Jim Price, Richard Stamper, and Jim Scott — primed almost four decades ago in the unofficial entrepreneurial incubator of UGA’s College of Business Administration — will tell you the soundtrack of a successful entrepreneur is not trumpets blaring, but of wheels grinding.
The three were not born under halos. Each found themselves in a pinch early in their careers and dug their way out. Scott was once $20 million in the hole. Price was slumped over in a chair in a hotel room in New York City, practically bankrupt with a deal on the verge of collapse. Stamper had his own profound, personal tests.
Success did not yield to these guys easily.
“Nobody sees the crawling,” Price says. “There was crawling, let me tell you. My advice is crawl as long as possible to get your business off the ground. I was almost bankrupt, my darkest moment, but I kept grinding.
“I always tell people, even if your business fails, you don’t want to be working in a small office the rest of your life asking yourself, ‘I wonder what would have happened if I had done this?’ ”
In the book “Falling Upward” by Richard Rohr the lesson is “those who have failed, or gone down, are the only ones who understand up.”
Price, Scott and Stamper understand “up,” but first had to be intimate with “down.”
But the grind and being broke was not first.
ATO was first.
A common denominator among the three was the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house on River Road. Price, Stamper and Scott never had modest expectations in college because they were part of the raucous ATO house and modesty was so 1960s. Their parties could not be just OK, they had to be a blast so kids were still talking about them Monday morning on the way to class.
This is not to exalt them as party animals. It is to illuminate their competitiveness. If you showed up at ATO for one of the Thursday night card games with $20, Price would get $21 out of you. He was that good at cards, taught at an early age by a grandfather. “I was good at reading people, I seldom lost,” he says. It helped him pay for school.
Scott says the base existence of an ATO depended on being scrappy and resourceful. “We didn’t come from anything, but we had everything,” he says.
“It was more important for us to navigate the world than to make straight A’s,” Stamper says.
Scrappy. Resourceful. Competitive. Those were the seeds planted in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The three needed every bit of those qualities because the U.S. economy was in choppy waters.
“Business was contracting, the prime interest rate was 18 percent, there were no jobs,” Scott says. “The economy was awful. It was clear to all of us that when we graduated from college our parents were cutting us off.
“There was some desperation. You had to make your own way.”
Jim Price’s (BBA ’81) recipe for a successful entrepreneur’s business plan is straightforward — make everybody a shareholder, invest in your infrastructure and management teams, know the metrics of your business every day, and deliver high-quality service. But he adds an inelegant ingredient: “no jerks allowed.”
“Check your egos at the door,” says Price, who has acquired 128 companies in 23 years consolidating various industries. “It’s a team effort. If you want a parking spot close to the building, be the first one in the door in the morning.”
You have probably stared right at one of the success stories of the Price entrepreneurial culture of no jerks allowed. The next time you are in Subway and want that Italian B.M.T. toasted, take a look at the metal TurboChef logo on the oven’s front door. Price and his long-time business partner Richard Perlman pulled that oven company out of the fire. It was 2003 and Price and Perlman earned some rest after building PracticeWorks, a successful dental practice management software company.
Their phones rang two weeks into their respite. It was their next deal.
They flew to Dallas, Texas, to explore TurboChef, which owned several patents on how to cook food quickly. The 12 scientists who developed the oven, Price says, were “brilliant.” But when he acquired TurboChef, the company did a few million dollars a year in revenue, payroll was in arrears, and the company was delisted.
“We put the proper management team in place and improved the infrastructure, and we did the whole culture thing,” Price says. “Six months later we got Subway, then we got Starbucks, and Dunkin’ Donuts, and subsequently listed on NASDAQ.”
Price acquired his business culture from the street with his good friend (and ATO brother) Rick Fine, a 1981 Terry grad. They started International Computer Solutions (ICS) in 1987, an ambitious title because the only thing international about ICS was that their one desk was made in China. They had two chairs. Whoever got in first in the morning could slide their feet under the desk.
Price and Fine, both 27, did a leveraged buyout of Moore Business Systems, a software company specializing in medical and dental practice management software that ICS represented.
“We crawled on our knees a couple of years barely surviving, but we survived,” Price says.
In 1997, they looked at four practice management software companies they were competing against and decided to try an IPO to consolidate the industry under the name InfoCure, adding Perlman as a third partner. Abruptly, on the IPO road show, their investment bank folded. Their credit cards maxed out.
