Justin McLain, CEO of Endeavor Telecom, made his mark as an entrepreneur, business leader and telecom industry insider. Today, his commitment to the School of Business and our students is leaving an impactful, lasting impression.
McLain’s mentor, Howard F. Rudd, Jr., professor of management and dean emeritus, School of Business, explains his character and ongoing contribution the best. “Justin’s business acumen is second to none and his success is without question. His real legacy is the life-changing wisdom and insights as well as the compelling real- world stories that he shares with our leadership and management students every semester,” says Dr. Rudd.
In November, McLain was recognized at the College of Charleston’s Annual Alumni Banquet with the Howard F. Rudd, Jr., Business Person of the Year Award. Alan T. Shao, dean of the School of Business, and Dr. Rudd presented McLain with the esteemed award.
A native of South Carolina, McLain came to the College of Charleston at the age of 16. He proved to be a strong student, double majoring in business administration and biology while also taking Chinese and Japanese. At the age of 20, he set out to make a name for himself and was hired by Shin-Etsu Polymer, a Japanese manufacturer. From this position he went to Simple Solutions, Inc. (SSI), an Atlanta-based software company he began with fellow alumnus, Paul Callendar ’98 and eventually to forming his current company, Endeavor Telecom.
A giant in the telecommunications business, Endeavor Telecom is headquartered in Atlanta and provides services such as telecommunication inside wiring and equipment installation for clients such as AT&T, Vonage and end-users like McDonald’s and The Ritz-Carlton. Today the company employs 9000 direct and subcontracted field technicians based from the Caribbean to Alaska and is the leading company of its kind in North America. McLain was named CEO in 2007 and is responsible for overseeing the company’s operations. His primary focus is the development of new service products and building strategic relationships that will assure Endeavor’s continued growth and success.
McLain credits the education he received at the College of Charleston for preparing him to tackle the many challenges he has faces in business. He returns often to campus to speak to business classes. In addition to management and leadership undergraduate classes, McLain recently spoke to our MBA class.
He also serves the School of Business as a member of the Board of Governors and actively serves on the Student Development and Nominating and Governance committees. His generous contribution has endowed scholarships through the School of Business for South Carolina students.
McLain was recently interviewed on his college experience, how his career developed and his role and leadership style at Endeavor. Below is his entire Q&A interview.
Q1: How did you decide to pursue a business administration degree?
JRM: I actually started CofC as a Biology Major, Pre-Med. I come from a small South Carolina town called Chesterfield where there are basically two “good” jobs: a doctor or a lawyer. I didn’t want to be an attorney, so that left medicine.
When I came to Charleston, a whole new world opened up to me. Charleston as a city and my fellow students introduced me to so much more than I ever considered. I started to think about being a doctor like living back in a small town. My issue with medicine is that every day you wake up and you’re a doctor. Every day you do certain “doctor stuff” and that’s about it. Getting out of the limitations of a small town and then getting locked into a single task-oriented type of job wasn’t that appealing anymore. It caused me a lot of stress as I tried to find myself.
I spent weeks going through the course catalog and tried to find something that wouldn’t force me to be the same person every day. Then late one night as I studied for an organic chemistry exam, it just kind of clicked: in business, I can do whatever I want. The requirement to be in business is pretty simple: if you’ve got a customer, you’re in business. What I sell or do doesn’t really matter. The next day, I added business administration as a second major.
Q2: Is there any certain quality that you have, or experience that you had (at any age) that indicated to you that business was what you should do for a living?
JRM: Wow…that’s a pretty tough question. I guess I’m able to understand complicated things in very simple ways and influence people. I think the quality to be able to concisely see a need or objective and then be able to influence the necessary resources to do what is required is the real point of business leadership.
I graduated from high school early, so I was pretty young when I was a student at CofC. That created an ideal laboratory to hone that quality as my objectives were usually how to motivate a bartender to serve me or a how to convince a girl who was well out of my league to go out with me despite my looking like a fourteen year old Bishop England student.
