This week in In Process (Trusted Counsel’s bi-weekly podcast show), we revisit a previous interview with Darrell Mays, who successfully built and sold his first business to a multi-billion-dollar corporation. But his first entrepreneurial foray started with an unexpected beginning: getting fired.
In 2003, Darrell founded nsoro LLCas a turnkey telecommunications infrastructure services company, which he sold to MasTec, a $4.4 billion corporation providing end-to-end solutions designing, building, installing, maintaining and upgradinginfrastructure in the telecom, energy and communications industries. He went on to become Senior Vice President at MasTec, Inc., and President of MasTec’s wireless division―and now serves as a Senior Advisor.
Prior to that, Darrell’s telecommunications career had included 12 years in leadership positions with AT&T, serving in network operations, engineering, marketing and sales organizations, and in various positions with Ericsson, Inc., Motorola, Palmsource, and a consortium account of British Telecom and AT&T.
Everyone wants to leave a job on their terms. But when that didn’t happen for Darrell, he was able to turn an uncomfortable situation into business success.
“Everyone has that ‘A-ha’ moment,” Darrell said. “This was mine.”
With an immediate need for income, Darrell spent the first few months “working for himself” doing whatever it took to secure business and build trust with his clients.
The wireless industry was in its infancy and growing at lightning speed, but Darrell still had to convince his friends and professional connections that it was worth the risk of trusting huge projects with a small, unknown company.
“You know the old story: No one gets fired for using IBM,” said Darrell. “The ones who do take a risk [on your new company] are brave people, and they’re few and far between. Because you could fail—most people do. And that person would fail along with you.”
During the course of this podcast learn how Darrell has been able to turn risk-takers into heroes and grow and sell a successful business along the way through:
- Leveraging industry knowledge and connections
- Adhering to a philosophy that outmatched “Big Bureaucracies”
- Hiring the right employees with the right leadership and skill sets
- Using experts to negotiate a sale that’s a win-win-win for the buyer, seller-and customers
- Ensuring a smooth transition after the sale
Stream the conversation with Darrell in the player below to learn how you, too, can start, grow and sell a successful business. You can also subscribe to In Process on iTunes to receive this episode as well as future updates from the show on your smartphone.
How I Did It: Building and Selling a First Business
Interview with Atlanta Tech Executive, Darrell Mays
(c) Trusted Counsel (Ashley) LLC. All Rights Reserved.
John: Hello and welcome to “In Process: Conversations About Business in the 21st Century”, presented by Trusted Counsel, a corporate and intellectual property law firm. I’m John Monahon.
Evelyn: And I’m Evelyn Ashley.
John: And we are partners in Trusted Counsel.
Evelyn: So, we’ve been talking a lot about the nuances of preparing a business for sale. Today we’re excited to sit down with a business owner who’s actually gone through the sales process himself, Darrell Mays. Darrell is a seasoned entrepreneur and executive with over 30 years experience in the telecomm industry. Mr. Mays is presently a Senior Vice President with MasTec, Inc. and president of MasTec’s wireless division. MasTec is a 4.4 billion dollar corporation providing end to end solutions designing, building, installing, maintaining and upgrading infrastructure in the telecomm, energy, and communications industries. Mr. Mays’ telecommunications career has included 12 years in leadership positions with AT&T serving in office operations, engineering, marketing and sales organizations, and in various positions with Ericsson, Inc., Motorola, PalmSource, and a consortium account of British Telecomm and AT&T. In 2003, Mr. Mays founded nsoro, LLC as a turn-key telecommunications infrastructure services company, which he sold to MasTec in 2008. Darrell, welcome to the show.
Darrell: Thank you. Good morning.
John: Good morning.
Evelyn: We’re so delighted to have you here and I know that our listening audience is also very interested in hearing kind of how you built nsoro, the process there, the thinking there, your background as to what drove you into creating that company and then ultimately its sale and now, the operation of that business as a division of MasTec. You’ve had a long and storied career, Darrell.
Darrell: Yes, I have. I didn’t realize it was that long until you said some 30 years. You could have stopped at 29 years. It would have been more interesting. But 30 seems like it’s over.
