As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Boaz, president and CEO of AirFreight.com.
An entrepreneur, innovator and logistics expert, Dan Boaz has been involved in transportation for more than 30 years. In 2007, he founded AirFreight.com as a logistics company that specializes in expedited shipping. He continues to improve the company through advanced technology and innovative strategy.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was in need of a job after leaving the military, and I applied for one as a loader with UPS. The personnel manager confirmed that I had military experience and could drive a truck, and then threw a UPS jacket at me and said, “Let’s go see how well you can drive.” He hired me on the spot.
I drove for about two years before getting promoted into management, first as a driver supervisor, then a preload supervisor and finally into industrial engineering. A decade later, I was recruited by a former manager of mine to work for an air freight company at LAX. I did that for about two years before realizing I could use my experience at UPS and with the air freight forwarder to start my own business.
At my company, we treated every shipment like it was gold — trucks were washed, and drivers needed to be in pressed uniforms and clean-shaven. I made sure every little detail was perfect, including our offices, which had top-notch furniture, and our warehouses, which we maintained with the best technology available.
Attention to detail is so important when you run a time-critical emergency shipping company because nothing can go wrong. I run this business like I am still in the military and am always prepared to provide whatever the customer needs. When customers come to visit, they are often impressed by what they see. This is how I run my company and my life — eliminate failures before they happen and always be ready. I attribute this attitude to the valuable learning experiences I had while in both the military and at UPS.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When 9/11 hit, the world literally stopped. People just wanted to go home and watch the news. Airlines stopped and, in turn, so did the air shipping world. I was president of the logistics company Vital Express at the time, and we could not have prepared for anything like this since it had never happened before.
First, we had to rally everyone, have some big group hugs and get our heads clear. Then, we all motivated ourselves as a team to stay positive and try to figure out how we could get through this. That’s when we came up with our plan B.
As one example, General Dynamics, a global aerospace and defense company, needed us to move small, one-pound boxes across the country. Since we could not deliver these by air as we normally would, we started sending couriers with one box at a time to drive from the West Coast to the East Coast. We had never done this before, so we had to navigate everything quickly. It was a sharp learning curve, but we worked together and made it happen.
Of course, the tragedy of that day outweighed everything else. We wanted to provide any help that we could, so we donated a 53-foot air ride truck, and sent one of our drivers to New York City with bottles of water and supplies for Americares [a nonprofit relief organization].
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We landed a very large customer, and it was all hands on deck. Everyone in the company needed to be involved, including me, so I got in a truck for the first few weeks and made deliveries just like everyone else.
One day, a customer asked me for my boss’s name and number. At that point, I should have told her that I was the president of the company, but instead, I said that my boss’s name was Dan Boaz and gave her my email address and direct number. Then, of course, she asked what my name was. At that point, I had to admit that I was Dan Boaz. Then she said, “Are you punking me?” After I assured her I was not, she gave me a big hug and started laughing. She just wanted to praise my boss on my professionalism and to compliment the company.
The biggest thing I took away from that experience was how easy it was to make a difference, how easy it was to do my job — to be in that moment. The lesson learned was to stop and take that moment at that time and just really give your attention to that customer. Just being nice made a difference.
I’m only talking about a moment in time where I was making one delivery, but that was a game changer. I told the story to everyone at the company. It changed how we treated our customers and many people cherished that moment because I’m supposed to be the boss, but I was also the driver.
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 about that?
Michael Scarpelli, chief financial officer at Snowflake, has been a friend for many years and has given me great advice on growing a fast-paced company. His advice is simple but effective:
- Don’t outgrow yourself.
- Keep your finances in order.
- Pay your taxes.
- Get a key person running your accounting and a CFO.
I did what he said and, even though it sounds simple, it was great advice. In fact, having his guidance and mentorship has contributed greatly to the success of the company.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Our customers are multicultural and we should be too. We need to think and act with not just respect for other races, but to be inclusive of the lifestyles of others. Our customers come from all walks of life, and we must be sensitive to their way of life. Diversity, equality and inclusion must be a way of life moving forward. We can’t go backward.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
It is so important. In our world of transportation, you encounter a diverse array of people every day. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. We’re very much about that within our business; we have to be. It’s such a crazy world that we live in, and there’s so much going on. Just be a good, compassionate employer and a good, passionate person in general, and just don’t be a dictator; be open and willing to listen.
