Leading by Example

Mike Rowlett makes it cool to give, inspiring a wave of like-minded champions

American author, speaker and salesman Hilary Hinton “Zig” Ziglar once quipped, “You can have everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” 

For Mike Rowlett, these words are more than a nice sentiment; they are a personal philosophy that he lives by every day. And he credits that ethos with helping him achieve what he calls “a blessed life” with his wife, Beverly, and their blended family. 

Rowlett’s blessings also extend to his professional life, where over the course of his career, the now-62-year-old suburban Dallas-Ft. Worth resident has worked his way up the corporate ladder at Womack Machine Supply Company, from salesperson to becoming the company’s owner and CEO in 2006.

Womack’s market niche is that of an industrial distributor of hydraulic, pneumatic and automation equipment. But in drawing inspiration from Mr. Ziglar’s words, Rowlett also has created a company culture built on giving — to his customers, his vendors, his employees and scores of philanthropic endeavors, including MDA.

“Zig’s words are at the core of my existence,” Rowlett stresses. “If you selflessly serve others, you’ll always get everything you need.” 

What does not define Rowlett’s existence is his diagnosis. In 2000, at the age of 47, he was diagnosed with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD), which primarily affects the muscles of the face, shoulder blades, upper arms and lower legs. 

“My disease hasn’t slowed me down — maybe a little over the last couple of years — but for the most part I power through,” Rowlett says. “I have a variety of walking sticks for stability, but I’m not in a wheelchair. Beverly is always here for me, but I don’t need hands-on care.”

Choosing to focus on life’s positives, Rowlett sees his diagnosis as yet another opportunity to help fulfill his innate drive to help other people get what they want out of life.

A passion for compassion

When Rowlett took hold of Womack’s reigns in 2006, his personal desire to give back rose to top-priority status companywide. The plan was to nurture a corporate culture rooted in philanthropic efforts. It’s right there in Womack’s vision statement: “We will be known for our superior customer service, products and solutions; philanthropy; entrepreneurial spirit; consistent profits; employee-oriented, enjoyable atmosphere; career and growth opportunities; and use of the Golden Rule.”

Fact is, Rowlett kick-started the company’s giving spirit even before moving into the “corner office.” In 2004, he created Team Womack to raise funds through organizational events in support of an annual MDA event in Dallas-Ft. Worth that today is known as MDA Muscle Walk. “We started small, only about 12 of us. It felt like a good way to give back, so over the years Team Womack grew,” he recalls.

Carolyn Minnerly, MDA national director of summer camp and volunteer program, recalls Team Womack’s evolution, although she tells the story with a different emphasis: “That first year, Team Womack raised about $25,000 — and every year since they’ve raised at least $100,000. 

“What amazes me,” Minnerly continues, “is how Team Womack raises thousands and thousands of dollars for MDA and also uses their fundraising efforts as a team-building activity. The team raises money for our kids, and the money raised brings the employees together. I think that’s why the team includes about 300 people today. It’s grown into
a big deal.” 

Reinforcing Team Womack’s unity, Mike and Beverly Rowlett host a celebration brunch after the close of each MDA Muscle Walk. A feast awaits family, friends and anyone who went the distance for MDA’s families, especially its “kiddos,” as Rowlett calls the young recipients of Team Womack’s efforts.

In good company

As Team Womack increased its impact, Rowlett called upon Rodney Bryan to assume the position of Womack’s Vice President of Company Culture and keep the giving mojo going. “Our company was growing, but we didn’t want to lose any of our great people. So early on, we went through a crash course in how to build employee morale, loyalty and unity. Creating a company culture based on philanthropy did the trick,” Bryan says. 

Each year, Rowlett encourages his employees to volunteer as counselors at MDA Summer Camp, giving them paid time off for their week of helping kids have the “best week of the year.”

Womack gave “company culture” a broad definition, in that the common ground is giving back, but how employees follow their philanthropic passion is an individual choice, with no charity off limits or favored over another. “If an employee supports a charitable effort, whether with money or sweat equity, we match the effort with a donation,” Rowlett stresses. “In a typical year, Womack will give money to nearly 100 different events.”

Often, Womack employees choose to rally around a certain cause as a group or by work location. As an example, Bryan explains how Womack’s Dallas, Houston and Tulsa locations support MDA, specifically by raising funds each year through Muscle Walk to help support MDA Summer Camp and other support programs. Womack’s Salt Lake City office is dedicated to Make-A-Wish. Other company employees donate time and money to a local children’s hospital. “Our core value is philanthropy. We live by that and expect our managers to seek out opportunities to get their group involved. And to give our employees the confidence to get involved, we do whatever we can to inspire the spirit and help them succeed,” Bryan explains. 

One way Womack taps into this spirit in its Dallas, Houston and Tulsa locations is by allowing employees to volunteer for up to a week at MDA Summer Camp. The opportunity is paid time off that doesn’t count against an employee’s personal or vacation time. Since supporting MDA Summer Camp is a primary motivator for Team Womack, Rowlett feels it’s imperative that employees experience firsthand how their fundraising efforts help children with muscular dystrophy and related neuromuscular diseases. 