Price and his wife Christina, then pregnant, were moving into their new, small home. “I called her and said ‘Babe don’t unpack any of the boxes, you and I might be living in a mobile home. We’re broke if this doesn’t work.’ ” Christina in her usual prescient way responded “It’ll all work out.”
Price and Fine were in their hotel room near Times Square slumped in chairs. The movie “Animal House” played in the background. The epic scene with comedian John Belushi jumping up and declaring “It ain’t over …” flashed across the screen. Price and Fine looked at each other. They jumped up at once and high fived, shouting “It ain’t over…” It was their own epic scene.
In July 1997, the company completed a successful IPO. But the deal got downsized, and the idea of having a war chest to consolidate a fragmented industry did not come true. Although a public company, InfoCure emerged with only a few thousand dollars in the bank. Despite this obstacle, they found friendly banks that lent the funds necessary to build the company to $200 million in revenue.
In 2000, in an effort to unlock shareholder value, they did a spin-off of the dental division into a separately public traded company called PracticeWorks. Fine stayed with InfoCure which was sold successfully to a large strategic buyer. Price and Perlman built PracticeWorks and sold it to Eastman Kodak in 2003.
“That was a good day,” Price says with a smile.
Then came TurboChef, followed by the current venture, ExamWorks, which provides independent medical examination and review services to property and casualty insurance companies, started in 2008 because of a suggestion made at a neighborhood barbecue. Entrepreneurs, Price says, need to have sharp radar. A deal can come from anywhere. Today, ExamWorks through organic growth and 69 acquisitions, is the industry leader.
There is a table in Price’s Buckhead office crowded with tombstones of the deals he has done with his posse. They are small trophies of crystal and metal commemorating deals. Billions after being near the abyss, a sure sign that no jerks were allowed.
Jim Scott (M ’82) never anticipates failure because there is always a way out of a pinch and that way out is to rely on himself. So his most crucial board meetings are the ones in the mirror when Jim the CEO advises Jim the CFO, “Pivot.”
“When things are not going right in your business, you pivot,” says Scott, who has built and sold five businesses. “I have never sold a business with the same strategy I started with. I’ve had to change my business model in every business.
“You can’t believe your own stuff. You have to look in the mirror. You can’t get overconfident.”
So that’s the lesson. The way out of a pinch with one of his businesses was never the way in.
Scott and his friend Richard Williams (M ’83) started BellyWashers in 1997 with the idea of using alluringly designed plastic-wear to sell juices to kids. If the kids liked the bottles they would drink more of the juice. Scott had it figured out ... except he didn’t.
“I had no idea how hard it was to get into the beverage business,” he says.
Scott spent millions on equipment and manufacturing, but the big beverage brands wouldn’t let him breathe. “The more product I sold the more money I lost,” Scott says. “I was losing a million a month in 2003.”
BellyWashers, which once had 200 employees, was down to 12. It was time to pivot.
The company changed the ingredients to all natural with no preservatives and, simultaneously, changed the name of the brand from BellyWashers to good2grow. There would be a focus on “healthy” kids.
The company flourished and Scott sold it in 2018 for a mint.
“I watched my father teeter on bankruptcy for decades and told myself I’m not going to fail,” Scott says. “There are so many obstacles involved in trying to be an entrepreneur that are steep and reasons not to succeed. You’ve got to find ways to get over that.”
Scott’s story of entrepreneurship started because he did not go over an obstacle, he went around it. The obstacle was college.
In a computer science class, the first semester of his third year at UGA, Scott’s eyes glazed over as the professor talked about formatting. Scott looked around the classroom at who he thought were the smart kids and their eyes were similarly glazed over. Scott collected his books and walked out of the class. He had enough. He quit school. Just like that. Jim Scott never finished college.
“I made it through just 2½ years of college, but those 2½ years changed my life,” says Scott, who is now 57.
Scott left Athens in 1982 and went to Vail, Colo., to ski, using his tuition money and plotting his next move. He started his first business: Leon’s Limos. (His given name is Leon James Scott III). On days it snowed he would use a friend’s Ford Bronco to drive the well-heeled from Stapleton Airport in Denver 105 miles to the slopes of Vail. He made $100 each way.
“One thing it taught me was I didn’t need a whole lot of money because I could ski every day,” he says. “I learned it wasn’t going to be money that drove me. It was going to be passion and happiness.”
Scott blew most of his money in Las Vegas and got back to Atlanta that spring with $300. He traded his car for a Ford van and went into business with Williams moving furniture. No doubt you have seen the trucks: Bulldog Movers. The company is rolling now, but once upon a time it wasn’t rolling. They borrowed $5,000 to buy a truck and worked so fanatically the truck caught fire on I-285 and melted onto the highway.