Q3: Explain, briefly, your experience at School of Business at the College of Charleston; what was your favorite aspect?
JRM: My experience at the School of Business was a great one. It is the only formal business education that I’ve ever received and I must say it has served me extremely well. Every day, I work with Ivy League grads with MBAs from schools like Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford. Frankly speaking, they didn’t have access to any more information or knowledge than I did in Charleston. At the end of the day, despite their educational pedigree, they look to me, a proud CofC grad, for the final answers to the questions. After meetings and conferences, people routinely ask me where I went to grad school. My response is, “I didn’t go to grad school. I went to undergrad at the College of Charleston,” and they seem genuinely surprised. I think most of my business contacts now have a very positive view of the College and I’m proud of my alma mater.
As for my favorite aspect, I must say it was the dedication of the faculty. The professors at the College of Charleston really care about the student and really care about the quality of the education.
Q4: Is there anything in particular that you learned or experienced at the CofC School of Business that stuck with you throughout your career?
JRM: Not to get too nerdy but, “Assets minus liabilities equals owner’s equity.” Managing by that simple equation is the key to building value. Acquire only those depreciating assets which are truly necessary. Focus on the appreciating ones and keep debt and other liabilities as low as possible. Unless, of course, the liability can be used to acquire appreciating assets which will carry a significantly greater future value.
Finally, don’t get too caught up on overvaluing goodwill or bolstering externals. With that said, the fun part is figuring out where to take risks.
Q5: How did you get your first job after school?
JRM: When I graduated, I wanted to work in international business and gain sales experience. I decided those requirements, above all other things (including compensation), were most important. I applied online for literally everything that could offer those two requirements and turned down loads of lucrative offers that did not. After six months of searching, a head hunter found my resume on Monster.com and submitted it for an international sales position with a Japanese company called Shin-Etsu Polymer. I was under qualified and lacked experience, but gave my best sales pitch over a half dozen interviews. After annoying them with countless letters and calls, they started me at only 30k a year and moved me to Atlanta. It got me started and I spent more time on the road in China, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Canada, and all over the US my first year out of college than I did in Atlanta. After a year of that and faced with a decision to move to the frigid North, I went out to work on my own.
Q6: Can you explain, briefly, how Endeavor came to be?
JRM: I owned a software development company that I sold in 2002. We had this little telecom consulting business group within the software company that wasn’t part of the deal, so we spun it off as Endeavor. My plan was to build Endeavor’s revenue and sell it to our largest vendor. Instead, we acquired that vendor in 2003 and grew Endeavor from there.
Q7: Can you explain, generally, what Endeavor is and if there is anything specifically you would want people to know about the company and/or your role as CEO? As an investor?
JRM: Endeavor manages over 9,000 contracted technicians throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Technology companies hire us to pretend that we are them when we are performing installation and repair work at their customers’ locations. If you were a business in the US and purchased broadband from a company other than AT&T, Verizon, Qwest, or Covad last year, chances are it was an Endeavor tech onsite doing the work. If you ever purchased a Big Mac or Chick-Fil-A sandwich with your credit card or tracked a package through Fedex.com, Endeavor likely installed the equipment to make that happen.
As CEO, my job is to listen to all of the differing view points of the company’s management and industry leaders, decide what mid and long term direction we need to take, and get all of the people within the company on board to do it. I also frequently jump into the day-to-day when there is a problem, the team needs a little extra push or encouragement, or a plan is not producing the anticipated results.
From the standpoint of an investor, we sold over 90% of Endeavor’s stock to a private equity group out of Miami, so the original investors got a nice pay day and the company is well capitalized to grow for the next five to seven years. Our business plan calls for a minimum 3x return on investment within the next five years. I personally reinvested a substantial amount of equity and will maintain a permanent seat on the board, so I am completely confident in the ongoing and future success of the company.
Q8: What was the biggest challenge that you faced when you transitioned from school to the “real world”? Did your education prepare you for this profession and its challenges?
