Follow the Leaders
JJ White is the Chief Engagement Officer of Dale Carnegie Central and Southwest Virginia and Central West Virginia. He’s also the newest Chair of the Virginia Council of CEOs.
Maybe he looks familiar. It could be you’ve seen him on Facebook or iTunes hosting “The Great People Show” – a weekly radio program broadcast in Richmond and (hopefully) coming soon to Phoenix.
If you listen to JJ’s podcast, you know he’s not afraid to ask difficult questions. He’s funny, quick witted and often drops inspiring quotes into conversations – whether it’s in his podcast or in person. He’s a voracious reader and aspiring author. He’s also a Virginia native who loves the outdoors and his family: his wife, Samantha, and children Ike (9) and Millie (6).
We sat down with JJ at his podcast studio on Valentine’s Day to learn more about his business and how he hopes to shape the Council during his tenure as Chair. Here’s what he had to say.
A: I joined Dale Carnegie in sales in the year 2000, and three months later, the owner of the franchise threw his back out and became disabled. I hung out for a few months, just waiting for that business to get sold, and no one was buying it. So I raised my hand and said, “Hey, I’ll buy the business. I don’t have any money. I don’t even know if I’ve got good credit, but let’s do this thing.”
So it was a completely owner-financed deal, and it was right after the September 11 recession. It was a really rough start. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I was winging it. I put two extra mortgages on my house, but I made it, and we built a business. And then in 2008, I had the opportunity to buy the Central Virginia franchise and have been here ever since.
A: The reason I love being with Dale Carnegie is because we do so much good for other people. I’ve seen people’s lives transformed, because you’re talking about relationships and overcoming their self-limiting beliefs. Most of our leadership ability comes from two places growing up: our parents and our teachers, and then once we get into the working world, from other leaders.
Well, sometimes there are patterns there that need to be redirected or broken, and people need to be given the tools to let them see themselves in a different capacity. It’s a joy to be part of that. It’s challenging, but it’s worth every minute.
A: The hardest part for me, being a business owner, is this is very easily an owner-operated business. I could do everything, if I wanted to, and be successful at it. I could be a trainer. I could be a salesperson. I could be the janitor. I could take care of all of it. And I think that’s a trap. You end up hanging out in the part you’re really good at and you don’t realize that you need to build the business by investing in people to do the sales and the training, etc. And it’s not just to build a strong business that you can eventually exit from, but to give other people the opportunity to really do and exercise their gifts.
A: Dale Carnegie always happens inside of a vacuum – inside of a classroom where people can share and be open. And I’d always thought, how can we make this larger? At the same time, I was approached to be on the radio, and I thought, “This is it. This is the chance to take this type of content and this experience to a much wider audience and through the miracles of podcasting that can go all over the world.”
Our focus, whenever we pick topics on the show, is to get people thinking about something that they’ve not thought about in relation to two things: themselves and how it impacts other people. Our show today, before this interview, was about how the word “love” is just completely misunderstood. Most people don’t truly express love for people like they should. So it’s part of getting people out of their comfort zone to think differently about everything going on around them.
A: My mode of operation in everything I do is to try to be the best listener that I possibly can be. And there’s so much irony in that, because people associate Dale Carnegie as speakers. We are not the “sage on the stage” – we’re the guide on the side. My role is to really stand back and listen to what other people want to have happen in their business and in their life, and to guide Scot [Scot McRoberts, Executive Director, VACEOs] to make those decisions that will provide as much value to the membership as we possibly can.
Never before in our society have things changed so often and so fast, and the Council of CEOs is not exempt from that pressure of change. And what I believe you’re really going to see in my mission over the next year is, how do we reimagine some of the things we’re doing to provide even greater value to our membership? We don’t want to mess up our core – we don’t want to flip things on its head – but we have to be looking at things from the members’ perspective and – back to that listening thing – really hearing and watching what other people are wanting and struggling with that the Council can provide that’s part of our core.
