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A leadership makeover Featured

8:00pm EDT October 5, 2008
A lot of people have asked Bill Fink what exactly an entrepreneur is and how to become one. Over the years, the founder, president and CEO of Area Wide Protective Inc. (AWP) has decided that the answer is steeped in psychology. “Being a successful entrepreneur is not a genetic thing,” he says. “The entrepreneurial spirit is a learned behavior.”

Fink learned a lot when he transformed his company from providing contract security guard services to traffic control services in 1993. “We’ve all seen (traffic flaggers),” he says. “We took that rather modest occupation and turned it into an industry.”

But before he could accomplish all of that, Fink had to learn the market as well as what it would take to make it a successful business venture.

At a recent Smart Business Live luncheon, Fink spoke about acting the part of a successful entrepreneur.

Carving a niche

The most essential business practice is one learned during childhood, Fink says. Competition. “Competition is healthy,” he says. “Play to win — isn’t that why we keep score?”

To better your odds, Fink emphasizes knowing your limitations. You can’t be everything to everyone, so choose one market and work to be the best in that arena. “Mistakes are the greatest learning tools,” he says. “If you talk to successful entrepreneurs, they’ve made a lot of mistakes.”

The trick is to make smart mistakes. Fink learned that at an early age from his father. “There are risks, son, and then there are damn-fool risks,” he says he was told.

Avoiding the “damn-fool risks” takes work. “Do your own due diligence — it’s your business,” Fink says. “I knew at a point in the 1990s that I didn’t want to stay in the security business. Before I moved to the next step, I looked at the traffic business for a long time.”

Find a niche market that is not being adequately served, Fink suggests, then serve it. “Forty-one thousand people last year were killed or injured in work-zone accidents, so there was a need,” he says of his own niche. “Most of the time, in an entrepreneurial venture, you’re creating the need.”

Knowing the business

Fink’s business savvy hinges on the old adage that knowledge is power. “Read every bit of business press that could affect your business,” he says.

And when you’re not reading the headlines, get the latest news from your employees and customers. “Ask your customers and employees what they’re thinking before they tell you,” he says. “I have a rule, personally: I don’t ever want to be surprised by bad news a customer could tell me, because I should know that already.”

Fink says he constantly monitors the state of affairs to avoid surprises. “I want to know daily how we performed,” he says. “What did we do right? What did we do wrong?”

It’s important to follow up on everything. “When [our] cost moves by a penny, that’s cause for concern,” he says. “You have to look into that and find out why it’s happening.” And always remember, at the end of the day, you are responsible for knowing your business. “You have to understand what’s at risk,” Fink says. “Anything an adviser tells me, I try to check independently. There is a time and place for groupthink, but at the end, you have to make that decision.”

Thinking ahead

You also have to keep looking at the next step and not be afraid to make tough decisions. “Never stop looking for good merger/acquisition opportunities,” Fink says. “I love my business, but it’s a material thing. It’s not my wife, it’s not my child, so I don’t get too emotional about moving on to the next game.”

Whatever you do, make sure you do it to stay ahead of industry trends. “The speed of business today is breathtaking,” Fink says. “Someone’s always thinking of a way to make their business bigger, better and more efficient; you should, too.”

Fink describes the entrepreneur as a dreamer. “My world is the world of ideas,” he says. “If you’re not thinking about it, it won’t be a plan; it will be an accident.”

That being said, don’t get caught in the particulars. “Establish a good operating process, but stay out of the details,” he says. “I want to keep my mind focused on the big picture; I have people that will help me with the details.”

Make sure you have trustworthy employees operating your business. “Trust, but verify,” Fink says. “Watch what they do, not what they say”

Of course, listen, as well. “Listen more than you speak; you learn more that way,” he says.

HOW TO REACH: Area Wide Protective Inc., (800) 343-2650 or www.awptrafficsafety.com