Category Archives: The Delta Summer 2015

An Authentic Shave

The partnership between Andy Katz-Mayfield (Duke), right, and Jeff Raider was a natural fit after they met interning at the same Boston management consulting firm. They worked together at several companies and shared similar passions for designing quality products. “We have a very strong value alignment,” says Katz-Mayfield.

The partnership between Andy Katz-Mayfield (Duke), right, and Jeff Raider was a natural fit after they met interning at the same Boston management consulting firm. They worked together at several companies and shared similar passions for designing quality products. “We have a very strong value alignment,” says Katz-Mayfield. 

A startup founder’s quest for an authentic shave and values-driven entrepreneurship.

By Ben Nye (Arkansas)
Interview by Markus Jones (Southern Mississippi)
Photos courtesy of Harry’s

ANDY Katz-Mayfield (Duke) waited patiently for a drug store attendant to unlock the display case holding razor cartridges. A full ten minutes passed before the attendant came with a key allowing Katz-Mayfield to select his razors. After adding shaving cream, the cash register showed $25 for the cartridge of razor blades. “I wasn’t buying jewelry, I was buying razor blades,” says Andy Katz-Mayfield. “I knew I was getting taken advantage of as a consumer and thought it was pretty ridiculous to spend that much but there was no alternative.”

That day at the drug store proved a turning point for Katz-Mayfield. He walked out of the store and phoned friend Jeff Raider who, at the time, was an executive at online eyewear startup Warby Parker. Katz-Mayfield pitched Raider an idea for a new company that could manufacture inexpensive, high quality razors that could be sold directly to consumers online. So began Harry’s.

What started with Katz-Mayfield’s frustrated customer experience has now grown into a men’s grooming company of over 100 employees with a backing of over $200 million in investor capital. Equally impressive is Harry’s 2014 acquisition of a German factory that will allow it to take on men’s shaving industry leaders like Schick and Gillette. With the factory, Harry’s is producing and shipping their razors to its nationwide, online customer base.

Long before setting out to create a new razor company, Andy Katz-Mayfield and Jeff Raider had solidified their relationship. During their undergraduate days, Katz-Mayfield at Duke and Raider at Johns Hopkins, both interned at the Boston management consulting firm Bain & Company. The two continued their professional relationship after college while at Charlesbank Capital Partners, a private equity firm in New York. It was at Bain and Charlesbank where the pair sharpened their business and management skills through exposure to a variety of different organizations and industries.

Katz-Mayfield and Raider’s partnership was a natural fit. They were both passionate about designing quality products, building a brand that resonated with the modern man, and creating a better overall customer experience. “For Jeff and I there was a real deep level of trust and understanding. We have a very strong value alignment,” Katz-Mayfield says.

BUILDING a new razor company didn’t happen easily. Katz-Mayfield and Raider faced challenges in choosing a razor design, finding a manufacturer, branding, and raising funds. What’s more, Harry’s was entering a market dominated by large companies Schick and Gillette. “It turns out that it’s actually really, really hard to manufacture high quality razor blades,” explains Katz-Mayfield. “That’s one of the reasons that the market is so consolidated. All the big guys do it themselves in house.”

After Katz-Mayfield pitched Raider his idea in October 2011, the two began studying design principles of common, hand-held tools. Finding what they liked best and most functional about those tools, Katz-Mayfield and Raider drafted several concepts they wanted in their new razor.

After studying the design principles of common, hand-held tools, Katz-Mayfield and Raider settled on their prototype that would become the Harry’s razor.

After studying the design principles of common, hand-held tools, Katz-Mayfield and Raider settled on their prototype that would become the Harry’s razor.

At the same time, the pair sought a manufacturing partner that could design and produce their concept for a new razor, what they call the Gothic Arch. The Gothic Arch is a technology that ensures the razor blade is strong yet also is extremely sharp at tip. “We knew we couldn’t build a brand if the product quality didn’t stand up,” said Katz-Mayfield.

This process proved challenging as only a few factories in the world have mastered the technology that Katz-Mayfield and Raider needed. After sampling a variety of products with no success, Katz-Mayfield and Raider considered abandoning the project. Yet, in January 2012, the pair achieved the breakthrough that made Harry’s a reality.