Thanks for spending time with us, JJ!
The Virginia Council of CEOs is an organization built on a solid mission and strong leadership. With more than 250 CEO members from the Richmond and Charlottesville regions, the Council is as diverse and strong as ever.
Ready to learn more? Hear why JJ values the Council in the video below, then consider becoming a member. Learn more about membership criteria here.
For Eddie O’Leary, president of web development firm COLAB, one of the best business decisions he ever made was to step away from it – to release himself from operational concerns, that is, and focus on the reason he got into business ownership in the first place.
It was two years ago when he had a serious discussion with himself. “So for me, I had to kind of put my ego in check, and I had to say, ‘You know what? There’s really somebody else who can run this business better than me, and I’ll focus on strategy and sales and the things that I really like,’” explains O’Leary.
In this case, that meant a sustained focus on growing the business and building up his leadership team – and investing in a quality chief operating officer.
Turns out O’Leary’s ego check has paid off royally. In 2018, COLAB made Richmond BizSense’s RVA 25 list of fastest-growing companies (again) and attained Inc. 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies status for the first time. Today, COLAB is in innovation mode, reaching into untapped opportunities that may not have come about otherwise.
O’Leary says the leadership work and investment in the team has “allowed me to go back and do some of the things that are really the reason that I started this company in the first place – which is to create new opportunities, explore new technologies and really grow our offerings.”
He’s particularly excited about the opportunities Alexa may bring.
O’Leary describes COLAB as a company that solves business challenges. “Our niche is solving business problems with technology,” he explains. “We typically build websites and web applications that are designed specifically to solve problems, create opportunities or create operational efficiencies. What makes us special is the fact that we have a full team of strategists, designers, developers, engineers and product managers all located here in Richmond full time.”
The reinvigorated COLAB of today augments large-company marketing teams and designs apps for voice recognition platforms like Alexa.
“COLAB has been creating a great product for a long time, but the work we’ve done in the last year or two to build up a great leadership team has allowed me to go back to focusing my time on increasing the innovative product offerings we have, such as Amazon Alexa smart speaker apps, as well as putting together our digital partnership program.”
O’Leary is particularly excited about the opportunities associated with smart speakers, smart TVs, and the Alexa and Google Home product lines, as consumers are moving away from web searches and using voice-activated tools for information instead. According to O’Leary, it’s a trend business owners need to keep an eye on.
“The growth in that area has been tremendous,” he says. “It’s [Alexa] a device no one had heard of three years ago, and now something like 42 percent of people have them in their homes.” It’s an untapped area well-suited to COLAB. In fact, the team just released the first smart speaker app for the Virginia Lottery.
O’Leary describes himself as a “CEO by default,” explaining that even though he grew up watching his father run several small companies, he didn’t feel like business ownership was for him. (His background is in political science.)
After a stint building websites and web applications, O’Leary saw an opportunity, and COLAB was born – and, though it wasn’t his initial intention, he became a CEO.
Whatever the name or role assigned to him, O’Leary is clearly a LEADER. He has the courage to act on opportunities, even if that means a bruised ego.
“I think there comes a time for some people like me when you have to recognize that doing everything yourself or solving all business challenges or being in charge isn’t what necessarily defines success for you,” he says.
Empowering others. Acting on opportunities. O’Leary a leader by default? We think not.
O’Leary has been a member of the Council since 2014 and he’s found that the relationships he has formed there have helped him make smart decisions.
“As I think back about the time when I joined the Council, I would say that our business was doing a great product, and it was a valid, legit business. But we were probably around eight or nine people and around a million dollars in revenue,” he says. Adding, “I recognized, by being part of the Council, that it was important for me to take some serious steps in order to take advantage of the tremendous opportunity COLAB had. Through my Roundtables, and through the people I’ve met, I’ve really been able to take advantage of other people’s experiences to make really smart decisions about how to grow the company.”
