John founded a professional services company in 1984 focused on energy conservation, inspections, and design work for large companies. He eventually grew the company to 43 employees and $13 million in sales and sold to Eclipse Combustion for $10 million in 2011.
Since selling the business, he has taken on specific consulting projects to keep himself active and in the loop. I met John at a happy hour gathering in Akron, Ohio, of small business folks on Twitter and around Ohio. We shared a beer and chatted all things building a team, growing a business and life after a sale.
His journey of being a founder and selling his business is the other side of the table from many of our podcast guests who acquired the business they run. John’s story is filled with all the trials and triumphs of growing a business from scratch and creating a life changing outcome for your family. And I had a lot of fun recording this conversation. Over the course of the episode, we talk about reinventing yourself repeatedly, creating a saleable business, courage as a muscle that can be developed, and a few horror stories.
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(4:11) – John’s background and career
(12:05) – What does an energy conservation audit look like?
(13:11) – How long were you working before you could bring in a team to help you?
(15:09) – Was there a point where you could accelerate the growth of your team?
(24:29) – How did your day to day and the perspective of your business change when you hit that period of hyper growth?
(29:03) – Courage is a muscle that can be developed over time
(33:26) – John’s Pivot into creating a Sale-able business
(41:32) – What changes occurred in your life after selling the business?
(48:52) – Horror Stories of the business
(53:59) – What college class would you teach if it could be about anything?
(55:31) – What’s a strongly held belief you’ve changed your mind on?
(56:59) – What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
(58:10) – Wrap up
Alex Bridgeman: Thanks John, for coming on the podcast. It was fun to meet you in Akron, Ohio, with Kelsey and John Wilson. That was really fun. It was great to hear a little bit about what you’ve been working on, and I’m excited to have it on the podcast. Would you walk us through your background and the business you started and sold and what you’ve been working on today?
John Puskar: Sure. Pleasure to meet you as well. It was really exciting to see all the energy in the room. It was exciting to interface with a bunch of folks from all over the country that apparently just got there by Twitter. So, I learned a lot there. And even just preparing for this podcast has been a pleasure; I’ve learned a lot. I’m a mechanical engineer by background. I’m from Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown, Ohio, is a little gritty steel town about 65 miles southeast of Cleveland, Ohio, smack dab in the middle between Cleveland, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. I’m from an immigrant family. I’m first generation. My dad came over from Slovakia in 1949, my mother and sisters in ’56, then I was born in ’58. So I feel like I’m more of a seasoned interview than I’ve seen. Am I one of the oldest? Am I setting a record here? 63?
Alex Bridgeman: I think you are probably top ten.
John Puskar: Yeah. Okay, gotcha. All right, I’ll do my best to blend in. I do have two younger sons, 34 and 31. Some of that will rub off as we go, I’m sure. Got a degree in mechanical engineering back in 1981 from Youngstown State University. I worked full-time, went to school at night. There weren’t a lot of choices for where to go to college. I got my first real job at Standard Oil of Ohio. I was a senior energy systems engineer. And in fact, it’s funny because I remember my boss sitting there interviewing me, and he looked over at me and said, “Youngstown State, wow, how’d you pick Youngstown State? Huh. I’ve been interviewing people from MIT, Stanford, Cornell. The whole world was your oyster and you picked Youngstown State.” And it was at that time that I realized I was different. At least I was different there because frankly I hadn’t realized people had choices for where to go to college. I worked full-time, went to school at night I mentioned. It was the only place I could afford, the only place my family could afford. It was a commuter school. So, I joined Standard Oil. That was very cool. And it was back during the energy crisis. So, energy costs were skyrocketing, natural gas prices were going out of sight. We were the guys who – I don’t mean we, because it wasn’t me – but that company is the company who found the Prudhoe Bay Oil reservoir and created the Alaska pipeline situation of the eighties, where we were able to move that oil from the north slope back down to the lower 48. It was a great company to work for. They were flush with cash, and I’ve got one of the highest starting salaries of anybody in my class. They did a lot of training for us. It was just a great place to work. I also got to do things that I loved, which was energy conservation on chemical plants and refineries, very large equipment, very cool stuff. While there, for my entire three-year corporate life, I finished an MBA from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a Harvard of Cleveland area. I say that tongue in cheek because after I left there, I ran into a recruiter because a recruiter from there, and I was struggling in my new business and I thought, oh, it’d be nice to get one of those kush corporate jobs that people with Stanford, MIT MBAs get at Standard Oil of Ohio. And even though I knew this person and they came out of engineering, and they were now recruiting, they said, “I’m sorry, we don’t, we really don’t go as low as to try to recruit MBAs from Case Western.” I thought, wow, okay then, I guess I’ll just keep going with the business. So, at the ripe old age of 26, 27, I can’t remember exactly, I left that big plush corporate job, went to work for a small mechanical contractor. I wanted to start my own business, didn’t quite know how, and the gentleman there at the time – it