Evelyn: No, no. As someone who also has that kind of background, I can tell you, we’re only just beginning. We’re just getting better. So, Darrell, tell us a little bit about the fact that you worked for larger companies for most of your career and then what drove you to decide you wanted to start your own business?
Darrell: I’ve always felt that I was an entrepreneur for years before I could even spell it. As a kid growing up, I started throwing newspapers at 12. I was middle class but I wanted my own money and I wanted to control what I did and when you’re throwing newspapers at 12, I guess you’re not throwing them, your dad is throwing them, you’re just in the car, well ’cause he’s got to get up at four a.m. with you. But, I’ve been working ever since and I remember the disappointment of getting a job. I started working at AT&T doing divestiture and my mom was a manager in the Bell System and in ’85 when the Bell System split up, she said, “Hey, I have a job”. And I was in school and just the word job was not something that really resonated with me. So, it was just in me that I was an entrepreneur.
So, even at AT&T, I felt that I controlled the moves that I made inside of the company. I never really felt any pressure to be in a role longer than I wanted to. They gave me a lot of flexibility, the best training I’ve ever had, and when I decided to leave, I was really looked at like I had lost my mind, you know, “You’re gonna leave AT&T? What’s wrong with you?”. So, I gained some other skills at other companies and I felt the freedom to leave when I wanted and it was by my own terms until the last position that I had. I was actually fired from Palm and that’s a really long story that I won’t tell. But, you don’t realize that you fire yourself. You really didn’t want to be there and after you go through the embarrassment and disappointment in yourself, I realized that I was not ever going back to work for another corporation. That was the knock in the head that I needed and if I would have gotten fired from AT&T, I would have started it then. So, getting told that you don’t fit in is, I really don’t fit in. You know, I need to do something different.
Evelyn: Well, I think sometimes it’s you’re in a secure position or secure environment and even though you might have that spirit within you, it’s not anything that you do anything about until the wake-up call.
Darrell: Right. You just hold it and hold it and you don’t know what’s gonna happen that’s gonna cause it to wake you up. But, everyone has that aha moment and that was mine.
Evelyn: It was time.
Darrell: It was time.
Evelyn: So, tell us about the development of your business plan for nsoro. How did that come about? What was your thinking there and how did you actually put that together?
Darrell: I would say that there was no business plan before the business was started. I kind of happened-
Evelyn: As you went along?
Darrell: As you went along, yeah. When you get terminated, you stop receiving income and income is something you have to continue to have. So, I took a consulting job with a firm out of Boston while I was starting and I had incorporated nsoro at the same time and putting the business plan together was based on what was available for me to do in the industry at the time. So, there was no pre-planning because I would have never been in the space that I got into if I had time to think about it. So, I was forced into what can I do now because I need to earn a living. Fortunately, the wireless industry was in its infancy and it was really growing at a rapid rate and there just wasn’t enough suppliers to deliver services.
Evelyn: So then, was that driven by the consulting project that they gave you that it made you start thinking about that, or-
Darrell: No, no. The consulting process, once again, was just to satisfy-
Evelyn: Just to earn money.
Darrell: Yeah, the income hole that I had created for myself by getting fired. And it was actually, the company was Converse, which did voicemail systems in the wireless space. And it was a great company out of Boston and I was there for, I don’t know, six or eight months and that had nothing to do with the future that I was gonna have in the wireless space and I knew that. But I knew that business. I had great relationships with their customers and they really needed someone to try to close a couple of deals because they had so many voicemail companies at the time and it was clearly the best. It wasn’t a hard job at all. It wasn’t even a hard sell. It was just getting them to the right people.
John: So, you were doing consulting and that could have easily stayed a one man shop. What made you think, “Well, I want to grow a business, something that goes beyond me”?
