Writer: Casey Troyer
Angela Pierce : How many years have you been a CEO?
Bear Poth : I became a CEO when I was in my early thirties, which was in the late 90s.
Angela Pierce : So let’s add up those years… [laughs]
Bear Poth : [laughs] Almost twenty years.
Angela Pierce: So, no matter what level you’ve been at during all that time, what have been some of the consistent challenges for you?
Bear Poth : I think every business has three fundamental pieces. First, sales and marketing— you need a product and service that people want. Second, you need proper financing and accounting functionality in your business. And third are Operations, which is geared mostly around people but also around products and systems. Those three elements are crucial to any business.
Angela Pierce : So what’s the biggest challenging involving those three elements?
Bear Poth : As you go through those three boxes, there are different challenges in each one. The fundamental piece on sales and marketing is your product has to have a sustainable competitive advantage versus your competitor. And you have to make sure the marketplace understands that which means you need good marketing, communications, branding, sales people, and good training. What’s also helpful there is to have word of mouth. The easiest sell is to an existing customer or from customer to customer. So, if you can position your business in and around achieving all those factors, you’re good. But every business has an issue somewhere in those areas. It’s different depending on which business. We’ve been involved in a lot of different companies and some have had longer sales cycles, more difficult to get traction, and we’ve bought existing businesses where there was very good customer reputation and strong work of mouth in which the orders were coming in perhaps more easily. In that situation, the challenge is looking at how to expand. Sometimes a business on that sales and marketing block can reach a plateau and it’s not growing and you have to figure out what you need to do to inject new energy.
Angela Pierce : How do you do that?
Bear Poth : Well, you always look for the easiest way, and the easiest way you can add value to a business is to take existing customers and provide new products and services to them. You can also grow geographically or acquire companies and grow incrementally. There are many different ways to do it, but I think fundamentally, you look for low hanging fruit to add value to your business, and I think the best way to do that is through existing customers because you want to make sure they’re happy.
Angela Pierce : Right. Ok, so I’ve always experienced you as a boss. I’ve always seen you as such a strong operating guy and managing the business really tightly. Have you always wanted to be CEO and play that role or was it something that came along? What’s the background on that?
Bear Poth : I think when you can ask people that question there is usually a fundamental passion that’s uncovered that they want or need fulfilled. For me, I like to build things.
Angela Pierce : You’re a builder.
Bear Poth : I’m a builder.
Angela Pierce : I’m a builder too. I get it.
Bear Poth : Particularly, I like to build teams and people. My greatest satisfaction is to take a business and make it successful, not only on the financial side and operating side but also in regards to the team itself. I think any business faces difficulties and challenges, always, and the strength of your team is ultimately what helps you survive and helps you grow. People always say that the most important part of business is people and it really is.
Angela Pierce : They say that, but there is a real challenge in actually doing it. So, what are some of the things that are required and necessary in building the right team? What are the criteria?
Bear Poth : There are two basic elements in building the right team. One is “Do you have the right person?” Two is “Is that right person in the right job?”
Angela Pierce : And how do you know that?
Bear Poth : For a company to work well together, they must have the same value system. The value system is just the core elements that you look for in everybody. In the company we have today, integrity and ethics is number one, along with efficiency and being very customer driven. Celebrating and having fun should sort of be your disposition.
Angela Pierce : And my glass of wine, right here.
Bear Poth : Absolutely. [laughs] So, if we’re looking for folks to work on that team, we look at each of those values and decide real simply, “Do they meet that value all the time, some of the time, or none of the time?” You set a level and decide what you are willing to live with in an employee. Some instances you might say, “These are the four values and they have to do it all of the time.” Other times you might say, “Integrity, ethics, and customer service has to be all of the time, and efficiency maybe some of the time.” Maybe you are willing to let that be something your employee can work on. Maybe celebrating successes is hard for them because they’re so serious about it and that’s something you’re willing to help them with. So, you set a level you’re willing to live with and if they’re not up to that level then they are not part of your team.
Angela Pierce : So, if you hire someone who does not fit the mold of that, you have to be strong enough to just say they are not a good fit.
Bear Poth : You have to let them go and find a new spot. And say you’ve hired a good person and they fit your value system, you also have to make sure that they are in the right seat. That is basically looking at the attributes that particular person has in regards to their work skills, and making sure they can achieve those or move rapidly toward achieving those.