But the highlight of Womack’s summer camp involvement each year, at least as far as the kids and other counselors are concerned, is the barbecue meal Rowlett and his employees provide. “Team Womack brings a complete meal fit for a king,” Minnerly says. “Campers and volunteer counselors feel so special and pampered. And all Mike wants in return is a smile from his kiddos. That’s all! Giving others something to smile about brings Mike so much happiness. That’s who he is.”

The ripple effect

So what about the other half of Mr. Ziglar’s promise, the part that says giving begets getting? According to Bryan, Womack does indeed profit, albeit indirectly, from its philanthropic efforts. “Our employees feel good about themselves, the company and their co-workers,” he says. “So our company culture creates an environment where employees feel encouraged to speak up with solutions and work toward career growth. They want to be here.” And that positive environment, he adds, triggers a ripple effect that checks off each of Womack’s seven vision statement goals. 

Leading Team Womack to participate in MDA Summer Camp also gave Rowlett’s family a new layer of love. As the treasured story goes, his son, Tracy, became an MDA camp volunteer counselor after turning 18. It was during his second year at camp that Tracy met Whitney, another dedicated MDA Summer Camp volunteer — who is now his wife. It’s another one of those “ripple effects” that Rowlett never tires of sharing.  

What’s more, Rowlett’s drive to help others brings gentle waves of unconditional admiration — a fact that often escapes him because of his inherent modesty. 

“Personally, Mike changed my life,” says Caitlin Carter, MDA associate executive director based in Dallas. “There are no cures and few treatments for many of our diseases, but seeing Mike’s positive attitude changed me. Everything he does is to make a difference. He’s taught me to focus on solutions — for today and the future.”

The way Rowlett lives life serves as an inspiration for his kiddos, too, Carter adds: “Mike gives our MDA campers hope. He’s living proof that being affected physically doesn’t mean you can’t become the very best version of yourself. It’s the example he sets for our kids, especially the older ones.” 

If, however, you ask Rowlett about the well-deserved and heartfelt praise for his compassion, he’s prone to politely blow it off. “Mike’s wired to give; it’s a natural response and never done for recognition,” Bryan says. “One day he said to me, ‘I’ve never seen anybody not smile with an ice cream cone in their hand.’ So we put a soft-serve ice cream machine in our break room. If Mike can help make you smile, he’s had a good day.” 

Get Involved

Every day, dedicated volunteers all across the country lend their time and talents to help support kids and adults living with neuromuscular diseases. 

MDA-sponsored summer camps, led by MDA volunteers, medical personnel and skilled staff, are created especially for 6-to-17-year-olds with neuromuscular diseases. The weeklong sessions give campers an opportunity to discover activities they might have once imagined impossible — from zip-lining and horseback riding to arts and crafts and talent shows. 

Volunteer counselors, who must be at least 16 years old, receive extensive training so they can help campers enjoy the MDA camp experience to the max. 

Additional MDA events — such as MDA Muscle Walk, MDA Team Momentum and MDA Lock-Up — offer fun, family-friendly ways to raise vital funds that support research across MDA diseases to accelerate treatments and cures; care for kids and adults from day one; and the empowerment of families via services and support in hometowns across America. 

To volunteer or learn more about events in your local area, please sign up with MDA at mda.org/ways-to-help/volunteer. 

Seeing is Believing

Donating time, funds and energy to help support families served by MDA feels good. But to make fundraising a far more personal experience, MDA allows you to earmark funds. In this way, raised funds directly support your passion. Here are a few ways to raise funds to help kids and adults with neuromuscular diseases: 

1. Consider the price attached to MDA research, care and support, and let your dollars follow your heart. 

  • $100 provides care coordination for one MDA Care Center visit.
  • $150 provides a physical therapy consultation at an MDA Care Center.
  • $500 provides a week of medical supplies at an MDA Summer Camp.

2. MDA Your Way enables supporters to turn their everyday activities and interests into their very own personal fundraiser.

3. Personally watch your dollars in action.

Womack Machine Supply Company, headquartered in Dallas has raised many thousands of dollars for MDA’s lifesaving mission since 2004. To deepen Team Womack’s connection to their fundraising efforts, the company’s CEO and owner, Mike Rowlett, makes it easy, and fun, for his employees to watch their money in action. 

“Team Womack works so hard to raise these extraordinary funds particularly to benefit MDA Summer Camp, and then Mike encourages his team to volunteer as summer camp counselors. And volunteers don’t forfeit vacation time; it’s a powerful way to strengthen Womack’s company culture,” explains Caitlin Carter, MDA associate executive director based in Dallas. “Womack employees get to literally see what their fundraising accomplishes — like maybe helping a child with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) climb out of his wheelchair and go swimming or horseback riding for the first time. That can be very rewarding, and it reinforces Team Womack’s commitment to MDA.” 

Visit Ways to Get Involved to learn more. For details on national sponsorship opportunities and how to become an Become a Partner.

Donna Shryer is a freelance writer in Chicago. 

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