Inc. 500 Conference

Jun 24, 1996

Fred White and I just returned from the 14th annual Inc. 500 Conference and Awards Ceremony, which was held this year at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. The event is held to recognize everyone named to the Inc. 500 List of Fastest-Growing Privately Held Firms in the U.S., an honor we received in October 1995. I’ve been to a lot of conferences— including the annual conventions and conferences of just about all the professional societies that serve A/E/P and environmental firms— but I’ve never seen a show like this. I want to share some of the conference highlights with you: My reaction upon arrival— I don’t know what Fred was thinking, but I found it strange to be going to an event where I knew no one. Usually, I can’t even get through the front desk check-in without running into an old friend or acquaintance. The truth is, I was a little intimidated and nervous about the whole thing. I mean, the people at this conference are the most successful entrepreneurs in the country, and I doubt if any of them had even heard of us. Our rental car was a scarred-up Dodge with the ugliest interior I have ever seen in my life, and here we were, at a place where every other car was a new Mercedes, BMW, or Lexus of some sort. On top of it, when I unpacked I realized that I had accidentally grabbed my old, shiny blue blazer befitting a computer store salesman, instead of my new, double-breasted one with antique buttons. Who we heard and saw— The Inc. people and their major sponsors (Compaq, AT&T, John Hancock) put out some big bucks for the speakers. Ichak Adizes was the kick-off. I’ve referred to him in The Zweig Letter before, and he is one of my favorites. He is a combination rabbi-Baptist preacher-elder statesman-absent-minded professor-entrepreneur. No B.S. at all. He put most professional speakers to shame with his honest, down-to-earth style (he had one overhead slide— a clear sheet he scrawled on periodically while he spoke). Henry Winkler, alias “The Fonz,” also spoke. He was very funny, and though he doesn’t know a thing about business, he’s obviously a sharp guy who overcame many obstacles to succeed. We heard from Wolfgang Puck, owner of multiple restaurants (“Spago’s” for one) and other ventures, who claimed to be “a cook who does what he likes.” Puck talked about pushing himself beyond boundaries; he said that when he starts to get spread too thin, he opens another restaurant. Jim Koch, founder of Sam Adams Brewing Company, drank a beer during his talk. The conference attendees— Talk about a diverse group! At our table the night of the awards banquet, we had everyone from a guy who owned a $100 million dollar lighting company that had just gone public, to the owner of the fastest-growing body shop in the country (look up Bob Juniper in the June issue of Inc.). We heard so many stories of people who simply refused to fail. We sat with a woman who owns a “Country Shop” (whatever that is) in the woods of Michigan. She told me she was “a poor cleaning lady” until she started her business with $50 cash. I also met a guy, Fred Gratzon, who personifies resilience. His international long distance company earned a spot on the 1995 Inc. 500, an honor Gratzon is familiar with. In the 1980s, the ice cream company he founded in Iowa made the Inc. list (he says People magazine actually named it the best ice cream in the country at one point). Yet, when his ownership dropped below 50%, he was fired and forced to collect unemployment. Instead of letting it beat him, he started his current venture, Telegroup (Fairfield, IA), which earned $100 million in revenues last year. There was a guy with a temporary help computer services firm, a fellow who started a company that provides passports for employees of big corporations, including Fluor Daniel, Inc. (Irvine, CA), and a woman who owns an R&D laboratory. I also ran into Roger Riney, president of Scottsdale Securities (St. Louis, MO), a 60-office discount brokerage firm that made the list in 1994 and 1995. (Tough to do, especially while maintaining 16% profitability.) Roger, who still has the dark green 1970 Corvette he had as young man, grew up next door to me in Kirkwood, Missouri. His 93-year-old father and my parents still live next door to each other in the houses we grew up in! Who wasn’t there— Thankfully, with only one extremely noticeable exception, there weren’t a bunch of soft-talking management consultants throwing around buzzwords. This was a pleasant departure from most of the A/E/P industry conferences I go to. I did participate in one CEO roundtable discussion that was infiltrated by some flaky guy with Birkenstocks who immediately started talking about “the third way” to run a business (whatever that is). He was telling this group of hard-charging, driven entrepreneurs that they need to hire consultants to “document their shared values” and a bunch of other nonsense. Several people in the group said to me afterward that it was obvious this guy didn’t head a growing company himself. I discovered later that he runs some kind of foundation that protects one type of tree around the world and that he lives so far out in the country in Southern California, he doesn’t even have phone service! Generally, however, it was refreshing not to have to hear a bunch of theorists who read every new management book and, though they don’t run a company themselves, espouse their opinions about what it takes to grow one! The sponsors and exhibitors— I’ve never received so many free gifts, especially at a meeting that didn’t cost anything to attend. They gave us everything from candy bars to portable chairs, T-shirts to inflatable travel pillows. Compaq, John Hancock, AT&T, UPS, and the City of Los Angeles all thought they’d benefit from being nice to us! The only screw-up was that they gave us one of everything, when there were two of us there. Now Fred and I have to fight over the freebies! Conclusions— We both made an effort to talk with lots of folks— all owners of privately held, rapidly growing firms. One conclusion I came to is that there are many paths to success, and all kinds of opportunities for motivated people. Other common threads with the attendees that I spoke with included very little interest in the government (they aren’t looking for help nor do they blame the government for their woes); excellent B.S. detectors (they had little interest in hearing about the latest management bandwagon); limited patience with presenters (if they weren’t getting anything out of a session, they left); lots of confidence and big egos (isn’t that what you’d expect out of this group?); and finally, a strong desire to talk about their own business (you have to be your own head cheerleader). All in all, it was a good conference. We plan to go again next year. Originally published 6/24/1996

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.