Jeffrey Minch on leadership, principles, and hard work


Rohan: I met Jeff Minch of JLM in the commenting section of Fred Wilson’s blog, AVC.com. AVC.com is a great example of the power of blogs in creating communities and I’ve been fortunate to e-meet with some really inspiring people. JLM is one of them. We’ve been fortunate to have JLM over at ALearningaDay from time to time as well and he never fails to amaze us with his wisdom and eloquence.

My half hour with JLM was seeing him at his best – eloquent, wise, funny and full of fascinating stories. I hope you enjoy it.

About Jeffrey Minch

clip_image001[3]Jeffrey L Minch is an entrepreneur who has founded, managed and led multiple companies — both private and public — in the real estate, construction and entertainment businesses as well as having been an angel investor.

He has been a Managing Partner, President, Chief Executive Officer or Board member for over 30 years. He is finally getting the hang of it all.

He was educated at Virginia Military Institute — a very good place to be from but a devil of a place to be — and graduated with distinction in civil engineering having also met the qualifications for a degree in economics and mathematics. He has an MBA in Finance.

He is a Veteran having served with distinction in the Combat Engineers where he was both a Paratrooper and Ranger.

He has lived in Texas since the early 1980s and is currently involved in CEO coaching, angel investing and multiple start-up businesses.

His passions are family — he has been married for over 33 years including time off for good behavior and has two lovely grown children — business, the beach, the mountains, hiking and driving his beloved 1966 cherry red (slightly in need of a paint job) Impala Super Sport convertible.

He claims to be the “luckiest son of a bitch alive” and there is much evidence to support that assertion.

His Big Red Car is the author of an irreverent blog — The Musings of the Big Red Car in which the car channels its thoughts on business, startups, politics, the military and life.

He can be reached at US 512-656-1383, jminch2011@gmail.com or Skype “jeffminch” and your contact is welcome.


Interview transcript

(00.08)

Rohan: JLM, lovely to finally e-meet you. My first question – what’s the story?

JLM: I am 61 years old. I was an army brat growing up. My Dad was in the service and so I went to a military school. I was probably not the most likely kid to go to a military school because I was not particularly well disciplined. Military school for me was a great experience.

Soldiering was the family business, so I have lived on Army posts. It was perfectly comfortable to me. I was forced to do a lot of things – to go to an engineering school, to study – it was exactly the kind of hand that I needed.

I went to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). It’s created many great leaders like Stonewall Jackson, who was a professor at VMI. Its reputation has been built over 140 years and they knew exactly what they were doing. When you walked through the gates, you were just another guy with shaved head. That learning experience was really the beginning of building us back up. They had absolutely no mercy.

I made an F in calculus, in the first grading period. I had never seen the letter F in my report card in my entire life. It was a terribly humbling experience. I worked with my advisor and he told that if I continue that way, I’d get kicked out.

At the end of the year I was so motivated, I was number one in my class. I had no inkling that I had any kind of a brain. I always felt I had gotten along on baloney and on being quick witted enough. I never got bad grades but I certainly wasn’t a stellar student. But, here, I was scared straight. That first year at VMI was a very telling experience.

I was in the military and I served in a number of different locations. I was a combat engineer. It is very difficult to get in as they pick only the best officers. You had to fight like infantry in an infantry division and you also had to be able to do all the engineering tasks, i.e., build airfields, dams, and bridges.

Combat engineers are used to force river crossing. The infantry comes up to a river and you would force a crossing – go across the river on a little rubber boat under the protection of smoke and then the infantry would come across.

I learnt every single thing I ever needed to learn about business as a platoon leader and company commander.

The first ever rule was that, take care of your men.

If you did that – if you took care of their physical protection, tactics, fighting, food, bullets, and water; even family problems and legal problems – everything would turn out okay.

We used to have people from all backgrounds. Once, we needed somebody to fix the tile in the latrine. Some guy raises his hand and says, “I was the largest tile contractor in Miami before I got drafted”. That’s the kind of people you have in the force. My company clerk was a PhD in English from St Joseph’s University and he handled all my correspondence.

My first job was with Mobil Corporation. It was a wonderful experience. I was going from Toronto to New York and I lost my luggage, flying Air Canada.

I showed up for my interview in blue jeans and a pink shirt that had been cleaned at the hotel overnight. And I said to the chairman: “A day will come when you will need to get things done with no excuses. So, here I am – lost luggage and all.”

He stuck his head out of his office and said the job was filled. It was a great learning experience as it was just like in military – your mission is in the forefront. You have to get the job done.

It was the greatest experience of my life because this company had no problem with money. With most businesses, the problem is that they don’t have enough capital. I learned a lot working with them.

I worked for a guy in Austin, Texas. His name was Jack Crosby.

He is the finest entrepreneur I have ever met in my life; the absolute best deal guy. I saw this guy turn water into wine and lead into gold.

