Chief Information Officer, Husch Blackwell
When Blake Rooney was a kid, he enjoyed regular visits to his godparents’ home in Burbank, Calif. His godfather was the city manager there, and Rooney recalls that “he was into computers before anyone else.”
That’s a bit of an understatement: Microsoft and Apple were just a few years old at the time; HP had yet to roll out its first personal computer; there was no Dell, no Gateway, no AmericaOnline, or even a World Wide Web to connect one PC to another.
And yet, Rooney recalls, that experience in California “really got me thinking about computers when I was in high school. I don’t even know at this point what the appeal was, but I was fascinated at the magic and what those boxes could do.”
You might say it was love at . . . first byte. And it would eventually lead him to Husch Blackwell, one of the region’s biggest law firms, where a bit of a tech revolution has been unfolding in the age of paperless offices, Big Data, and cyber-security threats.
Rooney went on to finish at Oak Park High School, enduring personal losses with the death of his mother when he was 16, then of his father just a few years later, at 23. His Dad had run an auto shop, and his mother had done the books for the business, and during his too-brief time with them, “I watched them work hard; they were definitely an influence,” Rooney says. “They helped me understand the value of hard work and of working with people.”
By his early 20s, Rooney knew which career path he wanted to take and took a big step with Farmland Industries, where the tech transformation in the early 1990s had him “drinking from the firehose. I learned so much about technology there, working in the mainframe operations group for the first seven years. It was a big company, but everybody knew each other, and there were a lot of opportunities to learn and do different things. It wasn’t overly structured, so you could help somebody with a project that wasn’t exactly your area.”
From there, he did a stint with a Farmland/Ernst & Young joint venture called OneSystem Group before signing on with a Dallas-based marketing group, where he made his first big leap into the executive realm. “I went from being a network engineer on Friday at Farmland to vice president of technology at Brierley on Monday,” Rooney says. He soon was in command of a team of 25, getting early exposure to business intelligence and understanding client data. “It was a great place to learn in a hurry,” Rooney says. “It was 70-80 hours a week, so it was boot camp-plus.”
He and his wife adopted a child and in 2006 decided Kansas City was the place to be as parents. A former mentor from his Farmland days had a connection to the previous legal incarnation of Husch, and a match was made.
Being exposed to large-company operations at Farmland and specialty firm entrepreneurship at Brierley was a powerful combination for Rooney, who supplemented those skills by acquiring his master’s degree from Rockhurst. “I was always fascinated by the business side from my background, all the way back to watching Dad run his business, and how to use technology not for its own sake, but for the impact of technology on that business: How you use it to make the business more profitable,” Rooney says.
Combining that aspect with leadership, he’s found his place in business tech. “I love growing and developing people,” he says. “The old line about hiring smart people and getting out of way? There’s a lot to be said for that. You’ve got to break down barriers so people can do their best work.”
That’s a particular challenge for modern law firms. “We hold a lot of clients’ critical strategic information, and we have an obligation to take care of that information,” he says. “The expected level of support within a law firm—they want the best, they need things to work well, to work 24/7, and my job is to make sure they have the tools they need to serve their clients.”