By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

0629-Feature-new chairman_Blog

Al Royse readily admits he had no idea what he was getting into back in 1997, when representatives from the American Heart Association asked him to become chairman of the San Francisco Heart Walk.

Royse knew little about the organization. He knew little about heart disease. He knew even less about how it had affected his family.

But here’s what he did know: The organization had a great reputation. He trusted and respected the two people who’d recommended him for the gig. And there was his newfound personal connection to the mission; the very week he was mulling the offer, an employee’s wife died of a stroke while on a field trip with their first-grade daughter.

“Put those three things together and I couldn’t see how I wouldn’t do it,” Royse said.

What Royse expected would be a one-and-done commitment turned into a lifelong devotion. He’s risen within the organization ever since, so much so that on Wednesday he starts a two-year term as chairman of the national board.

***

There’s a tidy narrative behind Royse’s climb up the AHA ladder.

Basically, he peeked in, looked around and liked what he saw. The more he stuck around, the more comfortable he felt. He also thought he could make a difference and, indeed, he did.

What’s really fascinating in how much his entire life has followed that narrative.

Royse grew up in Mandan, North Dakota, the smaller half of the metropolitan area that also includes Bismarck. His parents owned a family business that specialized in selling fruits and vegetables (especially watermelons, still his favorite food). The business kept Royse and his four siblings plenty busy growing up. His big contribution as a child was coining a slogan they still use today: “A Royse Melon Is A Choice Melon.”

He went to the University of North Dakota, graduating with honors with degrees in accounting and economics. What he really wanted to do was teach. So he spent another year at UND, getting a master’s degree in accounting and serving as a graduate teaching assistant.

Having scratched his itch for teaching, he decided to pursue an interest in law. He had planned to attend an out-of-state law school, but something happened to keep him in North Dakota: He was elected to the House of Representatives.

Reviving a slogan he’d used successfully while running for grade-school offices – “Vote Royse For The Best Choice!” – the 22-year-old became the second-youngest person ever elected to the North Dakota Legislature. During his time in office, he was the only legislator under the age of 30. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, he was elected as a Republican in a heavily Democratic area, displaying a characteristic that he still has to this day – a knack for uniting people and building their confidences. He followed this by being voted the top freshman legislator, then getting re-elected … all while earning that law degree. Along the way, he made national news by giving one of the key legislative speeches, and casting one of the key votes, in getting North Dakota’s support of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, one of the biggest issues of that era. North Dakota was the 34th of 35 states to ratify it; however, 38 were needed.

“It was an incredible experience,” Royse said. “The Legislature was designed for citizen involvement, not full-time politicians. We met in formal session every other year, with monthly committee meetings in the off year. It gave people like me a chance to participate without having to give up our daily responsibilities.”

As of 1976, Royse was in his mid-20s with a resume showing he was a CPA, lawyer, two-term lawmaker and teacher. With so many potential paths, Royse settled on getting some “real world” business experience at a major accounting firm, then becoming a business lawyer, probably somewhere in the Midwest.

A job in the San Francisco office of the company that would become Deloitte seemed like the perfect launching pad.

Royse specialized in tax work and, as would happen with his AHA career, one thing led to another.

“After two years, I decided that I liked my clients so much and I liked San Francisco so much, that I’d spend another couple of years there,” he said. “Then you get promoted and it turns into a lot more years.”

About 34.

Royse retired in 2010, having held titles such as Deputy National Managing Tax Partner, Partner-In-Charge for the entire Western Region Tax practice, Managing Tax Partner for the San Francisco and North Pacific Region, the first-ever national tax partner for the company-wide Clients and Markets programs and initiatives, and both U.S. and global leader for Deloitte’s tax industry programs. He is still considered the “godfather” to many of Deloitte’s most successful initiatives.

When he left, a tribute sent to all employees detailed much of his career. It also noted his fondness for powerful quotes and his tendency to group things into threes. The story focused on his incredible impact on Deloitte and offered this three-pronged postscript of his Deloitte tenure:

  • A rare talent.
  • A true leader.
  • An innovator.

***

The ’97 San Francisco Heart Walk set a local record for dollars raised and number of walkers. So Royse was invited to lead the way again the following year.

Next came a spot on the local board. Then he became its chairman. Yes, things were moving quickly, but the offers tapped into one of Royse’s treasured quotes: “Always say yes before you say no. No doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Something else happened, too.

“As I got more involved, the ‘yes’ become stronger and stronger,” he said.

Part of the lure came from hearing survivors’ stories. He instituted a practice of having a survivor speak at the start of every board meeting to remind everyone why they were there. He also became more familiar with the stories of heart disease among his relatives – aunts, uncles and other branches of the family tree.

The San Francisco chapter thrived under his leadership. After two terms as the local board chair, he was asked to join the board of the Western States Affiliate. A few years later, he started a two-year run as chair of that board.