was a company of about 10 to 12 people – said, “Why don’t you join this company? It’s owned by my uncle. He wants to get out. You and I could be running the business here very shortly.” So, I had an agreement that within 12 months I’d be able to start buying into the company. And after a year, I would be a part owner and that was going to be my path. After about 11 months, I went to the owner and said, “Hey, remember we had this agreement, we were supposed to talk about how I was going to be able to start to buy in and be your partner?” And he said, “Oh, oh yeah. Oh, that’s right. That’s right. I’ll get back to you on that, Okay?” “Sure. That’s fine. Yeah, no hurry. We got another month to go.” So, two weeks later, I was there on a Saturday, and there’s a knock on the door and a gentleman answered and said, “Hi, I’m going to be your new partner. I’m the owner’s son.” And I didn’t even know the owner had a son. And I tried to make that work, but as we went on, it was very clear we didn’t have the same view of what it was going to take to make a business successful. And finally, he turned to me one day and he said, “Listen, things are going to get ugly between us if you continue to be up my ass because I’m not going to work like my dad did. My dad worked himself to the bone. That’s not what I’m all about.” And I looked at him in the eye and I said, “You know what then, this isn’t going to work. Here, let me shake your hand, let me shake your dad’s hand, and good luck to you guys.” So, at that point, I was kind of unemployed. My wife at the time was also laid off from the Cleveland Clinic, and I decided that, okay, both of us are unemployed, this is the time I need to just go out on my own and start my own business. So, I contacted my old employer. He said, “You must be contacting me because you’re groveling to get your job back. Pretty tough out there, isn’t it?” And I said, “No, I don’t want my job back. But if you’ve got some hours, I could work.” So he got me as many hours as I wanted to work at an hourly rate. I then scraped together client by client, little projects here and there. Basically, I was doing anything engineering wise that anybody would pay me any amount of money to do. And that launched my first business CEC Consultants, and CEC was Commercial Energy Conservation. So that’s what I was about at the time. It was what I knew about from the corporate world.
Alex Bridgeman: So, what kind of work is that?
John Puskar: So that was doing energy audits and doing energy conservation projects for mostly commercial facilities. I had a contract with the Cleveland public schools to do energy audits of 60 schools, did energy projects for hospitals. I was doing green before green was a concept and it was cool. I will tell you, though, doing green at the time, even though energy costs were out of sight, I was starving. It really didn’t matter if I could tell someone that I could save them a boatload of money and they’d get their money back within six months, people just really had a hard time spending money for an energy conservation project, believe it or not.
Alex Bridgeman: So, what does an energy audit look like? What types of data or equipment are you looking at?
John Puskar: So, you crawl around a facility and you build a model of how they’re using energy. All the electricity that comes in the building, where does it go? What percentage is used for lighting, for cooling, for running fans, pumps, process equipment. Same with the natural gas bill – what amount is going for space heating? What might be going for process uses? Then you try to find priorities within which it would make sense to apply some new technologies maybe, sometimes some low cost, no cost things like piping insulation, variable frequency drives, more efficient burners on boilers. You create a strategy for how to do that, you present it in terms of a written document, and then if the client should choose, you help to project manage the actual implementation and validation of what the strategy was.
Alex Bridgeman: And so how long did you start taking on these clients by yourself before you hired help or had someone come in and assist you in these projects?
John Puskar: That’s a good question. And I’ve often told people that running a professional services business on your own is very much like being a pizza shop owner. I’ve used this pizza shop owner model to frame this for many people; let me do it here for the audience. So, you are like really good at making pizzas, right? And I was really good at doing energy audits. So, for a period of time, I’m back in the kitchen making the pizzas. But while I’m making the pizzas, there’s no one out dragging customers in off the street. There’s no one cleaning up the shop. So, I have to like put a pizza in the oven, I have to run outside, drag people in, and I have to clean up after the last group. It’s really tough. I can’t really sell a lot of pizzas that way. So, you’ve got to drag in other people who could do some of those other functions, either somebody to stand out in the street and drag people in or somebody who’s going to do some of the grunt work of the cleaning up, or somebody who’s going to cook. All of those roles are okay. Some are more difficult than others, and it gets to be kind of like what you can afford at the time based on the type of customers you have. My first hire was actually a cousin of mine, a distant cousin. He also graduated in mechanical engineering at Youngstown State. I had looked to him to be somewhat sympathetic about some of the conditions I had, like when I could pay him, the fact that he would be working out of the upstairs of my house with little kids screaming downstairs, the fact that we had very limited equipment. So those were the struggles in the beginning.
Alex Bridgeman: So, it sounds like you’ve made hires when you’re able to afford to make hires. Was there a point that you felt in the business where there was an acceleration of your ability to build a team where you didn’t have to starve yourself as you built up your team where maybe it happened a little bit more naturally and smoothly?