Katz-Mayfield and Raider discovered Feintechnik, a German company that had manufactured razors for 95 years. They liked Feintechnik’s quality and the cost was low enough to allow Harry’s to compete in the men’s shaving market. A partnership was solidified that ensured Harry’s would manufacture their razors through Feintechnik. With the relationship established, Harry’s began building its team, designing a brand and website, and creating the Harry’s 5-blade cartridge and other key features of its razor technology.

Katz-Mayfield and Raider launched Harry’s in March 2013, after building the company for over a year and securing intellectual property protection for their designs. After almost a year of successful operations, Harry’s moved to further shore up its operations by purchasing Feintechnik outright in January 2014.

Purchasing Feintechnik was big for Harry’s. As Katz-Mayfield pointed out, Harry’s is now vertically integrated, meaning it can cut the cost and time that come with shipping products from an outside supplier. The company can now develop their own razors in-house and experiment with new designs without the down side of paying for expensive trials and demos. On at least one occasion, Harry’s has tweaked its razor design based on feedback from customers, a process that would have been much more difficult without owning Feintechnik.

The flexibility to make design changes quickly and inexpensively gives Harry’s the edge it needs to stay competitive. “Along with Schick and Gillette, Harry’s is the only other company in the shaving category that controls design, manufacturing, and direct sales of their product,” wrote Phil Johnson, a contributor to Forbes.

A KEY INGRIDIENT of Katz-Mayfield and Raider’s entrepreneurial philosophy is authenticity which can be seen in all aspects of Harry’s culture, from its practically crafted razors to the company’s management strategy.

As Katz-Mayfield explains, the primary component of this authenticity is focusing on the underlying problem that Harry’s addresses. “It’s a lot easier to build a company that solves a problem that you empathize with, as opposed to trying to solve someone else’s problem. We’re not trying to create a brand that we thought would be cool or aspirational, but instead creating a brand that resonated with us personally,” said Katz-Mayfield.

In 2014, Harry’s acquired Feintechnik, a German company that had manufactured razors for 95 years. Feintechnik helped Harry’s solidify its design and is helping it to compete with shaving industry leaders.

In 2014, Harry’s acquired Feintechnik, a German company that had manufactured razors for 95 years. Feintechnik helped Harry’s solidify its design and is helping it to compete with shaving industry leaders.

The testament to Harry’s success is its exact alignment with the kind of company that Katz-Mayfield and Raider would want to buy razors from themselves. Rather than using whacky marketing tactics to impress customers that they don’t relate to, Katz-Mayfield and Raider are making products that they want and then trusting that the sales results will follow. “I think it makes it easier if you’re effectively the target for the product. You can emphasize and provide the feedback.”

Katz-Mayfield recalls one example to the contrary that helps explain this. While looking for a razor at his local drug store, Katz-Mayfield recalled that, “There was actually a package that had a picture of a razor blade flying over the moon on it. I thought it was a little bit absurd and a little bit overdone.”

It was this type of marketing gimmick that Katz-Mayfield wanted to avoid at Harry’s. “We try to be really stripped down, simple, and honest in our approach in the way that we talk to consumers and customers,” added Katz-Mayfield. “I think that when you can stay authentic to the roots that consumers can feel that.”

Another aspect of the company’s authenticity is how Katz-Mayfield and Raider relate to their employees and fellow team members. “We really try to provide as much information and context as possible to everybody in the company,” explains Katz-Mayfield. This even includes sharing financial information with every team member at Harry’s. “We’re not trying to hide anything from anybody as we value a culture of honesty and direct feedback.”

To offset the honesty and direct feedback, Katz-Mayfield and Raider try to infuse a sense of humor into their management. “We try to keep things lighthearted and realize that this is not life and death,” said Katz-Mayfield. “We’re not afraid to make fun of ourselves.”

Katz-Mayfield doesn’t believe that having a great idea makes an entrepreneur successful by itself. “Oftentimes in entrepreneurship the ideas are glorified. My experience was that the idea was 10% of it and then 90% of it was focusing on execution and operations.” This isn’t surprising considering that Harry’s – unlike many new startup companies – creates a physical product that is sold directly to consumers. In contrast with startups that focus on software or app creation, Harry’s has to effectively manage supply chain and manufacturing along with sales and design.

