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Ray Hillenbrand's last lessons on business, philanthropy and Rapid City's heart and soul
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Ray Hillenbrand's last lessons on business, philanthropy and Rapid City's heart and soul


G.M.'s note: Ray Hillenbrand sat down with Black Hills Business wide-ranging interview before his death in May. Ray discussed his philosophies on business, philanthropy and giving Rapid City a heart and soul. 

When Ray Hillenbrand looked out his second-story window in downtown Rapid City, he couldn't help but smile.

Ray's office above Prairie Edge had a series of east-facing windows with a perfect view of Main Street Square — a project for which he was a driving force.

"It's my favorite thing," he said in May, grinning ear to ear while sitting behind his desk in a walnut chair. A large painting of a bison loomed above him. 

"To look out that window, see the fountain going and see those little kids just screaming and yelling; it's just terrific," Ray said.

Ever modest, Ray was quick to say he was just part of a team "trying to do the right thing for Rapid City" when Main Street Square was built in 2011 and an economic renaissance was sparked in downtown Rapid City.

Now the area is a thriving retail center, with shopping, food and entertainment. Main Street Square acts as a hub, supporting the spokes of downtown businesses and allowing them to grow and connect. 

It was hard not to like Ray. He was bashful about receiving praise and didn't seek recognition. He always used his position in the community to make the lives of others better — never wanting a thing in return. 

Instead, he worked quietly behind the scenes and enjoyed the little things that came from his projects. Like seeing Main Street Square filled with ice skaters on a winter evening after having a meal downtown. It's a scene Ray described as "something from Norman Rockwell."

Ray said he had the foresight to build a good team for the square project, with people like Paul Bradsky, Michelle Lintz, Pete Lien, Dan Senftner, Dan Tribby and others. After that, it was a matter of giving the group the room to work and run with ideas. That's a lesson he learned while leading a successful family business for many years in Indiana.

Even at age 84, Ray said his work wasn't finished.

He liked to say Main Street Square helped fix the heart of Rapid City. After that, he set his sights on another ambitious project — the OneHeart campus, and healing Rapid City's soul.

When built, OneHeart will sit on the 4-acre campus on Kansas City Street. It will be a resource center for the homeless as a way to help them break the cycle of poverty. The center is part of a larger plan to lift up people in the region so they can find success.

Ray said business leaders will be needed to take the lead and make sure the project is sustainable. He operated under the idea that he wouldn't get something off the ground, whether in business or philanthropy, unless he had a plan to sustain it.

"Once you get that good culture in OneHeart, you can take that culture and just keep it going," he said. "It's just like a good company — that feeds on itself." 

He asked leaders to have a long-term approach to their community and giving back. But he also preached patience.

"The real payoff for this is not immediate," Ray said. "In a generation, you might start to see substantial change." 

By helping Rapid City's most vulnerable population with OneHeart, Ray saw a scenario where all boats rise in the Black Hills. 

People will get the help they need to get off the street, they will enter the workforce and help create sustained economic growth. Ray said when people hear about the innovative approach Rapid City has taken to homelessness, they will be drawn to the region. 

"If you are a part of a community, you have to make the community live," Ray said. "To make a community live, you have to have a heart and a soul, along with successful business."

'Helping people, helps the business'

Ray always gave back. That's the way he was raised.

Before he came to Rapid City in 1980, Ray was the leader of Hillenbrand Industries in Batesville, Ind. The Hillenbrand name in Indiana was synonymous with philanthropy and community involvement. It was also a massive company.

"There was always a responsibility to take care of your people and your community," he said.

The company that Ray eventually ran was started by his grandfather, John A. Hillenbrand. "He was just a farmer and had a sawmill," Ray said. 

John rescued the Batesville Coffin Company from bankruptcy in 1906 and employed German woodworkers to craft his high-quality coffins. The business flourished. That venture grew into Hillenbrand Industries, Inc., a multi-billion-dollar, family-run corporation whose stock now trades on the New York Stock Exchange. 

Ray had been an officer, board member or in management for Hillenbrand Industries since the 1970s. He retired as chairman of the board in 2006.

He said giving back was just "what you did as a business leader," because "helping people, helps the business."

"We built the first hospital, we built the library, the first swimming pool," Ray said of his family's contributions to Batesville, Ind. "We had electricity in Batesville before they had it in Cincinnati." 

When he came to Rapid City, that giving didn't stop. 

He poured his time, money and efforts into projects from the Catholic Diocese to the YMCA, and of course, Main Street Square. Ray was the silent contributor behind the scenes of dozens of Black Hills projects. 

"Rapid City is a part of me, and I want to be a part of it," he said. 

Power to the people

Ray's philosophy for business was much like his philosophy for philanthropy: Gather the right people and use them properly. He said they will develop the right ideas and input as long as you give them the space to operate.  

"The secret that I always thought was important was finding your people," he said. "If you get the right people, you really don't have to do very much." 

It's a technique he used while diversifying his family's company to help it secure a more stable future. That same blueprint was used for the Main Street Square project and now with OneHeart. 

Ray told the story of forming a new board to help the casket company develop a future through diversification. 

"When we broke off, we were 100 percent death care," Ray said. Now that sector of the company is only roughly 20 percent, with the other 80 percent made up of several companies that design, develop, manufacture and service highly engineered industrial equipment around the world.

Ray said he didn't want just "buddies" on his board. He wanted a mix of people who would challenge conventional wisdom, who had experience in different fields and who had institutional knowledge from the area. He made a point to hear from all members of the board during every meeting. 

"We had to get the talent, not just the 'yes' vote," he said. 

'A real lucky strike extra'

Ray said he could feel a groundswell of excitement for the future of Rapid City and the Black Hills region.

It has a few things going for it — "good people, with good hearts," and a "great future." 

By being "the most caring community of our size to help our people in need," Ray said businesses will be attracted to our area. That will be "a real lucky strike extra," — a reference to an unexpected bonus. 

"If you have a community of people that are really respected and treated in a dignified way, your business is going to prosper because of that," he said.

"We have so many things right now going in the right direction," he said and urged business leaders, the government and the community to work together to make it even better. 

"I think the future of Rapid City as on the edge of being great," Ray said. 

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