Darrell: Like I said, I started nsoro the day I got fired. I went upstairs and started to create the name of the company. I wanted something that had a meaning that I could remember and see every day that kept me focused. And I’m a faith-based person so I came up with the name nsoro through the word nsoroma, which means belief in a higher being. So, the consulting job had, it really was just as a space-filler. I was really working on the business plan, developing relationships. Actually I won business before I even left the consulting job and it was just me. I was the only employee, an upstairs bedroom in my home and I won a small contract in Puerto Rico, of all places.
Evelyn: One of those things you’ve got to think about what you wish for?
Darrell: Yeah, when you’re climbing up a rope on the side of a hill to get to a tower to do some maintenance and by the time you get there it’s six hours later, you’re already over budget. This project is not gonna make you any money and I don’t want to get too technical but when I called back to the switching center at the customer office to get the assignment to assign this new cell site and get it on the air, they had gone home. So, instead of me driving all the way back to the city and spending the night in a hotel, I stayed in the car out in the mountains of Puerto Rico and mosquitoes are looking at me, going dinner is here and all night, you roll down the window, you get a little air, you let in 100 mosquitoes, you kill them, roll it back up. You know what I mean? But the next morning, they came in around 10 a.m., Puerto Rican time and we were able to get the site on the air and got it assigned and everything was okay. I had done my first purchase order and got it out of the way, lost three thousand dollars in the first job and it was perfect. We went on from there.
Evelyn: That got you really excited.
Darrell: It got me excited ’cause I was able to complete it. I got paid for it.
Evelyn: It was all yours.
Darrell: And yeah, I can’t tell you, losing money felt so good. And I asked for more work and they looked at me and told me how bad of a job I did and how long it took me to get it done and, you know, so I had to fly back to Atlanta and wait for the next p.o. to come in and-
Evelyn: And then it did.
Darrell: It did. It took a couple of weeks but, okay, we’re gonna give you another shot in this other market and it snowballed.
John: What happened next, after you had gotten your first project done?
Darrell: Well, I waited and waited. The phone wasn’t ringing. I’m calling out and you don’t have any experience, you’re competing with the Bechtels and General Dynamics of the world who are out there grabbing all the business. They have all these processes. They’re very impressive. I had a company name and a cell phone and an old Toyota 4Runner that I could get around and hoping that the project wouldn’t be too far that I’d have to pay for a flight again. And the next project was Orlando, believe it or not. I went into the market, a good friend of mine that was a customer and a competitor when I was with AT&T called me and said, “You know, we’re tapped out. We don’t have any other contractors. Can you come and do a project for us?”. And I didn’t know exactly what it was but it was project managing one of their vendors. And so, I knew that I could find someone to do that job and that the first person that I brought on was a, he was an architect, very skilled project manager, and he had worked for me years before at AT&T. So I knew what his capabilities were. He was looking for an opportunity. So I was able to fill that position and put him in and he did a really good job. And it allowed them to call me on more assignments and get to the business I really wanted to do, which was actually doing the civil work on the new towers. And in probably, I don’t know, another six months later, I had probably gotten about two million dollars in project management contracts from them and then they finally starting assigning new sites, giving me a shot to build new sites from the ground up.
Darrell: And then it took off.
Evelyn: So, talk to us a little bit about timing. So, from the time you got your first project in Puerto Rico to the point where essentially you got two million dollars in contracts.
Darrell: It was about six months before that because when I got the two million dollar contract, I had to raise some money. I had already tapped into my savings, my credit cards were looking kind of bad and all that money I was just using it to live. I had three kids in private school so, you didn’t want to disrupt anybody’s life and I always could go back to work but I didn’t even want to consider that. So, getting some project management jobs until the two million dollar contract came in, it was rough. But you just continue to make phone calls, you continue to get told no, people who were your friends and co-workers that you’ve known for years, things are different when you are out there asking them not to go to lunch because you guys are co-workers, you ask them to go to lunch because you want to get some business from them. They have to hire someone that’s gonna be able to do the job to make them look good. Even though you did a good job when you worked with them, they’re not sure. You know, the old story, no one gets fired for using IBM. You got General Dynamics and you have Bechtel and they have solid contracts. Who’s gonna take a risk on you? So, the ones that did take a risk, they were very brave people and they are few and far in between ’cause you could fail and most people do. And then that person fails along with you.