Yet the added complexity of a large-scale operation doesn’t faze Katz-Mayfield. “It’s just getting started and executing. If you make a mistake, learn from it. You’re going to hit a hundred road bumps along the way but you can’t be discouraged. View those as challenges to be overcome.”

Inside the Feintechnik factory where Harry's manufactures high quality blades.

Inside the Feintechnik factory where Harry’s manufactures high quality blades.

Katz-Mayfield attributes much of his success as an entrepreneur to the strong team that has surrounded him. At Harry’s, Katz-Mayfield and Raider have hired people who excel. “Everybody we hire should be better at what they do than what we are,” said Katz-Mayfield.

Hiring goes beyond finding the most technically competent applicants, however, and Katz-Mayfield emphasizes that value alignment is critical to assembling a great team. “You really want to make sure that there is value alignment there. ‘Does this person value the same things that I value?’”

Much like fraternity recruitment, Katz-Mayfield indicated that it’s important to go beyond simply what potential new hires say they believe in. Hiring appropriately requires investigation by the potential employer. “Nobody will say, ‘No, I don’t believe in honesty.’ It’s actually observing behavior and truly figuring out if those things are aligned,” said Katz-Mayfield. It’s also important for employers to ask how applicants have demonstrated those qualities in the past.

This value alignment goes both ways as many of Harry’s new hires are attracted to working for the company by its philanthropic culture. “I think particularly with the millennial generation they look at their place of work or any other organization that they are joining, and they expect that organization to live those type of values.”

To respond to this need, Harry’s has established at least one avenue for living its values as a company. The Harry’s 1% initiative is designed to do just that. As part of the 1% initiative, Harry’s gives 1% of its sales and 1% of its time volunteering to City Year in New York. City Year is an extension of AmeriCorps which places recent graduates in cities all across the country where they volunteer and serve the local community. “Our ability at Harry’s to attract really great talent is enabled partially by the notion that people want to work for a company beyond reasons that are based solely on revenue and profit,” concludes Katz-Mayfield.

For Katz-Mayfield, Sigma Nu had an excellent culture that helped form a common theme in his journey as entrepreneur.

For Katz-Mayfield, Sigma Nu had an excellent culture that helped form a common theme in his journey as entrepreneur.

While value alignment is critical for Harry’s, this does not mean that its employees all think the same way. “Actually having a diversity of backgrounds and ways to approach problems is really valuable,” says Katz-Mayfield. This is especially important for a company like Harry’s that values constant improvement in its employees. “We are a real learning culture. What I mean by that is everybody at all levels of the organization just really wants to learn and get better.” As a young company seeking to break into an entrenched industry, the need for constant improvement and a diversity of thinking in its employees is vital.

Ethical leadership for Katz-Mayfield is an important part of his work as a founder at Harry’s and entrepreneur. “It’s about defining a set of values and then actually living by those values.”

Katz-Mayfield doesn’t just see living by a set of values as something to be kept internal, it can also benefit society at large. “We look at certain constituents more broadly. It really is born out of a sense of responsibility to the broader community that we engage with. It’s about defining those values and being true to them both internally as a company and externally with consumers and customers,” he said.

Katz-Mayfield recalls positively his time as a collegiate brother with the Gamma Chapter at Duke University. “Some of my best friends in life were fraternity brothers at Duke.” For Katz-Mayfield, Sigma Nu had an excellent culture that helped form a common theme in his journey as entrepreneur. The connections he made through Sigma Nu ultimately led him to Bain & Company where he met Jeff Raider.

In all parts of his entrepreneurial journey, Katz-Mayfield has focused on surrounding himself with the best people he can – an attitude that all began at Duke University and Gamma Chapter. “It really does come down to the people. That’s fundamentally always been the decision making point for me.”

Taming the Data Beast

“Sigma Nu has helped Ryan Frazier (Arkansas), left, build DataRank. Along with several board of director members, DataRank employs Corben Young, right, a fellow Sigma Nu brother.”

Sigma Nu has helped Ryan Frazier (Arkansas), left, build DataRank. Along with several board of director members, DataRank employs Corben Young, right, a fellow Sigma Nu brother.

How an under-30 startup CEO is using big data to help Fortune 500 companies turn profits.