Royse ended up spending about a decade on the Affiliate board. Along the way, the Western States expanded to include what had been the Pacific Northwest Affiliate (covering 10 states), improved advocacy efforts at the local and state levels, and become more strategic and tactical about fundraising.

The national board came calling in 2011 and Royse was ready.

Or so he thought.

During his first week of national board meetings, he flashed back to 1997. It was as if he was learning the AHA all over again.

“I had no idea we were international,” he said. “I had no idea we actually had mission-aligned businesses. I had no idea the breadth of the advocacy in our Washington group. I had no idea of the scope of our fundraising. I had no idea of all the events we held and the impact they made. I had been fairly myopic in looking at the Western States. Frankly, I was blown away by what this organization really was.”

While he felt a bit embarrassed, he also felt encouraged. The organization he already believed in was even better than he thought.

“It was like a kid going into a candy store who’d been used to getting only licorice and all of a sudden he sees chocolates and gummy bears, things he wasn’t even aware existed,” Royse said, laughing at the fact a candy metaphor probably wasn’t best for an AHA story.

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Royse quickly filled his metaphorical candy dish, chairing a variety of committees that first year. He became Secretary-Treasurer the next year, then in July 2013 he began a two-year term as Chairman-Elect, preparing him to take over from Bernie Dennis.

The former politician brings an ambitious platform to this position. Not surprisingly, it includes an emphasis both on the future and the present, in particular continuing to connect the dots between local, affiliate and national leaders, policies that are already an AHA focus.

“To me, the local level is the ground attack and the national level is the air support,” Royse said. “The two have to be working in alignment to maximize your chances for success. So the fact that local markets fully understand the resources available helps make them more successful.”

As Royse said in his acceptance speech at the AHA Passing of the Torch dinner, “We plan to have one foot on the path for today, and the other foot on the road to tomorrow.”

“The pace of change in the world is beyond comprehension, and we need not only be abreast of it, but in front of it,” Royse continued. “As former hockey great Wayne Gretzky used to say, ‘You skate not to where the puck is, but where it will be.'”

Royse goes into this with some crucial experience from his Deloitte days. He knows someone at a lower level can feel undue pressure when people at a higher level reach out, and he also knows how to avoid it.

“As national leaders, we want to be a value add, not a new task,” he said.

Royse’s sincerity can be judged this way: He considers understanding and adapting to the future and success at the community level two of his top priorities.

In fact, they are part of the foundation upon which his other priorities are built. They include a continued focus on science and research as the foundation of the AHA, and the organization’s devotion to building a Culture of Health, and turning the AHA into a billion-dollar organization (up from roughly $700 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year).

“The community effort is broader than tapping into our local AHA offices,” Royse said. “It’s about assisting and enabling our local schools, churches and city councils to take a stronger role in helping us implement a Culture of Health. We have opportunities to really have the country embrace it. There’s a need for it, and there’s an awareness of it that we’ve never seen before, and the AHA will right at the forefront of making it happen.”

***

Since leaving Deloitte, Royse has kept plenty busy aside from his AHA work.

He’s gotten back into teaching, spending 4-6 weeks a year as a guest lecturer at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, Shanghai, China.

He’s back in politics, having been elected to the city council in Hillsborough, California, in 2012.

He chaired the University of North Dakota Foundation. He is involved in several family businesses. He’s also on several other nonprofit boards. He’s especially excited about a program founded by a former Deloitte Managing Partner and supported by Deloitte called Courageous Principals, which trains K-12 principals to become more effective leaders.

“If you can affect one principal, you can affect 100 teachers,” he said. “If you’re going to change education, change trajectories of lives, this is a great way to do it.”

There’s also his immediately family: his daughter, Jennifer, is an actress-turned-real estate broker in New York City, married to a fireman and mother of his 10-month-old grandson, Rory. His son, Matthew, is a tax consultant for Deloitte in Salt Lake City.

For leisure, Royse might be found walking his black labrador Abby, doing yoga on the beach, biking, hiking or skiing. (A serious hiker, Royse climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2006.)

He also might be at a ballgame. An avid sports fan, he has season tickets to the San Francisco Giants and 49ers (both former clients of his while at Deloitte, as was the San Jose Sharks), and the newly crowned NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

A self-professed political and history junkie, he also might be reading up on those areas, looking for a few more quotes to add to his collection.

Here are two at the front of his mind as he steps into his new role:

  • “The future is made up of a series of nows.”
  • “If you save a life, you save the world.”

Royse especially likes how both dovetail with the work of the AHA.

“We save lives; it’s what we do,” he said. “You never know the impact of a life you save. So it’s not beyond rhyme or reason that one of the lives we save now – or someone they impact – may one day save the world. I am humbly looking forward to continuing being a part of it.”