John Puskar: Where I went is that it took a series of reinventions of myself and what we were trying to do. I’m going to talk about this theme a couple of times. There’s always the belief that if you work hard enough at something, no matter what it is, you can succeed. It’s like America and apple pie, right? Could you not believe that? But Alex, if I told you at five foot seven and age 63, I’m going to be an NBA player because, really, if I just work hard enough, I would hope that after a month in the gym of me being all worn out and beat up, I would hope you’d look at me and go, “Hey, John, it’s really cool that you’re really like knocking yourself out, but listen, you got to accept some reality, okay, at some point here. I’m not trying to be a Debbie downer, but John, you’re only five seven and you’re 63.” So, at some point, you’re in the energy conservation business and you’re saying, wow, we’re really working hard, but we don’t seem to be getting any place. So there gets to be an art for listening to yourself and looking at the doors that the universe seems to be opening for you, and you have to listen to other people at some point. You have to temper a little bit of your vision with some of the reality of your wife’s not able to shop at the decent grocery stores and you’re embarrassed, so it’s about time you actually try to listen and maybe try something else. So, we started doing work for architects. That was the first reinvention. There were some really neat buildings being built. There was a shortage of people who could do the mechanical electrical plumbing system designs. We met a couple of these architects. A couple of them were just going into business for themselves. The first big project in that area was the Animal Protective League in Cleveland, Ohio, with a couple of people that ended up being lifelong buddies. I still know them to this day. They still run the same business, Dave Boosty and Ron Malcovich, Malcovich and Boosty Architects[RD1] [JP2] [JP3] . We were still doing some energy work but reinvented ourselves to become designers of mechanical- So the architect would draw the shell of the building, and we would lay out the bathrooms, the plumbing systems, the heating and air conditioning systems, the electrical systems. So, a general contractor would build out what the architect put, and then other contractors, a mechanical, electrical, plumbing contractor would follow our plans to make the building complete and functional. So, we did that for a while, picked up a couple more employees. I think I was up to three or four people at the time, and that was going well. There was then an opportunity to start doing some industrial work. When we got relationships with East Ohio Gas, which was the natural gas local distribution company, there were a number of Ford Motor Company plants in the greater Cleveland area, and they introduced me to some of those folks. And I started to begin to reacquaint myself with some of the work I was doing at Standard Oil, work on large boilers, large steam systems, and it fit well with the auto plant. So again, there was a re-invention into doing a similar type of work we did for architects but now for very large auto plants. And this was all over the country. So now I went from three or four people to six or seven people, and now the practice was broader – some energy conservation work, some design work for architects, and then this industrial work. And that was fine, but it was still a struggle. I wasn’t making as much as the peers that I left at Standard Oil. And I had probably now been into this about 10 years, and you start to really wonder when is my ship going to come in? I know other guys who started businesses, they’re doing much better than I am. Oh my God, I’m working like 24/7. When I’m not working, I’m thinking about it. How does this ever change? Then February 1st of 1999, it changed. I was doing work for Ford Motor Company, and on that date, they had a horrible, catastrophic explosion at the Rouge River Complex, which is basically Henry Ford’s vision of modern industrial manufacturing. Down along the Rouge River, he had a facility that employed at its peak 50,000 people a day. They had their own power plant, their own steel facility, stamping plants, glass plants, assembly plants, engine plants. The idea was to bring in raw materials at one end and finished cars would go out the other. They were performing maintenance on a boiler, and there were some lockout tagout issues with the natural gas that powered the boiler, and this horrific explosion ripped through the complex. Unfortunately, it killed six people. It caused Ford over a billion dollars. It shut down 41 assembly plants that took parts from the Rouge to continue to function. Shortly after that, I was in Dearborn, and a gentleman that was my main contact came to me and said, “Wow, I just came from a meeting with Bill Ford Jr., and he said this can never happen again. This has just been devastating to all of us. Mr. Ford’s been flying people around in company airplanes to burn centers and taking care of families. And I just can’t tell you what this means to us, because Ford, as big as it is, it’s still run kind of like a family business. In fact, John I’ve been charged with what OSHA is now requiring us to do. They’re requiring us to conduct detailed safety audits of all of the boiler facilities that we have in the United States, and our management team wants to go further. They want to extend this type of safety audit actually to all fired equipment that we own anywhere in the world. And I just don’t know how I’m going to do it. It’s overwhelming.” And I looked at him, and I said, “We can help. I can help.” And he’s like, “Really? You can help?” I said, “Absolutely, we can help.” Because I had done boiler work at Standard Oil. And frankly, the boilers I had worked on at Standard Oil were as large as a 20-story building that were 10 times the pressure that anything was at a Ford plant. So, it’s not like what they had was insignificant, but it was not intimidating to what I was used to working with at all. So that was my break. It’s unfortunate that it had to come that way in the face of someone else’s loss and tragedy. The meaningful part of that to me was it launched me on a career where I got to change a lot of lives and add a lot of meaning to my life. I got to recruit a lot of wonderful, great employees and add a lot of meaning to their lives as well. And together, we changed the world. This was yet another re-invention, Alex. So now I was in the safety world. Now I was in the life-saving world. And the difference there was I was used to here’s your energy audit, and people would look at it and go, “Oh my God, that was 1500 bucks? Geez, 1500 bucks. All you need is a mask and a gun. You’re a thief. I don’t know if this took you an hour, or like 40 hours like you said it did. This is ridiculous.” So, I went from that world to, “Hey, we put a quarter of a million dollars in the budget for the next three months, we don’t exactly know what we’re going to ask you to do, but we just want to reserve the time of some of your people.” And “Do you want a proposal for that? Do you want to know how we’re going to spend it?” “No, we spend several million dollars a year with you guys. We’re good. We know you won’t rip us off. We’ll figure out how to spend it later. We just want to make sure we’ve got you guys.” So, it went from begging to being at the top of that industry, being very respected, very sought after people where really money was no object. It was never about what we would charge. We never negotiated with really much for our fees. In fact, I remember when I sold my company, Eclipse Combustion purchased us, there was all this discussion about what our gross margin was and how we got it so high, and I couldn’t answer it very well because they were manufacturing pieces, parts, and burners, and another 5% was a big deal to them. And for us, it was money was never an object.
