by Jim Ansara, Co-Founder & Director, Build Health International ~ October 2020
How a key advisor helped me build a billion-dollar business by telling me what I did not want to hear – and pushing me to do what I did not want to do.
CEO’s, especially founders, tend to live in a protective bubble. Unless you crash and burn, you are typically told how brilliant you are, how good and visionary you are at your job, and you can start to believe the hype, thinking you are truly “gifted.” As you rise up the ladder of business success, it is increasingly difficult to find people to tell you the truth. Consciously or subconsciously, they want to please you by saying what they think you want to hear. You can easily end up surrounded by “yes” men and women.
One of the most underrated, but essential elements, in successfully growing a business is having outside advisors to push you to do the things you want to avoid and tell you the blunt truth, even when that feedback is inconvenient or not in the advisor’s best interest. For twenty years, as Founder and CEO Shawmut Design and Construction I was lucky enough to have that person who told me the truth, especially when I didn’t want to hear it. That person was Tom Feeley.
I first was introduced to Tom in 1982 when Shawmut Design and Construction incorporated and became a small carpentry contractor. I was twenty-five and trying to move forward by surviving each day in business. Tom was building his CPA firm, Feeley & Driscoll, which was quickly becoming one of the New England’s largest and most successful independent CPA firms.
I met Tom as I was attempting to buy an old mill building in Roxbury, MA for $65,000 and applying for my first bank loan. To this day I have no idea what the bankers saw in me or my fledgling company. We met for the first time in my woodshop, which was a makeshift, burned-out corner convenience store next to the Shawmut T station (hence the name). It had a tiny office in the back with no windows, the only lighting provided by a string of temporary light bulbs in yellow plastic cages. I had woodworking equipment everywhere, but no dust collection system. Before the bankers came, I remember clearing a path through shin-deep sawdust and wood chips to the tiny back office.
The bankers and I talked for an hour, and then they asked to look at my balance sheet. Not knowing what a balance sheet was, I handed them my checkbook – the sum of my recordkeeping at the time.
As the bankers got up, dusting themselves off and handing back my checkbook, they told me not only that they would not only give me a $65,000 loan to buy the new building, but they would also give me a $25,000 line of credit for working capital. I was stunned. This was pre-Google, so having no idea what to do with a line of credit, I had to make a number of calls to understand this meant they would give us actual money to use. In addition to the obligatory personal guarantee, the only other condition they required was that I hire a CPA firm that would help us organize our bookkeeping and accounting. They gave us three firms to choose from, all of which had construction experience.
Over the next month, we interviewed each of the three firms. The first two CPAs had been low key, almost soothing. This was no big deal to them. In their eyes, Shawmut was a tiny company and all we had to do was actually dot the I’s and cross the T’s – for this, they would charge $10,000 annually. Then we met Tom Feeley.
Tom was anything but soothing. He was loud, animated, aggressive, and outspoken. He spent an hour and a half telling us all the things we were doing wrong or not doing. He said that we were headed for catastrophe, but he could help us save the company. He finished by saying he would give us a break in the first year and only charge us $25,000 but after that it would be $50,000.
This passage excerpted from an article published on LinkedIn October 2020, click here to read the rest of Jim's article.