Angela Pierce : Here is my fundamental question about you as a CEO that enamors me because I’ve worked with a ton of CEOs, some of whom I would choose not to work for again. It’s not because I didn’t think they were good people. I just couldn’t get fully behind them. I wasn’t convinced they were running and operating the business well. So, when I look at you, I know you will always be a strong operator. You’re always going to have all of those fundamental parts you’ve talked about running on all cylinders. I guess my question is how do you do that? How does a CEO do that? How do you not let part of the company get off track?
Bear Poth : There are a few ways. Obviously, one way is to know that I will never do any function better than the person responsible for that function, so always hire good people, which is why I work with you and a number of really good people because they will do the job better. Another way is making sure you are looking at the entire life cycle of a business. A business starts with effectively a product and a product- marketing piece and it’s relationship to competitors, and then there are all these things around it that support that; actually going out and selling it, financing the business, the operations and systems. So, I think what you have to do at all times is make sure that you touch each one of those points. You need to make sure you have a good person operating, and then occasionally you drill down to a level of details. So, one of the things I often do is out of habit and also interest. I’ll take the particular function and call the person responsible for it, and drill down into it.
Angela Pierce : (sips her wine) That always drove me freaking nuts about you, by the way.
Bear Poth : So, now you know that I always do it.
Angela Pierce : Yeah, you called the controller today and asked detailed questions. And that’s not something a CEO would normally do.
Bear Poth : And you’ll notice in that conversation, at some point I said, “Actually, Angela is better at this,” and I handed the phone to you. And the reason why is because you know that stuff better than I do, but…
Angela Pierce : But he knows you’re involved.
Bear Poth : Right, and I know what he’s doing and I know enough to know if something is good or bad in respect to a certain area. So, I think as a CEO you need to be able to look at the high level and be a visionary, but also I think you need to spend some time drilling down and seeing what’s really going on. An example of that is one time we had a broadband company providing cable, TV, and Internet to residencies and commercials and I would go door-to-door selling it. And maybe it would only be five or six hours one day every three months but I would do it just to listen and see what would happen. I would go into the call center occasionally, and spend an hour on the phone and just listen and see what was going on. I would put on the redwing boots and go out and do installations. I think doing those sorts of things across the business is a really good way to make sure that not only that person is doing their job right, but also make sure there is an opportunity for improvement. For example, maybe this group needs to be talking with this group to be more aware of what’s going on.
Angela Pierce : Right. Yeah, I never wanted to install anything. I didn’t have any red boots. If I can wear heels, I’ll go. [laughs] I’ve been asked to be one of those crawl rats in the small spaces before. I was like “I’m not doing that.”
Angela Pierce : OK, so what are three things you would say to any younger, newer CEO who is not as old and gray as you? Sorry. What would be three tips you would give them?
Bear Poth : I would say to any starting company, decide what your value system is, communicate it, and insist on people and partners adhering to it. Make it your mantra. I think that’s the core of any business. You get everyone on the same page. Then, make sure you spend an appropriate amount of time discussing the overall strategy of the business. I think a lot of entrepreneurs and smaller businesses get lost in the day-to-day and don’t take the time to step back and put in place a formal strategy plan. I would also not be the person who says, “I’m smarter than anybody, and I’m not willing to share responsibility. A lot of single entrepreneurs want to own 100% of the company. They don’t want to have a board of directors or advisory board, and they feel like they can do it all themselves. In reality, we know corporations were created because you can’t do that. So, to align and partner yourself with really strong people who are smarter than you is a good idea. One more thing is to have mentors. I’ve been blessed to have a number of mentors who sit on our current board today who are very seasoned who have operated companies. They are the ones you can call them and say “This is probably something you’ve done before.” Unfortunately in American culture, many people don’t give enough respect to what you learn over time in life, and there is a lot you can learn from somebody whose had a lot of water come under the bridge. Go ahead and get those people involved in your company, and listen to them. Maybe they’re not always right, or maybe you’ll have a new idea but getting a good, strong advisory board of directors and mentors can really help you out.
Angela Pierce : I agree with you, and I love your board by the way. I’ve worked with a lot of boards and every time I meet and talk with your board, I always tell my husband, Blaine, “God, I love Bear’s board.”
Bear Poth : It’s a good board.
Angela Pierce : It’s a good board.
Bear Poth : I think who you choose to work with is essential. If you think about your life— a 24 hour day, and you spend eight hours of it sleeping, and you spend ten hours of it working, that leaves you six hours of free time to do whatever you want so of the sixteen hours you have a choice on, you’re spending most of those at work. I think that’s 62% of your life that you’re awake. So, make a decision on who you want to work with. If you’re the CEO or entrepreneur, the flexibility and opportunity in regards to who you work with is the number one benefit to the job.
