Compass captures a wonderful entrepreneurial success story about a local business owner

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Just like many of you tell us that one of your first online sites that you read every weekday morning is teknovation.biz, one of ours is Compass, a Knoxville-focused news site produced by Jesse Fox Mayshark and Scott Barker. They describe the subscription-based service this way: “Compass provides news, insights and analysis of Knoxville and Knox County government, politics and business.” Last week, Mayshark wrote a wonderful profile about a local Entrepreneur who turned what could have been a life-changing situation into a successful business that he recently sold. With Mayshark’s permission, we are sharing that article today. Why do our own interview when Mayshark did such a great job?)

By Jesse Fox Mayshark, Compass

For more than a decade, Josh Smith told a straightforward, inspirational story about himself.

It’s a classic bootstraps tale of self-made success: He saw an opening in the market, he started a business, and he worked and worked and worked, building from $13,000 in net profit his first year — “It took me five years to make over $30,000,” he says — to eventual fortune wildly beyond his expectations, capped with the sale of the company this summer for an undisclosed but substantial sum.

That story is true. But it omits a lot.

“I’ve won all these awards in Knoxville,” says Smith, 44, who recently stepped down as CEO of Master Service, the company he founded in 2003. “I’ve won two Pinnacle Business Awards. I’ve been on the stage of all this stuff. But I probably wouldn’t have been invited on that stage if they would’ve known.

“Now,” he says, sitting in the Clinton Highway office he was still moving out of, “it’s like I can finally use my voice.”

The part he left out of his official biography was everything that happened before Master Service. The father who walked away, the problematic stepfathers who followed, the struggles at school, the petty crimes and brushes with the law. And, especially, the five years in federal prison for drug trafficking.

Smith didn’t tell that story, not out of shame but fear — the fear of what could happen to his business and employees if his competitors found out, the fear of possibly losing what he and his wife have worked so hard for. The fear of a society that preaches forgiveness but practices anything but.

“In our culture, if you’ve done something wrong, there is no payment good enough,” Smith says. “It affects you when you’re 40, 50, 60. Your record stays with you, and everybody is so fixated on that, not who you are today.”

He adds, “I look forward to challenging that.”

Because now that he’s liberated, confident that his business is in good hands, sure that his workers — some of whom also have prison records, because he has quietly made a point of reaching out to others like him — will be well cared for by the new owners, Smith has a mission. He wants to work to fundamentally change the criminal justice system, the way people are dehumanized while they’re incarcerated and the way society views them when they get out.

“What my focus is going to be on is changing the culture from incarceration to transformation,” he says. “We use the word ‘rehabilitate’ a lot. I was really struggling with that word. To rehabilitate means that something was once right and now you have to get it right again. Well let me just tell you, I wasn’t right. So I didn’t need rehabilitation. I didn’t need punishment. I deserved to be separated from society, I get it. But to separate me and not do anything with me, to help me, to where I’m going to be coming back better?”

He continues, “What if instead, we taught them life skills? What if instead we prepared them with job skills and those things to where employers, when they got out, would actually seek them out rather than run away from them?”

Criminal justice reform has emerged in recent years as a rare point of bipartisan agreement. Politicians across the ideological spectrum increasingly talk about the negative social, economic and fiscal impacts of maintaining the world’s largest prison population.

Smith already has a platform in that conversation — this summer, he was named to the steering committee of Gov. Bill Lee’s task force on criminal justice reform. He has also started appearing as a speaker at conferences on incarceration and post-prison re-entry.

And he has two things that many people involved in that work do not: first-hand experience of life behind bars and the means to make a difference.

“I don’t need to build a résumé,” Smith says. “I’m not running for any political office. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. I don’t want just something to be for show.”

‘Bigger Than Just Me’

A big part of what drives him is a deep awareness that his life could have turned out much differently.

Smith grew up in Clarksville, though he says he bounced around a lot as a kid, from one unstable domestic situation to another.

“My father was gone at 2,” he says. “Single mother, struggling just to figure out surviving. Stepfather, two stepfathers, just a challenging childhood to say the least. Many people have had it worse than I did, but I definitely have my own unique story.”

By the time he was 16, he was in trouble with the law. “I was just out with guys, friends, you know, going around. I say to this day, the reason they don’t leave 12-packs of Cokes outside of gas stations is because I took so many of them and filled my car up with them.”

Nothing about school resonated with his daily experience of the world, so after 10th grade he stopped going. Instead he played pool, working a circuit as a player and hustler, gambling and partying. Along the way, he met his future wife, Tracy — they are still married, with four children.

He also met some former pool players who had moved into a more lucrative enterprise, transporting marijuana and cocaine from Texas and Mexico to the Southeastern U.S.

“I got involved and started to make quite a bit of money in a short amount of time,” he says. “For a poor guy, for somebody who didn’t have any money before, that was a big difference.”

But, as Smith puts it wryly, “The federal government did not like my entrepreneurial pursuits.” At the age of 21, he was indicted on conspiracy charges. By the time the case worked its way through the system and he was sentenced to a mandatory five years in prison, he was 23.

“I had an 18-month-old daughter and a 6-year-old son when I went in, 6 and 11 when I got out,” he says.

Smith served his time at a federal prison camp in Manchester, Ky. Tracy moved there with the kids so they could visit him as much as possible, surviving on welfare payments and food stamps.