In our world of transportation, there are often language barriers, there are cultural barriers, there are boundaries that you learn really quickly. You’re talking to so many different people every single day. Our employees learn quickly how to deal, understand and give respect. Just because someone speaks a different language and may struggle with English, for example, doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent or that they’re not going to be a good customer. You have to take everybody seriously and treat them with the utmost respect.
My employees learn and adapt very quickly, and they understand how important it is because we live in a very diverse world. We mainly concentrate on the U.S., Canada and Mexico, but we talk to people from all over the world.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
When you are the captain of the ship, you are the first one in and the last one to leave. If the ship goes down and you have to stay on the boat, you’re the captain. As a CEO, you work very, very hard, and you have a lot of balls in the air, a lot of things going on, and that’s par for the course.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth is that there are a certain set of boxes that someone needs to check before they can be a CEO. That is simply not true. Anyone can be the CEO. They just have to want to take on that responsibility.
Of course, it is a lot of responsibility. There are legal and financial responsibilities, and you put your life and career on the line when you take on that title. A vice president position is easier in many ways because you’re not the guy, and everyone isn’t looking at you.
I saw that contrast firsthand as past president of The Expedite Association of North America. It’s much easier to be a past president because I don’t have to make decisions anymore. They don’t call me every time things go wrong. It’s nice to live both sides of it in different organizations.
As a CEO, that’s part of the reason you just don’t sleep. Something is always going on, and your brain is always going. So, as I said, anyone can be a CEO, but you’re leveraging a lot of things in life, whether it’s your time or finances. It’s a job that anyone can do — it just depends if you want to do it or not.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Most people think being a CEO means being the person in the big office in the corner but, in fact, it’s actually being the person that works the hardest in the smallest office or desk.
I remember going to HubSpot eight or nine years ago, and Brian Halligan spoke at a CEO forum there. At the time, I did have a big office in the corner. I asked Brian where his office was, and he showed me that it was a cubicle right in the middle of all of the other employees. It was so unique to see Brian just sitting there making his calls, doing his thing in the middle of everybody.
It really shows that, instead of a CEO being the guy in the big corner office, sometimes you’re just the hardest-working guy in the room.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
First and foremost, you have to be ready to work hard. If you don’t want to work hard, then being a CEO will not be a good fit.
I can usually tell if someone is going to be a good leader. There are many people that want to come to work, do their job and leave. There is nothing wrong with that attitude, but that’s not being an executive. Executives have to be available 24/7. Being a leader or executive of a company is not a clock-in, clock-out type of job.
In addition, as a CEO, you have to be a motivator, and you can’t be a negative person. You have to be ready to take on challenges because they’re coming at you at all times, and just when you think you’re caught up, more challenges present themselves.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
It’s the little things. Start by coming in and saying “hello” and “good morning” to everyone in your office. Ask them about their day, but don’t tell them too much about yours because it’s not about you. Leave your door open to your employees. Be open, honest and transparent to everyone. Buy your team lunch and enjoy it with them. Ask them about their families and what keeps them up at night. Help them when you can. Tell them you are there for them if they ever need your help. Be a man or woman of your word and be there for them when they need you.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I try every day to make the world we live in a better place simply by leading by example, being kind and honest, and treating people with dignity. We live in a crazy world with so much negativity, and the leaders of today need to do what they can in their organizations to help change this. It is important to use your time as a leader to make a difference each and every day.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Failure will come before success.
If you’re just starting, all people usually think about is success. Unfortunately, failure is going to happen. The failures come way before any success, so you have to be willing to take a lot of lumps and keep getting back up, try again and fail again. Big things happen along the way that you think you can’t overcome, but you can overcome anything.
The important thing to remember is to not quit after a failure. The only way to learn is to keep going with the knowledge that you are going to run into a lot of failures along the way. It’s the №1 thing you need to learn as a leader, entrepreneur or CEO of a company.
