As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,**” we had the pleasure of interviewing Chuck Masek.
Chuck Masek is a perennial entrepreneur who has grown and sold several businesses. Chuck has extensive experience in the health care industry and holds a Master of Science in clinical microbiology.
He is the founder and former President / CEO of Vanguard Medical Concepts, Inc. At Vanguard, he innovated and developed the reprocessing of medical devices labeled single use industry. He has spent his career striving to make positive and meaningful changes in healthcare.
A man of faith and family, Chuck is married to the love of his life, Marge, and they have four grown children. The Masek’s live in Florida.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Everybody loves a success story, a tale of how someone fought through all the obstacles in their way and were able to experience the life they had only dreamt about. Such stories remind us that there is usually a price for everything we achieve. In the famous quote by Winston Churchill, he says “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
There is a little of each of these in my story. My tale contains lots of unexpected twists and turns on the path to finding security and contentment.
I was raised in a military family, with a father who was a combat Marine and fought in the battle of Okinawa during WWII, and as a result, suffered from “battle fatigue” (what we refer to today as PTSD). While his unpredictable fits of rage often created uncertainty, my mother’s calm, yet tough and at times emotionless outlook taught me how to be a fierce competitor and made me mentally strong.
At 17 I began drinking (underage) and getting into trouble. My bad behavior continued in my first (and last) semester at Junior college. Although I settled down into a routine once I joined the Air Force, I continued to get into trouble. It was during that time I met Marge (my wife) and my life began to subtly change.
After we were married, I went back to college and earned a master’s degree in clinical microbiology. Working in the medical tech field I spent most of my days in a lab looking at samples under a microscope. It was not overly exciting work, and the pay was not much better.
I spent every day working by myself and had little interaction with other people. It was the visits from salesmen who stopped by that became memorable. Their visits offered me a glimpse at the life I wanted. They seemed comfortable with their success and satisfied with their lives. I wasn’t. I hungered for more.
My career in sales got off to a shaky start, and soon I found myself chasing sales jobs around the country. Whatever the reason, I was unfazed by rejection and surged forward into the future I would shape for myself.
Often when I thought my dreams were just in sight, everything I was depending upon collapsed in front of my eyes. And when that happened, time and again, I had to take a hard look at myself, which was not an easy task. I’d been working since I was a teenager, but where did my talents lie? What was I was good at and enjoyed doing? The answer to every question I asked was sales. It was what filled me with confidence, excited me, and would allow me to best support my family, what would challenge and engage me.
I had spent the past fifteen years honing the skills I relied upon in childhood to diffuse those dangerous situations with my father and I had become a successful salesman, thanks in part to him. I also loved being a salesman. Selling to people was not only a productive exchange but an enjoyable one — for them and for me.
Once I understood my talents I was able to focus my attention, and with the help of a dedicated group of employees, many of who became lifelong friends built a company that revolutionized the medical device reprocessing industry.
Recently I was sitting on my porch and I gazed out over my property and thought about how I came to be here. I see the majestic old oak tree that stands undaunted before me, which could have been felled by one of the storms that frequently blow through, yet remains firmly rooted despite the punishing winds and rain that have felled so many trees before. I am like that oak. After all, I have endured, I am still standing strong.
I cannot help but think about the combination of hard work and God’s grace that brought me to this moment. I am happy, content, and successful. Not too many years ago that was not an assured outcome. I have stumbled and fallen many times along the way, reminding me that I am as unremarkable as the next man. In truth, my failures are part of my story. How they were redeemed is what drives it forward.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I remember a time when I made a rookie mistake and was told to “get out.”
A large hospital system in Wisconsin asked us to do a joint venture with them to reprocess their single use devices. After going over the details with my CFO, Jeff, we decided it was not financially feasible. I made an appointment with the Vice President of Materials Management of the hospital system and decided to take Jeff with me to the appointment to help explain the reasons why this venture wasn’t financially feasible for Vanguard. The plan was for Jeff to present the financial reasons why this wouldn’t work for Vanguard, then, I would present an alternative proposal. In the meeting, along with the Vice President, was his second in command.
