Coming Back From Being Knocked Flat...

If there was only one thing that I could try to pass on or teach to people who want to be successful in business, it is this:

Never give up.

The second thing I would try to say would be:

There is no obstacle you can't overcome.

Now, both of these things are old, some might say tired, platitudes. We've all heard them countless times from parents, teachers, coaches etc. we've heard them so many times that they probably seem somewhat meaningless. But, please believe me; at least as far as my life has gone they have been words of solid gold. I lived them, and lived through them, and I'm here to tell you that truly, belief in those “tired old ideas” is powerful and is the secret to almost all success.

We all are dealt obstacles and problems in our lives. You can choose to look at these as a roadblock, perhaps an insurmountable one, or you can choose to look at them as a challenge, something to be learned from and overcome. Which of these mental states you choose will probably determine to a large degree how your life plays out.

Many times, the obstacles we face are of our own creation. Certainly this was the case with me. We make choices about our lives every day, and often the ramifications of those choices don't reveal themselves for years or even decades. These are choices about school, careers, relationships, lifestyles, and many other things. Regardless, the obstacles that are created by our choices are real, every bit as real as something foisted on us beyond our control.

So, sometimes you really screw up and it’s entirely your fault. Sometimes the world smacks you on the back of the head for reasons beyond understanding and you never see it coming. Whatever the case may be, it is how you deal with it that matters.

For me, the worst thing that's ever happened to me in my life has now become something I'm actually proud of. Not the actions themselves, but the lessons I learned and the way I used those lessons.

In 1995, I was charged by the US government with "conspiring to defraud the government of tax revenue". This was the culmination of a nearly 10 year pitched and bloody legal battle that I, and my father before me, fought with the IRS.

Now, I could write chapter and verse ad nausea about our fight, the rounds I won and the rounds I lost, motions and counter-motions, appeals and counter-appeals, blah, blah, blah. I could make arguments about the injustice in the justice system and how it's pretty much impossible to win against an adversary with unlimited resources, but the simple fact of the matter is, at the and of the day, I pled guilty. Even though I believed and still believe that the government was wrong and we were right, I just didn't have the money or the will to fight anymore. I was beaten.

I want to be crystal clear about something though, although my battle with the government involved my business, it was about taxes. The suit was driven by the IRS and no one can ever question the way I, or my father dealt with our employees, customers or lenders.

Over the previous few years I had built a company called Arrow Express from nothing to a major regional transportation company, with hundreds of employees, hundreds of trucks, offices in four different states, etc. All of that was gone now. I screwed it up by growing the business too fast. I screwed it up by not having the proper financial controls in place. And, I really screwed it up by picking a fight with the IRS because of foolish pride and negative emotions.

The only good news that I had was that the judge gave me a six month reprieve before I had to check into the federal hotel to start my stay. Let me tell you, that six months seemed like it dragged on forever. Watching the calendar tick down, day by day, to what I thought at the time was doomsday, was excruciating.

But, I started to learn some things. First, I learned who my friends were. I learned that family will support you no matter what. So will your real friends. I also learned that there is kindness and compassion and beauty in the souls of many, many people, often where you would least expect it.

The day I had to turn myself in was the worst day of my life. I would be lying if I didn't admit that I was scared out of my mind. It was a minimum security “camp” that I had to go to. There were no fences or bars, you could technically walk away any time, but still, this was prison.

My whole family had driven up to the place with me, even my two dogs, which, as dogs can do, could really sense the mood and were quite and subdued and instead of constantly trying to push their noses out the window as they normally would, just kept laying their heads in my lap. I will never forget the tears in my mom’s eyes and the pain in my dad’s face, the way he clenched his jaw as he drove.

I remember squaring my shoulders and standing up tall and walking through the door, determined that no one was going to see me down. But, I guess I was fooling myself, and my emotions must have been all over my face. The officer who was in charge of checking me in, going through all the normal things; petty indignities, fingerprints, pictures, etc, looked at me with sad brown eyes. I remember his name was Officer Garcia. He was low key and relaxed and he simply said to me: "Don't worry; you're going to be fine here". Instead of the bad-ass prison guard we so often see depicted, he was kind, compassionate and empathetic.

