Feature Stories, Newspaper Writing, Sample Work

City manager cooks up plans and food

SuburbanjournalsPublished in the 8/30/09 issue of the Suburban Journals/Collinsville Herald

After a long day managing city departments, implementing a strategic plan and fussing with budgets, it only takes a little food to relax Collinsville City Manager Robert Knabel.

Knabel, 58, is an amateur gourmet chef, a hobby few who interact with him at City Hall know about.

“I’ve always been interested in cooking. It’s therapeutic for me,” Knabel said recently. “It allows me to focus on something different.”
A career as a gourmet chef was Knabel’s focus for several years in Galesburg, where he owned an Italian fine dining restaurant between stints as the city manager in Lewiston, Idaho; Batavia, N.Y.; and Litchfield.

“Cooking has an artistic flavor to it,” Knabel said. “You get to show ingenuity. It’s the artsy part of it that I find intriguing.”

He wasn’t always intrigued by the arts, though. As an avid sports fan and athlete in high school and college, Knabel “regrets not paying more attention to the arts.”

These days, he juggles his love of the arts and sports although he realizes his limitations. After participating in a community softball event this summer, he “found that a 58-year old cannot play like a 28-year old,” Knabel said.

His work at City Hall keeps him active, too. As Collinsville’s city manager since September 2006, Knabel began his position in the midst of the city’s creation of a strategic plan, a blueprint for future city growth and services.

His first task was to figure out how to implement the plan to accomplish four core values: customer focus, employee engagement, continuous improvement and financial sustainability.

Noting improvements in turnaround time on projects, customer service and employee performance management efforts, Knabel said, “It’s rewarding to see the efforts being made in our continuous improvement. Our approach is different. Customer service is about how you make people happy and willing to support what we do.”

Creating a culture of support is one of the many strengths Knabel possesses, according to Cheryl Brombolich, director of operations and city clerk for Collinsville. “He supports our thoughts and ideas and the staff is supportive of the plan that he has for the city,” Brombolich said.

Family also matters to Knabel. It just takes the mention of his seven grandchildren to change his business stature from manager to grandpa. “They just make you smile,” he said while flashing a proud smile in his City Hall office. “Had I known they (grandchildren) were so much fun, I would have had them first.”

Although his staff sees his “analytical side,” Knabel said his family, including his wife of 36 years, Linda, sees him as “pretty sensitive and compassionate.”

“At the end of the day, you choose to make the relationship grow,” Knabel said. “We’ve grown together as a couple and can finish each other’s sentences.”

Watching his son, Brett, and daughter, Nikki, grow has also strengthened his marriage, Knabel said. Not wanting to miss out on the growth of his family prompts multiple trips to the Chicago area each year to visit with his children and grandchildren.

But Collinsville is home. “I grew up in this area,” Knabel said. “I can relate to this area, this region. It is truly home for me.”

The flavor of the Midwest has always stirred this gourmet cook’s taste buds. “The Midwest has a strong work ethic and strong moral guidance to it,” Knabel said. “Those flavors appealed to us.”

– Shannon Philpott


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