JRM: My education prepared me very well for the technical and business issues that I have faced since graduating. The biggest professional challenge was just managing cash flow when I first started out. Knowing what to do and actually doing it are two entirely different things.
Q9: From your experience, what do you think is the most important thing about being an effective leader/manager?
JRM: Just this morning, I was watching an REM concert on TV while I worked out and this very point registered with me. Michael Stipe was singing “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth” and dancing the same little dance for probably the five millionth time in front a crowd of tens of thousands. I imagine he would want to do anything else beside singing that song and dancing exactly as he always does. He, at the very least, would probably want to mix it up a little bit. Then it dawned on me, he is giving a concert – people went there and paid money to hear their favorite songs. It’s his job to deliver. He can mix it up on his own time, but, when he is on stage, his objective is to provide the experience required to make a good concert.
Too often an ego or selfish need gets in the way of what’s required to lead. When I’m talking to an employee, customer, or vendor, the purpose of that conversation is to get him to do something. It is not a forum for me to assert my need for self-importance, self-praise, or self interest. Being focused and not placing your ego and own need in the way is the most effective way to accomplish an objective. You can enjoy yourself on your own time with the successes won from meeting the objective.
Q10: What do you think it takes to be successful?
JRM: Geez…this is another difficult question to answer without sounding full of yourself. In my opinion, too often success is regarded purely as a measure of money or recognition. I prefer to think of success as achieving a goal or the quality of life you want. By that definition, the most important thing it to understand what it is that you really want. It doesn’t necessarily have to be money or fame. Figuring out what you really want is the hardest part. Once you do, just work like hell to do it and don’t waste time and resources with other stuff.
Q11: Professionally, what would you say is your biggest lesson learned so far?
JRM: My biggest challenge has been more of an internal one. When I started my first company, I was only twenty and suffered severely from a particularly brash sense of pride. I got things done by brute force – by pushing people. I adopted an attitude of cold professionalism that I thought was needed so people didn’t think I was some dumb punk kid they could take advantage of. I thought the best way to get people to do things and respect me professionally was to isolate myself from them emotionally. Over time, that became a habit. Frankly speaking, that is a habit I should have outgrown a long time ago and I still struggle with it now.
Q12: What goals would you say you have accomplished so far, and what goals do you still have set forth (i.e., how do you see yourself in the future)?
JRM: From a strict career point-of-view, I’ve started and sold companies and am in a position where I can live a very comfortable lifestyle without having to work. All-in-all that’s pretty shallow, but those were the first goals that I set. Despite that position, I still like to compete. I still like to win. Even with this latest transaction, I know that I will put it all on the line a dozen times again to continue to experience that next escalation of challenge…it’s an obsession. Twelve hours after taking a bunch of chips off the table, I woke up in a cold sweat panicked over the question “what next and when?”
As for the more important future: To quote Radiohead, I want a perfect body and a perfect soul. So far, I’m pretty far away on both counts. I don’t get too excited about business and money, it is just what I do to satisfy a competitive desire and afford a lifestyle where I don’t have to worry about material need. When I transcend a very shameful level of personal arrogance (and an addiction to carbs), then, maybe, I’ll be happy.
Also, one day, I plan on getting married and starting a family. I think finding the right kind of woman that can put up with me may be the hardest challenge I’ve ever faced.
Q13: Do you have any advice for future students – how to differentiate themselves in a competitive market, get the job the want, move up the ladder, become invaluable, etc?
JRM: Yeah, simply start with the end in mind. I think everyone, especially students, should take the time to figure out what, exactly, they value in life. Take those values and then work on a general idea of what do they want their life to be like in fifty, twenty, ten, and five years from now. From there, decide what needs to be done next in order to move along that trajectory. What experience is required? Where do you need to live? Who do you want to have in your life? It’s certainly not always easy, but when people are focused and working on something they really believe in, advancement and success usually becomes an eventuality.