At RootsTech I had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with FamilySearch outgoing CEO, Jay Verkler, and with incoming CEO, Dennis Brimhall. I asked each the same set of questions. The similarities and differences in their responses make interesting reading. I’ll present the interview, a couple of questions at a time, throughout this week.
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The Insider: Tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Dennis: I actually grew up in Utah. I went to BYU and then headed off to Northwestern Kellogg School of Management and got an MBA. I have spent my career in academic medicine, which is in running large university hospitals: first the University of Utah, then the University of California at San Francisco, and then the University of Colorado. That's my background and that's the area I loved in life and enjoyed for all these years.
I was retired when I got a call from the Church [of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] which said, “Would you come and be involved in FamilySearch?” I said, “Are you sure you've got the right person?” knowing the great things that Jay Verkler has done. I remember that they said, “Yes, we change things every now and again.” I think one of the reasons was that FamilySearch has become a very large and complex organization. It has grown rapidly so now the opportunity is—not to abandon a technology focus by any means—but to begin to organize for the next steps forward.
Jay: I love a lot of things. Of course my family and all those important things. I love FamilySearch; I love what's happened here and I love the industry. I love a lot of hobbies. And I enjoy the diversity, whether its water skiing or sports stuff or music. I love a lot of different kinds of music. I love cars; I love speed (laughing). I love mountain roping. I love hiking and camping and backpacking. There are a lot of wonderful things in life.
Insider: Enough about you; tell us a little about your ancestry.
Dennis: I know a little bit about it. I’ve studied. I've done a little bit of work. I'm not entirely a pilgrim when it comes to genealogy, but my ancestry has pioneers who came across the plains, including Rebecca Winters who's buried up by Scottsbluff, Nebraska, one of the very few recorded pioneer graves. It’s a terrific story about that grave and the laying of the railroad track.
And then we can go back to her father, Gideon Burdick, who was George Washington's drummer boy when he crossed the Delaware River on that Christmas night in 1776.
If you go back further on both sides, with the exception of a little French in there, it goes back to England. We are from England and so the name was Bramhall originally. When we came over here they wanted to change their names so we became the Brimhalls. So Brimhall was entirely an American name and there's not many around. We've lived in Chicago and Denver and San Francisco and we were the only Brimhalls in the phone book. So it is not a very common name. It is out here [locally] because of the brothers who early on joined the Church. That's why we concentrate out here.
Jay: I consider my ancestry to be not just my personal ancestry but my wife's ancestry too. That's interesting. I'd never really realized that until you asked. On my side of the world I have pioneers who crossed the plains from back in England. That's all been well researched. I've never validated it. I will someday but that doesn't look like the most productive area to work in.
For my father there's no genealogy completed at all. The Verkler line goes back into Zurich but I haven't documented it well back into Zurich and that's what I'm going to work on in the next few months. His mother died when he was 6 years old and so he knew nothing about her. I've opened up a lot of that line through some research that goes back into Germany and I'm trying to get across the pond. Illinois is where the Verklers were part of. My wife has Hungarian roots. She and her father have done some research on Norwegian lines. For her Japanese lines, I have a personal enjoyment. Part of what I care doing is the family history of my kids. That's where our different roots are. My kids are just a mix of everything. It’s kind of cool.
Insider: What is the best thing about leading an organization as large as FamilySearch?
Dennis: One of the really interesting things—and I've found this in the hospital world as well, but it’s probably more of the case here—the people who work for us really, really want to do this work. And they want to do it right. Yes, for many of our people, they're paid but most of them could do something else for a little more money than we pay them. They really want to be here. That's one of the really nice things about it. The other thing is, they're very passionate about making it work for other people; they understand that if we’re successful other people will be successful. That kind of focus on the purpose, focus on the mission, it’s just different than coming to work every day.
The other thing that is always important to remember is we have 250,000 volunteers. Now that is a stunning number. It’s a stunning number! All over the world these are people we don't get paid at all, but they're here simply because they love it and they want to do it. Managing that number of volunteers and keeping them focused and busy doing things that are collectively for the good, and helping us move along is really a big effort. Just imagine having 250,000 helpers who are dedicated to what you want to do. Who’s got that? That's really neat.
Jay: There's a ton of things that are wonderful about FamilySearch that really don't equate to its size: the clear mission that FamilySearch has. That mission is really about helping everyone on the planet. Yes, sure, a lot of companies want to help everyone on the planet. For over ten years I've really understood the impact that family history has on all kinds of different walks of life. When you hear the African American leaders in the inner city explain how important it is that their kids who don't have fathers know where they came from, that's cool. Or when you sit on a plane—and I've sat on a lot of those plane rides, especially when I was commuting—and you have people just light up when they know what you do because they want to tell you about their families. Just seeing impact after impact after impact of family history has been awesome.
FamilySearch's role is as a non-profit organization that can partner with archives and can be kind of a partner archive that can provide resources to the world, but can also work with companies in a trusted way. We're trusted by so many different companies and organizations; that's just totally cool.
And then just to see patrons discover things because of our focus on people, those dimensions of the FamilySearch organization, whether it’s small or large, have been wonderful.
Of course one of the nice things about a larger institution is that you can have a lot of impact if you get everyone singing the same song, and going in the same direction. And that's been fun too.
Tuesday: Micromanagement, competition, and opportunity.