Virginia Council of CEOs is full of innovative leaders like Eddie O’Leary. Sign up for a Get to Know VACEOs event to learn more!
We believe Steve Rosser might just be the happiest man in the world.
We met him earlier this month at his new 9,250-square-foot production facility at 1908 North Hamilton Street in Richmond, just five weeks after the facility started producing what is arguably one of the most addictive of products ever made: Gelati Celesti ice cream.
We were worried Steve might not have time to chat in the middle of opening a new production facility during his busiest time of year, but, as usual, he was welcoming and all smiles. And why not? He’s grown a small ice cream shop with a small production area out back and a staff of nine into a local ice cream shop icon – with four retail stores, a wholesale customer stream and 110 employees.
Steve’s product may be a soft sell, but don’t underestimate this entrepreneur. He’s an accomplished businessman with a point to prove. We spoke to him about managing growth and balancing work and life. We learned about what he considers the most important business decision he’s made and more. Here’s what this VACEOs member had to say.
Steve’s background includes long stints in executive-level positions with Luck Stone Corporation and Reynolds Metals Company. In 2010, it was time for a change. He and his wife, Kim, purchased Gelati Celesti and never looked back. The brand quickly grew from one store on Broad Street in Henrico County to multiple locations across Richmond. In February of this year, a fourth retail location opened at 1400 North Boulevard in Scott’s Addition.
Gelati Celesti Growth Timeline
In May 2018, Gelati Celesti opened a new production facility on Hamilton Street that’s nearly quadruple the size of the former building on Dabney Road. It will serve all of the business’ retail shops and wholesale accounts. “Now we have plenty of room, and the great news is, it should hold us about eight years,” says Steve. “We’ve got a lot of growth ahead of us.”
For Steve, managing his company’s growth has been a matter of business alignment and defining the culture. “I was very fortunate because in a previous career before this, I was a general manager in a corporate business, so I had the opportunity to run a business,” he explains. “What I think is essential is constant alignment. Everything has to align for what the ultimate objective is.”
Steve’s alignment began with his first facility expansion, which satisfied the initial demand for his product. Then the right leadership was put in place to hire the right people. He sums it up this way: “Make sure you can make it, you can manage it, you can serve it, and you can lead it. And then you’re ready to open stores.”
After the second Gelati Celesti store opened and his food truck service was in high demand, Steve quickly realized he couldn’t be everywhere at once and his culture was in jeopardy. So he called in some help. He and his management team worked with John Sarvay at Floricane.
“We got our leaders together and talked about what we really wanted to be, and the profile of a person who would fit,” Steve says. “We use that information when we talk with prospective employees. We’re able to say, ‘This is who we are. Does that mesh with your personality, your career objectives?’ That’s one of the most important things I’ve done since I bought the company: work on the culture. One of the most important decisions we make here is, ‘Who do we hire?’”
Gelati Celesti stores are open seven days a week, 363 days a year, and stay open until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. at night. “I’m always on duty!” says Steve. Still, he insists he does balance work and life beautifully – especially now that he has a great team in place to manage the day-to-day operations.
“I have a great balance, but it’s blended, and that’s the difference,” Steve explains. “Entrepreneurs plan their personal and work life. During the first two or three years, my vacations were coming here, and I loved it! Now I do take more time away, because we’ve empowered leaders who know what to do. My job is management of the culture and future business development, so the day-to-day stuff takes care of itself. That’s because we have a great team of people.”
At 53 years of age, Steve came into entrepreneurship relatively late in life. His primary motivation? “I always had this need to know if I could do something on my own,” he says. “I had confidence in myself, but I needed to prove it. I needed to prove that I could take this business and make it grow.”
And now he’s totally committed to making it grow in the Virginia Beach market. He plans to open three stores there, as well as entering other markets in Virginia. He also hopes to add at least three more stores in Richmond. “That will take care of the next three or four more years. At that point, I’ll be working on the next stage of my life.”
For now, he’s clearly a happy man.