Angela Pierce : That’s a good point. And sometimes it’s the only benefit to being an entrepreneur. [laughs]
Bear Poth : Right. And of course, you’ve got vendors, customers, and others but even in those situations it’s surprising how much control you have.
Angela Pierce: I like that. That’s good. Ok, so what are some mistakes you’ve made? What are some things you would have done differently if you could go back?
Bear Poth : Well, I don’t know that I’d call them mistakes but the primary lessons learned is that you can put in all the time and energy you want but you don’t control all things. You really have to be willing to go with the flow, and put your faith in the good Lord in terms of what can happen and be prepared for good and bad times. And have confidence that through hard work, working with good people, and living out your value system, you’ll work your way through all the issues. There’s no magic trick to do this or don’t do that other than fundamental basic principles of value systems and working with good people. Figure out what your passion is and try to do that. Maybe your passion is to build or grow things, or work more in operations. Figure out what that is because I think that will make you happier if you can understand what that passion is and work toward that.
Angela Pierce : What’s your dream job? If you weren’t the CEO of Sherpa, and you could do anything, what would you want to be doing?
Bear Poth : Well, I started working when I was twelve, and my first job was delivering newspapers. Then I got a job at the grocery store and worked all through high school. Then I was a calculus tutor, and I gave speeches on campus and worked as a computer programmer, then an engineer, and then as a consultant. Eventually, I became CEO of various companies, so I’ve done a wide range of jobs. Should I rephrase your question to what my favorite job has been?
Angela Pierce : Well, I want to know what you would do if you could do anything. Forget any job you’ve ever had.
Bear Poth : I’d probably be a river guide.
Angela Pierce : A river guide! Perfect!
Bear Poth : Yeah, I’d be a river guide with kayaks and rafts and do overnight adventures and what not.
Angela Pierce : That’s a lot like what you do now. Only drowning virtually and drowning actually are two different things.
Angela Pierce : Last question. What makes you tick?
Bear Poth : I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is pray. My favorite time is when it’s silent before the sun rises. I have a set of scriptures I go through and read. Then I read the news and what not. And I do all of this before I get out of bed. I spend about forty-five minutes, early in the morning getting ready for the day. I love it when my wife’s at home and I get to see her and spend time with the kids. I love doing a wide variety of things. I think I’ve been blessed to be able to do lots of different things ok…nothing really well. I play guitar—
Angela Pierce : Yeah, you’re not great at that. I’ve heard you play. [laughs]
Bear Poth : I work on my son’s car, build a spreadsheet, nothing well, but I can get it done. So what makes me tick is the wonderment of life and doing all these different things, learning about them, and experiencing them. On any given day, it could be something very different. What makes me tick is interest in the world in people and how it works, and having the ability to do a lot of different things in regards to that. It’s just fascinating and fun to me.
Angela Pierce : That explains a lot about you. You make me crazy sometimes the way you do that.
Bear Poth : Yeah, for example, today I woke up and I trapped a raccoon. [laughs] And I spent a lot of time on the phone and writing emails, and doing business things with you—
Angela Pierce : And you talked to this guy.
Bear Poth : Yeah, I talked to a guy I hadn’t seen in a long time. I might be doing some things with him, business wise. And later today, I’ll go work out and spend time with my wife, Gina, walking and talking, and probably tutor my daughter in pre-calculus. So from trapping a raccoon to tutoring in pre-calculus, to me, that’s a good day. [laughs]
Angela Pierce : [laughs] That’s a good day.
Bear Poth is the founding President and CEO of Sherpa Broadband, Inc. and has an extensive entrepreneurial and operations background in the telecommunications industry. Mr. Poth’s experience includes being Founder and CEO of a wide range of companies over his career. These companies have built and operated IP Networks with 3,000+ route miles of microwave/fiber transport and 25,000+ VoIP connections. Additionally, these companies served as a facilities-based competitive broadband provider that constructed over 1,300 miles of hybrid fiber/coaxial plant while providing 50k+ CATV, telephone and Internet connections in four Texas cities. Mr. Poth’s experience includes being the founding executive of a facilities-based CLEC and long-haul fiber company operating five carrier class switches in Texas. During the course of his career Mr. Poth has raised more than $400M in equity and debt capital to finance a wide array of infrastructure based ICT businesses. Mr. Poth received a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a Master of Business Administration from The University of Texas.