Don’t wait. There will never be the perfect time. You’ll never have enough money, you’ll never be free of responsibilities, the economy will never be just right, etc. etc. Those are all just excuses. If you really believe that someday everything is going to be perfect, that the stars will all align in your favor, then forget being in business for yourself. You’ll never be ready and you should make alternative plans for your future.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ward Schraeder.
Necessity was more than the mother of invention for builder, businessman and venture capitalist Ward Schraeder. It was the catalyst that propelled him to a lifetime of achievements in seemingly unrelated ventures that, in reality, are all linked by the innate talents he possesses. Resourceful, relatable and determined, the Midwesterner literally created his hard-won success story with his own hands. A modern day Renaissance Man and Jack-of-all-Trades, this dedicated family man recently gained worldwide fame as co-star of the hit TV show Bargain Mansions on HGTV.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve asked myself this question several times and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t so much a particular career path design but more of a design for independence. I wanted my life to follow my own choices, win or lose. I never wanted to look back and say I wish I’d done that or I wish I’d done better.
The industry I chose was the one with the least resistance so let me explain that. I had very few financial resources but had spent 10 years building my resume. Maybe another way to think of it is I spent 10 years buying an inventory of goods that would apply to any industry. My inventory consisted of an education in fiscal responsibility, personnel management, inventory control, accounts receivable management, and a host of other necessities needed to run my own business as well as my professional life. I never set a goal to be a television personality on HGTV’s “Bargain Mansions” with my daughter Tamara Day, in fact my goal was to be an independent, self-motivated entrepreneur. My original independent career involved bankruptcy acquisitions and turnarounds and the first project surprisingly involved commercial real estate. This one success lead to turnaround efforts on 35 businesses and the development of 35 medical office buildings, surgery centers, assisted living facilities and acute care hospitals, many of which I still participate in both at the board and ownership level.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I started my entrepreneurial experience during the worst financial crisis of my lifetime. Most people today don’t realize that in the mid 80’s, the US went through a period of hyperinflation. To combat that inflation the government raised interest rates monthly.
As I look back, it was a fortunate set of circumstances that led me to start a new business and to build a new home at the same time as a major recession started. I could have called those decisions unfortunate, but I’ve never looked at things that way. When I started this entrepreneurial exercise, the interest rate on borrowed money was 8%. During the first year of building my business and building a new home, interest rates climbed 1% per month.
By the time interest rates peaked, home interest rates were 21%, and commercial borrowing was slightly higher. It came to the point where I had to tell the bank to take the house and effectively my business because they already had all of my money and I just couldn’t make the 21% interest payments. We negotiated the rate down to 15% which turned out to be survivable. I look back and think how happy I was when I negotiated it to 12% two years later. I laugh now because today’s rates are as ridiculously low as those were ridiculously high.
This experience taught me that even though there was unemployment as high as 25% in the manufacturing segment of the US economy, there was still 75% of the population working. Those 75% that were working needed products to work with. My well-conceived plan required a major overhaul to include finding those products and services that were needed by that working 75% and to be better at supplying them than anyone else. Through 18 months of hard work, I started a business from scratch and managed to build it into a success. Don’t tell me you can’t do it to. If I could so can you.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Maybe it came from my father who was not only my mentor but my high school science teacher. He taught me that anything a man dreams of can eventually be accomplished. Therefore, never give up on your dreams. I am supremely confident that there is nothing I can’t do if I want it badly enough.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
These are excellent questions that can be easily answered in hindsight. Success today is easier than before. When I tried to buy my first business it wasn’t possible for me to borrow any money. Banks kept telling me that I didn’t have enough assets, or experience for them to loan against. I kept saying if you don’t take a chance on me I can’t get the experience or develop the assets. The chicken or the egg concept. Today I can borrow more than I think I could pay back.
In the end, a person spends the first 15 years of their professional life building their credentials and the remainder of their professional life living off them.
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?
I think most of my friends would think I have a good sense of humor but I really can’t think of a mistake that I think was really funny or had a happy ending. What I can tell you is that my practical education in bankruptcy turnarounds taught me several good lessons and win or lose, they had happy endings. Maybe the best lesson is that it takes very few mistakes in the operations of a business to destroy a good business plan.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In real estate it is location that makes a property/person successful.
In a career it takes reputation to build a good career.
Today I get more offers to participate in a variety of businesses than I could ever participate in because of my business and personal reputation.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Know what you’re good at and surround yourself with the most talented people you can find that can fill your voids. This is true for any industry and I’m living proof. My holdings range from real estate, to oil, to hospitals, ASC’s, assisted living facilities, rocket engine development and satellite launch capabilities plus internet social media development, and agricultural holdings.
Who could be an expert with this much variety? I am surrounded by people that are more capable within these industries than I am. I may make these industries available to develop, but the truth is that surrounding myself with talented people makes it possible to develop these businesses into a success. Maybe one word be leadership, or another could be guidance.
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?
