By Eric Wright
“Sage” is a word that is used far too loosely today, but Bruce Douglas would certainly fit the definition in nearly anyone’s dictionary. A highly successful entrepreneur who established his name and fortune in the construction and real estate development industry, Douglas also has dabbled in politics with a run to be governor of Ohio and has served as a college president. In his book An Entrepreneur is for ALL Seasons, he contends something that most business owners will heartily agree with: you must be a little bit crazy to start your own business. The attitude, energy, and vision to undertake such a challenge and to succeed is a rare quality that must be discovered and nurtured – and is not so easily learned in a business class. A longtime friend and business associate to Jim Seneff, the founder of CNL Financial Group, this indefatigable innovator and lifelong learner took the time to meet with us before he headed next to India.
Why the book An Entrepreneur is for All Seasons?
I found that entrepreneurs and the principles that shape them are skills that transfer not only to business, but, to politics, academia and the nonprofit world. Personally, I think I have spent too much time in the nonprofit arena (laughing). Entrepreneurs have a drive or a need to succeed, to do and to change things; that spirit, the word for it is “hypomania” or “a little crazy,” is something that someone is born with. I personally don’t think you can teach it. The book provides insights and lessons from my entrepreneurial experience.
What is the most important trait needed for entrepreneurs?
In addition to the ones I mentioned, I suppose the key ingredient is having the people skills to pull it off. To be successful in any endeavor people must follow you. Technical skills are an important part of what you do, but they are subordinate to the people skills. Entrepreneurs determine what must be done and they do it.
You began with an undergraduate degree in physics, then earned one in civil engineering, along with business degrees from Harvard and a Ph.D. Explain your educational journey.
I have always believed in the importance of a liberal arts education. My father was a school teacher who believed your highest purpose was to serve mankind and he encouraged me to pursue a liberal arts degree before getting an engineering degree, which is what I did. It was my uncle, who was in the construction industry and served as a mentor to me and helped with my attraction to that field. I remember going to my father because I wanted to talk to the owners of all the large construction companies in Detroit. He said, ‘Your problem won’t be getting in, it will be getting out!’ He was right. I liked what my uncle did and how he did it.
Where did you find the entrepreneurial opportunities?
At first it was the engineering challenges that intrigued me. When I got out of college a lot of the design specifications were being reexamined and recalculated. We would go to clients who were balking at a price and say, we can build this building with your design and the cost will exceed your budget or we can redesign the building and take the responsibility and it will come in below budget. But we would add, ‘We won’t try and explain it to you.’ That was a great asset to us.
My first company started in 1964 with some partners, but I found I couldn’t change the culture of the company so I left and went skiing with my family for a month. Then they fired my assistant and she called me asking if I would start another company. I was enjoying skiing, but we did launch the company and, not surprisingly, a lot of the best and brightest from the old company came to work for us.
The first job after I came back was to build a shopping center. The owner asked me about my organization. I told him it currently consisted of myself and my secretary. The guy said, ‘Why would I sign a contract with someone whose organization consists of himself and a secretary?’ I replied, ‘This is the best deal you’ll ever find. This is my first job; if I don’t do this job right, I’m out of business.’ We sealed the deal with a handshake.
You expanded to Florida and your son took over, correct?
We came to Florida in the 80’s and focused on building large shopping centers; I think we built over 200 Kmarts. Now the company is focused primarily on assisted living and nursing homes. We went to clients and told them there were three aspects we excelled in: quality, on time completion and [staying within] budget.
My son is doing a great job. I didn’t think he was interested in the business at first, but he majored in construction engineering and has flourished. I think for a son or daughter to succeed in a family business they first must be interested in the business, then they have to jump in and be a part.
When my son came in I went out for almost two years, until he invited me back in. Now we talk every day. It wasn’t an easy transition. Growing up in it helps, but there are a lot of expectations.
Now Douglas, my grandson, is working for the company. At work, we go by our first names, to establish that different role between father and son. It is easier for the father than the son. The father is large and in-charge, where people look at the son as having an unearned position. Initially I sent Peter to Florida to oversee the office here; it was a good learning experience, but it wasn’t easy. We had some good people in the ranks that helped him a lot.
What about you, who were your mentors?
There have been many. I have been fortunate enough to know some brilliant people who took a personal interest in my life and at every juncture they were there to advise and to challenge me.
When I was a brand new Naval officer, in the Seabees, I remember telling my commander what I was going to do and how capable I was. He replied, “I have some advice for you. You have two chief petty officers who work for you. Go tell them you don’t have a clue about what you are doing.” So, I bought them both a drink and told them I wanted to do a good job, have a successful tour and learn things, but I needed their help. They helped me tremendously. I have been doing that ever since and people have always been willing to help me.