We often associate friends with certain moments in our lives, special events such as a cross-country road trip or our first concert or a particularly nasty one-night tequila bender. I will always associate Lori Wellinghoff with 9/11.
Lori was part of the leadership team with Local Marketing Corporation, a Cincinnati-based advertising and promotion agency. She had the kind of energy and tenacity that would put a classic Type A personality to shame. She was driven, creative and fearless when it came to picking up the phone and making cold calls to acquire a new client. She was a beast with details and never failed to remind me of my shortcomings in that area (among many areas).
Like many, if not most, American businesses, we essentially stopped working to congregate around the conference room TV; watching with horror, knowing our lives would never be the same. Then the towers fell, a final punctuation to an unimaginable series of events on that breathtakingly beautiful late summer day. I scanned the room, seeing the pain and the tears in everyone’s eyes and noticed that Lori was not there with us.
I remember feeling indignant as I walked down the hall to her office. How could anyone work at a moment like this? And, to be sure, that’s exactly what I thought Lori was doing: working, grinding away at the details, exceeding client expectations, performing as she always performed, at a high level. But somehow, it felt wrong on this day. Somehow we owed those people in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania our attention, our reverence.
I turned the corner and entered her office, half expecting a quip because that’s what we always did, made jokes, poked fun at everything and everybody. But what I found was a friend in distress, sobbing inconsolably, unable to catch her breath, grieving for the loss of innocence we all felt that day, but doing it alone. It caught me off guard. I never saw her cry, or even flinch for that matter. She was too strong to show emotion. Nothing seemed to bother her. I was uncomfortable, unsure as to what to do. I felt as if an intruder into sacred space. I remember trying in vain to console her, more because her grief made me uncomfortable. But I realized there was nothing to say to make sense of anything. In an odd way, seeing someone so strong grieve so intensely validated the enormity of what had happened to our country that day. I backed out of her office, allowing her grief to play its course.
It wasn’t too long after those events that Lori left LMC. She needed a bigger canvas to accommodate her ambition and passion. She found it with Clear Channel Entertainment, a job she loved, but that was all consuming. Eventually, she realized there was something else burning inside her, something that a gig in corporate America could not satisfy.
On a flight from New York to Cincinnati, Lori did one of those legal pad exercises we all probably do at some point. Let’s call it: “if not this, then what?” She drew four circles on the pad, each representing passions she’d always carried: architecture, design, contracting and real estate sales. All four came naturally to her. Her father was a successful developer and builder; her beloved mother-in-law one of the top real estate agents in Cincinnati.
“I sat there looking at those for circles for the longest time,” Lori said. “Then I drew a box that connected all four of them. I looked at that box and realized: there isn’t a business I knew of offering all four disciplines under one roof. The fact they all happened to be disciplines I loved made it that much more exciting. I wrote the business plan on that same flight.”
That business plan was for a company that would eventually be called DIGS. Like many entrepreneurial ventures, DIGS unfolded on top of Lori’s dining room table with limited resources, but no lack of confidence. (The company named was inspired by a restaurant in Charleston, SC called “Fig.”) Lori’s vision for a hybrid business model blending architecture, design, construction and real estate sales proved to be brilliant. DIGS has become one of the most highly regarded businesses in the region, not just in the comprehensive nature of its offering, but across each discipline as well. The business continues to grow, primarily on the strength of word-of-mouth referrals.
I was curious about something and decided to close our discussion with a question: “You always seemed passionate and engaged in whatever you were doing. What’s the key?”
“There’s so much focus in our culture about doing what you love,” she said. “I think that’s a crazy and impractical philosophy. To me, it made much more sense to just like whatever it is you were doing. If you get your ego out of the way, any job can be interesting and challenging. It’s much easier that way.”
There is a post-script to the 9/11 story. I shut the office down early because America stopped working. Like most people, I went home and turned on CNN to watch the endless, mind-numbing video loops of the horrific images from earlier in the day. Lori Wellinghoff didn’t sit in front of her television to watch the same mind-numbing coverage. She channeled her grief into action, driving to Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport where thousands of people were stranded. She brought one of those stranded strangers home with her. If she had room in her car and her home, I’m sure she would have provided refuge to many more.
Just like what you do!