I worked for him for a number of years in the real estate business and built some buildings. When I see a building, I don’t see it; I see the substructure, the foundation, the mechanical & electrical functions, and the fire protection systems.

When I walk into a room, the first thing I do is look at the ceiling. If you have a nice ceiling, you know that building is very well built.

I sold all of that in the mid 90s. I retired when I was 45. That was the first big personal mistake I made. I went from being intellectually engaged, to really just working on my tan. And working on your tan does not require a very high IQ. So, I went back to work (it was a struggle to get my brain working again!).

I have run public companies and private companies. I consider myself a bit of a leader. I don’t say that because I think that I have any particular great talent. If you look at the life experiences I have had, it has been forced upon me.

Within everyone, there is a talent for leadership. It’s just a question of whether it has been developed. I firmly believe there are no extraordinary men. We simply have ordinary men thrust into extraordinary circumstances; the friction of those circumstances for a person reveals their character, and that character carries one to where they need to be.

President Eisenhower is a perfect example – a farm kid from Kansas to running the whole damn world, just because he rose to the occasion in every difficult situation.

As for the rest of my story, I stopped running the public company I was running, 4-5 months ago. I am back in start-up and entrepreneurial business. I am working on a couple of deals, now. Last week, I was actually advising a couple of folks I had met on Fred Wilson’s AVC.com

 

(10.05)

Rohan: It sounds like a bunch of big moments. What are some of these big moments you had, that in hindsight, made all the difference in the world..

JLM: In the context of today, how can we overcome a bad economy? During the oil crisis in the mid 80s the economy in Texas was really just horrible. I always say that tough times don’t continue, but tough people prevail. The lessons I learnt during that time were monumental. It was like I was back in combat. Every facet of running a business was challenged. While I know the company prevailed and made good profits, I know how we made the payrolls every two weeks.

While I am proud that I lived through it, any person should do it. Keep putting one foot ahead at a time. As long as you decide to never quit, nobody can ever defeat you. No circumstances can ever overcome you. You just have to keep showing up every single morning.

As humans, we need and like challenges. I honestly did not know if I’d make it in military school. The willingness to test ourselves in difficult circumstances is the driver, and recognition of that reveals the entrepreneurial sense in a person.

I think it’s cyclical – sometimes, the force is powerful and sometimes, you need a little bit of rest. It’s all a matter of negotiating with yourself. In some places I am the best coach, in some others I am my own largest critic.

And, on some days when I feel the fatigue, I recharge my battery and come back to work the next day and wonder “Why did I feel like that? I’m ready to bite the ass off a bear.” As long as you have that spirit within you, you can prevail.

When I was in my mid 40s, I contracted hepatitis. It is a very dangerous disease and a lot of people die from it. It forced me to re-evaluate things.

I think survival mentality is a very powerful driver of how you see the prospect of life.

For most of my business career I was a guy in a blue suit, cufflinks and Hermes ties. And here you see me today in front of this camera with a privilege to come to work in blue jeans or khakis.

Funny thing is, I wake up earlier, I work harder and I work more than before. I am also more comfortable.

If I want to wear a blue suit, I’d do it. But now it’s my choice as opposed to it being forced upon me. The ability to control your time is extremely powerful.
I think the ability to work in a comfortable atmosphere and with good men and women is important.

As an entrepreneur, you’d rather be first in command on a small rowboat than be the second in command on the Queen Elizabeth II. You’ve got the whip in your hand. You can drive yourself, you can drive the community and that’s the greatest blessing you can have.

It’s also one of the real secrets of the American economy, the real driver is a small business man who has the power to fashion his own strategy, execute it and reap the benefits of it.

 

(15.35)

Rohan: What role has mentorship played in your life? What do you think about the Mentor and Mentee relationship?

JLM: I don’t think there’s been a minute in my life where I’ve not had a mentor. Nobody in my family had gone to college. And my mother never ever tolerated the notion that her children were not going to go to college.

My mother and father are the smartest people I have met in my life. The way they managed us, and our expectations, was beyond belief.
VMI has the most powerful leadership programme than you can imagine. There is one man in particular, who was the Commandant of Cadets – Colonel Buchanan.

He was a highly decorated army officer in the Korean War. He was an example for the kind of guys that VMI puts in contact with its cadets.

As a cadet I was a very good student, I was steered into it. In my first year I was the number on in my class, but I absolutely did know that could be the case.

I was the most surprised person when I saw all the A’s I got. This was because I was not striving to be number one; I was just trying to do my best.

When we went to army summer camp, I was a serious student but I was just a tolerable military cadet.

I did not think VMI was army. I did not shine my shoes, or have the closest haircut – I just got by. So this Commandant of Cadets called me in one day. I walked in and I saluted him. He said, “I just want to tell you just one thing. Don’t embarrass VMI at the summer camp this summer.” And I was so thoroughly pissed off and every thing I did that summer was with a resonation of his voice in my head. 

About 10000 cadets were graded at the same time in summer. And there I was number 1. The Commodore walked up behind my back and whispered in my ear – “Minch I knew you could do it”. He knew exactly what he had to tell me to motivate me.

