When I look back over my life, I often wonder how I ended up becoming an entrepreneur in Northeast Ohio, and that makes me think we are the sum of life’s experiences. I was raised a country boy in a small Oklahoma town. My parents were intelligent, but neither were college graduates.
Looking back, I think I learned that I was competitive and, more importantly, ended up with a lot of common sense. But I learned nothing about business. My father sent in a college application for me to Harvard, I had no ambition to go there, but somehow I was accepted. What a change in my life!
Competition was a lesson
In college — I barely took a book home in high school — I suddenly found out I had to study. Bright students surrounded me and all had a better secondary education than I. Through that four-year experience, the most important thing that happened to me was that I learned that I could compete with the best and brightest students.
My family was very patriotic, and I was raised with a sense of responsibility to our country. I was more proud to have my mother pin on my Marine Corps second lieutenant bars than I graduated from Harvard.
When I look back on my four years in the Marines, including a year in Vietnam, I have asked myself, “What did I learn?” For the first time, I had management responsibility — to lead under stress and pressure — to be responsible for other people’s lives. But I still knew nothing about business. From the jungle of Vietnam, I submitted an application to Harvard Business School and was accepted. I departed Vietnam and became a bank teller in Boston for the summer.
Getting business experience
I learned about business at Harvard Business School, but it was all theory. I had no business experience. So naturally, I took my first job. Why Cleveland? Because I married a gal from Cleveland, and thought that would make her happy.
For 11 years I worked for several companies before I did my first leveraged buy-out with a company called Invacare. It had taken me a while to learn that I did not like to work for someone else, and more importantly, I did not like to make money for someone else when it did not include me. I decided I wanted to have something of my own where I would be rewarded if I succeeded.
But I had learned a lot in those 11 years. Most of all, I developed the confidence that I could run a company. I learned a tremendous amount about sales and marketing, and developed a customer focus, which has served me well over my career.
During this experience, I learned that I am an inveterate entrepreneur. I have purchased more than 50 companies that are now part of Invacare, and I have made more than 50 investments outside Invacare.
I’m 74, but still looking for my next deal. Like I said, we are a sum of our experiences.