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 Ray May.
A former United States Marine Corps Officer, Ray Mays serves as Chief Executive Officer at Eye Centers of Tennessee (ECOTN), the Upper Cumberland’s leading eye care provider. Ray has been with ECOTN since 1998, and during his tenure, the company has experienced sustained growth while consistently delivering the highest quality patient care. Today, Ray manages a team of 13 physicians and a professional support staff of more than 125 employees across nine Tennessee locations as well as an ambulatory surgery center that performs over 3,000 procedures annually.
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?
I’m originally from Henderson, Kentucky. I left in 1982 and never looked back.
I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Marine Corps and served in the first Gulf War in 1991. I was deeply committed to my role in the service but was unfortunately caught up in a mandatory reduction in personnel, and my entire life’s plan was suddenly thrown into turmoil.
After that experience, I decided I’d never again be in a position where someone I didn’t know and had never met could impact my life, so my entrepreneurial journey began there. Around this same time, I got married. I’d read an article about a place called Crossville, Tennessee, and my wife and I decided to move there. Despite some serious twists and turns in my career that I’ll discuss later, Crossville is where I live today and operate a successful ophthalmic business called Eye Centers of Tennessee.
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?
It’s not “funny,” but I learned the biggest mistake is operating as a sole proprietorship. If you’re running a sole proprietorship right now, find out how you can change it!
After being part of a personnel reduction in the Marine Corps, my dad gave me some startup money and I started a farming tractor business. I’d grown up in cattle farming, so I thought this would be a good fit for my skill set and the rural Crossville market. Within a year or so, I realized growing up cattle farming had nothing to do with running a retail store. I’d been a successful Marine, but that experience didn’t keep us from shutting down and filing for bankruptcy.
Essentially what happened was we were sued, and even though it was a frivolous lawsuit that was eventually dropped, as a sole proprietorship, we had no protection. It was brutal. We were trying to save $300 in filing fees, and it wound up costing us everything.
My takeaway was that it was my fault. It’s incumbent on business owners to have a better understanding of potential landmines and to protect themselves from them. It took me about six years, which included a year-long stint in Saudia Arabia away from my family, to recover financially from that mishap. All this to say, you can dig yourself out of adverse situations if you just keep going, but it’s also better to avoid them when possible.
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?
So when I found myself working with Dr. Larry Patterson, he had started a small ophthalmology practice and had maybe seven or eight employees. Larry owned his own job — in other words, if he wasn’t working, no money was really coming in. We set out to change that and had some extremely lofty goals.
It was the year 2000, so we’re talking more than 20 years ago now. We came up with an idea to build an office and ambulatory surgery center in Crossville. An architect drew it up, and the price came in at $4 million. We had a patient at the time who was a Word War II veteran, the first producer of the Today Show… Just a really interesting guy. He started an oil exploration company, eventually sold it, and had retired to Crossville with his wife. He had achieved incredible wealth over the course of his career, and we called him in one day to see what he thought about our plans.
Everyone thought we were crazy, but this patient and mentor of ours told us to go for it. He gave us some really good perspective. We asked, “Are we too old to start a project like this?” He laughed and said, “I’ll trade ya!” He was about 80 at the time, and his attitude was, “40 is nothing! If you got a 30-year loan today, it’d be paid off for 10 years by the time you’re my age.” He was just a wonderful guy who lived a great life, and we definitely owe some of our success to his advice and encouragement.
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?
So, a guy named Pete Drucker once said that “the purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.” I’ve realized that’s incomplete. From my perspective, the real purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer, at a profit, forever. Our mission is to deliver world-class eye care in the Upper Cumberland area of Tennessee. We set out to deliver service that creates and keeps our customers for their entire lives. A person may come in and see us for glasses when they’re young and then come back for glaucoma surgery in their later years. In all that we do, we’re working to be that go-to solution for eye care — for all who need it, for the span of their lifetimes.
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?
Let’s go back to 2001–20 years ago, when we were starting the construction on our $4 million project that everyone was telling us was going to fail (well, everybody but me, Larry, and that patient I mentioned earlier). The day the steel in our building was going up was September 11, 2001. There wasn’t much in the way of the Internet back then, and someone says, “There’s something going on in New York.” Our architect was actually in the air flying down to our project site, and the World Trade Center story comes out — we immediately had a builder weld a big pole on top of the building that day to put up an American flag. It was very cool. But there were so many challenges that this experience created.
Our bank called and said, “Ray, we’re going to have to cut off your money for this project until we have a better understanding of what’s going to happen.” I ended up going to the emergency room thinking I was having a heart attack, but it turns out it was anxiety. My daughter wasn’t even 2 years old at the time, and we were already about $1 million in on the project.
Fast forward two days to September 13th, and there’s just panic. Our builders are panicking, I’m panicking, Larry’s panicking. Nobody could fly, our architect couldn’t get to us, nothing was happening and I just decided: “I’m going to figure this out.” I managed to secure the funding we needed for the week to patch us through, and within 30 days, I’d secured a loan from the USDA (something I’d been told would take 90 days or longer).