The result from my side was genuine, real, sincere and as passionate as it can be. I was going to show him that he was wrong. And the entire time he was just playing me like a big fat trout, he knew exactly what he was doing.

Later on when I became a professional soldier, I would see him from time to time, we got to have a peer-to-peer relationship. It was one of the finest things in the world. He would say something like, “Minch, I knew what you did in summer camp, get those fires going”.

I had a partnership for 13 years. It was two guys doing business and shaking hands over a napkin. We made hundreds of millions of dollars of profit.

In that 13-year period we had one disagreement. We had a cup of coffee, next morning, and asked, “So what did you think?”. At the very same instant we both pointed out – “You were right”. When you think of that, you can’t imagine how perfect that fit was; it was totally serendipitous.

When we started that partnership, my partner was the financier. He knew his way around the capital markets and it was a perfect partnership. At the peak of it, we had 500 employees. We built a lot of projects together and in the whole time we did not have one cross word.

I look back now and that person is still a mentor to me. That relationship has been extremely valuable and extremely sacred. It’s been extremely productive, both ways.

I see him every 6 months or so to have a chat. He can make a critical assessment of anything I did and I can return that favour.

I invest a lot in that relationship. He was at an advantage when we started – he was the older guy by a few years. The relationship grew with us. When my son was born, he was the first guy to hold him.

So if you want to have a mentor relationship you have to seek out the right people. I am not buying anything about how it is a difficult process. Put yourself out there; get the best help you possibly can. Be humble. Be aggressive and ask for help from the people who can really help you. Be a mentor in return.

The other thing is being able to do it with humility. I was impressed with what I learnt about Mitt Romney’s personal generosity. I wish that he had become president, but he hasn’t. But, a guy like that who has left real footsteps with his character and wealth – that makes me feel real good about America. That is the American dream.

It is one of the amazing things in this world. The more that you give, the more you get – to be able to have a mentor-mentee relationship. Our relationship is just like that – to be able to learn so many things from each other.

It is something that’s very unique about the community that surrounds Fred Wilson at AVC.com. I think it starts with him and people like that are attracted to other people like that.

 

(26.03)

Rohan: What are a couple of your favourite hacks that make your day more productive?

JLM: When I was first in business we used green and white accounting paper for accounting. I used to think that the HP 12C calculator was really something!
In my lifetime I bought the first Apple II that was ever bought in Texas. And I used it to do interest rate calculations for high-rise office buildings. I could change interest rate assumptions in 45 seconds and the result would be on that screen.

Can you imagine saying to somebody today? – that your screen will change in 45 seconds? (haha) 

I am a bit of a gadget guy. I like everything about technology. I have a laptop, a smart phone, a tablet and a PC. I like productivity software – I am an Evernote slave!

There’s so much data which can give so much more information. Skype is amazing.

I think you should have your skills sharp and invest time in it. Everyone should have some quiet time as well. You have to go skiing, or spend an hour swimming, or do something else to refresh your brain. It’s unbelievable how productive you can become if you master that.

One of my theories around business is what I call a 360 degree business man.

You have to know everything about the business model that you are operating with, regulatory environment, leadership, management, legislation lobbying and on top all that you have to be able to master the technology. You have to be able to communicate. The reason being – you should understand all these little sensitivities until you have them on your fingertips.

I learnt how to fly an airplane when I was 50 years old. I don’t want to learn how to do it – I want to master it. I spent 250 hours and I took my test. The designated examiner who tested me said, “Are you sure you are here for this test?”. I think one of the things in my 360 degree businessman theory is mastery as opposed to familiarity.

If you do that, I think you will be in a position to prevail today.

 

(29.59)

Rohan: If there’s one idea that you’d like to share what would that be?

JLM: One of the great tragedies going on in the world right now is all of the war and horror. It’s going on in the Middle East, in the competition between us and China, us and Russia and all the millions being spent on weapons.

I have been a soldier; there is nothing obscene and degrading as competing in these kinds of things.

You take the macro layer of the problem and come to the micro level. And it gets down to something very simple. All of us get back what we invest.

The niceness, the courtesies, the humility that you personify and exhibit in personal relationships, comes back a thousand fold. The genuineness, the sincerity, and the authenticity that one brings to every relationship affect the value of that relationship.

Punctuality is the courtesy of kings because there’s nothing else they can really give. It seems to me as though we should be more humble and god-fearing about everything.

You may not think of that as being a business theory but really it is. It’s helpful whether you are dealing with failure or triumph – failure is tuition – doing the right thing and in the right way is the greatest contribution you can make to comity in general, to the sweetness of life.

It’s like the American Constitution. You are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nobody said you’re going to be guaranteed happiness but they did say that you can take a crack at getting it in your life. And that’s the humble approach to be taken for everything we do.


Thank you, JLM for that absolutely inspiring interview!

Real Leaders Team