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Never, Ever Quit

For Bob Basten, work was the most important thing in life. Now he’s preparing to lose both. Here’s how a remarkable leader is bracing himself, and his company, for the end.

Bob Basten swept into the meeting just moments before it was scheduled to begin. Ordinarily, he would have showed up early for some sociable small talk. But this was no ordinary gathering. It was August 8, 2002, and it was Basten’s last day as CEO. The board members, outside investors, and senior executives had gathered in a large, windowless conference room in Washington, DC. Basten, a 6-foot-5-inch former football player with intense blue eyes, looked down the table at the line of faces staring back at him. “I’m dying,” he said wryly, “to get this meeting started.”

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And that’s how Basten began to talk about his own death sentence. Two months earlier, he had received a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. There is no cure, no treatment to halt the steady progression of the debilitating illness; life expectancy for ALS patients is typically between two and five years. As a result, Basten told his stunned colleagues, he was stepping down at once as president and CEO of Centerprise Advisors, the company he formed in 2000 by combining several business-services and accounting firms.

At first, his delivery was swift and methodical. Basten, just 42 at the time, had anticipated every possible question. What he hadn’t anticipated was breaking down and crying, choking out an apology, toward the end of the all-day meeting. “I was sorry that I was stepping down and couldn’t do what I promised I would do,” he recalls. “They bet on me–they bet on themselves and their companies, too–but they certainly bet on me, and I was a bad bet.”

Then Basten reminded his colleagues that board meetings are confidential, and he jokingly asked them not to tell his family that he had wept. “I’m crying here, and I didn’t even cry when I told my family,” he told them, with a smile on his tear-stained face. “Let’s just make a pact.” It was classic Bob, cracking a joke to lift heavy spirits. But it was also revealing: For Basten, work was more personal than his personal life.

Scott Lang, an investment banker whose firm had backed Centerprise, was in the room that day. “It doesn’t get much sadder in business,” he says. Nor does it get much more challenging for a business, or for a leader who must relinquish, bit by inexorable bit, the company and the life he loves.

Many people contemplating such a fate probably imagine they’d immediately stop working, that they’d pare down and focus on the most essential things in life. But to Basten, work is the most essential thing in life, and facing his mortality hasn’t changed that. Although ALS forced Basten to give up his title, he remained largely in control of the company for months afterward. And when that was no longer possible, he focused on a foundation he had created to fund ALS research. “If you were to ask my friends if I have any regrets, I’d bet they’d say, ‘If he could do it all over again, he wouldn’t have worked as hard,’ ” he says. “But I would have. And if I got well, I’d work better, smarter, for bigger dough, but I’d still work hard.”

Living to Work

Basten began to fear he had ALS in early 2002, after tests ruled out other causes for the growing numbness in his right foot. At the company’s national conference in Las Vegas that May, people noticed that his leg seemed to be bothering him. In early June, he went to the Mayo Clinic, where his ALS was diagnosed. The following month, he went on his first real vacation in years–two weeks, with the family, in Europe. That’s when Dennis Bikun, the company’s CFO, knew something was up. Basten had never taken so much time off.

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He was quietly wrestling with the idea of transition. “I loved the company,” Basten says. “I found purpose in work–seven days a week, phone ringing constantly. The idea of stepping down was scary. All of a sudden, I was letting go of the only purpose I really understand. I love my family, but they don’t drive me.”

Basten attributes much of his drive to the only real mentor he ever had: John Gagliardi, his football coach at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. (As Gagliardi heads into his 51st coaching season at St. John’s, he is expected to break the all-time collegiate win record this year.) After college, Basten signed on for a season with the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad. “He was one of the great ones,” recalls Gagliardi. What separates the great players from the merely good, the coach says, is their ability to “bounce back from a bad break.”

Bouncing back from bad breaks is something Basten learned long before he became a linebacker. His father died when he was a fourth grader in Northbrook, Illinois. When Basten was 16, his mother died of cancer, and he went to live with relatives in Minnesota. As Lang, Basten’s investment banker buddy, puts it: “Some kids can take that and be angry for the rest of their life. He took it as a challenge.”

Basten needed that same resiliency in business. Early in his career, he joined American Express and rose to become CEO of its tax and business services group, which was acquiring regional industry players. He left AmEx in 1998 to pursue his own consolidation strategy. His first effort to create an accounting powerhouse came in 1999, when he tried to combine 11 firms into a publicly traded company. But the IPO wasn’t getting a high enough price, and he was forced to pull the offering at the last minute.

Within hours of calling off the deal, however, Basten was working to make the same idea happen, this time as a private company. He persuaded five leading regional accounting firms and two business-services firms to merge, and in 2000 orchestrated one of the largest consolidations in industry history. Today, Centerprise, based in Chicago, is a $165 million company with more than 1,100 employees nationwide.

“All of a sudden I was letting go of the only purpose I really understand,” Basten says. “I love my family, but they don’t drive me.”

Letting Go

Now, nearly two years after Basten formed the company, he finds himself playing down the very role he had spent so much time building up. “The company is not great because I sped around on airplanes,” Basten recalls telling colleagues. “I mean, what did I really ever do? My being gone isn’t going to be a big deal.”

