“You’ll never work in this industry again after this!”

Eat More…Purpose?

This week I had a chance to hear Dan Cathy (former CEO of Chick-fil-A and one of Atlanta’s great philanthropists) speak for a straight hour in an intimate fireside chat. He shared so many stories I had never heard about the risks they took (and mistakes they made) at Chick-fil-A along the way. It was honestly one of the best talks I’ve ever had the chance to listen to.

Dan spoke about Purpose (I always capitalize that word) and at the end made a plea to the audience (there were 100 of us, with most of the attendees being in the finance industry in one way or another) to do more to help others. Rather than focus on climbing the corporate ladder or increasing your bank account, focus on the impact you want to make in other peoples’ lives, as it’s a) why we’re all here and b) wildly more fulfilling.

At the end of the event I approached Dan for a quick word. I shared with him a few stories of the times I had a chance to meet his father in the past (my past agency was Chick-fil-A’s social media partner), and then I told him that I really appreciated his words and that I thought it was just the message that this group needed to hear.

“Thanks for saying that, Jeff,” he said, taking a quick look at my name tag. “Could you tell me what you mean by that?”

I explained that too many people—including what I thought would be most of the people in this room—were driven far too much with making money. And for someone like Dan, who has clearly made more money than the rest of the room will ever make put together, to express both in words and actions how important it was to give back, that surely he changed a few hearts and minds for the better on that night.

He thanked me, and then I asked for a selfie and here ya go:

Dan Cathy and me…and a free Chick-fil-A sandwich coupon :)

That time I upset the big guy

My partners and I sold our first company, Spunlogic, in March of 2008. (Turns out that was good timing because some weird thing happened with home mortgages and the financial markets crashed and…you can watch The Big Short to find out the rest.)

What most people don’t know is that we were approached in early 2007 by one of the largest agencies in the world with an offer to buy us. On the cheap, it turns out, only we didn’t know that at first.

Sometime in November of 2006 I received a call from a person representing a gigantic agency. Apparently they had seen some of our press and were interested to learn more about us as they wanted an office and team in Atlanta.

We spent several months talking to them, sharing information about our business and learning more about their plans. Even though we weren’t actively looking to sell the business at that time, our curiosity was piqued.

All in all, we were impressed. If the number was right, we’d do it.

The number wasn’t right

I received an email in mid-January with their official offer, asking if we could talk the next day to tell them what we thought. The number they were offering was so much lower than our expectations that I had to re-read the document several times to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.

It didn’t take long for my partners and me to decide that the deal wouldn’t work for us. Of course, as CEO, I was the one that would have to tell them.

The next day at the scheduled time I received a call from their CEO. Right away I knew this wouldn’t go well because he was talking as if we’d already agreed to the price and terms of the deal.

“Jeff, we’re so excited to have you in the portfolio! This is a great day and you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Selling your business is something most people…”

As he rambled on, I thought two things: I’d need to interrupt him and tell him this wasn’t happening, and was he driving right now?

“Uh, sorry to interrupt, Tom,” I said. (His name wasn’t Tom.) “But, we actually don’t want to do the deal.”

He didn’t speak for what seemed like several minutes, until I said, “Tom, are you still there?”

“You don’t want to do the deal?” he asked.

“Right, but we are so appreciative of the offer and…”

And that’s when the screaming started

I heard some scuffling and what I could only guess was his phone being thrown to the floor, and then I heard him say from a distance, “These a$$holes don’t want to do it! I told you we should never have wasted…”

A few moments later, another voice came on the line. “Jeff, sorry, this is Steven (also not his name). I’m riding with Tom and he needs to focus on the road.”

“No problem, Steven,” I said, recognizing the voice of Tom’s assistant. “I was just telling Tom that, while we appreciate the offer, we’re going to wait and grow the business more at this point and we’d love to talk again in a year or so.”

“What’s he saying?! What’s that a$$hole saying?” I heard Tom shout in the background.

Steven, obviously cupping the microphone on the phone with his hand, said, “They don’t want to sell. They want to continue growing the company and they’d be happy to talk with us again in a year.”

“Give me that f&cking phone back,” I heard Tom say.

Tom shouted at me: “Jeff, I’m going to give you one more chance to change your mind and say yes to this deal. We’ve wasted two months talking to you and its incredibly unprofessional for you to change your mind at this point.”

“Tom, I’m really sorry, but I don’t think it’s fair to say we changed our minds. We simply don’t think the valuation is enough for us to do the deal. And…”

“Oh, for f&cks sake,” he shouted. “That’s it. You’re completely finished in this industry. I’m going to buy another agency in Atlanta and make sure you never win another piece of business. You’ve just made the biggest mistake of your life. You’re going to regret the day…”

He went on like that for a few minutes, screaming at me and ranting about how I was “finished”.

Eventually, Steven came back on, apologized, and we hung up.

Oh, and we doubled our business over the next year and sold for over four times what they had offered. So there.

The point

After I was cursed out by the CEO of one of the largest agencies in the world, my 30-year-old self was pretty shaken. Up until that point, I had been honored to talk to Tom and it made me and my partners feel great that we were sought after. For him to treat me like that after we’d built up a relationship showed me the ugly side of business, or at least the ugly side of how he does business.

But, we got back on the horse. We became even more determined to grow our company, and we went into the next sale process (this time with Halyard Capital, who never treated us badly) with more experience and a better understanding of the process (hint: always find out early in the process if you’re even in the same ballpark on valuation before doing too much work together).

Sometimes the best thing that can happen to you is a loss. After all, obstacles can be our allies.

Leave a Comment