Helen Robbins-Meyer’s Transition
to Help Run the County
Is Buoyed by Family Support
fter surviving a near-fatal car crash, Helen Robbins-Meyer realized how precious life is and made the most of it.
When she was 24, Robbins-Meyer, then a transplant to San Diego, was involved in a head-on collision with a car driven by a drunken driver. Her right atrium was torn, and if not for the rapid response of an air ambulance helicopter, she may not have been around today.
“It changes your perspective about everything,” says the soft-spoken, 40-year-old, who is the county’s assistant chief administrative officer.
“After that, I really started to think I survived for a reason. I realized that I was supposed to be doing something, and it made me think what that is.”
She soon found out it meant linking her life to another. Following her accident, she received a get-well card from an acquaintance she had briefly met. The letter-writer later turned out to be her future husband, Steve.
“It was the second time a tragedy turned out to have an extremely happy ending,” she says.
The first was when her father, a Marine Corps test pilot, was killed in a flying accident when she was only 9 years old. Her mother remarried a widower, who had lost his wife to cancer. Together they created a loving, supportive family of five girls and a boy, much like the old television sitcom, “The Brady Bunch,” she says.
“They had the right sense of family and were able to make it work,” she says. “They adopted each other’s children. Never once did I ever feel like my new father wasn’t my natural father.”
Today, Robbins-Meyer, a self-described “over-achiever,” counts her blessings while tending a job that is never typical or predictable.
As the No. 2 person behind county CAO Walt Ekard, she works in much the same way as a chief operating officer of a major company, dealing with the daily operations of an enterprise of some 17,000 employees with a total budget of about $2.6 billion.
As Ekard’s right-hand woman, Robbins-Meyer comes to work ready to deal with almost any issue.
In recent weeks, those issues might range from an employee grievance to a controversial statement in a newspaper article to an anthrax letter received by the county courthouse in El Cajon.
“You have to be ready to expect almost anything. You have to be calm, flexible and you cannot let the stress get to you, because it can get to you,” she says.
Robbins-Meyer was named assistant CAO in May after serving two years as a deputy chief administrative officer. She made the jump to government from a successful career at the local office of defense contractor TRW Inc.
At TRW for 15 years, she rose from working as a secretary to her last job as an internal operations director for TRW’s avionics division in Rancho Bernardo. In that capacity, Robbins-Meyer managed 1,100 employees and a budget of about $200 million.
Part of the reason she made the switch was the charisma of another prominent TRW alumnus, Larry Prior, then the county’s CAO.
“I didn’t know Larry that well, but I had met him and had tremendous respect for him, his energy and his enthusiasm.”
After a contracted headhunter explained what Prior was attempting to do at the county, Robbins-Meyer decided to take the plunge.
It wasn’t an easy transition for her, she says.
“Coming from the private sector, it’s very different. There’s a business agenda (that has precedence in the private sector). You know the business case and 99 percent of the time, the decision is made on the business case.”
Meanwhile, at the county, decisions usually take into account the financial and business implications, but are also based on the desires of the voters who elect decision-makers, she said.
What may appear as a clear-cut decision can sometimes be amended or scrapped altogether depending on how it’s viewed by the five elected supervisors, who represent different areas of the county.
“You’ve got to make sure that what might be right for your district is acceptable to at least two others, and then you have a union,” she says.
Robbins-Meyer gets high grades from one of her bosses, Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents the 2nd District on the Board of Supervisors.
“Helen is quiet, but tough. She has brought badly needed business principles to the county and has helped turn the county around from the brink of bankruptcy and brought it to fiscal health,” Jacob says.
Up, Up And Away
Greg Smith, the county’s assessor, recorder and clerk, calls Robbins-Meyer “Superwoman.”
“She’s probably the hardest-working person at the county,” Smith says. “She’s here early in the morning and doesn’t leave until late at night, putting in 10- to 12-hour days, and handles all the critical issues along with Walt (Ekard).”
Although Prior hired her, Robbins-Meyer’s management style is dramatically different from her former boss, says Smith.
Prior, who left the county and took a job with a local high-tech firm last year, made some fundamental changes in the way the county is run, but he also “broke a lot of eggs along the way,” he says.
In contrast, Smith says Robbins-Meyer is a fair-minded boss and unafraid of making tough decisions, “but she does so in a consensus-building way.”
Robbins-Meyer learned the value of hard work and responsibility at an early age on her family’s six-acre ranch in Fairfax, Va. She and her siblings all had different chores to do, and she can vividly recall having to feed the horses and clean their stalls each day before heading off to school.
Her family’s home just outside Washington, D.C., afforded them the ability to enjoy the best of both worlds, she says. She remembers mowing the lawn with a tractor and spending hours on her favorite tire swing, but also going into the city to see all the monuments, go to museums and attend the theater as well.
Going to college was expected in her household, and she chose the College of William & Mary, one of the state’s best academically.
Aspiring to become a lawyer, Robbins-Meyer decided she had to get her bachelor’s degree in three years. On top of that, she worked part-time jobs each year while carrying a heavier class load.
“I did it not so much for the money, although that was important, but for the discipline,” she says. “I had to be able to prove that I could carry 21 units, work 25 to 30 hours a week, and get a degree and still have fun.”
Robbins-Meyer says she gets her strong work ethic from her mother, who used to own a lumber and hardware store in Virginia. At 71, her mother still works harder than she does, maintaining an active volunteer schedule while helping her out in the child rearing, she says.
With a work schedule that would wear down most people, Robbins-Meyer says what free time she carves out is devoted to spending time with her husband, Steve, and their four children.
Yes, it’s possible to have a high-powered professional career and be a good mother, she says.
“But you need a good support network.”