By Ben Nye (Arkansas)
Interview by Spencer Montgomery (South Florida)

AS OF OCTOBER, 2014, DataRank had been in its new office in Fayetteville, Ark., for a month. The office is modestly furnished, and has few flourishes and closed doors. Casually dressed workers input complex-looking code sequences into their desktops while seated at centrally located tables. There are no cubicles to be found.

The DataRank logo — a perky blue whale — occupies a prominent place in the office and offers a possible metaphorical interpretation to the company’s business model. Like a whale, DataRank swims comfortably through a sea of social media data and reemerges from the depths with useful analysis on consumer behavior. This unique business model driven by sophisticated algorithms has given the company a competitive advantage and has Fortune 500 clients lining up to pay for access.

Co-founder and CEO, 27-year-old Ryan Frazier (Arkansas), is perfectly comfortable in his role as a technology startup executive. Frazier’s low-key demeanor gives way to a keen entrepreneurial acumen that has caught the eye of investors and customers alike. Frazier and his young company have also gained attention from media outlets that cover startup news such as TechCrunch, Forbes, and Mashable.

Like many entrepreneurs seeking to keep costs down, Frazier has been a jack of all trades to ensure the success of his young startup. When the company moved into its first office in 2013, Frazier and his team moved all of the furniture themselves. “These tables,” indicates Frazier seated at a long, wooden table “are incredibly heavy as you can imagine.” With its most recent move, DataRank paid for movers.

It’s the second office in less than a year for the startup founded in October 2011 — the third, if counting the large house that the company’s founders lived in together. “When dirty dishes are slowing down business development or creating feuds within your coworkers, that’s not an ideal situation,” Frazier recalled.

The new office came towards the end of what proved a banner year for the three-year-old startup. In February 2014, DataRank received $1.4 million in capital from a combination of investment firms that specialize in technology startups. What’s more, DataRank doubled the employees on its payroll in 2014 while surpassing its sales goals every month.

AT ITS HEART, DataRank is a technology company. Nowhere is this more evident than the company’s leveraging social media data for its customers. Using its algorithms, DataRank reviews large swaths of information and then sorts and ranks it based on relevance to specific products or brands – a process that Frazier compares to operating a search engine such as Google. “At the simplest level it’s a tool for companies to learn about their customers,” says Frazier.

Frazier, right, along with Chuong Nguyen (not pictured) and Kenny Cason, left, moved to Fayetteville, Ark. in 2011 to found DataRank.

Frazier, right, along with Chuong Nguyen (not pictured) and Kenny Cason, left, moved to Fayetteville, Ark. in 2011 to found DataRank.

While DataRank isn’t unique in providing customer insights, its sources and methodology have distinct advantages. DataRank has a much broader scope and provides more timely information than traditional customer insight methodologies such as focus groups and surveys. Unlike focus groups and surveys, DataRank is not limited to the responses of a preselected group nor to time constraints.

Instead, DataRank gathers information from online conversations as they occur on Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms and then provides an ongoing, real-time survey. The potential data source is also growing. A July 2014, article in the Wall Street Journal estimated that there are 1.32 billion monthly Facebook users and 271 million Twitter users. In essence, there is a global conversation about products and brands for those with access.

Along with the ever growing sources for what they call “social listening,” DataRank is in ideal position to take advantage of the surprisingly rich business climate of its home in Northwest Arkansas.

Consisting of four cities: Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, and Bentonville, Northwest Arkansas is home to several large, well-known companies. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, calls Bentonville home. Tyson Foods and JB Hunt trucking – fellow Fortune 500 companies – are in neighboring Springdale. Benton County, the home of Wal-Mart, has seen its population grow from 97,000 in 1990 to over 221,000 in 2010.

Spread across the region are over 1,600 consumer goods companies attempting to sell their products in Wal-Mart. Known for its efficient supply chain, Wal-Mart has a reputation for being quick to change the products carried on its sales floor. DataRank’s ability to show how customers react to brands and products on social media is a tremendous boon for suppliers wanting shelf space in the world’s largest retailer. This is just what DataRank has done with several Fortune 500 clients that carry products in Wal-Mart.

While DataRank has seen great success through its three year history in Northwest Arkansas, this is hardly the norm for most startups, despite their perception as overnight success stories. According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, an estimated three out of four startups don’t return a dime to their investors.