Evelyn: I think that’s so important though, you know, from that entrepreneurial perspective, that whole idea of if you will give me this opportunity, I am going to make you look like a hero. And I do think that sometimes that can actually be the greatest failing of any business undertaking, because the founders don’t take it so personally that they realize that they have to make everyone around them look brilliant.
Darrell: And that’s exactly how you last as long as I have as an entrepreneur and the business grew so well. Because they took the shot and I did the job and that made them look good. And as late as Monday of this week, the guy who gave me the Orlando work is now a vice president at AT&T. He’s gotten promoted over the years and he called me on Monday and he said, “I’m headed to headquarters. I’m gonna be a vice president”. Now, there’s about 30 levels between his project management role and where he is now and it happened on his birthday. He turned 50 at the same time. And he called me and gave me all the credit. He said, “You did this for me. You made me look good over the years by getting the work done”. At the same time, he grew the business to now a 1.5 billion dollar account. But, I can tell you that that’s exactly how it happened and not just him. There’s a lot of others that ride your coattails because they know that you’re gonna do it for a better price, you’re gonna do it faster and you’re gonna do it better than the big bureaucracies. And that’s why entrepreneurs get in there and are able to really help these individuals [crosstalk 00:17:49] if they are willing to take a risk. So, they’re just as risky as you are by allowing you the opportunity.
John: So, there’s always the job of convincing the people who you’re gonna perform the services for but what about convincing people to join your growing company, to take a risk in joining that in an entrepreneurial venture? How did you find great people to help you build the company?
Darrell: Oh, gosh. You kiss a lot of frogs before you get a prince. Turnover is very heavy and early on, everyone promises something. The number one rule here is never take on a partner too early and people want to come in, you want to pay people for what they’re doing, along with yourself, but you have to be strong and not taking on those relationships where people come in that will have authority because you have your own emotional vision here that you want to keep going and as soon as you allow someone else to come in, then you have to carve out some of that and allow for other thinking, which ultimately slows you down because that person has their own way of doing things, their own ideas that you have to take into consideration. Getting good people is just trial and error and a lot of luck.
When they work for a major corporation and they come and work for an entrepreneur, they feel empowered and they feel that they are going to do things that they want to do. It’s another job. You gotta tell them that. You want to start your own company go do it but if you’re coming here, this is just another job. I tell people all the time that want to come and work for me, “No, you don’t”, because I’m not the same guy that I am in our friendship and our relationships and they find that out. Another rule is, never hire your ex-boss. That person never thinks that he works for you. He or she will never get it out of their mind that you are not a subordinate anymore.
So, those are two rules that I learned the hard way. But I was able to get good people. You want leadership, someone that can do all the things that you don’t have, the skills that you don’t have, ’cause if you’re hiring someone that you like that’s just like you, it’s really a waste of time and resources. You really want to fill the gaps, the skills that you don’t have. I’m not organized, not very analytical. I don’t know finance very well. So, you’ve got to get people that are really good at these things. Legal is the one thing that you just, man, I’d rather go to the dentist than talk to my lawyer about business.
Evelyn: Oh, come on, Darrell.
Darrell: It’s just hard to get engaged into these conversations when all the entrepreneur wants to do is go out there and keep growing the business.
Evelyn: Do the work. Yep.
John: So, when you say, you sound so confident in this, did you know at the time that you were good and able to delegate or was this something that you had to learn, well, I’ve got to let go of these functions or did you know, this was just my personality and you were already good at sort of letting the delegation happen?
Darrell: I think that’s one of the values that I have is I know what I don’t know and I am not trying to do that at all. I don’t even want you to tell me how you do it because there’s something else I have to think about. So, when you go out and you hire a finance person, you have to put complete trust that that is the right person. If you have to reassign that person or get rid of them, my mother always gave me this rule that if you knew then what you know now, would you have hired that person? If the answer to that question is no, then let them go that day. Not one more day they should stay. So, you really start to have a lot of turnover because you read in a piece of paper that they were great and then you get them into the job, you find out that they are not that good. Make that change right away. And I probably kept people a lot longer than I should have over the years. Even now, the CEO of MasTec tells me, “Darrell, we are loyal to a fault in a lot of ways”, and it just doesn’t go away if you continue to do that.
