In Memoriam: Stephen E. Rubin ’74, Trustee Emeritus, Successful Entrepreneur, and Early Graduate of the WPI Plan
Stephen E. Rubin ’74, former chairman of the WPI Board of Trustees, a remarkable friend and colleague, dedicated family man, and successful entrepreneur who built one of the nation's leading industrial automation software companies, died August 28, 2015, at the age of 63, from complications related to ALS. He is survived by his wife, Tracy; his three children: Gregory and his wife, Jenny, of Westport, Conn.; Matthew and his wife, Stephanie, of West Roxbury, Mass.; and Jessica of Chicago; his sister, Ellen Rubin; and two grandchildren. His goats will also miss him tremendously.
Rubin's battle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) inspired many members of the greater WPI community to contribute to research on this as-yet incurable progressive neurodegenerative disease. Many, including WPI president Laurie Leshin, did so by taking part in the national ALS Association ice-bucket challenge on his behalf.
"Steve loved WPI and he poured his time, talent, and enormous energy into his alma mater, making this university a better place for all of us," said Philip B. Ryan '65, chairman of the WPI Board of Trustees. "Steve was genuine, warm, welcoming, caring, giving, approachable, comfortable with who he was, always interested in others, willing to offer help, and always with a smile. He brought joy to those who were fortunate to know him and he made us feel better about ourselves. He will be missed and fondly remembered."
Born in 1952, Rubin graduated from Norton, Mass., High School, where a mathematics teacher, aware of his interest in computers (he built computers from kits when he was just 10), encouraged Rubin to go into programming. The teacher had arranged with nearby Wheaton College to have his students use a terminal at the college that was linked to a timeshare computer at the University of Rhode Island. Rubin got his first taste of coding there.
In 1970 he enrolled at WPI, where the faculty had just approved the WPI Plan, a radically new approach to technological higher education whose major degree requirements are projects. The Plan, a sharp departure from WPI's formerly rigid curriculum, had no required courses, no failing grade, and a final all-or-nothing examination to measure students' competency.
Students in his class were given the option of being guinea pigs for this educational experiment or following the Institute's traditional curriculum. Rubin "jumped in with both feet," noted the citation for the honorary doctorate in engineering that he received from WPI in 2014. In addition to being a Plan pioneer, Rubin was also one of the earliest WPI undergraduates to earn a bachelor's degree in computer science. The department had been established just a year before he enrolled, and the first undergraduate degree was awarded during his sophomore year.
While at WPI, Rubin was on the baseball, basketball, and cross-country teams; he played drums in the band; and he was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. A major interest was SPUD (Student Projects for Urban Development), an intercollegiate student organization that harnessed student energy to improve life for people in need. "WPI students were real movers in this organization," he told Quest, a WPI development newsletter, in 1993. "Several of my Phi Gamma Delta brothers were involved."
"When I graduated, I knew I wanted to become president of my own company someday," he said in the same Quest interview. Before he was ready to pursue that dream, Rubin gained experience working for others. His first job was an outgrowth of his undergraduate Major Qualifying Project, or MQP. Sponsored by Foxboro Co., he developed process control algorithms. Foxboro hired him after graduation as a systems engineer to work on a computer-based control system. A year later he moved on to EMC Controls in Cockeysville, Md., where he was a senior member of the design team for a large process control systems.
During his college years, he met Tracy Garrett of Westfield, N.J., a 1977 graduate of Smith College who later taught in the Baltimore Public School System. They were married in 1977, and two years later he left EMC to take a position as assistant to the president of Copeland and Roland Inc., a developer of control systems located in Dublin, Ohio. In that post, he was responsible for the sale of computer-based control systems to Polaroid, Brookhaven National Laboratories, and Ciba-Geigy. When the company was sold in 1980, Rubin decided the time was right to take the plunge. Missing the East Coast (and New England seafood), the couple settled in Needham, Mass., where Rubin launched Computer Control Systems Inc. in his basement.
"We didn't eat much New England seafood in those days," he recalled years later. "Instead, we ate a lot of macaroni and cheese while we put every dollar we could earn or borrow into the new business." Rubin's experience in industry showed him that there was a need for a multi-tasking control system that could run on widely available processors. In 1984 the company, now called Intellution (for intelligent solutions) released its first product: the FIX (or Fully Integrated Control System). By combining industrial automation, plant management, and process control, the software, which ran on standard IBM-PCs, established a new niche within software engineering.
One of the earliest customers was Scottish Power, where engineers were skeptical about turning over control of mission-critical processes to software running on a personal computer, Rubin told Control and Instrumentation magazine in 2000. "Today, they bring a fossil-fueled boiler online in 20 minutes with less damage than they ever expected," he said. In a short time, Intellution's versatile packages were adopted by a wide range of industries, including some of the largest pharmaceutical producers, chemical companies, electric power companies, and auto makers. Its products would find their way into applications as diverse as managing airports, monitoring food processing operations, and controlling oil refineries. In time, Intellution was selling its software to 75 percent of the Fortune 500 companies and maintaining sales offices in 13 states and five other countries.
