Life was good growing up in the small Canadian town of Sudbury, a mining community about 250 miles north of Toronto. My dad operated a retail men’s clothing store. We were your typical middle-class family.
When I was 12, Dad let me work in his store, selling men’s suits. I soon became the top sales guy.
His regular staff wasn’t thrilled with how I was showing them up. So how did my dad respond to the staff’s concern about this precocious young kid?
He fired me. Dad said I caused too much drama and asked too many questions.
Then, when I was 17, everything changed. My dad declared bankruptcy and I had to grow up in a hurry.
My dad’s bankruptcy was just the first of several life-shaping traumas that helped clarify my thinking and guided me throughout the past three decades. A severe family health challenge, a disloyal business partner, uncontrollable economic changes — I’ve been through them all and more.
I am 5’4” tall. I’ve been height-challenged all my life. But what I lack in height, I make up in heart.
After my father’s bankruptcy, I knew I was going to have to find a way to help put myself through college. One day, at the college career center, I saw a sign: “Be your own boss,” it said. “You can earn $5,000 to $15,000 in a summer by having your own Student Painter franchise.”
I figured that sounded like me.
“This painting thing, it’s crazy. That’ll never work,” my dad said to me when he first heard about my business pursuit. But I applied anyway and got the job. I opened a new territory in Waterloo, Ontario, my college town, and that first summer, I was the top rookie franchisee in Canada and made $18,000. “This entrepreneur stuff is pretty cool,” I said to myself. I had expected study accounting in college. It wasn’t long before I thought I could be the guy who hired the accountant.
I did it again the following summer. I was the International Franchisee of the Year. I was 20 years old and made $35,000 that summer.
At that point, I knew I had to run my own business, so I convinced the franchise company to partner with me. It didn’t take long before I packed up my U-Haul and drove south to the United States to launch the business.
As I was packing, my dad told me: “You will be back. That’ll never work.” I took his comment as a challenge. It drove me to win. Despite the long odds — after all, I was a startup in a foreign country — I was determined to succeed. I didn’t want to face the music if I failed.
Eventually, I ended up in California and opened my Stu- dent Painters business. I went from zero to 250 branches, employing more than 3,000 students by my fourth year in business.
Looking back, my initial vision was simply to make enough money to pay for college. Over time, the vision grew as I realized how big the world’s opportunities are. Through it all, the key was to maintain a clear vision of what I was trying to accomplish.
I’ve been setting annual goals since my late teens. Back then, I set a goal to be a millionaire by the time I was 30. I achieved it by age 26. I wrote down that I wanted to win the US squash championships by the time I was 30. I met that goal two years early.
Later on, I set a goal to complete an Ironman Triathlon in less than 13 hours. I checked that one off when I finished my first Ironman in 12 hours and 55 minutes. In fact, I have completed 12 full-distance Ironman Triathlons, including five Hawaii Ironman competitions.
By setting clear goals and focusing on the steps to accomplish them, I have built and sold businesses that generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. I’m an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award winner. I also won the Blue Chip Enterprise award for overcoming adversity.
More than 30 years and several successful entrepreneurial ventures later, I am still asking questions. What do I want? What do I have to do to get it? What could get in my way? How do I hold myself accountable?
CEOs often lack this clarity of vision to answer these questions. Yes, they have an idea of what they want, but they don’t have laser-like focus. Vision plus focus plus emotional intensity enables you to accomplish great things.
It can also help you when adversity strikes.
In September 1996, three months after I got married, I signed a lease to move my company, Platinum Capital, from our little 6,500-square- foot office space to a 24,000-square- foot space with 160 cubicles.
Then, my business partner, the best man at my wed- ding, left to set up a competing company two blocks away. He left me with a shell of a business, empty offices, a marketing campaign I could not support, huge financial losses, and a rift that would never heal.
Was I mad? Absolutely. But I chose to fight.