Scott and Williams rented U-Haul trucks every day for three months to pay back the original $5,000 loan. When Scott laid the payback money on the desk of Jack Myles of Smyrna Bank — with interest — Myles said, “Why don’t I give you a line of credit for $50,000.”
Scott proved he was good for it. He was 22 years old and succeeded in the first order of business for an entrepreneur, which was to ensure his good name. Soon the company had 20 red and black moving trucks buzzing around town. Friends say Scott has as much charisma as he does business savvy and work ethic and that’s how he made it big.
Scott also went into plastics with Alpha in 1982 (which he sold in 1994), before starting a holding company called In Zone Holdings Inc. in 1997. BellyWashers was part of that company, which pivoted to good2grow. It was both a harrowing and exhilarating ride.
“I started at the top and at the bottom at the same time,” Scott says. He passed himself on the way up and the way down.
“Mine wasn’t a meteoric rise. I rose and went down. I rose and went down. I’ve been beyond bankruptcy in my life. I’ve been in negative net worth.”
Negative net worth in money, perhaps. In terms of confidence, and savvy, and spunk, Jim Scott has always been in the black.
Richard Stamper (BBA ’83) couldn’t wait until he got out of college to start his own business.
Most everyone else who needs a college job flips pizzas, washes cars or windows, or works in a lab. Stamper had to be a CEO, of something, anything, so he and fellow student Mark Stroop (BBA ’84) started Records 4 Rent. For $2 a day, students would rent their records and make a cassette tape.
“It was fun because we could call the shots and do what we wanted to with it,” Stamper says.
It was his entrepreneurial spark, yet something more vital than the spark showed up. It was an authentic gratitude for customers. It was just there, Stamper says, part of his DNA.
“One of my faith principles is I like being treated great and I know other people like being treated great, so you exceed their expectation and you are going to win all day long,” Stamper says. “When our expectations are exceeded and we love it, we’re going to buy more of it, and we’re not going to go anywhere else.”
Win-win is so fundamental to entrepreneurship, but it is fading as companies focus entirely on maximizing shareholder value. The soft skills are the easiest to teach, but also the easiest to abandon because there is no price tag fixed to being nice, courteous, responsive.
Stamper practiced those soft skills often as a 26-year-old working for his mentor, Dave Knowlton (BBA ’79), and his sister, Bonney Shuman (BBA ’80), at Stratix. The company developed barcode technologies and Stamper worked his way into a role as COO.
He remembers once talking to a customer at Levi Strauss who was about twice Stamper’s age. The man had trouble grasping the technology in 1987, but Stamper successfully walked him through it.
“He was so appreciative it made me feel valuable,” Stamper says. “I wasn’t just working, I was valued. It exceeded my expectation for myself and I exceeded theirs in providing service.”
Stamper was with Stratix 11 years and then saw his opportunity. The specialty printing market was underserved and he founded FineLine Technologies. Anything the consumer can buy today has a label with a barcode and the label is unique to the retailer, whether it is Dick’s, Nordstrom’s, or Macy’s. FineLine Technologies connected the retailer’s data lickety-split with printing facilities in close proximity to the factories where products were being made.
It was genius in 1998 because the internet was starting to get juiced up to handle the digital wave of commerce with cloud computing. Stamper merely smiles. “Our timing was just right,” he says, in his usual modest, thankful sort of way.
In 2011, Stamper sold FineLine Technologies to private equity and “got a pretty significant amount.” He and his wife Kim (BBA ’89) decided they would make sure their children were comfortable and then do their best to give the rest back to worthy causes.
In 2014, out of nowhere, he had headaches and memory loss. Doctors found two brain tumors and a tumor in his lung from metastatic melanoma. It was Stage 4. He was treated at Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University and, five years later, the 58-year old Stamper says he is clean of the cancer.
Understand, he was that thankful person before the brush with death. For most people, the thankfulness-gene shows up after you survive. Stamper was the other way around.
Stamper is a member of UGA’s Innovation District External Advisory Board. He is listed there simply as “entrepreneur.”
“I think I can teach it,” Stamper says when asked about schooling future entrepreneurs to see possibilities in business. “People ask me ‘How do you think of these things?’ I’m wired so that if I see something and it doesn’t perform, I think about how I can make it better for people.”
Perhaps that is at the core of Price/Scott/Stamper. It wasn’t what was in the water, it was in the heart. Make things better, and pass it on.