Although he was in a less restrictive and hostile setting than a maximum security prison, Smith does not downplay the severity of the experience. “The prison was a terrible environment,” he says.

But it did focus his attention on things he hadn’t paid much heed to before. The first and most important, he says, was spirituality.

“There was no Bible, no preacher, nobody around, there was a just a time with me and God,” Smith says. “And that’s what really set my course to a place that I started looking at life as being bigger than just me.”

He also soon realized the mix of prisoners at the institution, which included many incarcerated for white-collar crimes, presented him with opportunities to talk to people with vastly different life experiences. He started taking notes.

“They locked up a banker,” Smith says. “Well, I didn’t know anything about banking. By the time I was done with him, I had a plan for when I got out. I never had credit, I never had any of those things.”

Having a plan was one thing, but after his release it was challenging to find a job as a 28-year-old who had spent half his adult life as a criminal and the other half as an inmate. Eventually he persuaded a local hardware store owner to hire him for $6 an hour.

“I said, listen, I know you’re looking at me, I’ve been in prison and all that stuff — but that means I’ve got great experience cleaning toilets, I’ve got great experience doing the jobs nobody else wants to do, and I’m not gonna complain about it.”

He and his wife slowly started to build up credit, taking out small loans and diligently paying them off. At the same time, he started seeing a niche in the home repair business: cleaning and sealing crawl spaces under houses. He was eventually able to secure an $18,000 loan, and Master Service — originally Master Dry — was born.

The early years were an ongoing struggle, partly because the business had to compete for Smith’s time and attention with another emerging passion. Shortly after his release, he was invited to speak at a prison, which quickly turned into a weekly visit with inmates.

“I’d go in and spend time with the guys, I would go in and encourage them, I would go in and hear what was going on, I would go to their parole hearings,” he says. “I would go and speak to the groups, and next thing you know, more were coming out and more were coming out.”

Eventually a friend invited him to a local church that was planning a mission trip to a prison in Nicaragua. Smith, who was still on supervised release, had to get court permission to make the journey. It was an eye-opening experience and one he has repeated many times in the years since, becoming a familiar figure to officials in the Central American country’s criminal justice system.

“I saw poverty that I had never experienced in my life,” Smith says of Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. “I would go to these jails and I would see writing on all the walls. And then I learned that the writing was from feces, that they would lose their mind and they would write on the walls.”

It shook him.

“I found myself locked in a bathroom on my second day, crying, angry at God,” Smith says. “Because I said, ‘Why would you show me this? There’s absolutely nothing I can do. I borrowed $800 to be here and this is what you’re showing me?’”

He pauses, holding back tears.

“Now I can,” he says. “I have millions of dollars in resources. And if it wasn’t for that story that I didn’t understand all those years ago, it wouldn’t have the same impact on me that it does today.”

Changing Hearts and Minds

Smith and his wife moved the burgeoning business to Knoxville in 2008. It expanded into basement treatments and soon became a major player in the local home improvement market.

“We’ve taken and just demolished all of our competitors,” Smith says, with unabashed satisfaction. “If you take all the competitors and add them up together, they don’t equal our size.”

And he has done that with a workforce that includes other former inmates. Smith is adamant that he won’t hire anyone just because they’ve done time — what sets him apart is that he won’t refuse to hire them. He will work with them and give them a chance.

He mentors former prisoners, inviting them into his home for lessons in finance, credit, finding a job — all the things that helped him. And he has continued his trips to Nicaragua, along with Costa Rica and Panama. It was actually in Central America that he began talking publicly about his experiences. There, he says, people hear his story without judgment.

“It’s funny, down there I’ve been able to talk about exactly who I am,” he says. “But I can’t in my own country, in my own town.”

Until now. Master Service had grown over time to a business with 180 employees and annual revenues of $30 million. When a purchase offer came this summer from the national firm Contractor Nation, Smith saw it as a chance to devote more time and resources to what has become his real life’s work.

He has been public about his advocacy for inmates, if not the reasons behind it, and that led to his being recommended to serve on Lee’s justice task force. Smith, who says he is conservative on most issues, is impressed with Lee’s commitment.

“I talked to the governor and he shared with me his heart on criminal justice,” he says. “I think it’s a great time to be able to do some really great things, some much needed changes to our criminal justice system.”

Among those he has met through that work is Tony Parker, Lee’s commissioner of the Department of Correction.

“We sat down and talked and Josh shared with me his past,” Parker says in a phone interview. “He was very interested in (post-prison) re-entry. He said he hired people that had been incarcerated and how well they worked out.”

Parker says Smith’s background brings a needed voice to justice discussions. “His perspective is very important,” Parker says. “And Josh is the kind of guy that it’s obvious he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is.”

Smith is still working out what forms his expanded advocacy will take. But he knows it will center around the importance of seeing people in prison as people first and prisoners second.

“My focus in a nutshell is going to be changing the culture of prison,” Smith says. “And to do that, you have to change the hearts and minds of people that are voting people in. You have to change the hearts and minds of our legislators that are deciding how to fund the Department of Correction.”

For those who prefer prison to be as punitive and difficult as possible, Smith has a simple rejoinder: The vast majority of people currently incarcerated will sooner or later be released. Who do you want them to be when they get out?

“Let me tell you something,” he says. “There’s nothing more dangerous than somebody with no hope. And prison does a lot to try to take away all the hope. Your guards do it, the other inmates do it. It is a hopeless place.”

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