2. You will have more bad days than good ones, so stay positive.
You will have a lot of bad days along with the good. During those times, CEOs have to stay focused and know that achieving company goals will not be an easy road.
You have to stay positive, have a good attitude and be surrounded by good people that can pick you up when something goes wrong. Most of the time you will need to be the person trying to stay positive during challenging times. As a CEO, this is important because if you get negative, then the organization absorbs that and spreads that negativity to everyone, so you really gotta stay focused and stay positive.
3. When you think you have made it, you have just begun.
When you’ve landed that big customer or had a lot of success, you may think that is the pinnacle. The truth is that it is just time to set a new bar. You have to keep setting that bar because a company is either growing or dying.
In a publicly traded company, stock would plummet if a CEO said that the company had hit the top and that they are never going to grow any more. That lesson applies across the board. After a success, the next step is to go up or go down, and nobody wants to go down. CEOs have to always think about how to get to the next level and, once you get there, how to keep going.
4. Don’t look back because you can’t change the past.
Like any other CEO, I have made a lot of mistakes along the way. When that happens, you can’t change it; you can only build upon it. It’s a tough mentality because you want to look back, but you really have to move forward and change.
In the aftermath of a misstep, a CEO has to keep everyone motivated because if the company is going through challenges, the employees are going to feel the repercussions of it. In addition, you and the employees have to mentally overcome everything as well. That often does not happen overnight — especially when there are significant issues. Sometimes it takes one year or even two years to get through it psychologically. But these struggles can turn out to be beneficial in the end, and we’re a way better company now because of it.
5. Never give up.
As a leader, I am often inspired by the words of Kobe Byrant: “Those times when you get up early and you work hard; those times when you stay up late and you work hard; those times when you don’t feel like working, you’re too tired, you don’t want to push yourself, but you do it anyway — that is actually the dream.”
When you’re so physically and mentally exhausted that you just want to quit, that is when, as a CEO, you need to pick yourself back up and remind yourself that you can do this. You need to find a way to bring energy to a project that maybe you didn’t even know you had. That could be as simple as drinking some coffee in the afternoon or taking a bike ride in the middle of the day to get your energy going.
Michael Jordan, another leader that I admire, has faced many challenges in his life personally and professionally, but his accomplishments as an athlete and a businessman eclipse all of that. He is so successful simply because he has that never-give-up mentality. As a CEO, It is so easy sometimes just to quit, but you only accomplish great things if you keep going.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I had that power, I would want to inspire a #BeKind movement. It is so easy to spread positive energy with a simple gesture, a positive statement or an act of kindness. This movement would encourage people to just be kind to people in this world, especially to the less fortunate, and to give back to your community,
We all get hit with so much negativity whether it’s on the news, going down the street or getting cut off on the road. How can we make a difference? There are a lot of things we can’t change in this world, but I think this is one area where we can all make a difference.
The world can be a crazy place, but kindness spreads. When you say hello to somebody, they say hello back and they’re in a better mood. Small acts such as letting someone go before you at an intersection or opening the door for somebody also spread that wave of kindness.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Never say never, because limits, like fears, are often an illusion.”
— Michael Jordan
Limits are illusions, both mentally and physically. In business, we need to be limitless because we can do anything. There shouldn’t be a ceiling on what we can achieve.
I try to teach this to my daughter every day when she tells me she cannot do something. I am her golf coach, and at tournaments when she gets mad and wants to throw her clubs, I remind her of this lesson. Once you can coach somebody to change that thinking, it’s amazing what can be done.
Both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are excellent examples of taking things to another level in sports and in business. That’s why I applaud these two individuals because what they did in sports was absolutely amazing, but to see what they’ve done in business is truly incredible.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
This is probably obvious from what I have already said, but Michael Jordan is my choice here. He has achieved the pinnacle in sports, business and life. He has had so many challenges in his life — especially losing his father — but he never quit.
He has inspired me to overcome challenges that I have faced in my life, especially during a difficult time when I lost many of my family members in a single year. It would have been so easy just to stop and quit, but I picked myself up and worked harder instead.