Alex Bridgeman: That’s a great overview. What are some perspectives of yours that changed as your business started to hit this growth spurt and became top of the industry? How did your day-to-day change? How did your perspective on your own business change?
John Puskar: I went from being very concerned about staying up with the technology and understanding all the codes and the standards and the rules to very quickly recognizing that to really be in the big time and to really continue to attract the type of clients that we had, and what we had was basically a who’s who of modern industrial society. So, we had large corporate contracts with US Steel, ArcelorMittal, Middle Steel, ConAgra, Tyson Foods, Alcoa, Ford Motor Company, General Motors. You pretty much name somebody in the top fortune 100 of manufacturing and they were most likely a client, or if not, if they ever had a problem, they would be hoping they could become a client. And what I started to recognize was that it was only if I could create a stable of the very best and the brightest people, and then not only the very best and the brightest, but I had to instill in them a passion for what we were doing because I traveled three or four days a week for 25 years. I like to say I’ve been 3 million miles, and that’s not an exaggeration, in and out of over 300 industrial plants in probably, I don’t know, 15 to 20 different countries. That’s a lot of time away from home. That’s a lot of time away from whatever you personally wanted to do. That’s a lot of sacrifice. And you really can’t do that for money. You have to do that because you’re very passionate about what you’re doing. I just heard this the other day, a buddy of mine whose wife is a physician told me, I said, “How’s it going with,” I don’t want to mention her name, “How’s her business?” He said, “Oh, kind of frustrating because she just wants to fire people all the time.” I said, “So she’s experiencing that world where some people want to be employees and some people want to have careers.” See the people that just want to be employees, they want to like leave at five o’clock and have a personal life, which is okay, you need one or two of those in every growing business, but my opinion, and of course, I don’t know everything and I didn’t create a Google, but I couldn’t have a bunch of those people. And I too got frustrated with those people. If you wanted to be successful in my business at my company, you needed to be looking at this as not a job, but as a career and as a lifestyle and as a passion. So, it wasn’t good enough that you had some experience in the field. In fact, what you didn’t know, technically, I could teach you, but I needed to know that you could be very passionate about saving lives and doing this kind of work. And one of the most neatest experiences I had was I used to get a Christmas letter every year from a guy’s wife. It was like a two-page letter. And the first time I read it, I broke down crying because she said in there, “Myself and my children sometimes feel bad when Mike is away so much. But I tell my kids that Daddy is out there making sure that other children’s daddies come home every day from work safely. It helps my children to understand. And Mr. Puskar, I appreciate the lifestyle that you’ve given us and the level of job satisfaction that my husband has because when he is home, he is very fulfilled and he’s very happy. He’s never been as passionate about anything else he’s ever done in his life. And we’re all grateful for the mindset that he now has and for the mission that we’re all on together as a family to help others.” It was the most wonderful expression of everything I was trying to accomplish, and I couldn’t have said it any better than she said it.
Alex Bridgeman: That’s wonderful. And that’s a pretty cool Christmas card. One thing we talked about last time, and I was really interested to hear your perspective on a little bit deeper was that you believe that courage is a muscle that can be developed over time, and it can be practiced.
