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Mike Otis: “Leadership is servanthood”

A young man we hired was forced to live in a short-term motel for a time, and they were taking advantage of him. He told me of his newborn’s health issues and the need for the baby to remain in the hospital for months. I owned some real estate at the time, so I offered […]

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A young man we hired was forced to live in a short-term motel for a time, and they were taking advantage of him. He told me of his newborn’s health issues and the need for the baby to remain in the hospital for months. I owned some real estate at the time, so I offered a house for him to stay temporarily to help him get back on his feet. The temporary stay turned long-term as we learned he was also battling the Department of Health & Human Services for custody of his three other children. With his housing secured and a steady income, he won his kids back from foster care, and now his significant other and four children live together in the house. We talk about Double O as a family business, and we were there for him. We are there for one another.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Otis. Mike is the president of Double O, which specializes in commercial glazing, window and door. Inc. magazine named Double O to its list of 5,000 fastest-growing privately held companies in the U.S. for three straight years (2014–2016). Forbes later named it to its 2020 list of “Small Giants,” which recognizes businesses that prioritize greatness over fast growth. Guided by “The Great Game of Business,” Mike is intentionally creating a company where people love to work.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My dad left behind a decent amount of unfinished glass installation and glazing projects when he unexpectedly died in 1983. I was 24 at the time, and I didn’t know much about the work aside from watching my father and handing him tools now and then over the course of his career.

Well, I learned how to fill every one of those orders, and then I found myself bringing in my own business. That led to more firsts, including dealing with wholesalers for the material. I remember thinking to myself after one of those early calls, “I think I just started a company, but I’m not quite sure.”

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I went to sell my first commercial glazing business in 1996 after it started earning real money. It was the first time I had ever sold a company, and the contract contained more holes than a loaf of Swiss cheese. My legal counsel at the time vehemently argued against it. I signed the deal anyway, and the new owner ran up so many lawsuits and unpaid bills that I was forced to declare bankruptcy. It shook me to the core, and it took me a long time to get to where I was comfortable taking on any overhead again. Fourteen years after getting off the ground, we landed on Inc. magazine’s list of the 5,000 fastest-growing companies in America. We stayed on that list for three straight years (2014–2016).

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In 2000, right as Double O was starting to gain momentum, I placed an order for windows with a company in New York with which I had never worked before. They required something like 20,000 dollars down, so I paid the bill and awaited delivery. Days turned into weeks, and I finally learned that the company went bankrupt. I tracked down the individual components and ordered them directly. As you can imagine we had zero time to waste. So, we built a makeshift assembly line in our driveway with neighborhood kids cutting parts with chop saws. The amazing part is that I made even more profit on the job than I would have had the bankrupt company built the windows!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

I love renovating cool old buildings to their former greatness, to pay respect to those who came before us. When we finally outgrew our first shop in 2014, we looked to where we could offer the most consequential impact on the community as far as job creation and renovation aesthetics. We see that when people fix up their property, neighbors tend to fix up theirs. We found a spot in the most economically challenged ZIP code in Grand Rapids, Mich., which experienced unemployment as high as 35% before COVID-19.

We refurbished a 37,000-square-foot dilapidated warehouse, using about half the space for our business and leasing the rest to a local nonprofit that worked with local underprivileged kids. We relocated the company again in 2018 to a 40,000-square-foot facility in the same ZIP code, and the nonprofit has since taken over the entire building. That building is now known as The Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation, and it is making a huge impact.

Can you tell us a story about an individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

A young man we hired was forced to live in a short-term motel for a time, and they were taking advantage of him. He told me of his newborn’s health issues and the need for the baby to remain in the hospital for months. I owned some real estate at the time, so I offered a house for him to stay temporarily to help him get back on his feet. The temporary stay turned long-term as we learned he was also battling the Department of Health & Human Services for custody of his three other children. With his housing secured and a steady income, he won his kids back from foster care, and now his significant other and four children live together in the house. We talk about Double O as a family business, and we were there for him. We are there for one another.

Double O isn’t just about selling windows or making money. We really try to restore people’s lives.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

1. Government needs to recognize that the needs of locals do not always align with their zoning restrictions and regulations. Grand Rapids was ready to approve a cannabis dispensary near a nonprofit that helps inner-city youth recover from substance abuse. How in the world does that transform the most economically challenged area in Grand Rapids?

2. When economic development funds become available, why do they always go to big business first and not the little guy who is struggling? The people most often in need of support never get it. The government needs to address how it administers economic development funds. They need to go to those who best know how to solve problems, not to those who can easily boost employment numbers so politicians look good.

3. Big government data often hurt more than it can help. When politicians want to help, they don’t know-how. They generally lose themselves in “solutions” that sound good but do nothing other than drive up expenses. They either need to focus on the stuff that matters or get out of the way and allow local development organizations that are close to the issues to manage the solutions.

How do you define “Leadership?” Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is servanthood. How do I serve others so they can be successful? Once they succeed, they can then in turn help others to reach their potential. It’s a virtuous circle at Double O.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Do your due diligence. My heart wasn’t in the right place when I sold my first business in 1996. I heard what I wanted to hear and didn’t listen to my advising attorney.

2. Delegate. I recognize that I can’t accomplish much in life on my own, but only with the help of others.

3. Stay out of the details. Hire competent talent and let them manage the day-to-day responsibilities instead of micromanaging. It’s a big part of us starting the transition to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan.

4. Open the books to your team. A lack of information leads to incorrect assumptions. Often folks think that if someone owns a business, they’re already wealthy when in truth we’re operating on 5 to 7% margins with a line of credit. When the team really knows where we are financially, we can better focus on reaching our collective goals.

5. Lighten up. It was so liberating to me when I recognized that I could endure bankruptcy, and it wasn’t the end of the world. I felt miserable when I thought I had failed when surviving failure shapes how we face life’s challenges. Double O hit Inc.’s fastest-growing companies list for three straight years, and now we’re transitioning to the ESOP. That would have never happened without the lessons learned by hitting bottom.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

You can truly create a company where people love to work! We all need to earn a living somewhere for a significant portion of our lives, and we shouldn’t dread going into our jobs. We can care about employees, listen to their opinions and respect them. Often employers hire people from the neck down as a commodity to deliver a return on financing. We hire them for their entire mind and body.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

If —

By Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;

If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to enjoy a meal with any of the five current and former living presidents. The media filter everything they say, for good or ill. How cool would it be to have some private time with one of them and hear their unfiltered stories to learn how they really tick?

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.linkedin.com/company/double-o-supply-&-craftsmen-inc./
https://www.facebook.com/DoubleOsupply
https://www.instagram.com/doubleooinc/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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