In addition to my father, in my youth I had several people that made an impact and may not have known it. My mother, my football coach, my algebra and chemistry teachers in college, my college counselor and my 6th grade teacher. Every single one of them impressed upon me that I was capable of doing anything I wanted to.
I attended grade school in a one room schoolhouse in western Kansas for my first few years of school. My teacher during those years wasn’t so complimentary. She, in fact, urged my parents to take me out of school because I wasn’t capable of learning. I harbor no ill will as even she motivated me to succeed by telling me I couldn’t. I hope no other child ever has to hear that from their teacher but for me it motivated me. I thank every one of them for the motivation they instilled in me.
I would be remiss in leaving out a key individual, a doctor by the name of Milo Sloo. We had barely met when he decided that I was a person worth taking a risk on. He helped me with my first business turnaround by investing both financially and professionally in me. Maybe I would have gotten to this point without him, but with him my career advanced exponentially. Thank you, Milo.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think I have brought goodness to the work. My success has allowed me to support several Christian schools and provide several scholarships. Certainly, my involvement in healthcare facilities has provided almost 2,000 jobs and healthcare for people in every walk of life.
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.
1. Employees are your biggest asset. Learn how to hire and how to motivate. Also realize that a motivated employee is usually one that likes their job. You can actually help an underperforming employee by coaching them in the job they are in or sometimes by coaching them into taking a different position within or even outside of your company. Maybe you could coach them into starting their own business. An unhappy employee is bad for your business and bad for them.
2. Choose a career path you’re passionate about. I was passionate about being an entrepreneur. Find what you like and go after it. Don’t let someone tell you that you can’t do it.
I have a friend whose parents were successful as employees for a big corporation and they expected him to follow in their footsteps. Instead, he started his own service business and even though he is making more than 3 times their income, and has plenty of time off, they still ask him when he is going to give up his business and get a real job. That type of attitude drives me crazy. Don’t listen to people that tell you what you can’t do.
3. I thought for a long time that I needed money to get started in my own business. I wish someone would have advised me differently because it absolutely is not true. I can name several successful independent career paths that require very little money. Insurance sales, real estate sales or real estate management immediately come to mind. These don’t require anything but long hours and some sweat equity.
Home remodeling. All this requires is a hammer and a saw. Every neighborhood in Kansas City is crying for a dependable handy man to do construction or repairs around their home. Start small and grow to be big.
I see opportunities everywhere for someone that wants to be honest and work hard.
4. I think every child has heard the saying “you are judged by who you hang around with.” It is true but I’d like to change it to:
My level of success will depend upon who I hang around with.
When I was a welder I made a very nice wage. So did my colleagues. But I was limited by the association with a great group of people that were making a living and nothing beyond. When I started dealing in commercial real estate, my friends became physicians who had wealth that I desired to emulate. Hanging around with them gave me insights and opportunities to succeed above and beyond an average income. My income subsequently started increasing. Hang around as many people as you can that have big ideas and a degree of success. It will rub off on you.
I think if I had done that from the beginning of my professional life and chosen a different career path, I would have been 10 years ahead professionally.
5. Don’t wait. There will never be the perfect time. You’ll never have enough money, you’ll never be free of responsibilities, the economy will never be just right, etc. etc. Those are all just excuses. If you really believe that someday everything is going to be perfect, that the stars will all align in your favor, then forget being in business for yourself. You’ll never be ready and you should make alternative plans for your future.
There is so much that I hope you can gather from the statements I’ve already made and so many things you’ll have to learn on your own. I hope I’ve encouraged some of you to step out and try. One of the most enjoyable things I do at this point in my life is mentoring a small group of young people. I have gotten to know them and even though they don’t necessarily see the vision yet, they are going to be successful beyond their wildest dreams. I hope they remember me when they are asked who influenced them in their lives.
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
I have actually tried to start a movement within my own grandchildren. I know I’m making an impression on some of them by inviting them to business meetings. My main desired movement is to talk them out of going to college. In my opinion, today’s colleges primarily prepare a young person to be an employee. Too many people come out of school with an exceptionally large debt and limited-to-no practical skills.
On the other hand, I am a big proponent of technical schools for all types of careers. It could be as simple as electrical school or plumbing school, but it could also be accounting school or business administration. We already have this type of technical education for doctors, lawyers, etc. so why not specifically condense this education into a more career-oriented path?
I agree that colleges do provide some of this education but with a greater diversity of other elective educational interests, and of course a lot of debt. College was a great part of my life and maybe more fun and carefree than I’ve ever had since, but it allowed me to acquire a job with my chemistry degree that I used only marginally in my early career and totally unnecessary in my later life. Our youth could and would be better served by a special office type of education.
I haven’t shared my professional story out of ego. I’ve shared it because I truly want all of you to think about the success you could have if you take that first dangerous step to be in business for yourself. Maybe you have to get to the point that I did. I came home and told my family that I didn’t care if I had to dig ditches for a living as long as I was doing it for myself, because I wasn’t going back to work for anyone else ever again.