Know your weaknesses and have a plan to address them: This goes for weaknesses in the company as well as personal weaknesses as the owner. It’s not a weakness, per se, but I’m an introvert. And that can be an issue when you are in sales. But I know that about myself and can, for the most part, rise to the occasion. However, there are others who are better with people than I am. So it is imperative for me to recognize where we can be stronger as a company and put someone who is better suited for the task. If I do that across every aspect of our company we will be the strongest we can be.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Trip Wheeler. Trip is the President of SB Value, a group purchasing program designed to reduce catering, kitchen and food-service costs by leveraging the collective buying power of thousands of companies.
Thank you so much for joining us Trip! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started in the sports world, both selling sponsorships and consulting for F500 companies on how to use sports to grow their businesses. I was able to work with some really great brands and very smart people for more than 20 years, and I learned a ton.
I’d been involved with sports for a long time and had just landed a big job starting a sports division for a large marketing firm. Then the 2008 great recession happened. For most it was a very troubling time, but for me it was a launching pad into my first entrepreneurial gig. After the 2008 fallout, sports sponsorship became anathema to the public at large and for good reason. Companies who were laying off thousands could not be seen hobnobbing with celebrities and professional athletes at the local golf tournament. So for me, there was going to be nothing to do until the economy improved. Seeing the writing in the wall, I called my boss, had an honest conversation and offered my resignation. I really liked him and did not want him to have to fire me because business had dried up.
So, I’m free from working for a big company for the first time since I graduated college. I had done a lot of work around NASCAR and my father was a big figure in the space. Talking with him, I realized there were thousands of smaller racetracks across the country with attendance that surpassed both the NBA and the NFL. The light bulb moment occurred when I realized that if I could group the tracks together, I could offer big sponsors an avenue to millions of sports fans spread across the country…and I could do it for a fraction of what they were paying the big sports properties (NFL, NBA, PGA, NCAA, etc).
With an idea in hand we get to work. The company was called Speedway Benefits. I got funding, assembled a team of 25 and we signed up the top 400 tracks in the country. We did tons of research. I built all the marketing materials and started calling sponsors. Then…thud. Nothing happened. Sponsors were not interested. They loved the demographic of the fan base ,but where we failed was to assume that sponsors would appreciate the authentic and simple nature of the marketing — sampling, couponing, trackside billboards. Our tracks did not have much social media or TV — which is what every sponsor wanted. So after two years and a huge investment, we pulled the plug.
But, there was a silver lining. We also offered our tracks opportunities to save money by grouping their spends together to create leverage. One such offering was a food program. We called all the major food distributors and they said what we represented was a GPO or group purchasing organization. This was 2013 and I’d never heard of a GPO. We interviewed all the GPOs and brought our tracks in. It was such a fantastic program that when we shut down the sponsorship side we moved 100% into recruiting companies into the food GPO.
Since then we have worked with yacht clubs, private country clubs and dude ranches. But it was a call to Meryl Snow back in 2016 that set us on the path we are on today. Meryl liked our idea and helped us meet the ICA (International Caterers Association) and some very influential caterers. We entered into a partnership with the ICA and we could not be happier.
To date we have 500 caterers enjoying the benefits of the program and hope to sign up the entire industry in the next few years. There are an estimated 10,000 caterers who spend more than $2 billion on food each year. Our average savings is 16% so caterers are over-spending on their food by $400 million. It is our job to help them save that $400 million.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Speedway Benefits was about six months old when I realized we were burning through our cash much faster and revenue was much slower than I anticipated due to lack of interest from sponsors. I was half a million in the hole with nothing on the immediate horizon. We started to value engineer as much as we could. I threw more ideas at the tracks to see if we might develop services that could keep us afloat until I figured out the sponsorship issues, but nothing seemed to work.
It was then that I started to pay more attention to the food program. We had just signed up a special event company who was blown away by the savings and, for the first time, made me realize we needed to focus more on the food program. So we did. We signed up a few golf courses, then a museum, then a country music promoter. Two years after we had started Speedway Benefits, I realized we were selling the right product but to the wrong segment.
In the summer of ’16, we shut down the racing side of Speedway Benefits and started a new brand, SB Value to sell the food program to other business segments.
Looking back, the key for me was sticking with it until we figured out where we could be successful. If we had run out of money, we would have been sunk. If we had not paid attention to what was working/where people saw value we would have failed. It was sticking with it and opening my eyes to see the opportunity where it was previously hidden. I have grown to love a quote from Winston Churchill who said “Success is defined as moving from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” This is the absolute truth.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Fear. 100% fear. Yes, I was excited about what my new idea could be and the lifestyle it would afford me. But when things got tough, it was fear of returning to corporate America that scared me into success. There is nothing wrong with corporate America, but for me, working for someone else was paralyzing. To be the best version of myself I needed the freedom to do what I thought was right. I needed to know that whether I succeeded or not was 100% on me. I knew I could do it, I just needed the latitude to find out.
So, how are things going today? How did Grit lead to your eventual success?
It’s going very well and it gets better every day. We have a solid base of happy clients and we learn each year what works and what does not. All we need to do is what we are doing now (offering a stellar product and equally good customer service), keep trying new things and not being afraid to fail.
The hard times teach you the most. You just have to live long enough to see what the silver lining was. For me it taught me that creativity and hard work can solve virtually every problem you face.
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?
We were in the very early stages of staring the company — interviewing, hiring, talking to prospective partners, doing research, building marketing plans… It was absolute chaos.
