'Coach' drives Hunley team to victory in doomed submarine's recovery.

 

Saturday, June 23, 2001

BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier staff

 


     At the conservation lab that bears his name, Warren Lasch had his Friends of the Hunley team assembled for an appreciation reception a few weeks ago.
     It was like a postgame wrap-up - something his hero, Vince Lombardi, had done countless times. Just a simple thank-you speech.
     But standing in an industrial-sized room full of people who had donated countless hours and money to see the lost Confederate submarine returned home and rehabilitated, Lasch was overcome with the emotion he'd kept bottled up for four years.
     It hit him like a sledgehammer.
     Throughout the Hunley project, Lasch had taken a businesslike approach to his work. He rarely showed any signs of the impact of historic events taking place around him even though there had been more than a handful of touching moments.
     He'd been genuinely surprised when the Hunley lab was named after him. He'd watched the Confederate submarine rise from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean and rode with it on a transport barge through Charleston Harbor as it completed its journey.
     He had helped excavate the sub's interior, gazing respectfully at the remains of men he considered among the bravest in history.
     But through it all, he had remained the boss, the director, the - well - the coach.
     But just a few hours before this reception, Lasch had held in his hand a heavy, warped, gold $20 piece dated 1860. That coin had saved Hunley commander Lt. George E. Dixon's life at Shiloh, where a bullet meant for his thigh struck gold instead. Dixon carried the coin to his grave aboard the lost torpedo boat.
     The coin had been found the night before, and for Lasch it represented many things. It proved true the legend of the first attack submarine, it spoke of a tragic love story, and it was a gleaming sign that the Friends of the Hunley had succeeded. Mission accomplished.
     As he gazed out at his team, his Hunley crew, tears began to form in his eyes.
     "The Hunley never had problems getting volunteers for its crew 137 years ago," Lasch said. "And we still don't have a problem. I believe the crew of the Hunley recognized and accepted their fate. My thought is that Dixon turned to the crew and said, 'We were successful, but we're not going to make it home. Look each other in the eye - you'll never be part of a better team.'"
     The statement struck the cavernous room silent. Volunteers, who had been expecting a typical pep talk, later recalled being touched by his message. Here was a man, a self-made millionaire, a captain of industry, thanking them from the bottom of his heart.
     "You could have heard a pin drop," recalled John Downs, one of the volunteers at the Hunley lab. "It was moving."
     It was an insightful moment in the life of the man who, his friends say, deserves a huge share of the credit for bringing the Hunley safely home. His friends say you cannot heap enough praise on Lasch, who has spent countless hours and dollars ensuring the lost Confederate submarine would be around for generations to come.
     "He has been the reason for the success of the effort," says retired Rear Adm. William Schachte, a member of the Hunley Commission. "This is his project."
     Completing the journey of the H.L. Hunley has been a wild ride for the chairman of Friends of the Hunley. Six years ago, he hadn't even heard of the submarine. Now, with the praise of such groups as the Civil War Preservation Trust, he is considered its savior.
     "I just could not have had a better partner in this," says Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission. "We could not have raised the Hunley without Warren."
    
