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Rick Tollakson at Des Moines Golf and Country Club

5/3/2023

Rick Tollakson is the most recent inductee of the Iowa Business Hall of Fame. He has been president and CEO of Hubbell Realty since 2004, a golden age for that venerable company. We asked him to lunch recently, and he chose Des Moines Golf and Country Club. 

Is that his favorite lunch spot? 

“I only go to four places for lunch. I like Biaggi’s (5990 University Ave., West Des Moines) and have for long time. I recently discovered Cooper’s Hawk (12801 University Ave., Clive). I rediscovered how much I like Club Car (13587 University Ave., Clive). And then, I like it here. I usually get the buffet here. They do a great job on that. Today, I needed to be here because I have been getting fitted for golf clubs.”

Fitted for golf clubs? 

“Yeah, it’s so high-tech now that they measure everything about you and personalize the clubs. I am a short guy, so I benefit from the fitting. They check for all kinds of tendencies, too. I only started playing golf after I turned 60, so I can use any advantage I can find. I just spent two and a half hours on the ‘fitting.’ ”

There is a bar and grill on the lower level of the Country Club, so it’s possible to walk in from the clubhouse or the golf course. The club has produced several of the area’s top chefs over the years. What does Tollakson appreciate about fine dining? 

“I am a pretty simple guy. I don’t get into wines much at all. They push them at Cooper’s Hawk, but I am not interested. I do like to ask about Iowa Culinary Institute (at Des Moines Area Community College) grads in kitchens. That is something I picked up from Rob Denson (DMACC president).”

Googling Tollakson’s name, I found more about his connection to Iowa Waterways Alliance than about his amazing business career. He appears in many photos paddling kayaks and canoes with a big smile on his face. Did he pick up his love of kayaking and canoeing growing up in Alaska, then Palmer and Hampton, Iowa? 

“Ha. What love of kayaking and canoeing? I have no love for those things. That all started with Tina Hadden (Iowa Equity Group). She is involved with lots of marketing, leadership projects and programs. She told Todd Ashby (executive director of Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Commission) that I would be a good person to head a waterways trails program. ‘Why me?’ I asked. All I knew about water trails at the time was that there was a sign by Johnston’s boat ramp that said, ‘water trail.’ But I agreed. It sounded like water trails might be an encouragement for people buying real estate.”

How does one get involved in something he knows next to nothing about? 

“I started attending meetings. I could not believe how many people were excited about developing water trails. It was contagious. I started taking groups to places where successful water trails had developed. We went to Manchester here in Iowa. They took out a dam, added lots of big rocks and anchor systems to channel the flow of the Maquoketa River into a whitewater park.” 

It was instantly popular, drawing canoeists, kayakers, tubers, rafters, boogie board surfers, and swimmers. Where else did Tollakson visit? 

“I am an engineer, so I believe in learning by observing. We also went to Eldridge in Iowa. There is a water trail there within 7.5 miles of Lost Grave Lake. That provides much calmer paddling. Then we visited Columbus, Georgia, and Boise, Idaho.” 

Columbus is famous for repurposing their dams, which were built for powering cotton factories. When the cotton industry left, they were redundant. The great food writer John T. Edge made a TV show about how dam removal transformed the city, considered one of the most cosmopolitan food towns in America now. 

“They took out two dormant dams. The textile industry had been gone a long time. And they now have 20 miles of water trail on the Chattahoochee. The chamber of commerce there told me that downtown occupancy went from 50% to 100% since then. It’s an exciting scene with people grilling food and throwing rod and reels on the river side. They’ve hosted national kayaking championships. The town has also shed its bad image — it’s ‘red neck no more.’ I think the food scene has something to do with Fort Benning being there. (Paratroopers from all over the world train there.)”

Boise is also a boom town. 

“The scene is very progressive there. They have a wave shaper on their watershed, which is a simulated, two-acre river. It’s also a learning center.”

What is the next step in Iowa waterways development? 

“You have to have flow to do it. So, we need to clean up the weeds in waterways. And, particularly the trees that end up in rivers at winter’s end. That takes volunteers. Water trails need to mesh with bike trails. West Des Moines is ahead of the pack on this with Raccoon River Park and their boathouse. I hear that’s very popular.”

What about downtown? 

“I don’t see that happening any time soon. The water is so shallow that once I was freaking out about my boat filling up with water. Nate Hoogeveen (director of Rivers Program for Iowa Department of Natural Resources) had to tell me to calm down, get out of the boat and pour it out. I was only in about 3 feet of water. The Army Corps of Engineers saves most of the water for Saylorville, so it is very shallow water downtown. The development potential is further upstream.”

What brought Tollakson to Des Moines? 

“I had been working on projects in Iowa after getting my engineering degree at Iowa State. I am a construction engineer, not a hydraulics engineer. I came here to build The Hub for Hubbell Realty. I figured on being here four or five years and moving on for another big project. But things changed downtown. The skywalk era was ending. Once we lost JC Penney, that was clear. 

“Business was leaving, but, ironically, people wanted to live there for the first time. Hubbell Realty has built one downtown housing project after another for decades now. People (like this writer) used to say downtown apartments were overbuilt, but now we have 98% leased. The trick in Des Moines is to get leases to expire between April and November, when downtown is at its best for renewals.”

Why did he stay here? 

“When I turned 50, I told Jim Hubbell I planned to retire at 55. He said that was a problem because that was when he planned to retire. So, I became CEO, and Jim retired.”

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