John Puskar: I’ve given that some thought, and I could prove it to you now with other examples I’ve thought about since we’ve spoken. So, you’ve often heard of entrepreneurs, you’ve heard some of them say, “Oh, some of these guys, they need an adrenaline rush.” Look at Richard Branson. Look at our current space pioneers. Some could look at them and say Blue Origin and Elon Musk, they’re adrenaline junkies, they’re trying to get adrenaline. No, you guys got it all wrong. See, they’re exercising their courage muscles. I did tell you that I learned in my own life that you got to have courage. See, it works back to another word. It works back to a word called pivot. Pivot is used a lot in today’s entrepreneurial world. You’ve got to be quick on your feet, recognize opportunities – pivot. I call all of my reinventions, and I told you there’s been five or six, I call them pivots. And to pivot effectively, I believe it takes courage and it takes grit. So that courage part, I do believe that you can train like a muscle. Musk and Branson do it on a way different level than I’ve ever done it – I’m not going into space anytime soon. But I worked my courage muscle by engaging in the martial arts and engaging in drag racing, things that would scare the hell out of me, but I could do them over and over so that when there did come that opportunity to have to speak in the C-suite of a fortune 100 company, eyeball to eyeball with somebody I’ve read about in the Wall Street Journal that this immigrant kid whose father was a steelworker was actually going to meet in the C-Suite of US Steel and speak to somebody who would have never spoken to my father, for example, that took courage. But after some of the sparring rounds that I’ve been through with people that were scary as hell or after sitting basically on a 750 horsepower 200 mile an hour dragster, and you’re going down through the corridor mile, and everything’s shaking like hell and you’re just praying to God that it’s not going to come apart in the next five seconds and you’re going to live, after those kinds of experiences, you’re looking at this gentleman in the eye, and suddenly, it’s not frightening anymore because you have something much more frightening to look back on. So that’s why I say this courage thing is important if you’re going to do pivoting. And I believe that to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be able to pivot, because remember, if I was trying to get in the NBA, you would eventually smack me in the head and go, “John, you need to pivot,” I would pivot, that’s the courage explanation. The grit part of it also is as you do make your pivot, often these pivots aren’t met with instant success. They’re often met with a lot of drudgery, a lot of gratification that’s not instant gratification, that’s for sure. And you’ve got to have this sense that failure is not permanent. You’ve got to have this sense of perseverance against all odds to a degree. And that’s where you have to be a little bit realistic. And I know that what I’ve said there is a little bit conflicting with some other things I’ve said, but do you have to stay at it? Do you have to have grit? Yes. Do you have to be open to what other people say? Do you have to be open to what the universe opens up for you? Do you have to recognize those things? Yes, you have to do that as well. And that’s what’s the art behind all of this. That’s what experience brings you.
Alex Bridgeman: And part of some of your reinventions have, and pivots as well, have been around creating a saleable business, an asset that you could sell versus this company that just relies on you. Could you walk through some of that evolution in your company, too?
John Puskar: So, you’re in this thing for a while, and for all intents and purposes, what I built was a professional services business, so what I’m going to be talking about could just as easily be applicable to a CPA firm or a law firm. So, you’re there and you start to think what’s my end game? How do I ever cash out? How does life ever become really easy for me at some point? Where’s my reward at the end of this? So, one option is that you put people in place who could continue to make this work. You could at some point duck out the back end and still be paid out of profits that they generate and have some long-term buyout type of thing, or someone could just run it for you, and you could have a piece of the profits. Or you can attempt to try to sell it. I believed that selling was my best option. And one of the reasons I did is because every day I was putting people out into the world in industrial plants where if they made a mistake, or frankly, if just some unfortunate incident occurred, wasn’t even our mistake, and a horrible explosion occurred, I’d have to make an insurance claim or worse. Once you make an errors and omissions claim or a big general liability claim, you probably are never going to get insurance again. So, the bigger I grew, the more at risk I was for one unfortunate incident costing me everything I’d worked for 30 to 40 years. I didn’t like those odds. I felt better that I should attempt to cash out. So, I started exploring that. And as I started to explore that, I had someone approach me and want to buy the business. And we got into this due diligence period. I didn’t quite know really what that was all about. Did an NDA and started to understand that they wanted to know, for example, that what I was claiming as income and expenses was actually real and was very well-documented. They wanted to know that I had some sort of a succession plan. They wanted to know from my customers, the voice of the customer, that what I was offering and the value that I perceived it to be really jived with how the customer felt about us. They wanted to know that I had paths for recurring income and all of those things really shaped, A, whether or not they would actually even make me an offer for the business and, B, how big that offer would be. That first go around didn’t work out. They ended up making an offer. It was like a million bucks with a whole bunch of contingency conditions. And I just thought, gee, a million bucks, by the time you pay taxes, there’s just not going to be a lot there. I’d already been in the business for over 20 years, just didn’t seem very attractive. And I think I was doing, I don’t know, seven or eight million about that time. So, then I thought to myself, I don’t know if or when there’ll be another time, but I want to be much better prepared if there’s another time. And frankly, if I’m much better prepared, I can actually be advocating for there to be another time; I could go out and shop the thing if I had to. One of the places I thought was most important that everybody wanted to focus on that this gentleman focused on a lot was the money part of my business. So, I went from having a couple of part-time people and a classic sort of bookkeeper function, I went out and recruited a woman that had a CPA and had a master’s degree in accounting, a lot of big corporate experience, paid her a lot of money. She was