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For the first few months after he stepped down, though, he remained as involved in the business as ever. (Playing to Win for Life, his foundation, didn’t really take off until September.) Even though he was now chairman of the board, he stayed involved in all the operational decisions at Centerprise. He cut back modestly on travel but kept up his speaking engagements. Richard Stein, who had been managing partner of one of the original firms, came on as interim CEO, but Basten remained the primary leader, colleagues say. Stein’s interim stint, expected to last two months, stretched to a year.

In the days and months after Basten’s announcement, some of the great undiscussables in any workplace–death and dying, loss and living–were talked about, in the open and behind closed doors, and there were tears, lots of tears. That first month Margee Elias, the company’s senior vice president and general counsel, cried in every meeting with Basten. “I would just bring Kleenex if I came into Bob’s office. The tears didn’t stop. At one point he asked, ‘What can I do to help you?’ I said, ‘This is pathetic. You have ALS, and you’re asking what you can do to help me?’ “

Difficult as those months were on Basten’s colleagues, they have also been hard on his beloved company. When Basten finally began to step back, the seven firms he had combined reverted to operating less as a cohesive whole than as separate entities. The company was “treading water” and was paralyzed by a “waiting-for-the-new-guy-to-start syndrome,” says Bikun, the CFO. “We’d talk about a lot of things but a lot of things would get deferred.” The company’s financials reflect that. In the summer of 2002, Basten was at the helm of a profitable company that had increased its revenue more than 10% in each of its first two years. Today, in a tough economy, its revenue remains flat, and Centerprise’s profit margins have slipped.

This past August, the company got a new leader, Jim McGuire, who left his job as executive vice president at BearingPoint (formerly KPMG Consulting) to take charge. His priority, he says, is to build on Basten’s vision by fusing the five accounting firms into a unified whole. “There isn’t a common culture, and we need to engender a team atmosphere,” McGuire says.

For many colleagues, that common culture begins with shared purpose. “There’s definitely a do-it-for-Bob mentality,” Elias says. Bikun agrees. “I think about Bob every day. But the last thing he would want is for us to sit here and wallow in sorrow and frustration because of his circumstances.”

Bouncing Back

Even though this is a game that Basten knows he will ultimately lose, he talks constantly about winning. His speeches to company leaders mention it. In an afternoon of conversation, Basten regularly calls employees “total winners” and says the same thing about his son, Jack, 13, who responded to news of his father’s illness by working to raise money for ALS research. By Basten’s definition, winners are people who step up and hold themselves responsible for making things happen. Winners follow through, they play hurt, they hang on.

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For Basten, making things happen has meant channeling his prodigious energy into something else, namely, his foundation. In August 2002, he and a Centerprise colleague, Shelley Simmons, cofounded Playing to Win for Life. “It was really my next company,” he says, grinning.

The foundation raises research funds for the Robert Packard Center, the cutting-edge ALS research center at Johns Hopkins University. He and Simmons are working hard to meet their first goal of raising $1 million by year’s end. Mark Ernst, who worked with Basten for 12 years at AmEx and is now president and CEO of H&R Block, is impressed but unsurprised by Basten’s new venture. “Most people, if they were to find themselves in Bob’s position, would spend time catching up on all the things they’ve deferred in life. But he’s settled enough with the choices he’s made, the relationships he’s formed, to be able to go off and start his next big thing.”

He has thrown himself into that next big thing with all his remaining energy. Basten is a relentless optimist, but he’s realistic about his situation. “I’m not so naive as to assume that I’m going to live,” he says. “But I do know that acting with purpose is going to help me live. . . . If I quit, if I have no purpose, then I won’t last long.”

At Home

Basten now spends most of his time at home, 15 miles north of Minneapolis. His family is adjusting to his regular presence after getting used to him as a “part-time weekend guy” who spent work weeks in Chicago. As his illness progresses, Basten will spend even more time at home, relying increasingly on his family for assistance. This past summer, Emily, 16, and Jack spent many afternoons helping out Dad–typing emails, sending faxes. “It’s been a real adjustment,” says Faith, Basten’s wife of 18 years. “We’re all used to being so independent.”

Like all ALS patients, Basten will gradually slide toward complete de-pendency. Over the course of the past year and a half, he has become increasingly weaker, losing more and more muscle control. He can’t use his arms– or the hands that used to fire off emails on a BlackBerry, hold a cell phone, and command a steering wheel at the same time. He’s been in a wheelchair since May. His speech becomes slurred if he talks for too long. “I never know what I’m going to lose,” Basten says. “I just know that I’m going to keep losing.”

He still goes to the office every now and then. And back in Chicago one afternoon in August, Basten thinks about what people might say about him when he’s gone. “I want people to say, ‘He was not a quitter. He continued to do what he does. The guy, in the face of the coldest reality, didn’t lose his sense of humor or dignity or grace that he gave others.’ “

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Later that same afternoon, Basten leans forward to get a better look at his laptop as Simmons gives him a tutorial on a new piece of software that will allow him to type even though he can no longer control his hands. “See, you place this small reflector dot anywhere–on your glasses, forehead, a shoulder,” says Simmons, nodding up and down as the little dot on the bridge of her sunglasses, connecting with an infrared camera on the laptop, punches virtual keys on the screen. Basten says nothing, just listens and watches. Then he finally speaks: “It’s liberating.”

Christine Canabou (ccanabou@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer.