Shaping my entrepreneurial destiny

It was my great honor and privilege to attend the Ernst & Young 2010 Strategic Growth Forum during early November 2010 in Palm Springs, Calif. As a regional Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Award winner, I was excited about the insight and knowledge I anticipated gaining from the event, but I had no idea how valuable this week would become in shaping my entrepreneurial destiny.

In retrospect, the experience was much too vast to sum up in one column, so I’ve set out to share just a few of the key points I gleaned from each inspirational keynote speaker I heard.

The week magically began with L.A. Lakers great Earvin “Magic” Johnson. I was most impressed by Magic’s work ethic: His philosophy of being the first one in and the last one out has paid great dividends in his professional career. Magic reinforced his belief that the work ethic of a leader would be reflected in his or her work force. When you lead by example, you will be surprised by the quality effort you get in return.

Magic sets a very specific tone and persona in his organization: Losing is not an option, and no one will outwork us as a team. This infectious winning attitude is reflected in his organization from top to bottom. As a result, he has become an elite entrepreneur. His charisma lived up to the legend, and it was a great way to kick off the week.

Next was Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. As a third-generation business owner, you could feel the sincerity as he talked about the Ford family, and by “family,” he means everyone from the janitorial staff all the way up to the board of directors. Bill says he is often approached in the halls by people who love to tell him that they are fourth- or even fifth-generation Ford employees. Each employee is proud of the Ford heritage, and it reflects in his or her work ethic and brand loyalty.

Ford offered great insight on the anxiety he suffered because of the decision he faced to either take the bailout money or pass. His fear was that if Ford passed, it would hurt the brand image, driving fear in the American public that Ford would not persevere through a historic low point in company history. But instead of taking the government handout, Ford stepped up to the plate, mortgaged the farm and devised a comeback plan. This strategy paid off well in the perception of not only his employees but also the American people. Ford’s decision resulted in a great American comeback story that will cement Bill Ford as one of the greatest leaders of his generation.

The next day, we heard from A.G. Lafley, the former chairman, president and CEO of Procter & Gamble. When the annals of business history are finally written, Lafley will go down as one of the greatest facilitators of innovation in our time. His philosophy of an open platform for innovation transformed several mediocre brands into billion-dollar brands for P&G. He subscribed to the belief that if you tear down the walls and allow innovation to come from anywhere, including outside sources, that creativity will rule the day. Lafley offered this great piece of advice: “When it comes to innovation, you are going to fail more than you succeed. So if you are going to fail, fail fast and fail cheap.”

Sir Richard Branson, founder and chairman of Virgin Group Ltd., followed Lafley. Branson was a great source of inspiration when I founded my company, Universal Windows Direct. His “Screw it; let’s do it!” attitude toward risk-taking inspired me to leave a safe and secure job with little startup money and follow my dream of owning my own business. Needless to say, I was more excited about learning from him than any other speaker.

Branson said that, in life and in business, you must always take a negative and turn it into a positive. For example, although his company, Virgin Airlines, was much smaller than British Air, this seemingly competitive disadvantage actually allowed his company to be more nimble when industry trends changed. Branson was able to make changes faster than the competition and do them in a more cost-effective manner, which allowed Virgin to be perceived as the glamorous option in air travel. He essentially carved out a niche from necessity because he didn’t like the existing commercial airline service. He decided to do it, and do it better than anyone else.

Branson also spoke about not letting your emotions get in the way of making decisions. He admitted that when he tried to take on Coca-Cola with his own Virgin Cola by showing up in Times Square with a tank and blowing the iconic Coke sign out of the sky, that he had held on too long to a losing product line because he loved the idea too much to let it go. This emotional attachment cost him more than $60 million and was a painful lesson to learn.

So what does a billionaire with his own island and airline dream about?

Going to the moon, of course. As a teenager growing up in England, Branson mentioned that the moon landing left an indelible impression on his thinking. It showed him that anything was possible and that if you had the mental fortitude to dream it, you could achieve it. That is how Virgin Galactic was born.

Branson’s latest endeavor is making space travel possible and shows that the sky is no longer the limit. If being exposed to this kind of thinking as an entrepreneur doesn’t get you excited about life and business, you should have your pulse checked.

Beyond the billions, I was impressed by Branson’s belief in the social responsibility of the business community.

He talked about joining The Elders, a small, dedicated group of leaders that works objectively and without personal interest to help solve global conflicts. The group includes founders Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, two individuals who Branson says have influenced him. You could see Branson’s passion as he talked about The Elders and that his attitude of gratitude drives him in his business ventures. And, he said that by giving back, entrepreneurs and business owners can achieve balance and purpose in their day-to-day grind.

Last, but certainly not least, was Dr. Deepak Chopra, co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Chopra was there to remind us that you can have all the money in the world but you cannot buy real happiness. Real happiness, he says, comes from the fulfillment of making other people happy. Happy people tend to not only be more successful, but they also tend to make better life decisions and are typically healthier.

A recent Gallup poll reveals that 80 percent of the work force is unhappy with their jobs. Most employees feel disengaged or even ignored at their workplace. These alarming facts opened my eyes to the human side of my own organization. I’ve realized that I need to be sure to engage my employees in an open dialogue about what we, as a team, can improve upon with their help.

To deal with the stress of owning a business, Chopra’s advice was simple: Move more, eat less and relax. It is now common knowledge that exercise acts as a natural antidepressant. Chopra suggested that we eat only out of necessity, not out of boredom, and that we push the plate away when we are full, not when we are finished.

Most important, he prescribed at least 15 minutes a day of relaxation, doing nothing more than just sitting still and paying attention to our breathing. By meditating every day and making slight changes to our diet and exercise, our body can completely correct itself inside of four months.

As I sat back on my balcony and watched the sunset in the desert on the last evening I was there, I reflected upon the common themes of the week.

Each great leader spoke about the importance of having quality people in your organization working toward one common mission that has been defined by the leader. Once this mission has been defined, it is imperative that everyone believes in that missio
n 110 percent. Along the way, you must always be innovating and improving, no matter how big or small your company is. In the end, we are all connected, and it is imperative that we give back the blessing we have been given.

William H. Barr III is president and CEO of Universal Windows Direct. He and co-owner/co-founder Michael Strmac were named 2010 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Award regional winners for the Northeast Ohio region. Reach Barr at [email protected].