Evelyn: It’s hard to get the right people on the bus, particularly when you learn that everyone around you knows that that person should go but you still feel that connection of I made a commitment to you, it’s hard to let them go.
Darrell: And ego sets in, you know, “I didn’t make a mistake. You guys don’t see what I see in this person”. So, you’re human. You’re gonna try to save this person, if you can, and it’s just not your responsibility.
John: When did it occur to you that you might want to sell the business?
Darrell: Well, once again, I didn’t have a plan to sell the business. So, as part of my business plan, I didn’t have an exit strategy. I was gonna do this forever. I ran the business as if I was an employee of it and not the owner of it so I paid myself for what I did and that just turned out to be blind faith. It just happened. That was a good scenario for a sell. But my customer decided that they were consolidating about 500 vendors down to six and I was up to around 70, 80 million dollars in revenue and they asked me to be one of the six. So, I was immediately gonna go this year from 80, 90 million dollars in revenue to 500 million dollars in revenue the very next year. It was a 1.5 billion dollar contract. So, it’s not a wow for the entrepreneur because you’re kind of settled in, you’re happy, I’m in 25 states, I’m traveling, life looks good, I can do this for another 10 years, shareholders’ equity is going out of the roof, the company looks good. Somebody knocks on my door and makes me an offer it would be a good thing.
But I had to have 250 million dollars in order to do this work, starting in about, from the time they told me, I had probably eight months. So, I immediately started to talk to banks and I went to a local bank here in Atlanta and the guy wanted 350 thousand dollars to be a banker to go around and start figuring out how we’re gonna raise this money and I really didn’t have a good relationship with banks yet ’cause I was never able to borrow any money. As well as the company was doing, I just couldn’t get over the stereotype of an African American in the service business in telecomm. They just didn’t know how to accept that. The first time I borrowed money for the business, when I first got the two million dollar order, it was a 450 thousand dollar loan from about 10 of my parent’s friends that one of their bankers decided to do. I don’t think my parents to this day know that their friends loaned me about 50 thousand dollars each to make that happen. They’re gonna know now but-
John: Surprise, yeah.
Darrell: But, that was at a 50% interest and they were all retiring from either working with my mom or working with my dad in the oil company and they had cash and they didn’t want to pay taxes on it. And so they gave me the money. Then when I was able to pay them back, they didn’t want it. They said, “No, keep it. We’ll take it another time”. Because as soon as they got the returns on it, they had to pay even more taxes.
Evelyn: You were making too much money for them.
Darrell: I made too much money for them. So, a lot of them didn’t even receive the final payment until after we sold. They had to take it then. But over the years, I just couldn’t get anyone to give me money. I was told by banks in Atlanta, that, “We’re sorry, we just don’t believe in the business that you’re doing. If you want to do a rap album, we’ll be more than happy to support you and you can get the loan today”. And I said, “Well, I don’t even talk well much less rap”. So, that didn’t happen. But one day, Wachovia stepped up and gave me a line of 10 million dollars, which every single month they had to do receivables. And I had been running a good company but still, the stigma and stereotype is there. There is no precedent for me. So, you don’t take a business from zero. You got to have rich uncle or dad or someone had taken a risk in you before a bank will. But Calvin Ward at Wachovia, he’s at Wells Fargo now, I’m dropping his name out there, this guy believed in me and convinced the executives at Wachovia to take a shot.
But by the time I sold, I had a 35 million dollar line but that was far short of the 250 that was needed. So, we decided to, I met a banker that worked on success base and he had worked in London for a long time and he said, “We’re gonna give the public market a shot. We’re gonna go and try to go on the list”. And we were successful and we got all the way up to the road show where we were going to receive our commitment from the institutions out there and on my flight, on the way to London, the market crashed in 2007. When I landed, the valuation came back around 165 million. I needed 250. It was a little short. We did the road show anyway and we couldn’t get the valuation up to where we needed. We came back to America and plan B, let’s find someone to buy the business.