I was terrified that we’d launch this fantastic idea but with a limited staff we would not be able to handle all the incoming calls. I thought I’m going to get this started and we are going to fail because we can’t handle all the incoming calls from tracks and sponsors. We spent a lot of money customizing our CRM program. I spent months customizing how it would automate the customer service experience allowing our small staff to handle hundreds and hundreds of new clients.
We launch, and we are all sitting around waiting to pounce on all the calls that come in. Ah, nothing. No one called. It was more like a slow drip than the title wave I expected.
I learned not to anticipate so much. Of course you have to plan, but now I wait for a problem to arise before I spend a lot of time and money on a problem that does not even exist.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’ve sold a lot of different things in my career. I sold hamburgers for a summer. I sold cars during college. I’ve sold more than 100 million in sponsorships. But I’ve never had a product that had no downside. With our program you save on your food. That’s it. You don’t even pay for the service. We get paid by the manufactures for bringing them so much volume.
Ironically, the no downside aspect ends up being an issue in the sales process. We are all so cynical we assume if something seems too good to be true, it is. Skepticism is our biggest competitor. We spend a lot of time reassuring clients that there will be no downside. And this takes trust.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Balance. I have no patience. None. So I have to remind myself that all of this is not going to happen today. I need to do what I can today but also take time to get outside. If I do that, I am good tomorrow. If I am unbalanced I am NOT the best I can be the company suffers. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I need in order to be the best version of myself. It may sound selfish, but this is the most valuable time I spend every week.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My wife and my parents of course. But Clint Elkins, our head of sales is truly my partner. He and I came up with the Speedway Benefits idea. Clint, at the time, operated a successful racetrack in NC. All he’d ever done was run a track. When I told him we were going to switch 100% to selling a food program and he was going to our head of sales, he said he had two problems with that: 1) he knew nothing about food and 2) had never been a salesman. Clint is very smart and is incredible with people. In 2016, I told Clint he was going to be the best salesman I’d ever seen, and three years later that is the truth. Clint and I work very well together. We have a lot of mutual respect and we are intellectually on par. I am an idea factory and Clint is very good at helping me understand what ideas are worth pursuing and which are not. I am blessed to work with Clint, he is truly instrumental to our success.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When we decided to start SB Value, we agreed that if all we did was sell a food program we would be a failure. We had to embed ourselves into the catering industry not just sell to it. We had to do whatever we could to strengthen the industry and the caterers in it. The stronger the industry, the stronger we would be. We have been honored to work with Lon Lane at the ICAEF and sponsor their sponsorship programs. We also work with the Search Foundation and the ICA. Our future is 100% dependent on how can strengthen the catering industry.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- It’s going to cost twice as much and take twice as long: Actually, people told me it would take longer and cost more than I hoped, but they did not say it would be as bad as it was. Without the experience it was hard to understand what the reality would be versus what my dreams were. And it was really easy to discount those giving advice as “they did not know enough to give good advice”. But for every reader out there, your vision of the truth is not the truth. Life will get in the way. No one will care about your idea as much as you do, so you to have to build in “runway” for people to gain passion for your idea. And the longer the runway, the more cash you need to have on hand to stay in business long enough for people to “get it”. I’ll say this, it is better to have cash surplus on hand when you start making a profit. Not having enough will immediately kill your dream. Don’t fail because failed to plan.
- Managing people is the hardest part: I had a good idea. I got funding. I knew how to market and to sell. But I had never managed such a diverse crowd and it was all-encompassing. Yes, I knew the basics but getting everyone on the same page with the same goal was very difficult. I wish I had thought more about my management strategy before we launched as it would have given me more time to focus on sales.
- It’s hard to get your audience to engage: Our idea was solid. I can rationally explain the idea and virtually everyone told me the idea was good. But what I failed to do was realize that people are busy with their lives. They have sick kids, birthday parties to attend, their car needs an oil change, they get distracted…even the best ideas get lost in the murkiness of life’s issues. You need a lot of time to get your idea in front of your audience and for them make the conscience decision to think about your idea. Then, and only then, will they consider whether it’s worth spending time on.
- Use influencers: We did a lot of marketing early on that flopped. Looking back, we were telling our story and we needed someone independent to tell our story for us. While a commercial for a new car can get information to you, you are more likely to believe your best friend if they tell you about the same car. Why — because you trust your friend. Once we got a small base of influencers on board, we asked them to share our story through our advertising. As soon as we did that everything took off. Our product is solid and our customer service is as well. But we can’t say that as we are promoting ourselves. When a customer says it, the audience believes them.
- Know your weaknesses and have a plan to address them: This goes for weaknesses in the company as well as personal weaknesses as the owner. It’s not a weakness, per se, but I’m an introvert. And that can be an issue when you are in sales. But I know that about myself and can, for the most part, rise to the occasion. However, there are others who are better with people than I am. So it is imperative for me to recognize where we can be stronger as a company and put someone who is better suited for the task. If I do that across every aspect of our company we will be the strongest we can be.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
One huge idea is education. I think the easiest way to solve virtually every solvable problem is education. If you can train someone to get a better job, they can end generational poverty. If you can help someone understand their natural God-given abilities, you can help steer them into jobs where success will come easier than a job where their talents don’t match up with the job requirements.
Good decisions lead to good outcomes. Being better educated can lead to better decisions and thus better outcomes. Learning how to be a better parent can bring down the cases of child neglect. Being better educated on how to deal with the pressures of drugs and alcohol can lead to less dependency and all the associated problems of substance abuse. Education will not cure everything, but it is the basis from which we can solve a lot of solvable problems.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!