On their own, innovative ideas don’t make startups successful. “Cash is king in startups and they have managed exceedingly well,” explains University of Arkansas entrepreneurship instructor Jeff Amerine. “The DataRank team is innovative, frugal, and agile. The founders have been very, very capital efficient.” Making a startup successful also takes lots of hard work, the kind that caught the eye of DataRank board of director’s member and fellow Sigma Nu alumnus Brian Henley (Arkansas). “They have a culture there of a lot of hard working young people,” said Henley.

DESPITE DATARANK’S home in Fayetteville, the company embodies much of the fast-moving, startup culture that has emerged out of Silicon Valley. It’s easy to compare DataRank’s story to HBO’s new show Silicon Valley, which features a young entrepreneur with a revolutionary and highly sought after computer algorithm. The comparison isn’t lost on Frazier. “The main character [in Silicon Valley] hyperventilates a lot and gets really worried about these decisions that he has to make,” says Frazier relating his own experience to the show. “Inevitably, whenever he finally gets over the hump there’s some bigger challenge that he has to face.”

The Silicon Valley connection goes much deeper than similarities to the HBO show. In 2013, DataRank participated in Silicon Valley’s prestigious Y Combinator program, what The New York Times has called “a sleep away camp for startup companies.” The program hosts two groups of startup entrepreneurs per year while providing mentorship and an initial investment of $120,000 for each selected startup. Previous Y Combinator alumni include prominent Internet and technology companies such as Dropbox, Airbnb, and Reddit.

Frazier and his team faced stiff competition for a slot at Y Combinator before the program ever began. In 2011, Y Combinator’s founder Paul Graham listed the acceptance rate for its startup program as three percent. The program immediately preceding DataRank in the spring of 2013 had an acceptance rate of only one percent.

“When you own your own company, there’s never a time when you’re not potentially working.”

“When you own your own company, there’s never a time when you’re not potentially working.”

“Y Combinator was an incredible experience for us,” said Frazier. “To have the partners of Y Combinator believe in us and what we were doing was great validation that the work we were doing might be important.”

As the first Arkansas company to participate in Y Combinator, DataRank has brought some of the Silicon Valley culture back to their home state. Like other Silicon mainstays, DataRank has its own slogan; “Best idea wins,” says Frazier. It’s not quite as disruptive as Mark Zuckerberg’s “Move fast, break things,” or repeated as often as the Valley catchphrase, “fail fast, fail often,” but it does a good job connecting DataRank back to its Bay-area roots.

DataRank also favors the non-hierarchical office structure that allows for a relaxed culture. Its “flat” office culture led to DataRank’s open floor layout designed to allow team members to easily share ideas and work together on projects.

“There’s a lot more freedom and flexibility in the startup environment, which is the way that I like to work,” adds Frazier. Of course, the increased freedom and lack of traditional office hierarchy comes with more responsibility. “There’s a lot of trust in them to manage their own time effectively,” says Frazier discussing his fellow DataRank teammates. “We don’t say, ‘these are your tasks, go complete them.’ For some people that doesn’t work well.”

The entrepreneurial journey that Frazier embarked upon when founding DataRank has been multifaceted and has included valuable lessons. However, Frazier’s experience as an entrepreneur predates DataRank’s founding in 2011. His entrepreneurial prowess became evident while still an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas.

In 2009, Frazier and a team of classmates were finalists in the Arkansas Governor’s Cup, a statewide competition for business students. The success was an indicator of more to come, and through entrepreneurial courses and holding leadership positions in the marketing association, Frazier continued to hone his skills which caught the eye of instructor and future DataRank investor Jeff Amerine. “When I met Ryan in 2009 as a junior at the [University of Arkansas] he was better prepared for life and running a venture than most people with 20 years more experience.”

Despite his talents for entrepreneurship, Frazier did not immediately start DataRank upon graduation. Instead, Frazier took a position with an office supply company as director of marketing and sales. In his downtime, Frazier began developing the ideas and concepts that would become DataRank. “When I was working for another company all the types of things I do now were more like hobbies outside of work.” What was avocation became vocation in 2011 when, after reconnecting with former classmates Chuong Nguyen and Kenny Cason, the trio moved to Fayetteville founding DataRank.