We had a list of about 10 companies that we had received from different banks in New York and one of the, Credit Suisse, gave us MasTec. They said there was no deal here, they didn’t see it, but they did have the funds that you are looking for. And I looked at other competitors to MasTec as well, a couple of Chinese companies that actually had the money and wanted to do it but everybody had a different purchase model. MasTec, even though the offer was the lowest, they said, “Look, we want you to do this”.
Evelyn: We respect your business.
Darrell: You’re gonna come in, you’re gonna continue to run this business, you’re gonna manage this money, you’re gonna grow this business. You’re gonna be the P&L guy for us.
Evelyn: So, Darrell, did MasTec actually have a unit that was competitive to nsoro or was it completely new?
Darrell: They did. It was very, very small. Maybe a 10 million dollar business for them at the time, out west. And they wanted to be in this space. So, the offer kept getting lower and lower and lower. But I asked for more time and so the earn out ended up being eight years, which is just unprecedented.
Evelyn: It is unprecedented. ‘Cause most sellers are completely against earn outs to begin with. But the difference here is, you were going in, you were going to run the division and this was your baby.
Darrell: Right. And I needed to have control of this for the customer. We had a joint meeting with the customer, the buyer, the seller, and the customer. And the customer made it very clear to the buyer, if he’s not here to do this, this is no deal. But, I’m making it sound like it was an easy transition, but when you’re selling your business, there’s so many i’s to dot and t’s to cross, so many lawyers come in and finance people, people I didn’t even know, accounting firms, things you know, hey, you’re running this company so bad. It looks so bad. You think, wait a minute then why am I taking this up?
Evelyn: What happened? Why are we even having this conversation if it looks so bad?
Darrell: Right. But, you know the buyer’s got to make it look bad. You’ve got to make it look good and everyone else is just getting paid to be there. So, that’s what happens in these deals and we closed. I’ll never forget the day that we closed because it had gotten to the end of July and I had said, I was Italy on vacation and I said, “Look, if it doesn’t close before I leave Italy, then I’m going to the next buyer”. And I guess that was enough for them to make up their mind. My banker called me and he said, “I’ve got the check. Deal’s done”. And we signed the contract with the customer for the big deal in September of that year, a few months later.
Evelyn: So, let’s talk though a little bit about that negotiation process. Was the banker taking the role on your behalf? Basically he did the negotiating for you.
Darrell: He did the negotiating. It was just watching these guys work. There’s some stories in this that will just go down in history once they’re written. I’ll tell on of them now. We’re sitting in the negotiating room and everybody’s posturing and there’s loud conversation going on and my banker is in a dialogue with the owner of the other company and I don’t even know, it’s like Greek to me, I didn’t know what they were talking about. And he just stopped and he said, “We’re gonna take a caucus right now”. And they stopped and we all got up and they stayed in a room and we had four or five guys on our side. We left the room and I said, “What happened?”. He said, “Ah, nothing. They need to talk, not us”. He was brilliant. When he did that, he made that move, we came back in, they had a chance, because they were disagreeing among themselves. And I thought the deal was falling apart but it was actually, he said, “They need some time to talk”. So, without Dr. Robert Willis’ engagement in this, he really is a brilliant man who can sense the mood of the room and know when to take some time out and what we need to say. But his confidence, and he makes you feel that it’s going to happen, he’s just an eternal optimist and he keeps you up the whole time because, I’m scared to death here, I gotta sign this contract and I’ve gotta get this money. If I’ve gotta start all over-
Evelyn: You need this deal.
Darrell: Yeah, I need this deal. I don’t want to walk out of here. ‘Cause he said a few times, “Okay, then there’s no deal”. And I’m saying, “What? There’s no deal?”.
Darrell: But that’s just what they do.
Evelyn: I think that’s so important for all business owners that go through the process the first time. The whole idea of silence and no and walking out of the room, It’s just completely antithetical to what you expect. This should all just happen rather than not.
