Follow the Leaders
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.
It’s a great story: a business owner finding success with a hobby they love. But look closer. This tale has much more to offer.
Connie Hom’s business, Buckingham Greenery, has an employee retention rate that is unbelievably high (over 90 percent) in an industry with an employee base that can be, for the most part, transient and seasonal. And its CEO? She’s still keeping a promise she made to herself more than 35 years ago – and following a passion that’s about much more than delivering pretty plants.
Here’s the story of the amazing, blossoming ecosystem that is Buckingham Greenery, Inc.
It might not be surprising to hear that Hom always had an affinity for plants (she grew up on a farm in New Jersey). What might be surprising to some is that she describes her level of horticultural literacy as “hobby knowledge.” Instead, her passion centers around the environmental impact plants offer. “Everyone loves plants because they’re pretty, but I’m most passionate about what plants do,” she says.
“The average person works eight to 10 hours a day in a closed space with closed windows,” she explains. “A lot of the products that surround us are petroleum-based products that release toxins. Toxins can also be found in linoleum, carpet, wood, paints, furniture, desks, and even our refrigerators. The printers and copy machines we use at the office are the worst, because of the toners. We’re surrounded by a lot of toxins in the air, which may be filtered, but we’re continuously filtering bad air.”
Her solution? Plants. “It’s a very cost-effective way to have a healthier environment and healthy employees,” says Hom. And it’s why she’s dedicated a large portion of her time to helping with a NASA interior landscape study and speaking to business owners and industry leaders about the environmental and health benefits of plants. (Watch video to learn more.)
5 BENEFITS OF INDOOR PLANTS
1. Better indoor air quality
2. Improved mood and productivity
3. Reduced stress levels
4. Faster recovery from mental fatigue
5. Decreased workplace absenteeism
(source: source: houseofplants.com)
Hom founded Buckingham Greenery in 1982 in Buckingham, Virginia, and for the past 35 years, she has brightened the interiors of some of Richmond and Central Virginia’s most prominent commercial spaces and adorned countless hospital waiting rooms, small business offices, universities and mall courtyards with her work. From Fortune 500 companies to regional healthcare facilities to national retail chains, her business’ portfolio is as complete as it is diverse. It’s also a business that has survived three recessions.
Today, the company employs approximately 25 people and has satellite facilities in Richmond, Charlottesville and Norfolk that serve Richmond, Fredericksburg, Chesterfield, Colonial Heights, Petersburg, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Williamsburg (all of Tidewater), Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Staunton, Lynchburg, Roanoke, Christiansburg, Blacksburg and, of course, Buckingham.
We recently caught up with Connie at her Richmond location, which is Buckingham Greenery’s “Christmas Headquarters,” and it’s abuzz with activity. Holiday music plays in the warehouse, which, at the moment, is a holiday forest of nearly 100 fully decorated trees. Enormous wreaths hang from the rafters; ornaments, ribbons and holiday displays abound; and champagne reindeer adorned with rhinestones watch on, awaiting their turn for delivery. The space exudes creativity and fun, and we were introduced to each and every employee.
Amidst the hustle and bustle, we learn about a promise Hom made to herself years ago, after a disheartening experience she had working in “Corporate America.” It’s a promise she still keeps today. “I never wanted to be in a place where people couldn’t excel or reach their full potential or like what they were doing,” she says. “I told myself, ‘If I ever own a business, I want to be sure that people are not complacent – that they’re always challenged, and they don’t have this mediocre mentality. The ‘just get by until I retire’ mentality.”
Hom is far from complacent these days. “I want everything!” she tells us. And she’s on her way to getting it. More inorganic growth by way of acquisition is in the near plans for Buckingham Greenery. We couldn’t be happier for her.
Happy 35th anniversary, Connie Hom and Buckingham Greenery!
CONNIE HOM SHARES
7 MANAGEMENT LESSONS SHE’S LEARNED