Like any entrepreneur, Frazier faces many challenges, especially staying available at all hours. “When you own your own company, there’s never a time when you’re not potentially working. It doesn’t necessarily get easier over time. As you get more familiar with what you’re doing, the stakes get higher,” Frazier says. Unlike more conventional day jobs, Frazier faces pressure that only comes when answering to investors and high-profile clients.

Amidst the pressure of being CEO and an entrepreneur, Frazier has searched for ways to find balance. “You can’t be the kind of person who says ‘I need to have my work done every day’ because there are days when you could stay until 2 a.m. and you’re not going to be done. So you have to be able to say ‘I did a great job today and these are the things that I accomplished. Tomorrow I’m going to get back at it again.’ Once we kept growing the company, we had to start putting up some of those boundaries so that you could unplug and find some time for yourself.”

Entrepreneurial experiences like Frazier’s may become increasingly more common for the current generation entering the workforce. Brian Henley, who is a software company executive and serial entrepreneur, thinks the rise of startups comes from changes in corporate America. “Corporations have changed to where they don’t really offer lifetime employment anymore; they don’t offer pension plans. That’s led people to not expect to work for one company their entire lives.”

“Corporations have changed to where they don’t really offer lifetime employment anymore.”

The change in work environment has also created opportunities that were unavailable to previous generations entering the workforce. Unlike previous generations, it’s now much easier to raise the money needed to start a company, said Henley. “You used to have to raise millions of dollars to test an idea and most young people didn’t have access to that kind of money. Now it takes tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Millennials are also in a unique position to take advantage of the opportunities found in social media and mobile technology. Henley notes that as early adopters, “they have the most ideas about how to leverage that technology with new products and new businesses.”

SIGMA NU has played an important role in Frazier’s development as a leader and in the development of his company. DataRank employs Brother Corben Young (Arkansas), a 2013 University of Arkansas graduate, and along with Brian Henley, has one other Sigma Nu sitting on the company’s board of advisors.

Much of Frazier’s leadership style can be traced back to his experience in Sigma Nu where he served as the Recruitment Chairman for Gamma Upsilon. “It’s interesting because a lot of the learning around leadership actually did come from Sigma Nu.” Frazier also credits several of the Gamma Upsilon chapter leaders he interacted with as inspirations and role models. “[It was] really learning from them and determining ‘how are they leading?’”

Frazier also found that his collegiate Sigma Nu experience provided a stronger bond and more motivated culture than what he saw in other organizations. “The unique and energizing thing about Sigma Nu was that the majority of everyone there really had a lot of drive. There were a lot of talented and intelligent individuals.”

It was his involvement with the Fraternity and other extracurricular activity at the University that Frazier found to be the most productive in his development as an entrepreneur. “Get involved in the leadership of the Fraternity or in other organizations that are focused on the things that you’re passionate about. Any kind of experience you can get leading these groups of 20-100 people is really valuable,” said Frazier providing advice to other would-be entrepreneurs.

For Frazier, much of entrepreneurship ties back to ethical leadership, especially fulfilling his word to clients, investors, and coworkers. “When you say you’re going to do something, you do it. You don’t leave someone by the wayside or waiting.”

Undoubtedly, Frazier’s commitment to ethical leadership through entrepreneurship will continue to take him far – a view that is shared by Jeff Amerine, the Arkansas entrepreneurship instructor. “Ryan is a hitter and DataRank is only the first of many great things he will do.”

The Power of Quality

Bill Watson_photo1

After founding Watson Realty Corp. over 50 years ago, Bill’s company now operates 43 real estate offices in Florida and Georgia. Bill credits his Sigma Nu experience with teaching him the leadership skills necessary to lead a successful company.

Bill Watson (Stetson) can trace his interest in real estate back to one of his business professors who had a special skill for getting students excited about real estate. “He created so much excitement about real estate opportunities to the class and painted the image that we’re not training you to be real estate salespeople, we’re training you to be leaders and entrepreneurs, to control your destiny. He asked us, Where is the wealth in the US? Who is in a better position to understand what a good value is?”

