Behind every successful CEO probably lurks at least one major regret. The best, or the luckiest, CEOs learn from their mistakes and get an opportunity to rectify them. But as we learned from the stories that company founders shared with us, even the ones who get a second chance can still feel the repercussions from their moves for years afterward. And the lessons they gleaned stay with them and influence their business decisions in sometimes surprising ways.
Regret 4: Not going to college
Company: Ecocrete (#154 on the 2000 Inc. 500), in Chula Vista, Calif. Business: Manufacturing modular schools and classrooms CEO: Keith Christian
"I didn't pay much attention in high school," Keith Christian says ruefully. "My pager kept going off." That's because he had started his first company, a janitorial services business, when he was 15. He managed to graduate, albeit with poor grades, but his business was doing so well that he never bothered with college. And now, years later, despite having started three successful companies, "I think I would be a better CEO if I had more education," he says. He feels that lack of education most acutely in the areas of finance and accounting, where he has to rely on his employees to monitor the bottom line.
In his 41 years, Christian has never worked for anyone. Now that Ecocrete -- which owns a patented formula for reinforced concrete that it uses in construction -- is seven years old and has some 300 employees, he wishes he had had a role model earlier in his life. "I wish I had worked for a more mature company that had a backlog and inventory. I wish I had worked for a company that got it right," he says. "I could have learned how to manage a business. In a start-up, you're always in crisis mode."
As part of the consolidation in his industry, Christian is acquiring a dealership that has been the intermediary between Ecocrete and its customers, the school districts. With expansion on his mind and recognizing his own limitations, he has decided to make the head of the dealership, Richard Koch, his new CEO. The strikingly modest Christian believes that Koch -- who has 15 years' experience in the business and a degree in accounting from the University of California at Berkeley -- "will make a better CEO."
Despite his regrets, Christian, who will remain chairman, says he has no plans to go back to school anytime soon. But he is strongly encouraging his two kids to stick it out. And it's perhaps only fitting that he is finally hitting his stride in a business devoted to building space for students.