The personal impact of heart disease on Tony Best and his employees at Denver-based SM Energy Co. inspired them to raise more than $1 million for the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk, a first for a company in a single market

More than 160 employees of the independent energy company participated in the Denver event, which is one of nearly 340 Heart Walks that take place across the country each year. The fundraising walks are designed to raise money to fight cardiovascular disease and stroke, while promoting physical activity and heart-healthy living.

Best, chief executive of SM Energy and chairman of the event, praised his workers, who raised a total of $1,099,971.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we could exceed $1 million as a single company, but everybody stepped up, and it was just a stellar event,” said Best, whose father, Vince Best, died of a heart attack at age 86. His mother-in-law, Thea Hill, passed away due to a stroke.

Best said the losses motivated him to get involved and try to make a difference. It also inspired his workers.

“When we asked our employees in a big, group setting how many have instances of heart disease or stroke in their families, most of the hands went up,” he said.

Rob Blaustein, regional vice president of development for the AHA in Colorado, said he was grateful employees of SM Energy came through in such a big way.

“The funds they raised will support groundbreaking research and provide lifesaving information to those who need it most,” Blaustein said.

Overall, the Denver Heart Walk held on June 7 raised $3.8 million, topping the 2014 goal of $3 million.

“We dramatically overachieved. I mean we raised $3.8 million, but there’s almost another $3 million of research grants (in Colorado) that are unfunded,” Best said. “You always wonder which of those projects might be the breakthrough that we are looking for.”

He outlined five key strategies for a successful Heart Walk: Increase participation;  expand the size of the leadership team since those efforts produce monetary results; create a theme for the event, such as “Superheroes” for Denver;  reach out to the media for coverage; and develop vendor events, such as golf tournaments, where all proceeds benefit the Heart Walk.

“It was one of those unforgettable events, and personally it was such a rewarding experience that I would encourage other business and community leaders to consider chairing a campaign like that,” Best said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s been very, very rewarding.”

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Photos courtesy of Todd Clark Photography