So really, for me, leading through difficult times is simply not giving up. When pressure is building, someone has to do something. It is a crucible of necessity. But leaders keep going, and keep finding ways to adapt and move forward.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Never. Anybody that knows me knows that my foundation as a Marine Corps officer means giving up is simply not an option. In the Marines, you learn that you give up when you’re killed or when the mission’s accomplished. That’s the same way I approach my goals in business and in life. The movie Master & Commander has a scene where a French warship pulls up behind them — they’re caught; the ship is bigger faster, etc. Russel Crowe’s character says, “We must survive this day,” and they do. Sometimes your mission may have to be that narrow, simply making it through until the next day. But quitting for me is not an option.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leadership is at the very core of what officers do in the military. Being a leader has all kinds of connotations, but the most important one is to remain calm. Especially during challenging times, those reporting to you are looking to you to understand not just what to do, but also how to feel. When you stay calm, others are more likely to do the same, and you’re better able to delegate tasks and tackle whatever issues need addressing.
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?
I might flip this on its head and say that we should really be viewing uncertainty as the norm. It’s what you have all the time. You can’t eliminate uncertainty, so what you should do is plan for it. Come up with standard operating procedures and simple, flexible contingency plans. The most important thing is giving clear direction and defining responsibilities so that subordinate leaders have some autonomy in the decision-making process. Every member of our team at Eye Centers of Tennessee runs into moments of uncertainty every day, and it’s my job to have a reporting structure and clear responsibilities in place so that they have the flexbility to handle problems when they arise.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be direct. Say, “Here’s what’s happening, and here’s what we’re doing about it.” Remain calm, concise, and clear. Well-run businesses should have already built a level of trust amongst staff members and customers when a difficult situation arises, and addressing problems head-on is the best way to maintain that trust.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Your mission is what defines the plans. Circumstances may arise that cause the plans to change, but the mission should not. For instance, if you take off in an airplane from New York headed to Paris and the plan has to redirect for some reason, you’ll eventually still land in Paris. The plans for how to get to Paris may have changed, but the mission to arrive there has not. For that reason, I encourage business leaders to really evaluate their mission statements to see if they provide that unyielding beacon during challenging times and moments of uncertainty.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
At any given time, there is an innumerable number of dragons in the world that need slaying. But every once in a while, there’s one dragon that’s getting ready to kill you right now. There may be another one right behind it, but if you don’t deal with this one right now, the others are all irrelevant. Sometimes you just have to deal with an issue right away. This requires leaders to be nimble and to know when to put everything else on pause to address a critical issue.
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?
1. Not having a real mission. I see so many companies with throw-away mission statements. A mission statement should be a short, concise statement of the task to be accomplished. Focusing on your mission can get you through a lot of problems, so check to see if yours is a real guide — and don’t be afraid to come up with a new one if you decide the first version doesn’t serve you well.
2. Not understanding the lifetime value of a customer. Really, this one comes down to the way you treat people. People’s life situations are always changing, and they will remember how you treated them. If someone owes us $5 and we send them to collections, we lose that customer forever. But when we work with customers through any complications to the best of our ability, they’ll be that customer that stays with us for life. They’ll bring their children and grandchildren here. Working to build real relationships will make you far more successful than simply running a transactional business.
3. Not understanding the value of team members. Loyalty is a leadership trait I believe in firmly, and it goes both ways. If you want people to be loyal to you, you have to be loyal to them. For us, when things were so uncertain toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, that meant taking no salary for a couple of months so we could pay people and keep them on staff until we could get patients back in the office.
Just as you count on your team members to do a great job, they are counting on you to make the right decisions. They need to pay their mortgages, to put their kids through college. The reality is you might not always make the right decisions, but when you build an environment of loyalty, they know you’ll work alongside them to figure it out.
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?
Sometimes surviving until tomorrow is the only thing that matters. In March and April of last year, there were times we couldn’t even see patients. In order for us to survive, we need patients. So once regulations allowed us to, we started calling people. We said, “We understand if you’re nervous, but here are all the things we’re doing to keep you safe. We’d love to reschedule your appointment.” This is an example of how our mission did not change, but our plans on how to get there did.
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.
I could give so many; we had to learn the 14 leadership traits while I was in the Marine Corps, and I still remember them to this day. But here are a few:
1. Be courageous. There’s both physical courage (i.e. in the face of battle) and moral courage (being the one person in the room to stand up when you feel something is wrong). Both are important.
2. Be decisive. Being able to make informed decisions quickly is critically important during times of adversity.
3. Be dependable. People need to know they can count on the person who’s leading them, especially during turbulent times.
4. You have to have endurance. There are no timeouts. Having a business is kind of like being a parent; it’s game-on, every day. It takes endurance to deal with that.
5. Be enthusiastic. If you’re not showing enthusiasm for what you’re doing as a leader, neither will the people around you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s not only my favorite, but the one I live by: “In every adversity is the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” I have faced so much adversity. You read about a lot of it already in this Q&A. But following this mantra consistently throughout my life has allowed me to survive.
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