“I read something in Richmond BizSense recently about a woman who just opened up a candy shop on Grove and Libbie,” he says. “I absolutely understood it when she talked about how she used to be an attorney and she got so she didn’t like to practice law any longer. She said, ‘No one enjoys calling their lawyer, but everyone loves coming to the candy store.’ Ice cream is a very similar situation. People come in and they’re ready to smile – to have a few moments of joy. That’s what we do.”
When Dr. Anthony Duncan isn’t working hard on his new franchise business, he’s actively seeking ways to help at-risk youth in the Richmond area. His desire to make a difference led him to an opportunity with the well-known Mosquito Authority franchise, but it was his faith that propelled him to greater action.
While attending a formal presentation about the franchise opportunity, Duncan had a revelation. “I decided that if I wanted to make a strong impact with little worry about finances, then this franchise opportunity would allow me to really do that,” he explains.
Duncan purchased the Richmond Mosquito Authority territory in 2010, but subsequently found little time to work on the business. In 2011, he got a push from above that moved him forward.
“I was sitting at home wondering what I was doing. I went into deep prayer, asking God for direction. I heard God very clearly. I went later to bible study, and I told my pastor about it. He said, ‘You know what to do.’ I talked to my wife, then went to work and gave my two weeks’ notice.”
Since then, this entrepreneur, who admits he has “no business background whatsoever outside of running a private practice,” has expanded his business into Maryland and New York – and hopes to eventually do business in Puerto Rico, a place that’s particularly dear to his heart.
We sat down with him and asked about his background: “Why do you feel called to work with at-risk youth?” “Do you have to be crazy to want to be CEO?” And, “What do you dream about?” Here’s what this Richmond entrepreneur and new member of the VACEOs had to say.
A: When I was an undergrad student, I met a professor who taught Intro to Psychology. His name was Dr. Adolph Brown III. Psychology really resonated with me – the attempt to understand behavior. Dr. Brown became my mentor. He told me I must get my doctorate, and so I did!
A: I come from a single-parent family background. I was raised by my mom, and I have two brothers. She worked really, really hard. I found myself going to college and becoming able to navigate through life successfully, and I really wanted to give back and work with individuals like me who come from single-parent families. I was at the Department of Justice for about five years. I really enjoyed that experience.
I’ve moved on from the Justice Department, but I’m still really focused on reaching this segment. Last year, we developed a mentoring program for 10 young adults in our office. I’m pretty tough – helping them understand that if you want to play in the marketplace, you need to have high standards. There’s no such thing as perfection, but you need to always strive for excellence and always want to get better.
A: Well, we don’t use the word “crazy,” as it’s not a technical term! But if you think about the word “unbalanced” and being an entrepreneur, it’s hard to stay balanced. Obviously, we want to mitigate as much risk as possible, but we do take on a lot of risk – because that’s where the reward lies. Plus, there are only 24 hours in day. This whole idea of balance and being an entrepreneur is idealistic. The key, I’ve found, is to be cognizant and aware of the times I’m not engaged with my family.
A: As I mentioned, I was raised by my mom, who is from Puerto Rico. I have this desire and obligation to make sure she is taken care of. That’s what keeps me up and keeps me going. I really want her to enjoy the fruits of my labor because of all the sacrifices she’s made for herself and her kids.
A: Yes! I dream about maybe one day retiring there and having a small mango farm. I was able to go back most recently after Hurricane Maria; I was compelled to go there and do something. I had the opportunity to take the team to the U.S. Virgin Islands to do mosquito control pro-bono work out there for a week. Then we went to Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, the infrastructure was not in place to do more pro-bono work, but we connected with FEMA and distributed food and water to the elderly in the Fajardo region. That was really fulfilling.”
Thanks for taking the time to meet with us, Anthony. And welcome to the Virginia Council of CEOs!
It’s easy to get lost in the focus on business, isn’t it? The changing environment. Mergers. Acquisitions. Unprecedented revenue gains. Inevitable downturns. The addition of employees and business lines. New business ventures. It can become a constant pull.