very good. The accounting firm that I used at the time just loved her. She had a ton of credibility. She made a lot of changes. She ruled with an iron fist. And my whole money part of my business was now very credible and solid. I then put into place a succession plan. And I really focused on having a couple of right-hand people that could take over for me and that were as good or better at running the business as I was. I documented the succession plan. On the marketing end of it, I invested in sales training actually for the whole company. I remember at the time, it was like 50,000 bucks with a company here in town called Sales Concepts. They teach the Sandler Sales Training method, but everybody in the company had to attend this course, and it really bolstered our entire marketing and sales efforts. And we created a sales system and a sales process instead of just making phone calls or calling on people we knew. For the first time, that was somewhat routinized, and again, there was a clear process. So, with all of those kinds of things in place, for the first time, the company was actually salable. And for those of you out there running a professional services firm or have a small business, I wish I would have in the beginning had half an eye towards how I was going to get out some day. And I would tell you that if you haven’t done that yet, it’s better to do that sooner than later. Start thinking now about building this organization such that you have all of those key pieces in place as you grow, and you don’t have to kind of be in this embarrassing moment when the right opportunity comes by and there’s a great buyer with a strategic fit who would pay you a premium, but frankly, you’re just a mess and they don’t want to touch you. When my opportunity came the second time, it was kind of neat because the gentleman who was president of Eclipse Corporation, Doug Perks, called – they were $150 million, hundred-and-five-year-old family run privately held company out of the Rockford, Illinois, area – Doug called and said, “Hey, I’m going to be in town and have lunch.” And I sat there with him, looked across the table, and I said, “Hey, I’m just curious. It’s not every day I get to meet a guy like you and have lunch with you. Are you just here because you picked me out of nowhere or you guys ever have any thoughts about acquiring a company like mine? Because if you do, I’d be glad to talk about it.” He said, “Funny, you should mention that. We’ve had our eye on you guys for a while. We’re impressed with what you do. And yes, that is why I’m here.” That started about a two-year courtship, about a two-year due diligence process for both of us. Them making sure my company was a fit and me making sure I could fit with them culturally. We did things together with our families. We did some trips together. I spent time at their place in Rockford. I met all their key people. They sent people to my place. It was just a wonderful experience, and I really am thankful that they’re the ones that I ended up being able to do a deal with.
Alex Bridgeman: And so, after selling the business, what sorts of changes occurred in your life? Did you have some work commitments that you had for them after selling the business and then those petered out over time? Like how did you think about what you were going to work on?
John Puskar: So, I’ve always been a corporate misfit. Let me tell you just quickly the story of what happened to me at Standard Oil, and this kind of frames for you why I couldn’t even remain a part of Eclipse for very long. A few months into my job, my first job out of college, met a guy in the elevator, and I turned and I looked and I kept staring at him, and I thought, wow, that’s a guy out of the annual report. That’s Dr. Brown. I said, “Are you Dr. Brown?” He goes, “Oh yes, young man. What’s your name?” I said, “I’m John Puskar. I’m new here in corporate engineering.” He goes, “Wow, great. How do you like it?” I said, “Oh, it’s fantastic.” “What are you working on?” I said, “Oh, this big problem at the Lima refinery. Geeze, we almost shut the thing down the other day.” He goes, “Wow, that’s pretty serious. Oh, here’s my floor. I’ve got to go. Nice meeting you, Mr. Puskar.” I said, “Nice meeting you, Mr. Brown.” I get back to my office. About an hour later, my boss knocks on the cube and he goes, “Hey, I need to see you.” So, I follow him to his office. His boss is already sitting in his office. They closed the door. And he looks at me and he goes, “Hey, listen, I know you’re new here, but if you want to have much of a career at all, you need to understand that there’s like a line of communications. There are certain people you should probably be talking to and certain people you really shouldn’t be talking to. You really didn’t need to be talking to Dr. Brown about how the Lima refinery almost got shut down because of a project we were doing. You can talk to me, and I can talk to him. But listen, just for your own career’s sake, you need to learn there’s a chain of communication.” I go, “Oh, okay. Sorry guys. I get it now. Thank you. I’m sorry.” So, a couple of days later, I get on the elevator. There was Dr. Brown. “Hey, you’re John Puskar.” I go, “I can’t believe you remembered my name. Dr. Brown, how are you?” He goes, “Good.” He goes, “Hey, how’s that big problem with the Lima refinery?” There it was. There it was. Here comes this softball, right over home plate. And I knew what I was doing. I knew right what I was doing. I turned to him and I said, “Dr. Brown, I’m not supposed to talk to you about things like that. After I talked to you last time, I got called in the office and was told there’s a chain of communications, and I need to honor it. Hope you’re not offended.” He goes, “Oh, no, that’s fine. I understand.” He got off the elevator. I get back to my office, and an hour later, there’s my boss. “Hey, can we talk to you again?” “Sure.” I go in there, it’s him and his boss and they go, “Hey, listen, we hope you didn’t get the wrong idea. There’s a chain of communications, but listen, if Dr. Brown asks you something, it’s okay, because we got an open-door policy. We want to encourage communications here.” And that’s when I kind of realized, man, I’m not a corporate guy at all. I can’t stand thinking about who I should talk to, who I should copy on an email. I’m all about function. I didn’t study politics in engineering school. So now let me take you back to what you asked, Alex. You said what was it like when I left, when I sold my business. So I sold my business. Eclipse had about a thousand employees, and I was in charge of my own company still, basically the same Cleveland business. They didn’t want to change very much, but they wanted me to be on a global call every Tuesday, every part of the world would report in. South America would call in and tell us about problems they were having in their shop with their welder didn’t work or holes that were being drilled weren’t right, and a machine was broke. So, I did a few of those, and then I called and said, “Hey, listen, I’d much rather be