Sometimes the best management education comes from the least likely of lesson plans.
Everything Dave Hegan knows about entrepreneurship dates back to a single brilliant 200-yard shot on the 18th hole. Chad Christofferson learned from trying to convert Buddhists to Mormonism. And Jerry May studied the hard way -- in bankruptcy court.
There's more than one way to teach yourself how to build a company. Sure, you can go get an M.B.A. or take leadership seminars -- even read business magazines. Or you can do what these Inc 500 CEOs did: apply what you've learned from life.
VITALS: Dave Hegan, president, Majac Steel (#337), a steel-processing company in East Chicago, Ind. CURRICULUM: Golf BACKGROUND: In the late 1980s, Hegan was, by his own account, a spectacularly unsuccessful burglar-alarm salesman, consistently ranking dead last in weekly sales. He fared better on the back nine. An avid golfer since grade school, he still competed as a part-time pro. WHAT HE LEARNED: During a 1988 game, Hegan told a partner precisely how he planned to get on the 18th green: hit the ball 200 yards, curve it 40 yards from left to right, and drop it about six feet from the hole. Then he did exactly that. Astonished, his colleague demanded to. know his secret. "I said, 'I practiced for years. I trained. I had in my mind's eye what I was trying to do,' " Hegan recalls. "And that's when it hit me: That's how the great salesmen do it. They practice. They train. I realized that if I worked as hard at selling as I did at golf, I'd never look back." Hegan left the course and started two years of self-directed sales training. He read books, listened to tapes, and attended seminars. Within two months Hegan was heading his group in sales. HOW HE APPLIES IT: Although Majac employs 25 people, it has only one salesperson: Hegan. Hegan says he's still selling to keep his skills sharp. "You have to turn pro," he says. "You have to train; you have to work at it." Apparently, the effort paid off. Majac's revenues have grown by 878% since 1996.
BEHIND THE BAR: Anthony Baynes of Extra Mile Transportation cut his entrepreneurial chops while mixing martinis.
VITALS: Anthony Baynes, CEO, Extra Mile Transportation (#454), a transportation-logistics company in Buffalo CURRICULUM: Bartending BACKGROUND: In the 1970s, Baynes's cousin opened Mulligan's, a nightclub that quickly became "the Studio 54 of Buffalo," Baynes says. Regulars included Miramax Films cochairman Harvey Weinstein, then a local concert promoter, and O.J. Simpson, then a Buffalo Bills running back. Baynes, initially a busboy, moved up to bartender. WHAT HE LEARNED: People skills. Baynes, who was exceptionally shy, watched his gregarious club-owner cousin mingle, seemingly effortlessly, with hundreds of customers every night. As he poured drinks, Baynes imitated what he'd seen until he could converse easily and naturally. (His secret: "Compliment people. Ask them about themselves.") HOW HE APPLIES IT: These days Baynes, who founded his logistics company in 1995, can talk with anybody about anything. "I can have lunch with the governor and not be intimidated," says Baynes. He modeled his company's culture after the nightclub's, hiring only people who seem likely to genuinely care about their colleagues. "You can teach somebody the job," Baynes says, "but you can't teach somebody to have a heart."
VITALS: Chad Christofferson, CEO, SafeHome Security (#266), a burglar-alarm sales and service company in Provo, Utah CURRICULUM: Missionary work BACKGROUND: Young Mormons customarily spend time as foreign missionaries. In 1993 the church sent Christofferson, then 19, to Taiwan, where he worked 12-hour days going door-to-door, using his hastily learned Mandarin to sell his beliefs. "I talked to 100 people a day, if not more," Christofferson recalls. Perhaps one person a day didn't shut the door outright. WHAT HE LEARNED: Persistence, obviously. But the experience in Taiwan also cemented Christofferson's faith in the power of high-volume, in-person sales. "The only way you could be effective there was by seeing as many people as you could," he says, "and the only way to do that was to go door-to-door." HOW HE APPLIES IT: He instructs his company's new employees -- who are often brimming with what they consider creative new approaches to selling security systems -- to start with the basics: knocking on doors. "When it comes right down to it, that's why we're so successful," he says. (The company's revenues have grown by more than 1,100% since 1996.)
HE FEELS YOUR PAIN: Jerry May of Yam's Choice Plus Autos knows what it's like to have bad credit.
VITALS: Jerry May, CEO and founder, Yam's Choice Plus Autos (#297), a used-car dealership in Little Rock CURRICULUM: Personal bankruptcy BACKGROUND: In 1987, Jerry May sold his chain of appliance-rental stores to his dad and then moved from Arkansas to Florida to take a job. Before long, the new company folded, leaving the overextended May penniless. "I lost my home. I lost my family," he says. "I went from driving a Mercedes to taking my mother's eight-year-old car after she passed away." He eventually moved back to Arkansas to live with his dad. There he began buying, reconditioning, and reselling used cars through his father's stores. By 1996 he had opened a dealership that handled financing and service as well as sales. Since then revenues have grown more than 1,000%. WHAT HE LEARNED: Humility. "When you can't get credit, it brings you right back to earth," he says. HOW HE APPLIES IT: Having been broke, May better understands his many customers who are poor, have a shaky credit history, or have declared bankruptcy. So he treats his low-income buyers "the same way as somebody who has a million dollars and perfect credit," he says. "That separates me from the competition." And he hires employees who've survived similar experiences, figuring they, too, will treat customers with compassion and respect. It must work: he's selling 100 cars a month, and about half of those sales are to repeat customers or referrals.