With its early successes, Intellution was able to move first to a small office in Dedham and then into what had formerly been the office and locker room of the Westwood Ice Rink. It would expand to the point where it would need to build its own 50,000-square-foot building in Dedham. From an initial workforce of two (Rubin and a WPI student), the company grew to 10 employees within a few years (an important milestone, Rubin recalled years later, because he could purchase company health insurance) and to more than 200 employees by 1993. Several of the key engineers were WPI graduates.
In 1989, during the 15th Reunion of the Class of 1974, the WPI Alumni Association presented Rubin with its Ichabod Washburn Young Alumni Award for Professional Achievement. In a letter to Joel Greene '69, chair of the association's Citations Committee, Rubin expressed his surprise at being selected for the honor. "My undergraduate years were quite fulfilling, yet I never considered myself anything more than an average student," he wrote. "However, the knowledge and experience I gained at WPI certainly have helped me over the years and continue to serve me well."
Three years later, the Alumni Association invited Rubin to become an at-large member of its executive committee, a position he held until 1997. As part of that assignment, he began a long-term association with The Venture Forum, which had become an Alumni Association program. He enthusiastically shared his own experience and the wisdom gained through the ups and downs of his entrepreneurial career with young business founders or those looking to turn an idea into a commercial venture. At the end of one Venture Forum presentation, he was asked what qualities had helped him be successful in business. He cited his "dogged determination," as well as his company's solid reputation for reliability and low employee turnover.
In that same talk, Rubin spoke about the need for a company to have an exit strategy, and he described Intellution's smooth transition in 1995 to being a wholly owned subsidiary of Emerson Electric Co. "It was a good decision" he said, one that served to strengthen the company. Rubin continued managing Intellution as president and CEO until 2000 and as chairman until 2001, the year the company became a division of Emerson Process Management.
The same year he sold his company, Rubin was elected to the WPI Board of Trustees. He served on several committees, helping advise the university on its technology needs, physical facilities, and academic programs, among other areas. As a member of the Advancement Committee, he played a critical role in directing a major effort to create and fund a marketing and awareness-building program for the university. Encompassing market research, advertising, and public relations, the program was an important step toward realizing WPI's strategic goal of being recognized more broadly as an innovative and emerging national university.
Rubin would ultimately be elected vice chairman of the Board of Trustees, serving in that role from 2003 to 2004 and again from 2005 to 2010. He was elected chairman in 2010, and served for three years. In these leadership roles, he was a member of the search committees for WPI's 15th and 16th presidents, Dennis Berkey and Laurie Leshin, and led the quiet phase of If….The Campaign to Advance WPI. Under his leadership, the campaign recorded more than $110 million in contributions before its public launch in May 2012.
Not one to remain idle, Rubin quickly transitioned after his departure from Intellution into a new career as a board member and consultant for a number of emerging technology companies. In 2003 he became a founding partner in Longwatch Inc., a company that developed remote video surveillance systems designed to monitor and protect municipal water systems. The technology can broadcast video over a municipality's existing low-bandwidth telemetry systems, giving it a distinct edge over competitors.
In 2012 he co-founded Recognisis Inc., a company that made a relational database system that enables organizations to record and track information about plaques and other donor recognition items. WPI was an early customer; the system was used to capture the locations of hundreds of named bricks in the Centennial Walkway on the Quadrangle so users can easily locate their bricks or those of relatives and classmates.
Rubin, himself, was recognized by his alma mater on a number of occasions. In addition to the Washburn Award, the WPI Alumni Association honored him with its Distinguished Service Award ("for meritorious service and leadership in the advancement of higher education") in 1997 and the Herbert F. Taylor Alumni Award for Distinguished Service in 1999. In 2010 Skull, the WPI senior honorary society, tapped Rubin. Tradition calls for new members to undergo a series of educational rituals, and Rubin gladly traveled to campus each week during the initiation period to become immersed in WPI and Worcester lore.
He was on stage at Commencement in 2014 to accept his honorary doctorate, with his wife, Tracy, by his side. He played a recording to let the audience know that his battle with ALS had made it increasingly difficult to speak. Then Tracy read his remarks.
He recounted the many ways WPI had touched his life, from the project that led to his first job to the skills and confidence he gained that had helped him build his entrepreneurial career. He thanked the faculty members who gave him the foundation for his professional success, and talked about how rewarding it was to help establish one of the Institute's newest global project centers, in Israel, and to have that center focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. "I love WPI," he said. "It helped me have a complete and successful life."
In 1993 Rubin became the youngest member of the Presidential Founders, a group that includes those whose lifetime giving to WPI equals or exceeds the founding gift of John Boynton. He was also a lifetime member of the President's Advisory Council and a charter member of the George I. Alden Society. In 1993 Intellution donated its software to WPI's Chemical Engineering Department for use by students in the department's unit operations laboratory. He made a second software donation in 1999. "This is another instance where gifts of products from industry, often mediated through investment-minded alumni, have enabled WPI to stay 'state-of-the-art" in our undergraduate education," corporate relations director Ronald Baird said at the time.
