When Sarasota technology executive Dan Miller moved to the region from Boston in 2001, he was missing more than cream pie and clam chowder.
Miller also quickly found there was no organization in town set up as a support group for local entrepreneurs and business owners, at least none like he was familiar with in Boston. Miller had been a leading member of the Young Entrepreneurs Organization in Boston, a group that he says was essential to his first business success: Building an online recruiting and jobs company that he ultimately sold for more than $10 million.
So Miller formed his own CEO peer group after he relocated to Sarasota to launch more startup technology companies. Eight years later that group has turned into a unique gathering of local executives and entrepreneurs: Five of the 10 members of Miller's CEO peer group are black belts in taekwondo. Three other local business executives that aren't official members of the peer group train in taekwondo with the gang.
Miller didn't set out to put together a peer group that came armed with black belts. But as Miller sought executives to join his group, he realized there was a common bond of executives whose kids trained at the same taekwondo facility in Sarasota.
And now, after being together for a few years, the quintet of black belt entrepreneurs is united in this fact: They wouldn't be as successful in their business lives if they hadn't spent the time and effort in obtaining a black belt.
Says Dr. Stephen Lasday, a Sarasota podiatrist, medical practice owner and black belt member of the CEO peer group: “There are a lot of similarities between earning a black belt and running a business.”
It can take anywhere from four to 10 years to earn a black belt, the highest grade in martial arts. Earning a black belt normally includes a combination of physical and mental exams, ranging from sparring, which tests a person's resolve and discipline, to breaking of boards, which can demonstrate controlled power.
The five black belt members of Miller's peer group say they have picked up individual lessons from their training that holds a direct correlation to succeeding with a specific work-related challenge. Miller, for instance, says the skills he learned about performing under pressure have been key for him in becoming a better public speaker.
“It's like having a safe place to go back to mentally and emotionally,” says Miller. “It can give you strength to get through difficult times.”
Here's a peek at how training for and obtaining a black belt has helped the other members of Miller's CEO peer group in their business lives.
Rick Trautwein may be the most accomplished black belt in Miller's CEO peer group. Trautwein and his wife, Kelly Trautwein, own the Sarasota-based taekwondo training studio where many of the group's members earned their black belts.
Trautwein had to earn his black belt by training and testing, however, just like the others in his group. And Trautwein, 50, didn't even take up taekwondo until about eight years ago, when he says he was an overweight and overworked sales executive for a flooring business that was ultimately bought by Warren Buffet's investment company.
Trautwein says his black belt training experience taught him a valuable lesson about leadership when he failed one major exam. “I had a pity party for myself,” says Trautwein. “But I quickly turned it around because I knew I was looked at as a leader.”
John Ferrari is president and chief executive of DwellGreen, a Sarasota-based startup franchise business that conducts audits for homeowners seeking to save money on energy bills.
Ferrari, a former Nokia executive, was hired by DwellGreen's founder earlier this year to help the company with its technology and with raising capital. Ferrari says the process of pitching the company to potential investors is just like his black belt training.
“You can't buy your way to a black belt,” says Ferrari. “You have to go through the steps. And that's no different from a startup.”
Ferrari says his black belt training has also taught him humility. Says Ferrari: “Even as good as you think you are, all you have to do is spar with someone a little better than you and you can be publicly humiliated in 30 seconds.”
Cliff Carothers, owner of Sarasota-based Intensive Air Ambulance, is in the process of growing a third unit of his $10 million company, which transports medical patients. That new unit will focus on hospital evacuations.
But one of Carothers' biggest challenges is getting hospital administrators to think differently about the evacuation process. In setting up his long-term strategy, Carothers, a Wharton MBA-educated entrepreneur, says he often goes back to his black belt training. Discipline and details, he says, are the words that always stick to his mind.
“You are facing things that you have never had to go through before,” says Carothers, speaking about both business and taekwondo. “And you have to overcome them or you'll never meet your goals.”
Dr. Stephen Lasday
Lasday, lead partner at West Coast Podiatry Center in Sarasota, says his ability to take calculated risks is something he picked up from his black belt training. That helped him decide to take over the medical practice when he was just an employed physician and the presiding doctor retired.
The decision included investing a chunk of his personal savings into the practice. It also meant Lasday would become an entrepreneur and a boss of a dozen employees, not just a doctor.
“They don't train you for that in medical school,” says Lasday. “You go from treating someone's ailment to taking care of 12 employees and their families.”
Lasday says overcoming injuries sustained while training has also been a motivator for him to persevere in business. “That taught me to get over myself,” says Lasday. “It taught me to remember that there's a solution out there, even if it hasn't shown itself yet.”
— Mark Gordon