Darrell: Yeah. Without that person guiding you and making sure you have the right banker with you, that is because he went into an agreement with me where this deal works, he gets paid. He didn’t ask for anything and he had a lot of expense and so, it meant more to him and almost as much as it meant to me. So, I felt that he did have my best interest. I know he had his because he hadn’t received one penny in this transaction until it actually took place. And so, when you find a good banker, you need to hold on to him. And throughout the years, an eight year earn out without that banker interpreting your side of the deal on an annual basis, that earn out it won’t last one year.
John: Now you’ve sold to MasTec. What was it like to transition from being the owner of your own company to now working for a company again?
Darrell: The transition was very, very easy. Jose Mas, the CEO of MasTec, is one of my best friends now and just a really, really good guy. He made me feel that I was part of the family, not just a company they had acquired at MasTec. But introducing me to the Board, the Board was very upbeat and friendly and so outside of the monthly operations reviews, which are just a bunch of yelling and screaming, you gotta make more money, do this or else, it was, nothing changed. I stayed in my same office, we brought in another CFO that came in and with day one, even though he said, “Look, I know MasTec hired me, but I work for you”. And that made me feel really good. He turned out to be a great guy and it was, like I said, it was seamless and nothing really changed. My focus, and they wanted this, they wanted my focus to be on the business, on the customer, growing the business, getting that contract over the hump, being able to deliver, ’cause we were competing with the Bechtels and the General Dynamics and the Black [inaudible 00:37:30], are large, large service telecommunication companies out there and we kicked their butts. We’re the largest service company now. So, we didn’t start off at that. We started off as the smallest.
Evelyn: So, I know you’ve said, “I never really had a plan, but I know I had this kind of passion”. Did you ever expect that nsoro would grow as fast and as big as it has, even prior to the transaction? Was that ever kind of, was there that moment of, “Wow, I can’t believe it”, or “Yeah, I knew I could do this”.
Darrell: You know, I didn’t have anything to compare it to so I didn’t know if it was going fast or not. People tell me that today that it takes years to get a company to the size of 70, 80 million dollars and you did it in three or four years. “How did you do this?” I was just getting more business. That’s all I knew. I was helping my customer because I would get a call and say, “Hey, we need some help in St. Louis”. That wasn’t growing the business to me, that was helping the customer. And I probably looked at the revenue annually and not every month like a CEO should. But I had a good COO, I had good operations guy who took care of that and if there was a concern or an issue or something I needed to worry about or focus on, he would make me aware of it. My CFO, before the sale was really good and she made sure that I knew where we were, “Hey, we’re down to our last five dollars here. We need to get a check in”.
Evelyn: Go sell some more, get some more cash.
Darrell: But these things never really, it never hit me. I don’t know if I’m not that smart and should have been concerned about these things but I can remember the number I wanted to hit when I started the business. I’d get to maybe a five to seven million dollar business and I’ll be done. My second contract was 20 million and it was just like, “Oh, my God. How am I gonna do this?”. That’s all, I never, even when they talked about the 1.5 billion dollars, I never looked at it as, “Oh, my God, 1.5 billion dollars”. I said, “How am I gonna do it? How are we gonna get this done?”.
Evelyn: How do we execute this?
Darrell: Yeah. So, yeah, I don’t know. I probably, to my advantage, I guess, I didn’t get into the weeds of what is-
Evelyn: What is happening every day and-
Darrell: Every day and that will slow you down. It’ll pull you back. It’ll make you turn down business. And my customer will be the first one to tell you that. I never say no.
Evelyn: So, I think it’s so interesting because you’re growing at a level, you’re actually executing contracts. Culturally, you are very focused on making those customers look like heroes. But your company is growing at an exponential level down below. How do you keep that cultural element of, this is about the customer and making sure they’re executing at that same level?
