Randall L.C. Russell entered college an athletic-minded young man who saw his future in physical education.
It's a good thing for the many employees and business clients of Mr. Russell's companies, and for the numerous boards he served on, that a Slippery Rock University chemistry professor encouraged his academic potential. He shifted to science and business and became a role model in many ways, including how to grow a successful independent business -- Ranbar Technologies Inc. -- while attracting the loyalty of his workforce.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Russell was named Western Pennsylvania's Manufacturing Entrepreneur of the Year in a selection process overseen by the local office of the Ernst & Young accounting firm. At nearly the same time, he was recognized as one of the region's best bosses -- so nominated by his employees -- in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writeup.
"Everyone loved him -- our customers, our employees, our suppliers," said his son, Randall L. Russell of Fox Chapel, who took over Ranbar's leadership from his father in 2000. "People wanted to be with him and work for him."
Mr. Russell of Churchill died Friday from pancreatic cancer at the Family Hospice and Palliative Care residence in Mt. Lebanon. He was 68 and had been diagnosed with the disease a little more than a year ago.
A born leader known for generating positive energy, he remained active during most of his disease. He was a skilled golfer, skier and fly fisherman who wasn't one to rest much, whether during business hours or after.
As a 6-foot-tall forward, Mr. Russell had been the second-highest scorer on an Edgewood High School basketball team that made it to the state Class B semifinals in 1962. At Slippery Rock, he found out not only was he good at chemistry, but it was a lot easier to get into those tough science courses during registration periods than the physical education classes.
He studied harder than he ever had in high school, earning a fellowship that enabled him to attend graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. He ended up with both a master's in business administration and Ph.D. in chemistry from Pitt. The Katz School of Business would later honor him in 2000 as one of its distinguished alumni.
From 1970 to 1984, he climbed the corporate ladder at Koppers Co., where he became a vice president and general manager of the chemical division, but he wanted to try running things himself.
At age 39 in 1984, he bought a small paint manufacturing company operating in Shaler with fewer than 15 employees. Mr. Russell converted it to a more profitable resin and polymer business and built it to more than 100 employees in the 1990s while adding a second company, Ranbar Electric Materials Inc., located in Penn Township, Westmoreland County. He also co-founded and became vice chairman of Preservation Technologies Inc. in Cranberry, which developed special techniques to preserve books on behalf of the Library of Congress and other clients.
Part of Mr. Russell's success came, in addition to hard work, because people wanted to perform so well on his behalf, said a former executive assistant, Arlene Abbott of McCandless. He walked the plant floors, inquiring after employees' families, soliciting their input on how to make the workplace better, encouraging productivity without pressuring anyone.
"There wasn't a soul in that place who wouldn't do whatever he asked," Ms. Abbott said.
Mr. Russell's reputation among business peers was no less. He was appointed to numerous boards, including those of three banks, two health organizations, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, the Art Institute and the Pittsburgh branch of the Federal Reserve.
"He was a very warm person who had the ability to talk to anyone," said Jim Liken of Fox Chapel, a friend and business peer who headed Respironics Inc. "You put him in the middle of the room, and by the end of the night he'd know a little bit about everybody, and everybody would think highly of him."
Mr. Russell was a prominent enough success story to be featured in advertising by the State System of Higher Education, picturing him and touting how his Slippery Rock education helped make him.
His wife, Barbara, who dated him starting at age 15, remembers they were once on the Slippery Rock campus and saw his face plastered on the side of the school's bus as part of its marketing campaign. Mr. Russell chuckled.
"He was always a humble person," his son said.
Mr. Russell was already in semi-retirement at the time his illness slowed him down. Ranbar had sold off its electrical products division in 2004, and his son was running day-to-day affairs as the company continued producing resins and pipe coatings.
He continued for many years enjoying golf at Edgewood, Oakmont and Laurel Valley country clubs and skiing both locally and in Colorado, where he and his wife would spend part of the year at their property near Vail.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Russell is survived by two grandchildren.
Friends will be received from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and 1 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Wolfe Memorial Forest Hills Chapel, 3604 Greensburg Pike.
A memorial service will be at noon Thursday at Beulah Presbyterian Church, 2500 McCrady Road, Churchill.
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255.