UP THE LADDER
     Warren Lasch greets everyone with a solid handshake and an "always a pleasure." Coming from him, it doesn't sound like a simple platitude.
     He is a classic prankster. During the recovery of the Hunley, he watched as McConnell was hoisted by Billy Pew from a transport boat to the barge platform. As McConnell hung on for dear life above the ocean surface, Lasch called the cell phone on the senator's belt. Just to see if he'd forget and reach for it.
     With an almost boyish charm, Lasch warms to people immediately, as if he's known them his entire life. He can meet one person in a crowded room, spot him on the street a week later, and remember his name. If he hadn't been so good at business, he could have mastered public relations. "I think he's just a super person," says Downs. "From the first time you meet him, it seems like he genuinely cares about you - and what you have to say."
     Still, it would be difficult to find someone less likely at birth to lead the efforts to rescue a lost Civil War submarine.
     Warren Lasch was born in Cleveland in 1946, a son of a butcher. As a boy, he and his twin brother would scrape the meat block at Lasch's Meat Market, and then they'd clean the freezer. On the side, Lasch kept up a paper route.
     At an early age, his father instilled in Lasch a work ethic that would, years later, drive him to success. In fact, that was a word that has been used to describe Lasch throughout his life: Driven.
     "My dad taught me a lot of things," Lasch says. "He was an extremely hard worker. All the kids always thought that, with him being a butcher, we got the best meat. Wrong - he sold it."
     Lasch attended Catholic schools in Cleveland. For more than three years, he served as altar boy at the 6 a.m. Mass every day at the St. Joseph Retreat House and its associated cloistered convent. If he committed to something even as a teen-ager, he stuck with it.
     In the eighth grade he met Donna Davis. They dated through high school and later married. They've been together ever since. With her at his side, Lasch began to climb the corporate ladder - two rungs at a time.
     Lasch's is the classic American success story. He held a full-time job as a machinist during his last two years of high school and then worked his way through college.
     While earning his degree at John Carroll University, he took a job in the corporate mailroom of Leaseway Transportation Corp. and, as they say, worked his way up.
     By 1971, three years after graduating from John Carroll, Lasch was running a Leaseway subsidiary in New Jersey. He landed the Nestle account a year later, a major coup. For two years after that, he was the district manager of the Hertz Corp.'s truck division back in his hometown of Cleveland.
     It was with his return to Leaseway in 1975 that Lasch began to form the business principles that would guide him for the rest of his life. Leaseway put him in charge of the Michigan Group, the company's operating subsidiaries in truck leasing.
     That's where Lasch first implemented his "team management" philosophy of "leadership and enlightened consensus management." Hard work - teamwork - led to success. That's what his hero, Lombardi, had taught. Lasch was among the early businessmen to see that the concepts preached in professional sports could be applied to business.
     Mark Regalbuto of the Advent Media Group, a Charleston public relations firm, says Lasch has been a role model for him. Working with Lasch on the Hunley project and in his other business dealings, Regalbuto says he's watched Lasch practice the business philosophies he preaches in hundreds of meetings. "Warren has taught me a number of life's very important lessons. He says persistence and resilience are the keys to success. And I've watched him with dogged determination work toward his goal. He's been a great mentor to me."
     It was when Lasch began coaching as opposed to just managing that everything seemed to click. The Michigan Group's revenue and profits soared under him, so the company moved Lasch to his hometown of Cleveland to restructure more of its operations. The annual growth rate for the company jumped to 23 percent.
     As he quickly was making a name for himself in the business world, Lasch first got involved with nonprofit organizations.
     Lasch had always had a generous streak. As much as he made, he wanted to give some of it away. To this day, he buys Charleston RiverDogs season tickets and donates them to disadvantaged kids.
     His first major work with a charitable organization came in the late 1970s for Second Harvest, a national network of food banks. Part of Lasch's contribution was his management techniques. Before long, the charity was running like a blue-chip company - minimizing spoilage and redistributing excess food to other food banks that were short on supplies.
     Lasch was just getting started.
    
MAKING HIS MOVE
     For nearly two decades, Lasch had worked in the transportation business - he knew the work intimately. It was no surprise that eventually he would set out on his own.
     In 1983, Lasch helped set up Robin Transport Inc., a company that moved cars around the country for the automobile industry. The company pioneered the use of curtain-sided trailers. It was a quick success.
     Lasch had found his true business calling. In 1991, he started Bavarian Motor Transport Inc., a dedicated contract carrier delivering BMWs to dealerships throughout the United States. Never has a BMW carrier had a better record of damage-free deliveries, the company says.
     After Bavarian, Lasch set up Tri-Star Transport to haul another brand of luxury cars, Mercedes-Benz. Together, Tri-Star and Bavarian move a lot of cars. Lasch's companies have contracts with Porsche and Saab and have moved presidential limousines and even the "Popemobile."
     Lasch first came to Charleston almost by accident. The family was vacationing in Myrtle Beach in 1982 when he and Donna made a side trip to the Holy City. They fell in love with the town and decided that one day they might like to live here. They never forgot that, and in 1995 they settled on Kiawah Island.
     The move to Kiawah was not a retirement, but Lasch wanted to slow down a bit. For him, that meant running only four companies - the two transport lines, a business that provides medical site reviews, and Charleston International Ports. Soon, however, Lasch would find his world busier than ever.
     One of Lasch's early acquaintances in Charleston was retired Rear Adm. William Schachte. An appointee to the newly formed Hunley Commission, Schachte was impressed with the businessman and mentioned him to Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of that group.
     The Hunley Commission in 1997 was wrestling with a way to come up with the $16 million needed to raise, excavate and restore the lost submarine. The commission decided to set up a nonprofit organization that could raise money - something a governmental agency couldn't readily do.
     Schachte thought Lasch was the man to run the Friends of the Hunley. "I was impressed by his enthusiasm for getting things done, his honesty," Schachte recalls. "He had integrity and a heavy sense of civic pride. I wrote a short note to the senator that said, basically, 'He is the person.'"
     Lasch remembers when the admiral first spoke to him on the subject. He had asked, simply, innocently, "What's the Hunley?"
     He was about to find out.
     In some circles, the story has become almost legendary. McConnell didn't take long to decide that Lasch was exactly who the Friends of the Hunley needed at the helm. A persuasive speaker, McConnell went to work on the businessman.
     Initially, Lasch was somewhat wary. He had four businesses to run, Lasch told the senator. He didn't know if he had time to do the project justice. "I couldn't give more than 10 hours every other week," he said.
     McConnell, a gleam in his eye, didn't hesitate. "Warren," he said, "that'll be more than enough."
     Those would turn out to be the ultimate famous last words.
    