out building this business. I don’t know how I’m contributing on these calls.” Then there was once a month, I had to go to Rockford for a day and a half for another kind of corporate meeting. Same thing. So, after about six months, I said, “Hey guys, listen, I don’t want to be president anymore of this division for my own company. I just want to be like a grunt engineer doing what I love to do, which is being at factories and manufacturing plants and helping people with these safety issues.” They were like, “Wow, geez, okay. But you’re not really like a team player then. Look at everybody else behaving. You just don’t seem like you want to behave.” I do want to behave, but in my own way. So, I put my number two guy in charge. He was the president. I was still doing my technical thing. And then after my first year, frankly, I had a 12-month employment contract, we decided to part ways. Just as I had done at that little mechanical contracting company, when I left Standard Oil, I shook everyone’s hand and said, “I love you. This isn’t going to work anymore for all of us. Good luck to you. I’ll do everything I can to support you.” And I’ve got to tell you, it was a struggle. I had nothing lined up at the time. I had always wanted to write a book. So, I wrote a book, got it published in 2014 by Wiley and Sons, a billion dollar global leader in technical publishing. That book was read by a number of corporate risk managers, very large companies. One of them is the nation’s first or second largest utility. They service the East Coast, greater New York area, Boston. And I ended up getting a call, went there, started doing a bunch of contract work for them, did some contract work for some oil and gas companies. And since then, I’ve created an online school, a YouTube channel, and I’m at the point where I have all the consulting work that I need. I’m as busy as I want to be. The wonderful part is that I get to pick and choose who I work for and what I do. I’ve invested my proceeds well from the sale of my company, so really, for my lifestyle, my wife and I’s lifestyle, I never have to work again. So, I’m just kind of about maintaining the logs I have on my retirement pile. I will tell you though, it’s a struggle. I didn’t realize it would be as hard as it has been to feel relevant, to actually be relevant, to be able to keep up with things in the industry. I spoke to a buddy of mine who sold a small software business. He said it’s going to take you three to five years to get over giving up your baby, your child. And I looked at him and as I drove away, I thought it took Greg three to five years, but it won’t take me three to five years because I’m special. But Greg was right. He was right. It took every bit of three to five years to create a new life for myself.
Alex Bridgeman: One of the things I wanted to ask you a little bit about was there’s notably challenges that you ran into and horror stories or war stories that you went through, a few that we talked about as well. Is there one in particular that sticks out in your mind the most?
John Puskar: Sure. So, around 2008, 2009, around the housing crisis, there was a day, and I recall it vividly, it was a Friday, where I got a call from a client. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon. And unfortunately, probably 75% of the work we were doing was for this one client, and it’s easy to get into that situation because big client, we’ve been doing work for them for years. All of our people were almost like employees of that client. They all had passes to get in and out of their facilities. We knew all the senior management people at all the facilities. We were really like a family. And I never thought that something like this could happen. But the phone rang, and the gentleman who I had been to ball games with, we had done family things together, said, “Hey, I’m sorry to do this to you, but you know about what’s going on in the economy.” I said, “Yeah, sure, I do.” He says, “Listen, it’s tough for me to tell you this, but I need you to literally stop everything you’re doing for us like right now. Like can you maybe put the phone down and just yell at everybody to put their pencils down?” I was like, “You’re kidding?” He goes, “No, finish up everything you’re doing today, even if it’s just part of a project, just figure out what we owe you percentage wise on the project. But until you hear from us again, this will be your final billing to us for likely to be quite some time. We’re really struggling.” Hung up with him, sat there, thought for a while, called everybody into a meeting. And again, this is on a Friday. You’ve got a mix of people, right? You’ve got young people who have just gotten married. You’ve got people who have just had kids or have young kids. You’ve got people who just bought cars or houses. You’ve got people who you dragged out of other organizations because they trusted in your vision and in who you are that they share your passion now, and now you’ve got to turn to them and say, “Hey, listen, I just got this call. I hate to say this to you, but we’re kind of done there for a while.” I couldn’t lie. I couldn’t soften it. I had just had a baseball bat cracked upside of my head. I didn’t even quite know what to do from there myself. I needed time. They needed time. That day ended. Everybody went home. I slept on it, and I said, this is not a time to panic. If you panic right now, you have the choice, you will die. You can destroy your entire team right now by Monday, pulling in all your fingers and toes and starting to bag people left and right, and tell them that’s it, look, tough for you, tough for me. Sorry, you don’t have a job anymore. But instead, I spent the rest of Saturday and part of Sunday creating a plan for how to not only survive, but to thrive. So, it started off with painting slogans on all the walls. So, in big letters, like 18 inches high, using stencils and templates, I painted literally on the walls, “Not to survive, but to thrive,” all over the place. And when people came in that Monday morning, I sat everybody down and I said, “You see this stuff on the walls? We’re all going to band together. And we’re not just going to try to somehow eek out an existence. We’re going to kick ass right now. We’re going to thrive. We’re going to use this as rocket fuel to charge up our lives. And we’re going to run out of here.” So, it started off with some things like, listen, we got to cut a bunch of expenses. We’re going to have to cut some pay temporarily. We’re going to have to tweak some things. We got to cut travel. You can’t spend money on corporate credit cards anymore. So, a lot of things we worked out, we went together on, we got very aggressive looking for other customers. We took some projects that we normally wouldn’t take at prices we normally wouldn’t have taken them at. But I went from that year having a negative net worth in 2008 way out on my line of credit to in 2011 selling my business for $10 million. So that’s a little bit of a how we didn’t just survive, we actually thrived coming out of that.
