Lessons from Entrepreneurs of the Year

Tonight, I attended the Central Midwest Region Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards gala in Overland Park, Kansas.  One of 26 similar events occurring this month throughout the United States, the black tie event honored entrepreneurs in a multitude of industries from the states of Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska.  Of the 31 finalists, 10 were crowned winners in specific categories – these entrepreneurs will go on to compete in November for the national version of the Entrepreneur of the Year designation.  It is quite an impressive production – carefully scripted from start to finish.  What is most impressive, however, are the stories about the determination, vision and hard work of each of the finalists coupled with the quite unscripted heartfelt and visible emotion of the winners as they step up to accept their well-deserved recognition.  A couple of specific moments stood out for me.

Surround yourself with great people.  When brothers, Brant and Brock Bukowsky, owners of Veterans United Home Loans of Columbia, Missouri, got up to accept their award in the Financial Services category, they recalled the story of how they started by surrounding themselves with 10 hardworking, dedicated, outstanding employees.  One of the men shared that it was “the quality of those 10 people that enabled us to grow to 20 employees.”  He went on to say it was the quality of those 20 employees that enabled them to grow to 40 employees… and the quality of those 40 employees that enabled them to grow to 80 employees… and so on.  Today, Veterans United Home Loans is the nation’s largest dedicated provider of VA Loans whose mission is to enable home ownership to US military veterans.  I guess the old adage, happy employees lead to happy customers lead to happy owners really is true; just look as what those happy employees helped their company achieve.

Hold yourself to a higher standard.  The winner of the Master Entrepreneur category – an award that recognizes a well-established, seasoned business owner – was Larry Potterfield, founder of MidwayUSA (also out of Columbia, Missouri… Go Columbia!), a provider of shooting, hunting and outdoor supplies for gamesmen.  I was so moved by his authentic, genuine persona.  When he got up on stage, he talked not about the products and services that he provides, but rather about how he and his team strive to create the best run company in America for the benefit of their customers.  He pointed to the Malcolm Baldridge Criteria for Performance Excellence as the guide by which he manages his company and, in the spirit of Jim Collins’ Good to Great, talked about the “fourth level entrepreneur,” striving to move beyond each tier:

Tier 1:  Risk

Tier 2:  Success

Tier 3:  Sustainability

Tier 4:  Generosity

His contention is that to be a better entrepreneur, one must strive to rise to tier 4 – yes, take the necessary risk, aim for success, ensure long-term sustainability… but hold yourself to a higher standard by serving your community through a personal commitment to philanthropy.

Share the Wealth.  A recurring theme, so many of the winners acknowledged the role that their broader teams play every day to ensure the success of their firms.  Robert Low of Prime Inc., a trucking company out of Springfield, Missouri (Winner:  Transportation), encouraged attendees at tonight’s event to hold truck drivers in the highest esteem because they keep our national highway system safe and are among the hardest working men and women in the world.  Len Rodman of Black & Veatch, a global engineering and construction firm based in my home town of Overland Park, Kansas (Winner:  Services), thanked the 10,000 associates of his firm located in cities around the world for their commitment to excellence.  Kyle Krause from Kum & Go, L.C., a convenience store chain out of West Des Moines, Iowa (Winner:  Retail and Consumer Products), that operates 400 stores in 11 states, shared how much he appreciates his nearly 4,000 associates who work hard every day so that he gets the easy job of going up on stage to receive the trophy.  In every case, the recognized winners indicated that they were simply claiming the award on behalf of their full team of associates.

From a networking perspective, these lessons ring true:

  • Surround yourself with great people
  • Hold yourself to a higher standard
  • Share the wealth

How might you put these lessons to practice for your own networking and professional purposes?

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