"Cash is like oxygen," says the longtime business owner, one of many lessons he's learned.
When asked about the one business lesson that's resonated with him throughout his career, entrepreneur Barry Shevlin gives a simple response.
“Cash is like oxygen, and if you run out of it, you will die,” he says.
Shevlin, CEO of managed IT services firm Vology, has kept that in mind as he's grown his business. Oldsmar-based Vology projects revenue of $200 million in 2016, which would mark a 185% increase over 2011.
But Shevlin has bigger aspirations for his 430-employee company, and his goal moving forward is straightforward: “By 2020, we will be a $500 million solutions provider with 50% of our revenues coming from services,” he says. “It's on the wall in every conference room.”
Shevlin sat down with the Business Observer to talk about his strategy, leadership and the company. Here are edited excerpts of the interview:
What is Vology's business plan?
We provide IT infrastructure, products, services and solutions for our customers. Our customers are typically mid-market companies with 200 to 5,000 employees. Companies of that size make up about 75% of our revenue. The rest are north of that.
How do you stand out in a competitive market?
We look at our customer's problems through their lens and don't push any particular product. That's a big differentiator for us. Most technology resellers are a HP shop or a Sysco shop or an IBM shop. We're not like that. We work on behalf of the customer to find them the best solution. We don't have any vendor that makes up more than 10% or 15% of our revenue.
How has the company grown over time?
In 2011, we were a $70 million business. This year we'll be about $200 million. About half of that growth is from acquisitions and half is from continued organic growth. We've acquired four companies in the last five years, all of which were designed to improve our services capabilities or increase our scale of our services business. Five years ago, services made up about 1% of our revenues. Today it's 25%.
What do you look for when you acquire other companies?
We're looking for a seller or an owner that believes Vology is the right place for their employees to go. That's probably the most important piece right now. There's the obvious stuff, like geography and if it's a fit from a product and services standpoint, but the real key to success is that the owner or seller believes Vology is the best place for the employees. If they believe that, we'll have a higher likelihood of retaining them.
How do you sell Vology as a place where they would want their employees to go?
Well, we're regularly recognized as one of the best places to work in Tampa, so there's that externally. But internally, there's the sales side and the service delivery side. On the service delivery side, because we're not tied to one manufacturer, the training we're able to give these employees from a technical standpoint is very broad and very deep. That's what engineers want — to learn new things and pick up new skill sets. That's how they become more valuable.
From the sales side, our sales people are some of the most productive in the industry because of the tools and resources we give them, and as a result, what they earn is well above industry norms.
What are the characteristics of a successful leader?
Most successful leaders would, when things are going well, make sure they're giving credit to the team and not taking credit personally. But on the flip side, when things are going wrong, that's when they've gotta own it and take responsibility personally.
What are some keys that have made you a successful entrepreneur?
Hiring the best people you possibly can. Making sure the decisions and the direction of the business are being made by the team and not by one individual.
What types of traits do you look for when hiring?
The first part of the philosophy is we try not to hire people for where the business is now. We hire for where the business is going to be three to five years from now. For example, when Steve Torres, our COO, joined us in 2007, he was overqualified to run the finance department of a $40 million business. But we knew we wanted to grow and we wanted someone that had been there and done that before at larger organizations. Chris Rafter is another example. He ran the services organization of a $1.5 billion company, so for him to come here is a big win for us.
As a CEO, how do you approach tough decisions?
We have a whole strategic planning process that has evolved over the past 10 years. It started when Steve Torres joined us in 2007. Originally, just the executive team would go offsite for a couple days a year to hone our strategy. That has grown to where now we have 25 or 30 people as a representation of our management team that go offsite once a quarter to constantly fine-tune our strategy. And it's really the group that creates the strategy and the direction of the business. I'm an observer. If things get off course, I'll help, but overall I'm more of an observer. This way, the management team is creating the strategy so they really do own it.
How was that adjustment for you?
Pretty easy, actually. I don't have a huge ego and I don't fancy myself to be the smartest guy in the room. I already had the philosophy that I wanted to hire the best people, so it was really an extension of that.
What would be the one core piece of advice you'd give someone taking on an executive role?
Inside the organization, they've got to find their replacement. If their whole goal is to be grooming people to be as good or better than them at their job, that enables them to continue to move up through the organization. It goes back to the philosophy of if things are going well, it's the team and not you. And if things are going wrong, you've got to own it.
What about an aspiring entrepreneur?
I guess it would start with do something that you like and your passionate about and enjoy doing. You have to like coming to work everyday. And make sure you're the best salesperson in an organization.
How do you prepare them to handle employees?
When you hit a certain size, you get beyond your personal management capabilities. For me it was $10 million in revenue. So when we got to that level, it was important that I started building out a management team that had been there and done that before. After that, I had to make the transition from an entrepreneur to a true CEO. Peer groups were a big part of that transition. I became very involved with the Young Presidents' Organization. It was a big help in that transition.