Extreme CEOs Featured

4:15am EDT October 30, 2002
Tell me if this is your idea of a relaxing vacation: Visiting a remote part of the world 7,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level that just recently opened up to foreigners after a war with neighboring China. A place where the most recent maps date back to World War II and the paths that are passable often get wiped out after a good rainstorm.

Did I mention that the only access to this wonderland is a landing strip that sits on a 45-degree angle, and that planes take off by falling off the side of a mountain? Or that the length of the trip is 23 days, and the plan calls for hikes through all types of weather in areas where even the guides don't know the language?

Believe it or not, this is David Weiss' idea of a good time. Weiss, president of Lucerne Asset Management, thrives on adventure, and his management style reflects his unique out-of-the-office interests.

So why do people seek adventure? Why do they take risks? The questions have promulgated since the 1950s, when Sir Edmund Hillary ascended to the summit of Mount Everest. For centuries before that, however, adventure was a necessary by-product of life. Today, risk-taking allows people to be introspective and relate lessons learned from the experiences to daily life and, in the case of business owners, to their companies.

"It isn't an escape from reality, it is an escape to reality," says Marcia Mauter, director of the Institute for Creative Living, an experiential-based leadership and team development organization. "I think ballroom dancing is extreme ... because I don't do it and I'm not interested in it any more than some people don't want to build igloos and live out of them."

Physical activity and challenges are visceral learning experiences, suggests Nate Bender, a clinical counselor and Institute board member.

"People make associations," he says. "Climbing a wall is an experience. Associating that with the feeling and relationship they had doing it vs. talking about it is grounded in a kinesics aspect of our learning. It is retained in our body."

Bender claims that people who undertake these so-called extreme experiences retain them to use in other aspects of their life. For a business owner, that translates into interaction with management teams, employees, customers and partners, how a company is run and why decisions are made.

In business, risks come in many shapes and sizes. They include employee issues, contract negotiations, customer service, cash flow problems and investment options. At stake is the reward, which in many cases is in direct relation to the risk.

All of this begs the question: Do people who take risks and participate in what some consider dangerous activities make better leaders?

SBN Magazine found two Northeast Ohio CEOs who have extreme or unusual pursuits and interests. The goal was to determine whether their behavior affects their management styles and their corporate decisions.

What David Weiss and Jim Cole do isn't about thrill-seeking or even tempting fate. But their interests do have a direct effect upon their companies.

Jim Cole jumps out of an airplane at least once each year. He shoots guns that most people outside the military don't even know exist.

He hobknobs with the likes of H. Ross Perot and G. Gordon Liddy, and is debriefed on covert U.S. military operations by high-ranking generals. He has black belts in three martial arts disciplines and can break a plank with a single knuckle.

But if you ask Cole, CEO of Berea-based Noshok Inc., he'll simply say he's your average ex-Special Forces, parachuting, black belt CEO. For him, jumping out of an airplane or breaking a board with a body part is just part of who he is. His need to frequently face challenges and take risks is not just a part of his past; it resonates through everything he does in the present.

"Dealing with challenges is very important as a CEO," explains Kristin Tull, vice president of Pradco, an employee assessment firm. "You are going to be challenged all the time."

Risk-taking, she says, is a key trait in decision-makers. By taking risks to deal with challenging situations and overcoming them, the challenger gains confidence that can be used as a strong foundation to build upon.

Cole does not eschew difficult situations. When he was 18, he left home to enlist in the U.S. Army.

"All I ever wanted to be was a soldier," he says.

Growing up in North Carolina, in the shadow of Fort Bragg, Cole watched the soldiers train. And, coming from a long line of veterans, he knew early on he would join the military.

"I'm a three-time volunteer," he says. "I volunteered for the Army. I volunteered for Special Forces. And I volunteered for the war."

Cole's military service took him to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, where he stayed and worked with the Vietnamese government for six-and-a-half years. From there, he went to Africa to work on a large infrastructure project. Along the way, he became fluent in Vietnamese, French and Lingala -- a language spoken in Zaire -- as well as a master in three martial art disciplines.