But on January 25, 2018, I was pulled in the direction of a different narrative: one about a fellow CEO’s emotional and physical transformation. From lack of fulfillment to purpose. From focus on self to focus on community. A transformation that would ultimately result in a life lived more genuinely and a business fueled more by inspiration.
The story I heard was that of David Gallagher, CEO of Dominion Payroll. In business for only 15 years, Dominion Payroll is a global nine-time Inc. 5000 honoree that employs approximately 150 people. The company’s new headquarters is located in Richmond’s trendy Scott’s Addition.
But David’s metamorphosis was triggered by an unspeakable tragedy. In his words: “I’ve been to hell and back, and I’ve come back saying, ‘I’m not the man I was. I’m not. I’m bigger. I’ve been touched, and I’ve been inspired.’”
For David, everything has changed. Personally. Professionally. Physically.
His focus is now clear. And he’s free to be the man and the CEO he always wanted to be. He’s no longer the formal entrepreneur I met back in 2003, when he became a VACEOs member. His demeanor is more spiritual. His hair much longer. He wears a wicked jacket with colorful skulls on it.
On January 25, he told the audience at the VACEOs Quarterly Luncheon, “I went through a very significant mental shift. I don’t look at myself or behave the same way I did 10 years ago … I don’t need to disguise anything. I believe my leadership style and the way I interact with people is infinitely more genuine because I’m thinking and acting more like who I am.”
David’s journey is about a successful business person who always longed for a greater purpose in life. It’s also about the utter heartbreak following the death of his 16-year-old daughter Cameron from an undiagnosed heart condition in 2014. It was the convergence of these two forces that proved to be the catalyst for his personal and business transformations.
Inspired by their daughter’s work to help adolescents battling depression, David and his wife, Grace, established the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation.* Their passion soon became the passion of employees at Dominion Payroll, as well.
“I devoted all my heart and energy to the Cameron Foundation,” David says. “My Dominion Payroll people said, ‘We’re with you!’ And all of you guys [VACEOs members] said, ‘We’re with you! We’ll change the world with you!’ And we all joined forces and got to where we needed to be. Now everything in my business has changed.”
David admits he had concerns about merging his two worlds – his cause and his business. But the voice of his employees was too loud not to hear: They wanted the cause to BE the business.
“A CALL FOR COMMUNITY ACTION”
Now Dominion Payroll’s incredible growth is fueled by the culture inside the business – employees’ belief in a common purpose and their knowledge that they are working for something much greater than themselves or the task at hand.
“In fact, my employees, I think, would tell you today that the reason they are with Dominion Payroll has nothing to do with payroll,” David explains. “They would say, ‘I’m there because I have a call for community action. I have a social justice that I have to bring to the world.’ And if I’m great at my business, and if I inspire people there, then I can do more here. Then I can be great to the community.”
Today, David has fulfilled the dream of his younger self. He’s a part of something much larger than his own life and his own business. He is a self-proclaimed “community instigator,” driven to build up communities. His perspective is much wider, and he has a greater spiritual presence.
His parting words to the VACEOs audience – articulated in such way that the emphasis was unmistakable – were: “Everything you do matters. Everything. You do. Matters. You go to Starbucks, you meet someone, you don’t say hello to the person next to you, you get a little angry – that vibe goes everywhere. It goes everywhere. And you are, I am – WE are – the sum total of all of that.”
I am proud to call Dave a friend, and to have him in the VACEOs community. While he is extraordinary in his own way, I find amazing stories like this in all 220 of our members. What a gift to be in relationship with this group of people.
– Scot McRoberts, Executive Director, Virginia Council of CEOs
*About the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation
The Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation is a beacon of hope for those who are affected by teenage mental illness. We help empower teens and their families to proactively take care of their mental health and to seek help when they need it. Learn more: http://www.ckgfoundation.org.