Darrell: You know, we did some very evolutionary things in a fast-growing business I think that could be looked back and say, “These were some good ideas that made people feel that they wanted to be here”. And they were gonna be more customer-focused than they have been on any job that they worked at. I implemented this book that I wanted everybody to read when you got hired. It’s called “The Ice Cream Maker”. And it’s just a story, it’s a very short read and I would randomly call you, maybe about a month after you’ve been working and we would talk about “The Ice Cream Maker” and so people can feel how important their job was and it really talks about how important doing your job is very, very important and I’m not gonna go into the book, I’m not endorsing the book or anything, but every single one of my employees, when I owned nsoro, had to get “The Ice Cream Maker” and they had to read it. And that was the only requirement that I had. And they realized then that they had a voice. They could talk to me at any time. They had my cell phone number. They had my home number. And that open door policy, I never closed my door in my office. You were able to come in and walk in and it felt like you were family and I would tell you, “This is the very last job you’re gonna ever have”. And I meant it when I said it. Before you sell the company you can control that. When you sell it, you know-
Evelyn: Not so much on the other side.
Darrell: If an employee had benefits, I would still give you the money as income, because I planned on giving you benefits anyway and so I had lot of people that would just say, “Wait a minute. My wife has benefits. I don’t need them. That’s extra income”. We would have a picnic two or three times a year where we’d bring everybody out to the park, we’d play softball, we’d have a barbecue. We would do that in every single market. We had give-away programs that were just random and I would visit every single market all the time. Not only would I be selling to the customers, I’m selling to my employees because they’re the biggest asset. And eventually, when I got the right people as my CFO and my COO, they believed, that’s the one thing we had, a common belief that the people are the biggest asset that you have and man, we had some really good people when it all came down to it that were really customer-focused. They would sell the business for you in their relationships and how they delivered their job, it was a beautiful thing. It was just a mindset.
Evelyn: So, have you been able to maintain that on the other side of the deal?
Darrell: Absolutely not. There’s a lot of rules and regulations that you can’t do in a public company that you can in a private company. I’m a faith-based guy so we started meetings with prayer and we had a lot of denominations inside of the family and we recognized everything. But you’re not allowed to do those types of things and some people really didn’t like that. The access to me was limited after that. I tried to be more what people wanted and just that structure wasn’t for everybody. And so a lot of the people who wanted to work for an nsoro, did not want to necessarily work for a MasTec. And like I said, you get yourself fired. You start to do things, you start to rebel in the change and it evolves. We had to ’cause nsoro could never have been a 1.2 billion dollar company. It just, the way it was structured, we couldn’t continue to do the things we were doing. That’s good for a hundred million dollar company where you could have access and be together a lot, but to get to 1.2 billion dollars, you have to evolve and a lot of things change. So, know that you’ve got to let that go. You have to grow with the business.
Evelyn: So, Darrell, you’ve had a long and storied time with building the business and being on the other side? What’s next? Anything you’d like to share with us?
Darrell: I got a lot of irons in the fire. We just had a major election here with the president changing and it’s just a lot of unknowns. It’s even more unknown now after the election, for me. So, I’m gonna continue to take my time. My contract was up with MasTec in July of this year. I’m still employed there. I’m consulting with those guys. I’m very close to the account. I continue to work with the team and the account and I said, “A year from now I’ll know who I want to be in my next life”. So, we’re trying everything. I’m not saying no to anything. I’ve been offered some great jobs but that word “job” kind of, it’s got me again, I say, “Ooh, don’t call it that, call it something else. Give me an opportunity to make a difference in your company or your business and just use the lessons that I’ve learned to help grow it”. So, it’s a wait and see.
Evelyn: Let’s see what happens next.
Darrell: Let’s wait and see what happens, yeah.
Evelyn: Well, we want to thank you so much for your time. This has been fabulous.
Darrell: Thank you.
Evelyn: We really appreciate it.
Darrell: I’m happy to do it.
Evelyn: So, we’ll see you next time on “In Process”. If you’d like more information on us, please check out our website at Trusted-Counsel.com. And if you’d like more information on MasTec, please check out their website at www.MasTec.com.
Speaker 1: This has been “In Process: Conversations About Business in the 21st Century” with Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon. Presented by Trusted Counsel, a corporate and intellectual property law form. For more information, visit Trusted-Counsel.com.