The military model stays with you for life, explains Bender.

"People that go through the kind of rigor that the military provides -- jump school, ranger school, parachuting at night with 100 pounds on your back into a swamp -- experience things that normal people do not. If you survive, you're able to pull back from all of the stimuli around you."

It helped Cole develop a sense of objectivity and detachment, as well as a commitment to teamwork that has proven a central part of his business philosophy. Bender, an ex-soldier and high adventurer himself, says his experiences have provided similar traits.

"I fear less," he says. "I have more perspective and can be the observer of my own drama and the drama around me."

In 1976, Cole gave up the battlefield for the boardroom when he bought Noshok, a switch and gauge manufacturing firm, from the father of a fellow soldier. He didn't know anything about the business of gauges, but was willing to risk his investment so that he could learn something new.

Bender argues that combat experience directly translates to an ability to effect success when running a company.

"I'm willing to bet that CEOs that put their personal ass on the line and put themselves beyond the normal security of their role have potentially more ability to be detached and participate in the bigger picture of the organization," he says.

Another by-product is the ability to handle failure. That is even more important when you consider the high failure rate in business, and that leaders regularly find themselves on the line for making decisions that could result in failure just as easily as success.

Bender compares the situation to that of a professional athlete who takes the field game after game.

"Competitive athletes can hold an advantage over noncompetitive athletes because they have encountered losing and the extreme emotional swings," he says. "(They say to themselves) I've been knocked down so many times that I don't worry about failure."

Whether it's a reflection of his larger-than-life attitude, his refusal to look at failure as anything other than a learning experience or simply his go-for-the-gusto style, nothing Cole does is small. Take, for example, his new office building. It's designed with the normal amenities of a functioning office, but it also contains a two-story water fountain in the foyer, state-of-the-art kitchen, tanning bed, steam and sauna, a full workout room and a dojo, where every day Cole not only practices, but offers martial arts training to any employee willing to take up the challenge.

Every detail of the new building was planned or scrutinized by Cole.

"I had financing for $3.8 million, but it ended up at $6.9 million," he says, adding that he justified the extra out-of-pocket cost as a means "giving back to the people who have given to me."

For Cole, those people are his employees.

"There has been very little attrition here," he says, pointing out that his president, Jeff Scott, has been with the company 26 years. Cole's 28-year-old son, Christian, named after his best friend, Christian Girad, who was killed in Cambodia in 1969, joined the company as vice president of operations recently, but has been helping out since he was eight years old.

Cole is able to give back because over the past 23 years, he has grown Noshok's annual revenue to $14 million and is looking to capture 70 percent of the fire and emergency vehicle market. Plans are underway to expand operations into Colorado and Chicago and to export to six South American countries, China, Singapore and Bangkok.

If you are not familiar with Special Forces, you may recognize it by the term Green Beret. Cole served as the one-zero (commander) of his unit.

"Special Forces works in small, independent groups that can break into smaller groups and work independently," explains Cole.

The key word is "team."

Getting the full effect of Cole's commitment to family and friends requires a visit to his office. The wall directly outside of it is adorned with a tribute to John Wayne and Martha Ray, who, according to Cole, were some of the strongest supporters of the Special Forces. Inside is a wall of pictures, mostly of his family, including one of his son at the military school where he graduated first in his class, and one of his daughter standing outside the car she races.

Cole's ties and commitment to the military don't end there. He makes a concerted effort to hire ex-military.

"We have all branches of the military represented here," he says proudly.

It's what he refers to as the bamboo grapevine.

"If you have been to war together, you are brothers."

That attitude extends to nonmilitary employees.

"The relationship begins from Day One," he says. "Any employee can come in and cry on my shoulder."

One of the consequences of having 33 years of martial arts training under your belt is that you never feel pressured to back down. That ability has served Cole well in the business world, as well as in his travels.

"I have no problem walking on any street anywhere," he says.