That was my experience many times over the next days and weeks, and the lesson was that most people, even under the direst of circumstances, are inherently decent and will help you if you simply ask. I had always believed that the good in people far outweighs the bad, and even in a place where you would think that the worst angels of man's existence would be foremost, I found that the opposite was true.

This was a lesson that I have since applied to my business. The good in customers, employees and vendors far outweighs the "bad". Many business owners and executives spend a lot of time worrying about "being taken advantage of" by employees and other stakeholders. This is a waste of time and energy. The vast majority of employees will do good and diligent work left on their own. I don't believe in time clocks or a tremendous amount of employee rules. I don't believe in trying to box your customers in with endless "policies". Treat your employees and customers like decent, intelligent adults and they will amaze you.

I was only at the camp for a few months, but, I can't say that the time passed quickly. It was tough, and I saw many sad things. But, I also had a lot of time to think. I realized that my stubborn fight with the government was wrong. I had seen the IRS destroy my father's business and his life, leaving him a shadow of the man he was before. And, I have to admit - I hated them for it, and I took the fight to them. But, as I sat in that place, utterly defeated, I knew that acting from such negative emotions can create nothing good. I brought so much embarrassment and distress to my family and I cost myself and the government so much money fighting a war that could have no victors. It was stupid and it was petty and it was small minded

I vowed to myself and I prayed to God that if I could get through this bad time in my life that I would never again act with such selfish and wanton disregard for the well-being of others. This truly was a turning point in my existance that led to both personal success and peace of mind that I had never experienced before. No, I didn't have a grand epiphany in prison. I didn't “find Jesus” nor was I “born again”. I did realize though that the world is a big place, and we are all a part of it, and all things are interconnected. The more you focus on yourself and what you want, the more insular and self-absorbed you become. You make decisions that serve the god of your hubris, and these decisions often hurt others. And, they are decisions that are ultimately destructive to yourself.

When I got out I had very few prospects. My business was gone and I was pretty much broke. I had been the president of a multi-million-dollar company, but I knew that with my record I would never be able to get any kind of management, let alone executive level job.

Besides, I wasn't that interested in doing much of anything. I was feeling sorry for myself.

My father owned a tiny business making deliveries of medical supplies to various hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and other medical facilities. I went to work with him, delivering supplies all around the state of Wisconsin.

In my travels, I got to be friends with some of the people at the clinics I delivered to. Some of these clinics were in outlying, rural areas of the state. One day, I was small- talking away with one of the guys at a tiny hospital in little town called Burlington Wisconsin. Just normal guy talk, the weather, football etc, when he happened to say "It really sucks that I have to work on Sunday and miss the Packer game.” (You have to live in Wisconsin to understand that the Green Bay Packers are not just a football team, they are a religion. On Sunday afternoons in the fall the streets of every city in the state are deserted as people will not miss, to the exclusion of almost anything else, watching their Packers)

I asked, "Why do you have to work"? And he said: “Because we are short so many nurses and aides that we all have to pull extra shifts".

This got me thinking. I knew a remarkable woman who was an ER nurse in a big urban hospital in downtown Milwaukee (she had more guts and purpose than I could ever dream of). I asked her that night if they were chronically short of staff, and she said “We're usually okay, sometimes we even have to send people home if there are not enough patients.”

Well, that got me thinking. Over the next couple weeks I asked at every facility I went to in rural areas whether or not they were short staffed. Almost universally they were.

So, I had the elements of a business. A business opportunity is simply a need unfulfilled. There were not enough health-care workers in the rural areas of Wisconsin. There seemed to be a greater supply in the urban areas. Would it be possible to put those two things together?