This prescient mindset by one of Bill’s professors would prove to be the spark that launched his career in real estate. Now, over 50 years later, Bill’s personal portfolio of individually-owned and Watson Realty Corp. properties includes 240 single-family homes, 68 office buildings or commercial properties, three apartment buildings and other miscellaneous properties. The company he founded, Watson Realty Corp., operates 43 real estate offices, 29 property management offices, two title companies, a mortgage company, and a maintenance division which includes plumbing, electrical, heating and air and home improvement, as well as a School of Real Estate, a Commercial Division, and a limited-function referral division with over 600 members.

Bill credits his company’s success to the leadership skills he developed in Sigma Nu’s Delta Mu Chapter at Stetson. “You have to concentrate on the basic skills, and invest heavily in your people. That relates directly to the fraternity. We’ve built our company on a military concept. I always tried to do a good job promoting, and softening up the market. Just like the military, you don’t take the market until your people take the market.”

Sigma Nu as the formative Years

Bill remembers a culture in the chapter that expected brothers to perform well academically. “There was a degree of responsibility for those around you. We were all expected to look out for our Sigma Nu brothers,” he remembers.

There’s one example in particular Bill recalls that illustrates the chapter’s support for strong academics. He was taking Saturday classes at the time and the Sigma Nus were planning their big hay ride event.  Bill was dating his future wife at the time and told her he’d have to skip the event to prepare for his test the next day – a discipline not found in typical college students.

Bill Watson_photo2

Bill prepares to toss the coin at a Stetson vs. Jacksonville football game.

Bill has always maintained a fondness for the railroads dating back to when his father and grandfather worked as train conductors. “We only had one car growing up, so we would always be driving to Union Station if he was running passenger trains or the shipping yard if he was running freight.” Bill’s grandfather worked for Southern Railroad and his father worked for Seaboard Coastline Railroad, now CSX. As he entered high school, he loved making money and saving to buy a car, but he realized the importance of getting a good education. “That was one of the things I liked about the Sigma Nus when I first arrived on campus. I could tell they were concerned about new members excelling in the classroom.”

“I worked summers and almost a full year before entering college. But the Sigma Nus wanted you to make good grades. We had study hall to instill that discipline. If you ever needed help with classwork, you could always count on a brother to provide guidance.”

In addition to a focus on academics, Bill was attracted to the Delta Mu Chapter because they were clearly the top performers on campus. “For those four years, we were superior to the other fraternities,” he remembers. “We were so dominating in leadership and activities that the school implemented a quota system in an attempt to level the playing field. The new limit was 65 members – we had 90.”

When Bill was attending Stetson, the students were expected to attend chapel once a week on Tuesday or Wednesday. The old Sigma Nu house was two blocks from the chapel in Elizabeth Hall.

Coffee and donuts would start at eleven in the morning at the fraternity house and Bill remembers, “All the ladies would stop by. We had all the hit records playing. It was a great way to interact socially.”

Bill has fond memories of the fraternity brothers serenading the ladies on campus when they were “pinned,” a tradition that has faded since his time. “They don’t do that anymore,” he says. “We would march three abreast and sing. This was before air conditioning. The ladies would be watching from the windows. We would present the white roses. It was impressive. It was a significant occasion and the ladies on campus loved it.”

Bill Watson with his wife, Janelle, at the opening of Watson Realty Corp.’s new office in Mount Dora, Fla.

Bill Watson with his wife, Janelle, at the opening of Watson Realty Corp.’s new office in Mount Dora, Fla.

When Bill was matriculating at Stetson the Delta Mu Chapter was an example of the way success breeds success. “Quality brothers bring more quality. We have adopted this same mindset with our business. If you don’t recruit quality Sigma Nus, you lose that benefit. That works the same way in business. You’re known for the company you keep.” Bill also remembers being impressed by the military inspired organizational structure and what he calls the aura of the Commander. “That’s different from a president.  The commander is the leader. I liked the concept for the military connection. I liked the formality and the three cardinal principles,” he recalls.

“I was impressed with the goal-setting and the emphasis on working as a team.  It showed in the presence our brothers had within ROTC. We graduated a lot of great officers.” Many of these ROTC leaders Bill references would go on to serve distinguished military careers, including two Lt. Generals, Jim Crysel and Jack Woodall, who were featured speakers at the 2013 College of Chapters.