Don't confuse this attitude with cockiness. With his training comes "humility and a level of comfort that you don't have to prove anything to anyone," he says.

Focus and balance are two words Cole uses when explaining why he has spent half of his life mastering a skill that he says he continues to learn from.

Effective business leaders, says Pradco's Jim Mowry, are the ones who always seem to be looking forward, learning from the past or getting something positive out of a negative result. They don't let emotions influence their judgment, and they accept the fact that no matter what preventive measures they take, there's still a good chance that something will go wrong.

It's how they deal with the situation that separates them from their peers.

David Weiss tries not to think about the things that could go wrong, either in business or on an adventure.

"To me, going to Europe is like visiting (a building with) old U.S. plumbing where the heating isn't very good," he says. "You aren't without a sense of confidence going to head off to the relative unknown. You know you just have to get through the day (and) worry less about today and live more for the future."

Weiss runs two firms, Lucerne Asset Management, which buys charged-off debt from banks and credit card companies, and Agin Court, a company that provides bridge loans for urban properties. And, while most people may find spending the first seven days of a trip hiking to the nearest village a bit daunting, Weiss claims he likes the distraction.

"I go to work (hiking and climbing) to get away from work," he explains. "It's a real break. You don't have time to think about work when you're moving every day."

Hiking may not sound that extreme, but remember, Weiss and his group hike in the Dopol region of Nepal, where cold weather and sloped and terraced hills at high altitudes are the norm. And just in case that doesn't seem dangerous, consider this: One of their group had to flown back for emergency medical treatment after coming down with an intestinal problem.

Just the act of packing up the tent when you are cold and often sick can be tiring.

"There were times that I thought I had frostbite," Weiss says. "Getting a cold down here is bad, but it really does you in up high."

Cold? Sick? Tired? It begs the question: Why?

Several reasons, Weiss says. First, the sense of adventure, love of the outdoors and, of course, the great scenery. Then there are the memories. In addition to Europe and Asia, Weiss has hiked in Africa and Chile. He's also spent eight weeks on a bicycle trek down the West Coast of the U.S.

"Getting to the top of a pass you worked on for hours is a feeling you can't express," he says.

Bender, of Pradco, associates the adventurous experience with the level and type of risk people are willing to take in their businesses.

"Everybody is on a journey," he says. "Some people may be comfortable with a low level type of risk. Their steps might be a little smaller. Maybe it is related to having a higher degree of confidence or being vulnerable and showing their frailties. That allows them to take risks in another way."

When he finally returns to a safe altitude, Weiss says he brings with him a sober sense of perspective.

"If you get sick there and you keep going, it makes things here seem a little easier," he says.

That holds true when business is slow, customers are hard to come by and employees aren't in the highest spirits.

"If I realize I can't do anything about it, I focus on what I can do," he says, adding that risk is relative, but worrying about things you can't control can paralyze your ability to run a company.

"Maybe that is why I can go out on my own (in business)," he says. "The risk is high, but so is the reward."

This returns us to the difficult question of whether taking these risks results in better leaders. According to Mauter, it boils down to assignment of value. For those who value the experience and subsequently learn from it, there is no substitute.

"The reality is that it is real hard work," she says. "It is arduous at best, and excruciating. But there is an internal reward that you would be hard pressed to find any other way."

This holds true in the boardroom, the executive office or anywhere else they do business.

So are Weiss, Cole and other CEOs like them better leaders because of their experiences, or do they participate in those experiences because they're born leaders with a streak that yearns for risk and adventure.

The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in between. What's certain is that the actions of extreme CEOs are reflected in their business decisions and leadership styles which, more often than not, helps translate into a drive to succeed, no matter the circumstances or the difficulty of the challenge awaiting them. How to reach: Noshok Inc. (440) 243-0888; Lucerne Asset Management, (440) 543-5415; Institute for Creative Living, (216) 932-3785; Pradco, (330) 405-5000

Kim Palmer (kpalmer@sbnnet.com) is managing editor of SBN Magazine.