Turned out it was. I put together a business that placed healthcare workers on temporary contracts from Milwaukee and later Chicago, Indianapolis etc. into healthcare facilities in rural areas. In just three years we were one of the largest healthcare staffing companies in the Midwest. The adventure of how we got there, the innovative things we did and the revolutionary marketing approach we took is another story, one which I hope to write here at a later time – but the nuts and bolts of how I started that business is not the topic here - What I am trying to illustrate to you is simply this: There is always a way. I went, in a few short years, from being broke, busted, and just out of jail, to being back on top, running an exciting and fast-growing company.

Yes, I knew a lot about business at that point in my career. I knew how to start, run and grow a company. But, that’s not what made it possible. What I hope you can understand is that the decision to simply just "do it" is what makes the difference. I did it with little money, little or no knowledge of the staffing or medical industry, and the mental weight of having failed, and failed in spectacular fashion, before.

And you can do it too.

I went on from there to start other successful companies. And, I had many more ups and downs in the crazy, wonderful, fast-moving world of business. It's been a wonderful ride, a ride that's been tough and challenging, and which I highly recommend.

Richard Branson, the legendary entrepreneur and probably the business person I respect most (who's also had his share of scrapes with the government) says it best:

"Screw it, just do it."

I guess that's what I'm trying to say here. With all the curveballs I've been thrown and mistakes I've made, without any start up money or influential family or even much of a business education, I have been able to start successful business after successful business. Mostly it's just a matter of deciding to do it.

So, if being in business is in your blood, if it's your passion - screw it, just do it. And don't look back.

Rules for Making It, Or Making it Back.

First - You Have No Excuses.
All the things that are holding you back, lack of money, lack of education or experience, no extra time, whatever, this is all bullshit. If you focus all of your attention on your goal, you WILL find a way. To paraphrase the Bible: "If you knock on the door, it will be opened". This is immensely true. (c’mon, it’s in the bible for goodness sake!). It's not going to fall in your lap though. You have to hustle and learn. You have to leave no rock unturned to achieve your goal. Which leads me to -

You Must Sacrifice At The Altar Of Business.
This is such a major part of it, I wrote a separate page just on this topic here.

And Finally - Don't Worry If You Fail.
Let me take the mystery away - you ARE going to fail. Maybe you will fail big and lose it all, or maybe you will fail at a bunch of little things. But, I guarantee you; you are going to screw up along the way.

The good news is - don't worry about it. Now, by that I don't mean to be flip, cavalier or dismissive. Failing is not fun. It will cause you headaches, and some amount of carnage. But, more than anything else it will teach you. I made some catastrophic mistakes in my time. Mistakes that led me to crater my business and end up in federal court. I will never make those mistakes again. I will never lose control of my cash flow and I will never not know intimately and to the virtual penny where my business is at financially. These are lessons that you will read about in a book in business school. The painful lessons that you learn in real business are far more powerful. I learned those lessons and I was much better for them. Those lessons, devestating though they were, formed the basis of much future success.

Frankly, I think that the best thing that can happen to any entrepreneur is to go out of business. You will get an education that no book or class or management guru (many of whom have never run a company) will teach you.

So, whether you fail big or small, understand what is happening and know that you will be able to come out the other side wiser, smarter, and stronger in every way. And, what's the worst that can happen? My dad told me once: “Come on son, what are you afraid of? They can't eat you!"

And, if you fail, do it the right way. Take care of your obligations to your customers, your employees and your lenders with every nickel and ounce of energy you can. When my business was going down I chose to direct every dollar I could towards paying my employees and my lenders. This left no money to pay the government and thier taxes. This was a conscious decision I made and I paid for it. But, my reputation with the banks was intact, and I was able to borrow money when I needed it to expand my next business.

And, I slept better.

If you do your best and you fail, and you do it the right way, your friends and your family will stick with you and the community at large will stand behind you.

You may be down, and you may make sacrifices and take some lumps, but you will never, never be out.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I just came across this. This is really inspirational. Thank you for writing such an open story about yourself.