Executives. Ryan Brown, CEO; Tom Santilli, chairman of xByte Technologies Industry. Computer hardware and software and IT services Key. Santilli retired at the peak of his career.
The days of stuffing Dell computer servers into a backyard shed have given way to a $20 million business for Tom Santilli, and, not yet 50, he's got the bounty to prove it.
There's the 27-foot Born Free RV for family trips. He has a few boats, which he says he only buys when the deal is spot-on perfect. The family fleet includes one offshore fishing vessel and one made for inshore fishing. Then there's the 1,000-square-foot cabin-style vacation home near the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina he and his wife bought out of foreclosure in 2013.
Like many of his entrepreneurial peers who spend nearly every waking minute on or in their business, Santilli has rarely cashed in on the material rewards. There was always one more project, one more deal.
The founder of Bradenton-based xByte Technologies, Santilli, 47, recently took an atypical step for an accomplished executive in the prime of his career: He retired. “When I'm home I'm mentally still at work, and that's why I had to pull away,” says Santilli. “Most entrepreneurs have obsessive-compulsive issues.”
But few entrepreneurs leave on top like Santilli did. xByte has momentum in multiple areas, due in large part to Santilli's vision and leadership. Sales at the 45-employee firm are up more than 200% since 2010, from $6.8 million to at least $20 million.
With a niche in selling refurbished Dell servers and equipment, the firm moved into a new headquarters in late 2012, a $1.4 million project. Statewide economic development program GrowFl also recently named xByte one of 50 leading second-stage companies in Florida. The firm, which Santilli founded in 2001, hopes to grow even more in the next few years, into new markets and with new services.
Yet Santilli will leave it all behind.
Ryan Brown, vice president of sales and marketing for five years at xByte, was named CEO in early January. Santilli will retain a majority ownership stake in the business, and will remain chairman of the board. But his days of making deals and daily decisions are over.
Santilli's road to retirement was gradual.
He and Stephen Jaynes, his longtime business partner and COO at xByte, began to have “deep thoughts” chats about the firm's future late last year. Around the same time, Brown, who ran the sales department while working remotely from his Leesburg, Va., home, broached the idea about relocating with his family to the Bradenton area.
While Brown got Santilli's mind racing, the notion of a slow down had percolated for a decade. Santilli has long struggled with turning off work, something his wife, Lee Santilli, knows well. Tom Santilli also suffers from Crohn's disease, an inflammatory condition that can cause severe pain. That was another buildup in the decision to detach.
A typical illustration of the way Santilli is wired happened on a family vacation a few years ago. He can't recall where they went, or for how long. But the conflict to disconnect from xByte is etched into Santilli's memory. “Three days into the vacation I was finally able to relax and stop thinking about work,” says Santilli. “By then I was out of adrenaline and I got so tired that all I wanted to do was sleep.”
Lee Santilli intervened into her husband's struggle in 2005, when she signed him up for a Maui Mastermind seminar in Phoenix. Run by business coach and author David Finkel, the program's motto is tailor-made for the obsessive entrepreneur: Build a business — not a job — and enjoy the freedom and rewards of owning a systems-reliant company.
But even that first session was a struggle: Lee Santilli didn't tell her husband she bought an airplane ticket and entry to the program. Tom Santilli then fretted about whether he could really afford to miss work. But since he didn't want to waste the money already spent, he ultimately went. Santilli quickly went from begrudged participant to believer. Says Santilli: “That started me on the path to figuring out how to own the business and not have it own me.”
While Santilli came to like the idea of doing less at work and more at life, another decision loomed: Was Brown the right person to take over the company?
Santilli and Jaynes, who also recently left the firm but will stay on the board, had a good rapport with Brown. And Brown clearly has sales skills, given xByte's recent growth. “I felt that if we were ever going to let someone take over the company,” Santilli says, “it would have to be Ryan.”
But Santilli, who says he's always been a slow-to-change, fact-finding kind of leader, wasn't totally ready. While he was confident in Brown's skills and work ethic, he wanted to make certain the company's Golden Rule culture would remain intact. So Santilli had Brown take the Kolbe test. It's a personality exam that measures creative instincts and the ability to carry out self-determined acts.
Brown scored well on the test. Another important element in Brown's favor is he's more of a risk taker than Santilli. To the former CEO, that's a bonus. “The company is at a mostly stable place,” says Santilli, “where we could take some risks.”
Brown, 37, says he will do that, especially in guiding xByte into new markets. The firm aims to provide IT services for clients, not just sell hardware. From a leadership perspective, Brown intends to meet with each xByte department in informal candid lunch sessions, sans department heads. “I want to make sure people get to know me,” says Brown, “and trust me.”
Brown's already had an aha moment as CEO. It happened when he was involved in an email chain with marketing and accounting. When Brown ran sales, he considered the accounting team a well-meaning obstacle to accomplishing a goal. But in reading those emails it occurred to Brown that in his new role he must oversee everything, not just one department.
With Brown in place, Santilli has spent early 2015 pulling away. “I don't know what the next thing is,” he says. “There's a certain level of anxiety with that, no question about it.”
On the xByte front, Santilli will have monthly meetings with Brown that are supposed to go no more than an hour. The sessions are for advice and counsel — and Santilli promises Brown he won't meddle.
Santilli adds that he's serious about doing more with his family, that it's not an empty cliche. His son is 11, and his daughter is 10. He'd like to go fishing with them more often, and he wants to learn about their hobbies, even his son's Minecraft obsession. And he wants to just hang out and get to know them better, especially before they are teenagers. “I want to get as much time with my kids as I can,” quips Santilli, “before they don't like me anymore.”
Another goal: More family travel, especially in the RV. The Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park are high on the list. “We want to do a lot more vacations,” he says. “My bucket list isn't world-travel, but I want to go to some states I've never been to.”
One obstacle Santilli faces next is monotony. Dozens of Gulf Coast executives, albeit older than Santilli is now, have retired early from successful careers only to have boredom seep in. Santilli is cognizant of that, and stops short of saying he will never get back into a business. “Maybe,” says Santilli, “I should call it a sabbatical.”
Let It Go
Entrepreneurs have long struggled to leave work at work, especially while building a business. Here are some tips on how to detach.
Cookie Boudreaux, a Sarasota-based partner and senior consultant with leadership development firm Mark Kamin & Associates, says it's important to ask yourself a series of questions “early and frequently.” The questions include:
What is your legacy? When you are dead, what will people remember about you being alive? What is your family going to remember about you?
What are your values? Not what you want, says Boudreaux, but what you value?
Then choose your daily tasks bases on this question: Is this absolutely necessary to express what you value? Says Boudreaux: “Learn to say no to anything that doesn't fulfill your values.”
Another way to find work/life balance, says Denise Federer with Tampa-based Federer Performance Management Group, is “to make a deliberate, informed decision of how you want to spend your time off and not be a victim of circumstances or an irrational belief system.”
In a column for the Business Observer last year, Federer says the key steps in the process are to assess the work environment; modify your belief system in what can or can't happen if you let go; and take control of the decision. Writes Federer: “You need to be sure that your internal messages, perceptions of how others see you and your ability to prioritize situations are accurate.”