Jeff began the meeting explaining to them why their proposal wasn’t financially feasible for Vanguard. When he finished his presentation, the Vice President said in a very direct voice “get out”.
At first, I looked over my shoulder thinking he was talking to someone else. Then the second in command, said “he means you two.” I looked at Jeff with surprise on my face and motioned to him to get up.
We stood in the hallway for a few minutes in disbelief and I told him this had never happened to me before, and then we both began to laugh.
After some reflection, I realized I had made a rookie salesman’s mistake. You always present the positive position first and then the reasons why the original proposal wouldn’t work.
I also recognized that I should have waited and only brought Jeff into the discussions once the deal was closed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
In the early days of Vanguard, I had very little cash. I had maxed out all of my credit cards; and, at this time, I was renting 600 sq ft in a small strip mall. As we grew, I rented additional 600 sq ft spaces.
One day I mentioned to my landlord, Mike, that I was trying to raise $100,000 to grow our business. After he checked with his wife about me (she attended the same church my wife and I attended) he offered to loan me the money; however, there was a catch. He would charge me 18% interest (the legal limit at that time), also, I would sell him shares in the company, which I agreed to repurchase at a hefty profit to him. I was able to pay him back $140,000 the next year.
My wife did not like this deal as she thought it was extremely unfair. However, without this loan, the company would not have survived.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I started the company after one of my biggest failures. I lost $2M in a business venture in Haiti. I was forced to return to my roots as a manufacturer’s rep selling products to hospitals.
At the time my immediate goal was to feed my family and not lose our home. That was the motivation that was driving me.
Through a series of events, I began repackaging products for hospitals. These products had been opened but not used during surgery. I was able to do this successfully, which then led to a customer asking me to reprocess and repackage a device that had been used in surgery.
This changed my focus from financial survival to creating an industry to reprocess devices labeled single use by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
From the very beginning, I knew that we needed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate our business. Although we were regulated under the Quality System Regulations (QSR) like all medical device manufacturers, the FDA would not accept a 510(k) from us. This is the pathway for manufacturers to bring new products to market. It is a “Claim of Substantial Equivalence”. The OEMs used this gap in the regulations to convince potential customers not to do business with us.
This was one of many difficult issues I had to navigate and lead my team through. I have found that true leadership starts with always keeping the focus of the team on the goal. There are always ups and downs in any business; however, a true leader leads! This leadership includes praise, encouragement, chiding, and even strong rebuke.
Applying these tactics at the appropriate time and measure ultimately defines a true leader.
In the late 1990s, my management team and I met with the FDA and asked them to regulate our fledgling industry. Over the next several years, through many struggles, Congress passed the Medical Device User Fee and Modernization Act (MDUFMA) which finally allowed the FDA to accept 510(k)s from our industry.
Although many battles still lay ahead, the passing of the MDUFMA effectively ended the war.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
When you are in a war and your back is to the sea, there is only one way to go and that is forward. I could never consider giving up since I had nowhere to go speaking.
Based on my upbringing and my temperament, I have always been up for a good fight. I was never a strong or physically large man, but I have always been mentally tough (mostly due to my mother’s influence). As a result, I was well suited for this battle.
When you strip everything away, what motivates and sustains me is my firm belief in providence.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most important role a leader plays during challenging times is to keep their team focused on the vision. Without this, the people will lose interest and become demoralized.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
In my opinion, the best and only way to boost morale is the use of encouragement. After focusing your team’s attention on the vision, the second most important attribute of a true leader is encouragement.
It has never ceased to amaze me how a small amount of encouragement can produce large and positive results.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Difficult news must be communicated as soon as possible. The most important way to do this is through direct personal contact. There is no substitute for this. It is a true characteristic of a leader to make sure all stakeholders are notified and involved in dealing with the bad news.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
As President Eisenhower famously stated, “Plans are worthless, planning is everything.”
There are always unpredictable issues just over the horizon. As a leader, one of your most important roles is to bring your management team’s efforts in line with the company’s vision so that the company’s mission can be achieved.