Rubin was the driving force behind a gift that has enhanced the aesthetic experience of those on campus. In 2008, while in Florida for a Board of Trustees Meeting, Rubin became acquainted with the work of artist Stephen Knapp, whose innovative lightpaintings use specially crafted glass to create elegant patterns of colored light. Discovering that the artist's father, Walter Knapp '38, was a distinguished member of Rubin's fraternity, he engineered a gift from the fraternity and the Knapp family in honor of Walter Knapp and other fraternity members who have passed away. The gift was a lightpainting that now graces the façade of WPI's Gordon Library.
During the Campaign for WPI in the late 1990s, the Rubins made a major gift to support the construction of the Campus Center, which opened its doors on 2001. He also arranged a gift from Intellution to the Corporate Partners Wall outside the Odeum, the building's multifunction hall. As Rubin's involvement in WPI's leadership increased, the Campus Center became his base of operations on campus. He was fond of referring to the building as his "office," and he frequently could be seen there engaged in conversations with students, faculty, staff, and alumni. He enjoyed celebrating WPI's milestones and traditions there, as well, and each November, when the university observed Founders Day, he would be just outside the building with his Nigerian dwarf goats, offering students the opportunity to commune with real-life examples of WPI's caprine mascot.
A humble man who preferred to see the spotlight shine on others, Rubin long resisted the notion of seeing his name emblazoned on a WPI building. But in 2013 he graciously accepted as a gesture of gratitude the Institute's request to have his name indelibly associated with the building that so many already closely associated with him. In a ceremony on Founders Day, the Campus Center formally became the Rubin Campus Center. "Ever since it was built, it has been the Steve Rubin Center," then board chairman Warner Fletcher said. Current chairman Philip Ryan '65 noted that the building was a place where people crossed paths to talk, debate, and connect. "Steve is all about building relationships and connecting people," he said in heartfelt remarks about his friend and colleague.
Beyond his love for WPI, Rubin once told the Attleboro Sun Chronicle, "My family is my first passion." It was a passion he brought with him to the workplace. Noting that employees who are worried about family or personal concerns cannot concentrate on work, he said, "The work will be here tomorrow." Rubin's second passion was flying. He earned his license at the Mansfield Municipal Airport after graduating from WPI and bought a small prop plane early in his career, but gave it up to help finance his young company. He later returned to flying, earned his instrument rating, and became an avid pilot who delighted in sharing his love of flying with others.
Rubin was a member of the 22nd class of the Owner/President Management program at the Harvard Business School. In 1997 he was elected a fellow of the Instrumentation Systems & Automation Society; that same year, Intellution was a regional finalist in Inc. magazine's Entrepreneur of the Year competition. A prolific author who wrote numerous articles for industry publications on the application of computers in the process control industry and on trends in industrial automation software, Rubin also spoke frequently at industry conferences around the world.
In 2003 the WPI graduating class invited him to be the inspirational speaker at its Baccalaureate ceremony. In an address titled "Three 'Must Read' Books to Guide the New Graduate," Rubin described books that had been meaningful to him over the years: The Master Key to Riches by Napoleon Hill, which he said taught him that "true riches are things like health, integrity, and a desire to achieve goals"; The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, which reinforced his belief in "the continuing opportunities for discovery, change, and growth in every possible area"; and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton, which, he said, was by far his favorite.
In this children's book, Mike and his steam shovel Mary Anne face a crisis when they are challenged to dig the foundation for a new town hall in just one day. They succeed, but Mary Anne is unable to get out of the hole. Mike decides to transform her into the building's boiler, and the pair starts a new life together.
"I like this book," Rubin said. "Mike and Mary Anne worked as a team. People around them motivated them. They overcame competition, doubts, and fears to reach a difficult but feasible goal. They solved a crazy problem, and in doing so came up with a whole new way of living their lives. And it was better for them and for the world around them."
In his own life as a WPI alumnus, entrepreneur, employer, educational leader, fraternity brother, husband, father, and friend to many, Steve Rubin made life more meaningful and rewarding to countless people; helped his alma mater become stronger, more vital, and better known; helped businesses around the world become more productive and competitive through his pioneering contributions to software engineering; and, in the end, made the world around him a better place.
Services are being held today at 10 a.m. at Temple Beth Shalom, 670 Highland Avenue, in Needham, Mass. Burial will follow at Agudas Achim Cemetery in Attleboro, Mass. Shiva will be at the family home at 42 Winding River Road, Needham, today from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m.; Tuesday from 4 to 8 p.m.; and Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m.
Donations in Steve’s memory may be made to the WPI Global Impact Fellows Scholarship (memo line), Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 100 Institute Road, Worcester, MA, 01609, or to Temple Beth Shalom, 670 Highland Avenue, Needham, MA, 02494.