As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Pete Warhurst, CEO Red Rover.
A serial entrepreneur, Pete has had 100% success rate on profitable exits from his start-up ventures. Pete launched PODS in 1997 and grew it to over 100 corporate and franchise owned locations in the US, Canada and Australia before selling to private equity in 2007. The clear leader of the portable storage industry, Pete led PODS growth through numerous capital raises and innovations including custom software, proprietary lift system, container manufacturing, and a complex logistics network to perform inter-location (long distance) moves.
A creative thinker with demonstrated skills in operations, engineering, and finance, Pete’s accomplishments also include: co-founding 911 EAI systems, the 2nd largest provider of 911 routing software which he sold to Bell Atlantic in early 1992; developed Florida Mini-Storage, selling in 1997 as the prelude to PODS; and creating a car wash concept with intent to build a regional brand, sold in 2019. Pete has obtained multiple patents including those on PODZILLA, the lift system for PODS, and sits on the board of Raynor garage doors.
Thank you so much for your time Pete! 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?
I was a volunteer fireman in Long Island, New York, wanting to pursue firefighting as a career but there was a long waiting list in that region. I had heard that they were hiring fireman in Florida, so in 1973 I moved to Clearwater, Florida, and within a month I was offered a job. Back at that time, EMT’s were a new thing and I was one of the first to join their new paramedics program.
Around the late 70’s the 911 emergency call system had just started and our Fire Chief, who knew I was pretty handy and was interested in technology, asked me what I knew about computers. I told him not much but I was interested in learning! Long story short, I got involved in the project to consolidate the dispatch centers for 23 fire departments and two police departments. We built the 911 center and software for Pinellas county which ultimately became a nationally renowned 911 dispatch system. At that point, me and two others left the fire department to start 911 EAI systems which ended up being 2nd largest police, fire, and EMS dispatch and records management software across the US and Canada. We sold it to Bell Atlantic in 1985. At that point, I went into retirement, but it didn’t take. I started looking at ministorage which prompted the the idea for PODS which I started in 1997, ultimately selling in 2007. I went into retirement again. But apparently, I’m not so good at retirement! I had the Red Rover® concept in my head and just had to give it a try.
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?
When I was starting up my self-storage facility, one of the appealing aspects of it was that it had low labor costs — maybe only two to three people to manage the operation. Ultimately my involvement with self-storage led me to the idea for the PODS concept — where the storage was brought to the customer. I thought it might be a bolt on business to our self-storage facility with maybe 100 storage containers — but the concept was bigger than I thought. When I was there, PODS had over 200,000 containers and over 1000 employees! I guess the lesson is that no matter how smart you are, when you are starting a company, you have to be flexible and seize opportunities when they present themselves.
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?
There are lots of people that have helped me achieve success but that is really the key to my leadership approach. Nobody has all the answers, so I strongly believe in surrounding myself with people that are smarter than me in their areas of specialty. I’ve been blessed and fortunate to have surrounded myself with smart motivated people who were able to share my vision and create successful companies.
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?
There aren’t too many moving and storage options so consumers are somewhat at the mercy of the service providers. And if you aren’t of financial means, there are even less options. In many ways, Red Rover® was born from the opportunity to fix some of the mistakes we made at PODS, some of which still plague them today. In my opinion, we took the best parts of portable storage, truck rental and self-storage to create a new breed of moving and storage: Fetchable Storage®. In doing so, we are providing an under-served consumer with a great experience at a cheaper price. Not to mention that it is an extraordinarily profitable business model for our shareholders.
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?
I think the key to leadership during difficult times is to maintain nimbleness and a sense of optimism. Now that optimism has to be based in reality but people need a leader who can envision and communicate a path forward through challenges. Whether it was dealing with financial difficulties during the early days at PODS or launching the Red Rover® start up during a pandemic, taking action is key. You must stay nimble and don’t get caught in analysis paralysis.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I don’t think I ever really considered giving up once I had a vision in my head. Red Rover® is a great example. I tried two different routes to launch the concept before starting it up myself. First I tried to sell the concept to PODS, then I tried to buy another portable storage company and implement it there. Neither worked out but the vision, and the benefit to the customer, were so clear in my head, I just had to try it.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
We’ve touched on this a bit already. You need to be nimble, and that means leaning on your team. Empowering them. Discuss the issues and potential solutions, then drive the team towards that solution.
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? Include the team in the decision-making process.
I think it’s good to be there in the trenches with the team. Be visible. Be positive. Enlist their expertise to develop the plan forward. When they have buy-in and ownership, their dedication to execute will be amazing.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Own it. You have to be straight forward and honest. But you also have to let them know what plans we have to remedy the situation. If you’ve always been straight forward with them in the past, providing a positive workplace for your employees and a quality service to your customers, they will understand.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Plan as best as you can while knowing that the only thing that is certain about that plan is that it will be wrong as soon as it is published. You can’t predict what the future holds but you can put in place an organization and an attitude that will be able to react to whatever challenge is put in front of them.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
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?
- I think going “dark” is the biggest mistake. Whether it is communicating to your team, to your customer, to your shareholders or your board of directors, people need to understand what is going on and what is being done about it. If you don’t build the narrative someone else will fill the void. And in a challenging time, that narrative is likely to be far worse than reality.
- Doing something desperate that is “off-brand” to save business will ultimately hurt you in the long run.
- Completely cutting marketing/advertising. It’s been proven time and time again and I’ve seen it myself, the brands that continue to be present in the community during a downturn come out stronger on the other side.
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?
I often meet with entrepreneurs and businesspeople that ask me for this kind of advice. I tell them a couple of things.
- Follow your vision. Easy to say but hard to do.
- Next, there are the logistical realities about starting a business. For me, the most important things are:
- How are you going to differentiate yourself and build top of mind awareness?
- Whatever you think your budget and launch timeframe are going to be — double it.
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.
- Nimbleness: We launched Red Rover® about a month before COVID19 hit. We paused our launch, but we also pivoted our marketing to have a larger focus on our contactless solution.
- Communication: When we made the decision to work from home, the first thing we did was implement daily zoom calls. This helped us all feel connected to the business and connected to each other. It helped us make decisions quickly and I think the team also enjoyed it while we were all craving social interaction during lock-down.
- Positive outlook: It is tremendously important in difficult times to make sure the team feels your confidence about weathering the storm. Even if we were discussing difficult things, I always tried to maintain a positive outlook.
- Empower your team: When things are difficult, it is easy to become frozen or want to rely on somebody else to do something because it’s new to you. The team has to be engaged, challenged and empowered to make decisions.
- Be Visible: The team needs to see you and not wonder “what’s going on behind closed doors.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m a fan of Jim Collins’ Good to Great and the Hedgehog Concept. If you have passion about your business, believe that you can be the best at it, and focus on delivering that vision, good things will happen.
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