Because of the nature of our business (reprocessing medical devices labeled single use), our plans were also changing to meet the attacks of the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). This forced us to be flexible and nimble as we navigated uncharted waters.
As a result, we found ourselves planning every week. The time for long-range planning would have to wait until we had neutralized the attacks of the “Big Dogs.”
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
At the end of the day, the overriding principle is that every single employee, from the president to the line product worker, must all be pulling the same way. Everyone’s attention must be focused like a laser to stay on track to meet the company’s mission.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The most common mistake a business makes is running out of cash.
A wise older successful businessman once told me when I was first starting there are three rules to being a successful businessman.
Rule number 1: Never run out of cash
Rule number 2: Never run out of cash
Rule number 3: Never run out of cash
One of the most common reasons for running out of cash is growing too fast. For every dollar in sales, you need at least another three dollars to support this. This would include dollars in receivables, payables, and inventory.
Another common reason is understanding the total startup investment needed and the monthly operating cost. There is an old saying in business “it always costs more and it always takes longer than you plan for.”
Finally, one of the most common and deadliest mistakes a business makes is not keeping all of the employees focused on the company’s vision.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
In our business the economy was fine, it was the unrelenting attacks of the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that caused challenges. They often used unethical and, in some cases, illegal methods to try not only to slow our growth; but, in many instances, put us out of business.
During these turbulent times, we focused our customer’s attention on the science, which supported that what we were doing was safe and effective.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- The most important action a leader must do in uncertain times is to keep the employees focused on the company’s vision (it has been said “without a vision, the people perish”), to accomplish the company’s mission.
When the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) bullied the FDA into taking our most profitable products off the market (this was the last battle we fought before winning the war), the company had to lay off 30 people to survive. This created a sense of uncertainty that permeated the company. It was a critical juncture where I needed to keep everyone’s focus on the company’s vision. Without this, I am not sure we would have survived.
2. A leader must always encourage his employees, especially during turbulent times.
All the products we needed to reprocess came from the hospitals. When UPS went on strike in the late 1990s, our supply of products we needed to reprocess began to slow down. Everyone understood what this meant; and, as a result, the morale of the company began to waver.
It was then I began a daily routine where I would go throughout the plant twice a day to speak with the employees on the production line as well as all the other departments. I would encourage everyone. I would ask questions about their family and how they were doing. I would answer questions.
I found this routine to be so successful, that I continued this practice throughout my tenure.
3. A good leader acts swiftly when dealing with critical problems.
When I became aware that one of our Vice Presidents had an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, I instantly terminated this individual. The message that was received by the employees was that their leader would not tolerate inappropriate behavior from anyone in the company, regardless of rank.
4. A true leader leads by example. When the production workers would see my wife, Marge, shopping at Walmart (when they assumed she could shop at more upscale stores) they were very impressed and saw her (and by extension me) as one of them.
5. The mark of a true leader is one who “seeks first to understand and then to be understood.”
In any meeting, when we were trying to solve a problem, it was important to let everyone express their ideas. It is critical to get buy-in with everyone in the meeting, so when we went forth to execute the plan to solve the problem, everyone was on board and pulling the same way. Time and time again I saw positive results when everyone had an opportunity to give input.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“There is nothing impossible to him who will try,” Alexander the Great.
From the very beginning, my mother always encouraged me. When I told her that I wanted to be president or a spaceman or any other idea that popped in my head, she would always say to me, “Chuckie you can do that because I know you will try.”
One of my early life lessons from my mom that ensured that I would always try is when she said to me, “Chuckie, I bet you can’t run out to the mailbox and get the mail back to me before I count to ten.”
I would run outside while she waited, mentally counting the seconds in time with my breathing and the pumping of my arms and legs. When I made it back to the house, out of breath every time, my mother would say “eleven” or “twelve,” taking the mail from me and turning her back. No matter how fast I ran, I could never make it back to the house before she got to ten.
Years later, I once mentioned this recollection to my mother. “No matter how fast I ran, I could never make it back in time.” My mother simply said, “I didn’t count — I just called out a number when you opened the door.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can visit my website: www.masekbooks.com