“I’m going to show everyone our vision for this space, for these 160 cubicles and this whole room where we can expand,” I told my assistant. “Find me an elephant. A marching band, too.”
On the appointed day, the marching band was there. I rode the elephant down the street and into our annual meeting. We were on the morning and evening news broadcasts. The Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register sent reporters. The message was if you think big and act big, you will be big.
We would take this company to $1 billion dollars, I said. I heard laughter, and I saw tears. By the next day, I was starting to notice an interesting addition to the decor around the office, particularly on people’s desks: ceramic elephants, stuffed elephants, and crystal elephants. I felt a clear message: “Hey, pal. We’re with you.” Platinum stayed out of bankruptcy, and when I exited in 2006, I left be- hind a thriving company.
But the biggest challenge in my life was personal. One October day in 2004, my 3-year- old son Mason complained of a headache. Soon he was vomiting. Before long, my wife and I stood in disbelief as the doctor told us Mason had a brain tumor.
Surgery was the next day. The doctor warned us that Mason might lose full use of his arms and legs. He might not be able to walk.
Fortunately, he survived that surgery, but a couple weeks later, he was back in surgery to drain water on his brain. After another week in the hospital, the pressure in his brain started to come down. Our boy was getting bet- ter. The hospital released him, and we brought him home. He still could not walk and, while we hoped for the best, we knew what the worst could be.
Over time, he got better. In 2009, Mason was declared cured.
Then one night, my wife Ivette and I were out to dinner at our friend Jack Daly’s house. We had left our phones in the car so that no calls would interrupt our time together. When we returned to the car, we found dozens of messages. Mason was back in the hospital. He had been playing at a friend’s house and had multiple seizures.
That evening, Mason was transferred back to Children’s Hospital of Orange County, where brain monitors indicated hundreds of seizures. After several days of brain activity tests, however, the doctors concluded that the seizures were psychogenic in origin, meaning they were self-created.
In therapy, Mason told us that he was just tired of all those doctors and hospitals and white coats. When he was younger, we could tell how scared he was — even if he didn’t tell us, we could see it in his eyes. Now, he was telling us outright what he thought about it all. He was done with it.
“Look, Mason,” my wife said to him one day, “whatever demons you have in your stomach, why don’t you give them to me, and together we’ll throw them in the trash can.” And they did. He has not had a seizure since.
Ivette and I had different ways of dealing with Mason’s illness. I was task-list oriented. She had an emotional response. When it comes to healing, there is a place for both.
In the end, our family gained strength from the ordeal. I do not doubt that Mason is a stronger young man because of what he endured and overcame. And I know that our marriage benefited as we learned to deal with our differences and, together, gained a perspective on what really matters in life.
Today, Mason is healthy and happy. He had some problems with motor skills for a while but no cognitive consequences. He has been a regular kid. He has faced other challenges in life, including exciting ones that he has eagerly pursued. Mason is showing the world that life doesn’t just happen to him.
As Mason was recovering, I felt a deep sense of gratitude. To raise money for Children’s Hospital of Orange County, where Mason was treated, I decided to compete in the Ironman Canada triathlon. The training was arduous, as one might expect for a competition that includes a 2.4- mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run — which is a full marathon — all in one day.
Through it all, I kept sight of why I was doing this: to support the hospital that saved our son’s life and that was in the business of saving many lives. And I did it in honor of Mason. The training I endured was nothing compared with what he had experienced. We set up a web page for donations and raised $110,000 for the hospital.
In any life, we’ll all experience the days of desolation, as well as the ones of sparkling inspiration. I have come to understand that what comes our way often is a matter of what we have come to expect. And I have learned first- hand how the dreary days give us an appreciation for the dreamy ones.
There will always be surprises, but what matters most is how you learn from the experience, accept it for what it is, and apply it. Now, in everything I do, I try to have fun and influence others positively. I have reached the point in life where I get to do that every day. I strive to make a difference. That is the greatest form of success.