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Posted: May 01, 2010

Athena Award finalist: Robin Heller

Western Union vice president finds the right ‘bounce' with career, community and family

Mike Cote

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A plush Tigger sits in the corner of Robin Heller's office at Western Union in Englewood. Like Winnie the Pooh's high-energy feline friend, you could say Heller's got bounce. In her 22 years at Western Union and its former parent company, First Data, she's changed jobs 21 times.

"You don't have success if you're not learning and not challenging yourself," the 44-year-old Athena finalist says. "If you're going to stay in that status quo area, it's going to become pretty boring and mundane. I don't do well in that space. I'm not routine and I'm not maintenance. I think that's why I've had such a fun ride with my career."

Heller rose to her current rank as executive vice president for operations and information technology at Western Union from evolving beyond her background in finance and accounting. Back in her days on the finance side at First Data, she oversaw a small team of MBAs and CPAs. These days she directs 2,500 people around the globe.

"When I'm on the road, I'm out there on the floor with them," says Heller, who grew up in Iowa. "I want to know what they're doing, how they're doing and what obstacles and barriers are out there for them to do what they need to do that I need to remove, because that's my role ... I'm supposed to help make their job life easier."

Western Union generates about 85 percent of its revenues from consumer products - primarily the wire transfers immigrant workers use to send money home.

"It's someone who left their home in the Philippines to go to Dubai to help do the building there to send it back home to help their children through college, build homes," Heller says. "I get pretty touched by what we do in that arena."

When First Data decided to spin off Western Union, executives tapped Heller to lead the effort. Western Union will mark its fourth anniversary in September as an independent company.

"I'd spent a lot of time in these operational roles pulling things together, consolidating things, so they figured I'd probably know how to take them apart," said Heller, who relocated to Denver in 1993 from a First Data operation in Omaha, Neb. "I just had a lot of years of experience so I could lead the people through this huge transformation and change."

Transformation and change have been a constant in Heller's career, and she's shared what she's learned over the years through her work with the University of Colorado Denver, the Women's Vision Foundation and Junior Achievement. And she'll be taking a new role this month at the Women's College at the University of Denver to help with strategy.

Heller's relationship with Junior Achievement, which includes membership on the nonprofit's board, sprung out of her company's efforts to integrate its philanthropic work with its home community.

"When we created the Western Union "Our World, Our Family" program, which is our foundation, we really wanted to make sure that the corporate social responsibility that we cared about at Western Union was applicable to what boards we joined and how we sponsored our community service," Heller says. "So I was the first one to say, ‘OK, I'll take education.'"

Heller spends much of her JA classroom time with middle-school students: "I think those are the kids where if you're going to make a difference and make an imprint that day, it's pretty positive." She's also taught JA's "Capitalism with a Conscience" program to high school students.

"You can look at Robin's resume and see all she has accomplished, but what you can't see is the many friendships she has, and the admiration she has earned from the many people she has touched with her personality and ‘down home' strength," said Robin Wise, president and CEO of Junior Achievement-Rocky Mountain Inc., in a letter to the Athena selection committee.

Heller and her husband, David, are getting a taste of the teenage life through their son, Zachariah, 13, whose sports schedule includes lacrosse, football and skiing. And she notes that teenagers aren't shy about speaking their minds, something that helps Heller make sure she has her priorities in the right places.

"You can have it all. But how you balance - you have to define that," Heller says.

When her son was 2, there was a week when all he wanted to eat was hot dogs, and Heller "freaked out" and was worried she was doing something wrong. Her pediatrician assured her the phase would pass.

"He said, ‘You have to look at it over a longer span of time. Yes, he got protein this week. He might be on the vegetables next week. If you look at it over a bigger span of time, it's all going to balance out. And the nutritional value and quality will be there. You can't tell me you balance your life in perfect increments every day.'"

And that clicked for Heller.

"There are going to be those weeks when the community and family might get a little bit of neglect, but there might be weeks where I'm spending a lot of time in the classroom," she says. "It might be JA or the Women's Vision Foundation or other things going on or it might be the family that is getting a lot of the time."

You might say it's all about bounce.

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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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