The founder and chief executive officer of Walla Walla company QualitySmith has died.
Robert B. Schmidt, 39, of Walla Walla died Tuesday night, a family friend and employee said this morning.
The cause of death is still being determined, said Seth Ruzicka, QualitySmith president.
"Above a boss, above a mentor, above anything else, Rob was one of my very best friends," Ruzicka said.
He said the company is expected to continue operating. Ruzicka said the family intends to "follow down the path of Rob's vision and finish what he started."
Schmidt, who attended Walla Walla Valley Academy and went on to Walla Walla University, was a consummate entrepreneur. He started QualitySmith -- then known as RBS Interactive -- in 2001 with a laptop and one other employee and grew it into one of Walla Walla County's largest employers at one point. The business served as a service-professional-finder for clients all across the country.
Consumers in search of home-improvement contractors from siding specialists to roofers find pre-screened companies on the QualitySmith website. The Walla Walla company sends "leads" to its list of contractors. The contractors then contact the clients with bids for the jobs. Revenue comes from fees to contractors each time a lead is delivered.
The same business model is used for Schmidt's second business, Glass.net, a windshield replacement finder firm.
The operation moved into its current location on Second Avenue in 2006, when Schmidt purchased the former Regence BlueShield building. The company at one point had grown to more than 100 employees, and the business had been recognized as one of the state's best places to work by Washington CEO magazine.
The award recognized a family-like environment painstakingly crafted by Schmidt to engage workers. Employees were encouraged to gather for PlayStation tournaments or work out in a gym built in the basement of the building. One year, employees who graduated from college were given iPod shuffles as gifts. Fathers in the company received barbecue tools for Father's Day.
The company had fallen on turbulent times last year at the hands of the recession. Once the 44th largest employer, it endured three rounds of layoffs in 2009, including the closure of its call center. Schmidt was bracing for a comeback earlier this year when he returned to the helm of the company.
But as changes were on the horizon, Schmidt was hospitalized in an airplane crash in July.
Ruzicka said few details of Schmidt's death were available this morning. He said funeral plans are in the works.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.