Lifelong Commitment

As someone who has witnessed the power of brotherhood, Bill has always encouraged students under his wing to join the fraternity community. “If you go to college and don’t join a fraternity, when you leave college you’ll be missing out on a big network of support.”

“The Greeks are the ones who contribute to the university,” he observed. “Non-Greeks don’t have the same affinity for the college.” For Bill, this isn’t just an empty statement – he’s demonstrated a lifelong commitment to Stetson and the Delta Mu Chapter.

Delta Mu Chapter recently celebrated 100 years at Stetson and Bill was there to join the anniversary event. “It was really exciting and gratifying to celebrate that milestone. It was a thrill. 100 years doesn’t happen very often – maintaining that level of longevity separates you from the competition.”

When he thinks back about the most important leadership lessons he learned in Sigma Nu, the first thing he mentions is the importance of focusing on the bigger picture. “You have to look at the big goal. Don’t get wrapped around the axle on the minor things.”

Managing different personalities is always a challenge for entrepreneurs and business owners as it is for student leaders. Bill has carefully managed his professional relationships, with a broader emphasis on always treating people the way he would want to be treated. “We don’t want anyone to leave as an enemy. We want them to leave as a friend. You win by lifting them up and maximizing their talents.”

When Bill encounters an employee who isn’t a good fit, he’s always handled personnel changes diplomatically. “You are not doing someone a favor if they are failing and you keep them in your business,” he says. “We try to handle career changes in a very positive way: We think a lot of you and you have many good skills and qualities but it’s not a good fit for our organization.  We’re not going in the same direction.  But we like you and wish you the best.”

Helping new employees learn the company culture is also a critical skill for any business leader. When hiring, Bill says he looks for people who do things unsuccessful people don’t do. Anytime Bill is losing focus, he likes to recall the famous Vince Lombardi quote, “Mental fatigue makes cowards of us.” This inspires him with the discipline to do a little more. “Successful people are committed and they reap the benefits of success. Success is a lot of fun – failure is not much fun.”

“We try to inspire new employees. They owe it to themselves. You must have the discipline to make that additional call, to do one more visit. This divides the winners from the losers.”

Bill is quick to see the parallels between sound hiring practices and fraternity recruitment. “Look for people with good personal skills,” he says. “Look for people with a strong sense of commitment, not only in their work but also in their ethics. If they’re only focused on the fun part then they’ll take you in the wrong direction.” Bill has witnessed this problem in college freshmen who arrive on campus and don’t focus on academics. “They don’t realize that they are at a critical focal point in their life – they don’t realize that if they don’t graduate the trajectory of their entire career will be affected.”

Bill has had many years to observe the qualities that make for a model employee, and he can list them off from memory. “Dress like you care about your job. Don’t overreact before you know all the facts. It’s very important to hold your mouth – there’s nothing to be gained from criticizing people.”

“We see ethical leadership as self-discipline, as a commitment to do the right thing and not be swayed by the pain or price it costs to stick to your principles.”

“We have built our organization on the basics,” he says. “Be positive, outwork your competition, and focus on ethics and quality. We will not allow ourselves to be corrupted by one little thing.  Our word is worth more than that.”

There’s also a firm commitment to developing employees that runs through the company culture. “We strive to take the individual’s strengths and multiply and accelerate them,” Bill says of mentoring employees. “We have found you are not successful in changing negatives – so focus on the positives.”

“We see ethical leadership as self-discipline, as a commitment to do the right thing and not be swayed by the pain or price it costs to stick to your principles. Doing the right thing wins out in the long run. We won’t compromise our principles. There are certain things where you draw the line. Do things the right way and you’ll be a longer-term winner.”

When it comes to business acumen and ethical leadership, Bill sees the fraternity experience as an indispensable asset for young men. “These are young guys right out of high school with limited experience.  You’re running these chapters with young men and we’re molding them to perform like senior business leaders.”

So why has Bill chosen to stay involved all these years? “I have a high degree of loyalty and commitment. If you give me an assignment, I’m going to give 110% or not take it at all. Sigma Nu means a lot to me.  Those were the formative years. I could have gone another direction and not achieved the same success.  It really made a difference in my life, and I am thankful for the opportunity to be a Sigma Nu.”