(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a three-part series spotlighting the various entrepreneurial ventures and other community contributions of David Coffey.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“When our older son crashed his plane, our world turned upside down,” David Coffey says with a slight quiver in his voice as he recalls that fateful event in July 1995.
Steven Coffey, one of three children, was only 38 years old when his Piper PA-32 crashed while he was trying to land at the airport on Hilton Head Island, SC. He died in the crash along with his mother-in-law, leaving behind his family and a company he founded, Securities Service Network Inc. (SSN) that had made the “Inc. Magazine 500” four consecutive years – 1990 (#346), 1991 (#478), 1992 (#213), and 1993 (#397).
At the time, SSN was employing an innovative processing system to manage the buying and selling of stocks for its customers. The company had less than 20 employees, but about 100 brokers around the country. By the time it was sold 20 years later, there were 500 brokers.
“I did not know the business, and Steve was trying to sell it at the time,” Coffey says. “I came in and tried to sell it quickly but could not find a buyer. So, I managed it as best I could, but the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) said I needed a certification to run it.”
That led to hiring an individual with the necessary credentials to serve as President. There were ups and downs along the way, much as there are in any entrepreneurial journey. Coffey also established a family trust for SSN before selling it in January 2015.
“We were making money but in a very risky business,” Coffey said in the first few years after his son’s death. Yet, by 1998, SSN was again on the “Inc. Magazine 500” listing at #491 before moving up to #367 in 1999.
Today, Coffey is involved in only one business and that involvement is limited by his own desires. It is Knoxville’s rapidly growing RDI Technologies Inc. which, ironically, has made the now expanded “Inc. Magazine 5000” list for the past several years including 2019 when it was #33 nationally.
“I’m not on the board,” he says happily.
Looking back on his more than 50 years in the private business sector, Coffey offered us some really good gems of advice for young entrepreneurs, starting with the tragedy that his family experienced.
“An important part of living is rising to the challenge,” he says. “You might run into really traumatic times. That’s real life. People don’t stay happy forever in business.”
As noted in the first article in the series, he did not earn a Ph.D. as his brothers did, but he has some advice for those who have or are contemplating one. “A Ph.D. is a good thing to have if you don’t let it get in the way of your education.”
Other important pieces of advice included: (1) listening to customers; (2) remembering that cashflow is everything; (3) being careful to have someone always focused on the business side; and (4) having “a cigar chomping, down-to-earth person” in a key role.
Coffey also quoted B. Ray Thompson, the late East Tennessee coal magnet whose name is one-half of the branding of Thompson-Boling Arena at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Everything of value goes out the door every night in a software business,” Coffey said of his frequent admonition. “It’s critical that you understand your business and how to work with people.”
As we closed the interview, Coffey reminded us of three key beliefs he has about winners.
- To be in America, you are already a winner.
- To be in a faith background, you are already a winner.
- To be in a stable family, you are already a winner.
Pretty sage observations from an East Tennessee legend.