing. That diversity and early work ethic really helped shape me.”
Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, has seen Skjonsberg’s work ethic firsthand.
“Rob works relentlessly-long hours, day and night, weekends and holidays,” says Buis, who serves on the Growth Energy board with Skjonsberg. “He doesn’t approach it as a job. To him, it’s a mission.”
After graduating with an economics degree from South Dakota State University in 1995, Skjonsberg spent the next eight years in banking.
“It seemed the plan for my life was to be a banker,” Skjonsberg says. “At the age of 29, my company asked me three different times to be a bank president, and I said no three different times. It didn’t feel right. I felt there was something bigger in store.”
That something bigger came in 2002, when South Dakota’s newly elected governor, Mike Rounds, asked Skjonsberg to serve as his chief of staff.
“My life took a 180-degree turn,” Skjonsberg says. “I knew Mike Rounds from volunteering for his campaign. When he asked me to be his chief of staff it was one of the greatest opportunities and privileges in my life.”
As chief of staff, Skjonsberg got his first chance to help shape public policy.
“I’m a ‘greater good’ kind of guy,” he says. “This was the opportunity to make a significant difference in the state. He taught me the importance of good public policy.”
The governor gave Skjonsberg much latitude and he often engaged in public battles. Some of his most impassioned public fights centered around hunting and landowner rights.
“I’m an unapologetic outdoorsman,” Skjonsberg says. “I consider it a rite of passage for my sons, Spencer (5) and Sam (2). Luckily, my wife Larissa understands. I was lucky to find someone like her to put up with me. As far as the public battles, I’ve never been afraid to stand up for what’s right.”
Mitch Krebs, the former press secretary for Governor Rounds, worked under Skjonsberg and has known Rob for eight years.
“You never felt like you worked for Rob, you felt like you worked with him,” says Krebs, now the Assistant Vice President of Media and Public Relations for the S.D.-based health organization Avera. “It was always a collaborative approach.”
Skjonsberg’s early life lessons, coupled with his government experience, seem perfectly suited to his role with POET. As the Senior Vice President of Government Affairs, Skjonsberg works with everyone from small-operation farmers to the nation’s highest-level government officials as he works to advance government policies to help the ethanol and agriculture industries.
“Everything I have done has led me to this point,” Skjonsberg says. “What we’re doing here at POET is for a very real purpose. It’s fate.”
Part of that feeling of fate, Skjonsberg says, comes from the fact that he was introduced to POET CEO Jeff Broin by the late Jeff Fox, Skjonsberg’s friend and predecessor at POET. Fox died in 2007, a devastating blow to the POET family.
“It’s an honor for me to be able to follow Jeff Fox and carry on his legacy,” says Skjonsberg, who joined POET in late 2007.
“Jeff Fox left big shoes to fill,” Broin says. “We were looking for a personality that was honest yet aggressive, tenacious and interested in leaving a mark on the world. Rob definitely has those qualities. We’re taking on some of the biggest political challenges the ethanol industry has ever faced. Rob handles it with great talent and an aggressive but fair nature. He has, without question, had a significant impact on U.S. policy in his time here at POET. He can help us change the world.”
Skjonsberg says it’s that bigpicture view that led him to a bigpicture company like POET.
“When this opportunity came up, I knew it was a chance to impact the state, the country and the world,” he says. “To me, this is more of a calling than a career.”
By Steve Lange