Alex Bridgeman: I love that. Moving into some closing questions. What college class would you teach if it could be about any subject you wanted?
John Puskar: I feel like I would teach a sales class, and I would teach it in the spirit of what I’ve learned from Sandler over the past 30 years I’ve been associated with those folks. My sales coach said to me, “Sales is a Broadway show, and the actors are psychologists and psychiatrists.” You could have all the technical knowledge in the world, but if you can’t sell your ideas to people, and frankly, if you can’t get something in exchange for those ideas that’s proportional to the value that you’ve created, you’re nowhere. And I don’t think there’s enough time spent teaching people how to share in the value they create, how to communicate their ideas, how to read the emotions of other people. And it’s not about taking advantage of people. It’s not about getting them to buy something they don’t want to buy. It’s about communicating with near perfect efficiency so that if you actually really have a good match for them, that’s well understood, and they’re just thrilled that they found you and they’re thrilled to be able to pay you and to do business with you again. That’s what I don’t think there’s enough of out there today.
Alex Bridgeman: I love that. What’s a strongly held belief you changed your mind on?
John Puskar: I’ve mentioned it to you several times during this podcast. I used to think that it was just really all about hardwork. And here’s an example I used to tell some of my staff or other people. Somebody would come and talk about how hard they worked. And I would say, “You know who else works hard? I saw a guy once shovel a five-foot pile of sand. And he went from like right here and he threw the sand to like right here. You should have seen the guy when he was done; man, he was just a puddle of sweat. Boy, did he work hard? I’m not so sure I understand what he accomplished or that whatever he accomplished was of a lot of value, but boy, did he work hard.” It’s not only working hard, but it’s being effective, it’s understanding what creates value and what doesn’t create value, and it’s also in having a mindset of understanding when you’re done and when you need to pivot. It gets back to that five foot seven 63-year-old MBA example. It gets back to the millions of dollars I lost trying to run restaurants and bars thinking if I just continued to work hard, I could make them successful, when frankly, it was much more than hard work I needed and I was never going to succeed at them.
Alex Bridgeman: That’s a good answer. What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
John Puskar: That’s a tough one. It sounds a little corny, but for me, I’m right now in the best business I’ve ever seen. And it’s because I have the luxury to do what I want to do when I want to do it for whom I want to do it. And the other big part of that is, for me, the best business is one that also serves society and serves other people because as you get older, and we’re coming around full circle, right? Remember I told you I was one of the older guys that you’d ever have on here. As you come full circle, you start to understand that it’s not just about money, it’s about the mark that you’re leaving on the world. And if I had frankly done nothing else with my time in this life but made money, I would feel this great sense of emptiness inside. But I know that because of me and the teams that I put together, there’s a lot of pain on this world, on this earth that I’ve helped people to avoid. And that’s something I’m much more proud of than any dollar I’ve ever made.
Alex Bridgeman: I love that. Those are all good answers. Thank you so much, John, for coming on the podcast. It’s been really fun to learn more about you and your business and all the experiences that you’ve had over many years. It’s been quite a pleasure. And it was fun to meet you as well in person. That’s always fun. I don’t meet as many podcast guests in person as I would like to. So that was a highlight for me.
John Puskar: It is a lot of fun to actually be able to do this podcast with you knowing that we’ve shared a beer together and we were able to be in each other’s midst. I really appreciate that. I agree. In this day and age, when everything’s about virtual and everything’s at arm’s length, it’s really great that I’ve actually had a chance to meet you. And thank you very much. It’s a wonderful podcast that you do, and I really appreciate all the efforts you put in to make this happen. Thank you.
Alex Bridgeman: Well, that’s very kind of you. Good to talk to you, John.
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John founded a professional services company in 1984 focused on energy conservation, inspections, and design work for large companies.