By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
As a high school student, Blount County business executive Mike White had chosen a dual path – biomedical engineering, then medical school. He decided to focus on the former early in his college career.
“Organic chemistry was not a match,” the President and Chief Executive Officer of Multi-Media Solutions, Inc. candidly explained.
So, fresh out of the University of Tennessee, what would he do? The answer was medical sales, a position that would draw on his formal education as well as the last five plus years where he knocked on doors every Saturday as part of a church ministry.
Like so many of his life experiences, White learned a lesson during the interview process that would serve him over the next 25 years.
“Do you want to be good or do you want to be great?” That was the question posed by the Regional Manager for Syntex Medical Supply, Inc.
“He told me I butchered the King’s English during the interview,” White recalled. “I knew the difference, but I chose to use slang.”
Since then, White has approached conversations by carefully considering what he is going to say before he speaks. The Regional Manager described it as simply adopting a ‘pregnant pause.”
White stayed with Syntex for five years, and “got fired over a family matter,” he said in his typical candid style. For the next five years, White worked for a technology integrator when, in 1990 while attending COMDEX, the Computer Dealers’ Exhibition in Las Vegas, he found the opportunity that was the foundation for Multi-Media Solutions, Inc.
White and Chuck Davis became the regional representatives for Proxima, a well-known international imaging company today that was distributing power strips and the first LCD panels in 1990.
“We successfully lost all of our money and borrowed all we could,” White says, adding that he wondered what was wrong. The answer – “we were both trying to do the same thing” – led to a separation of duties in 1992. Davis did project installation and support, while White focused on outbound sales and business development.
The division of duties was clearly a wise strategy, one advocated in Jim Collins’ Good to Great business book.
“We grew from $200,000 to $7 million in sales in five years,” White noted.
Multi-Media Solutions was also an early believer in the emergence of new video technologies such as plasma screens. That knowledge opened-up an opportunity with Office Depot, one that again drew on White’s inner faith and persistence.
The company wanted to establish a digital signage network in its stores. Before presenting to the office supply chain’s top executives, White consulted with Steve Herzog, a friend and instructor of the Sandler sales training curriculum, who advised him to be bold.
White followed the advice, asking the executives to help him understand their goals, not simply presenting a technology solution. That approach was challenged by Office Depot’s Chief Technology Officer who said: “Show us what you have, don’t ask questions.”
White’s response was simple, but reflective of his business philosophy: “If I can’t ask questions and get answers, I’m not your vendor.”
Multi-Media Solutions won the work in 1999 and began deploying the technology one store at a time. The plasma network was usually the last item to be installed before new stores opened. This presented White a challenge in mid-September 2001.
“We were in Denver doing four stores and scheduled to go to Dallas to do two more when 9-11 occurred,” he said. With all flights grounded, there was not an easy way to get to Dallas to outfit the new stores, a fact that would cause Office Depot to delay the openings.
Drawing on the persistence that he learned or inherited from his parents, White found a way. He kept the rental car he had and drove himself and his installation team to Dallas to complete the installation.
“Office Depot was a big story for me,” he says.
Just as business seemed to be going so well, White came face to face with perhaps the biggest challenge he had faced – one that impacted his family. We’ll cover that event in the next article in this series.