RAISE THE HUNLEY!
     Lasch soon poured everything he had into fund-raising efforts for the Friends of the Hunley.
     He was charged with raising $16 million. It was a daunting task, but Lasch's style meshed well with the project. He was a natural salesman. When the Confederate flag became a controversy, Lasch and his public relations team kept the sub out of the line of fire.
     Originally, raising money was all he was supposed to do. But before long, McConnell was using Lasch's considerable business mind to run most of the Hunley operations. At first, Lasch suffered through sleepless nights as he tried to get his arms around the Hunley "elephant." He was, he feared, in over his head. But he wouldn't quit. And soon it became clear he was making a difference.
     Ultimately, most of the major decisions of the Hunley project were made at Lasch's office, just a few steps from Adger's Wharf, where the Hunley departed on Oct. 15, 1863, the day Horace L. Hunley, for whom it was named, died in it at the bottom of Charleston Harbor in the submarine's second sinking.
     "He never took his eyes off the prize," McConnell says. "He stuck with us through the highs and lows. Once he gets into something, he gets into it. He is bright, to the point, and had the business skills we needed with the Friends of the Hunley."
     The group benefited greatly from his association with it. The Friends of the Hunley has never paid for postage or pencils - Lasch uses his office to conduct its business. If that weren't enough, one of his transport companies subsidized the ongoing traveling Hunley exhibit.
     On top of all that, Lasch gave the project more than $1.5 million out of his own pocket.
     The Hunley project meshed under another football analogy. McConnell was the team owner, Lasch, of course, the coach. Soon he was building Team Hunley.
     It was Lasch who recruited Bob Neyland from the Naval Historical Center to lead the project, and he helped recruit Oceaneering International to lift the sub. Oceaneering had its share of high-profile recoveries - the Challenger, TWA Flight 800 and Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell. It was the best in the business, which is all Lasch would accept.
     Not satisfied that he knew enough about it, Lasch invited the world's leading archaeologists to critique the Hunley plan. The verdict was unanimous - it was a fabulous plan.
     The effort to raise the Hunley had been a venture into the unknown - no project of its kind ever had been attempted. The people around Lasch described his handling of the situation as "masterful." He worked backward from the goal, juggling fund-raising and operations. When scientists and engineers would not commit to timetables, it was Lasch who weighed the conditions and pushed the "Go" button.
     He made it happen.
     So when Lasch got up to speak at the volunteer appreciation reception a few weeks ago, he finally had time to look back at everything his team had done - and realized it was amazing.
     For four years, Lasch has spent nearly 50 hours a week on the Hunley project. During that time he has had to come up with solutions to problems no one has ever had to contend with before, all the while juggling his various companies and fending off criticism from a local business rival.
     A lawsuit was filed against Charleston International Ports, of which Lasch is a managing member, alleging the company could not legally team up with the State Ports Authority to run a terminal at the former Navy base. A judge for the Federal Maritime Commission tossed out the claim. An appeal to that ruling is on hold, and CIP has filed suit to stop what it calls continuing legal harassment. Some of his foes have circulated information about a Michigan charge years ago after a business which he ran was late filing a tax document. A Lasch spokesman said he paid a $300 fine on a misdemeanor charge.
     Through it all, Lasch has kept his focus on the Hunley, as is his nature. He has grown comfortable in his role as the "captain of the fourth Hunley crew," as his team calls him. He might prefer the term "coach."
     And now, his only sleepless nights come for very different reasons. When he got the call a few weeks ago saying Dixon's coin had been found at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday, he couldn't go back to sleep.
     He was too excited. "Who would have believed it? If someone had told you five years ago that by now we would have recovered the Hunley, we would have the crew, we could have Dixon, the blue lamp and the gold coin, you would have told them they were crazy."
     But his friends, the people who know him best, say it's not that surprising given the team's coach.

                           


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