Opinion: 'Do what you love, or you're a fool,' entrepreneur says


The following are excerpts from a conversation between entrepreneur Ray Newkirk and Jeff Prouty at The Prouty Project. It’s part of an occasional opinion series on BringMeTheNews, in partnership with Prouty, featuring insights from business leaders.

Prouty: We often say that every strategy session needs an “artist, musician, and scientist.” It sure was fun to catch up to Ray Newkirk, super entrepreneur and super photographer, to hear his thinking about life and business. We’ve had the opportunity to work with Ray over the past 20 years as a long-time investor and board member for one of our clients. Enjoy the excerpts from a lively two-hour conversation:

Ray, what inspired you to become an entrepreneur?

Newkirk: I lived in a town of about 300. Dexter, Minnesota. Every day, I walked by the home of an entrepreneur, and saw his nice house, with the Cadillac sitting in the driveway. This always stuck in my mind, and I knew I could be as good a business person as he was.

Any advice for the 22-year-old thinking about starting a business?

Success is in direct proportion to sacrifice. Each business has its own quirks, and you have to be willing to make sacrifices. Be patient. Look way out, and remember there is no instant gratification.

What is your proudest moment in business?

There have been many — recognized as an Entrepreneur of the Year, graduating from Harvard’s OPM Program, selling a very successful business at age 45, being awarded 10 patents, moving Teamvantage into a new 110,000-square-foot building – but the greatest feeling is seeing employees grow to be very successful.

I’m also very proud that I’ve been married to Nylene for 52 years.

What about the biggest mistakes you have made and the learnings?

My biggest mistakes have been believing in certain people. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have trusted as much, or I didn’t dig deep enough into their backgrounds, and I’ll continue to make these mistakes, I’m sure. I trust people until they give me a reason not to.

Someone once shared this line with me: “The difference between a good decision and a bad decision, is how hard you’re willing to work to turn a bad decision into a good decision.”

Today you have two businesses with 225 employees. What have been your keys to success?

The difference between me and a lot of people—I don’t have a lot of toys. My toys are the businesses.

My biggest pleasure is helping people grow. If the business grows, people grow. If people grow, the business grows.

You’re 71 years old today. You sold your first business in 1987 at the age of 45, and went to Arizona to learn to be a photographer (see some of Newkirk's photos at bottom). What’s the rest of the story?

When I sold the business, I decided to do what I might have done when I was 18 years old. I wanted to be a photographer, but I found myself bored after six years of photography. Photography became like bowling for me — I’m here to have fun, but not here to make a living.

In 1993, I lost both of my parents, my father-in-law, and my aunt. At one of the four funerals, I told myself at the church, “If you’re not doing what you really love, you’re a damn fool.”

Photography was just filling my time. Photography was a very individual experience. And I kept asking myself, “Have I done anything for anybody else today?”

At the age of 51, I decided to get back into the game of business, and acquired a company. Twenty years later, I continue to be very excited about the future.

What’s your prognosis for 2014 and beyond?

I think we’re in the midst of a technology revolution. There is tremendous opportunity for young people. Learning how to implement this new technology in our everyday lives. How we buy, how we ship, wearable technology, drones, it’s endless.

And to think I paid $3K for a fax machine in 1986!

What do you like to do for fun?

We have a busy social life, friend going back as far as high school, two kids (ages 50 and 51) and four grandkids (ages 22 – 28). I also love to hunt, fish, and golf.

What do you see as your role in the businesses over the next decade or two, between ages 71 and 91?

My goal is to motivate our team, and try to stay out in front 3-5 years. There’s plenty to do looking way out into the future. If I’m healthy, I’m going to be in the business.

Any advice for other 71-year-olds?

Live the moment. Do what you enjoy doing. Remember, it’s not about what you have, it’s about doing things for other people. It’s not about one more toy.

How about advice for other board members?

Spend your time on boards where you can make a real contribution.

Any big adventures planned for 2014?

On the business front, getting one of my businesses moved to a new 40,000-square-foot facility.

Do you have a “bucket list?”

Yes, I want to drive to Alaska, leave the vehicle, and then fly back and forth for 3-4 week segments in Alaska. Fishing, hunting, taking friends along the way to join me.

I also want to get back to Africa and float the Grand Canyon with my family.

And, I want to keep visiting companies. I enjoy learning about what other companies are doing.

Any folks who have inspired you along the way as an entrepreneur?

I’m intrigued by two football quarterbacks, Terry Bradshaw and Brett Favre. They’d get beat up, stay in the game, and then show up the next week and do it all over again.

As an entrepreneur, it takes some inner strength to stay in the game and we get beat up a lot. Stress is unavoidable and we have to learn how to deal with it.

I do know, however, if I lost everything tomorrow, I know how to start over. I spend a lot of time in my car so I have a lot of time to think about things. I don’t worry about the future, I’m mentally prepared and I have lots of ideas.

I always remind myself about the fun, the fun is the journey. “Half the fun of having something is the time you spend wanting it.”

A few of Newkirk's photos:

Jeff Prouty founded the Prouty Project in 1987 after seven years with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Minneapolis and New York City. He specializes in working with senior management teams and Boards of directors on strategic planning and team issues.

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