Updated: Jan 24, 2019
A familiar face to many Bainbridge Islanders, Rob Divelbess is the contractor you want to know, the parent you'd like to be, and the friend you want to have.
Rob Divelbess can take the heat. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, he spent the first half of his childhood riding dirt bikes in the dust, blowing up anthills, and getting into trouble. “We were kids in the ’70s,” Rob recalls. “Corduroy bell bottoms and BMX bikes. Straight out of ET.” When Rob was 8, he came home one afternoon to find a U-Haul in the driveway. His parents broke the news to Rob and his younger brother that the family was moving. Not just moving; moving to Juneau, Alaska.
INTO THE WILD
The family drove north to Bellingham, WA, and took the Alaska Marine Highway north to Juneau. “The Inside Passage is a transition from civilization to the ends of the world,” Rob observes. “You pass communities that are clinging to a mountain range, trying not to fall into the ocean. Everything is geared toward resource extraction and all its supports. The world is very different.”
Then, there they were, in Alaska. It was late October 1981. On Halloween, Rob and his brother went trick-or-treating in the snow. Rob was enrolled in a large elementary school that had no hot lunches. Rob’s mother taught high school English, and his father was a school principal. Life began anew.
In third grade, bored by the assigned classroom reading, Rob tucked a copy of The Hobbit inside his schoolbook. For this offense, he was sent to the principal’s office. After earning a perfect score on an SRA reading test, Rob was accused of cheating, because “No one gets 100 on the SRA.” Unsurprisingly, Rob became uninterested in school.
WORK IS FOR KIDS
Rob’s walk home from school took him past a ski shop. In eighth grade, knowing that the legal working age was 14, Rob would routinely stop in at the shop and inform them of his forthcoming employment. “I’d go in and remind them that my birthday was coming up on December 3, and that I’d be reporting to work at 3:00 pm on that date.” When Rob’s birthday came, he didn’t have a party. He went to work. He was employed by the ski shop for years. In summers during high school, he worked in a logging camp, removing transmissions from Mack dump trucks.
Rob skied and played soccer in the local men’s league, where he was able to leave a lot of frustration out on the “field” (technically, glacial hard pan), but it wasn’t enough. “I wanted out of where I was,” Rob says. “I was never comfortable in my own skin, which meant I didn’t know I was normal.”
When it was time to leave, Rob went to Oregon State for a year before transferring to culinary school. He’d forayed into restaurant work and had received positive feedback from several VIPs in the culinary world, and thought being a chef would be great. After completing the program, Rob got into the restaurant business, an experience he describes as an unmitigated disaster. “I was good in the kitchen, but I didn’t have the maturity to manage anyone.” After a stint as a traveling road chef, Rob moved to Bainbridge Island, where his grandfather had retired, and an aunt and uncle had also settled. Rob went to work for a contractor and has since then spent his life working in and with the trades.
BUILDING A FAMILY
After a mutual acquaintance set them up, Rob fell in love and married, living in Phinney Ridge and opening a design showroom with his wife, importing casework and plumbing fixtures. They had one son, Xander, and then another, Zane. “It was awesome,” Rob recalls. “We worked our asses off and never took a vacation.”
And then, in 2008, the bottom fell out of the housing market and construction industry. The showroom did not survive, and unfortunately neither did the marriage. Unable to find work in the building industry, Rob spent six months running a lodge in Alaska. When Rob returned to Washington, he started life over on Bainbridge Island.“I was rooted in intellectual arrogance,” Rob observes with candor. “I was just barely intelligent enough to think I was smarter than everyone else.” Learning from his failures, Rob built two companies on the island while becoming the person—and the father—he wanted to be.
He also became the employer he wanted to be. “Today I have these two local companies, Olympic Glass and IMI Construction, and my employees are the heart of the effort. I love the people I work with and we work well together, almost always. Same goes for our clients. And, amazingly, I get a chance to be a decent member of the community.”
Rob is unflinching in his assessment of his life experience and his business ethic in the world of construction. “At the end of the day, I’m talking about the process of building stuff, which is disruptive and stressful and costly. We have to keep the end product in mind at all times. Not everyone likes me. There’s not a lot of middle ground. It’s really important in this business that we like each other, the client and myself. If a prospective client doesn’t think we’re a good fit, I don’t want them to hire me. That’s OK. If everyone likes you, you’re defrauding someone. It’s much better to just be who you are.”