August 14, 2022

The Boss: That Family Work Ethic

He started that business, Highland Cleaners, in 1952. He worked from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., every day except Sunday. We all took turns working at the counter or the cleaning machines or the steam boiler. When we turned 14, we were expected to get a paying job.

I began by cutting grass. But after seeing workmen paving our driveway, I decided to learn how to resurface pavement. I recruited a friend and, at 16, I bought an old Ford pickup. We repaved hundreds of driveways each summer, hauling 50-gallon buckets of tar in scorching weather.

I wanted to go to college, but I wasn’t very focused on getting there. My older sister was on the tennis team at Miami University of Ohio, and she convinced the tennis coach to give me a tryout. I did well and later was admitted to the university. By my junior year, I was working as a chef in a local restaurant.

After graduating with a degree in finance, in 1982, I was a chef for about six months at a Louisville restaurant. Another sister got a job selling discount long-distance telephone service, and I signed up, too. Three months later, the company, TMC Long Distance, sent the two of us to expand the business in California.

We loaded up my old Saab and drove across country, opening offices in the West; we left when the company was sold. With phone service changing rapidly after the breakup of ATT, I decided, at the age of 24, to set up my own discount phone service company, called American Network Exchange, in Boca Raton, Fla., where I found investors. I invented a way to bill pay-phone calls to home numbers and credit cards, and our company flourished.

Several years later, my mother encouraged me to get together with Andrea Baker, a childhood friend who was visiting her family after working as a daytime television actor in New York. We married in 1990, the same year I sold my company. But the deal did not work out as I had envisioned, and I was let go as chief executive that same year.

In one year, I married, got fired and was broke. We moved to Atlanta, where Andrea opened a retro burger restaurant with help from her father, who was in the restaurant business.

In the late afternoon, I would stand on the highway with an advertising placard to attract customers. Earlier in the day, I would chase investor money and work on creating the technology for a smart calling card.

Two years later, my new company, Premiere Communications — today renamed PGi — introduced a card that enabled users to retrieve voice messages, make conference calls and send and receive faxes. By the end of 1995, we were going strong. That was a good thing because we closed the restaurant, and in 1994 our daughter was born, followed by the first of two sons. In 1996, we successfully took the company public.

But within a few years, we had to figure out how to fit our business into the Internet. We backed digital start-ups and, luckily, one of them was WebMD, the medical information site. Proceeds from our investment kept us afloat, until we reinvented ourselves as a platform for virtual meetings and business collaboration.

I grew up in a family with a terrific work ethic, and we all played sports and were competitive. It was a great foundation for learning that you can succeed if you believe something in your heart and use your spirit to will your idea to success.

As told to Elizabeth Olson.

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