Saturday, October 25, 2014

Alum talks winning game plan at OU’s business symposium

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 10/25/2013

It’s OK to make money. But starting and growing a successful business is about more than the bottom line.

John Sherman, quarterback of the 1978 Ottawa University football team, delivered that message during a return trip to his alma mater Thursday to talk with Ottawa-area business leaders, OU faculty and students about developing a winning game plan for starting a business and the role servant leadership plays in executing that strategy. Sherman was the featured speaker during the afternoon session of the second annual Angell Snyder School of Business Symposium in the Fredrikson Chapel on the OU campus, 1001 S. Cedar St., Ottawa.

It’s OK to make money. But starting and growing a successful business is about more than the bottom line.

John Sherman, quarterback of the 1978 Ottawa University football team, delivered that message during a return trip to his alma mater Thursday to talk with Ottawa-area business leaders, OU faculty and students about developing a winning game plan for starting a business and the role servant leadership plays in executing that strategy. Sherman was the featured speaker during the afternoon session of the second annual Angell Snyder School of Business Symposium in the Fredrikson Chapel on the OU campus, 1001 S. Cedar St., Ottawa.

Sherman has spent more than 25 years in the energy industry. He founded LPG Services in 1991, which merged with Dynegy in 1996. He then founded Inergy LP, which went public in 2001, according to his biography. Sherman was named an Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young in 2009.

The businessman and his partners acquired a small North Carolina-based propane company in 1996 and — through a series of acquisitions — grew it into the third largest retail seller and distributor of propane in the United States, according to his biography.

Kansas City-based Inergy operates a natural gas storage business, a liquid petroleum gas storage business, a solution-mining and salt production company and a propane supply logistics, transportation and wholesale marketing business that serves independent dealers and multi-state marketers in the United States and Canada. Inergy serves customers in 33 states and employs about 3,000 people, the biography said.

Inergy, which sold off its propane business, merged last month with Houston-based energy giant Crestwood to create a $7 billion enterprise, according to media reports. Sherman now serves on the boards of Inergy and Crestwood.

Known for his philanthropic pursuits, Sherman serves on numerous nonprofit boards, including the Truman Presidential Library Institute, the University of Missouri-Kansas City Foundation, Teach For America Kansas City and the Kauffman Foundation.

Sherman was glad to hear one of the morning speakers say it was OK to make money, he said.

“If that wasn’t the case, my whole career has been a waste of time,” Sherman said to laughter from the audience.

Sherman, who also is a member of the board of directors of Great Plains Energy Inc., the holding company for Kansas City Power & Light Co., agreed with earlier speakers that consumers like to do business with companies that do good.

“In our case [at Inergy], I think the more powerful thing for me is that employees are more productive when they know they are being served and are part of a collaborative effort to achieve the objectives of the organization,” Sherman said.

Executing vision

In a question-and-answer session led by interviewer Kirk Wessel, dean of the Angell Snyder School of Business, Sherman talked about the people who influenced his life, the role of a servant leader and offered advice to students and other budding entrepreneurs in the audience.

“My father was probably the most optimistic person I know and had a really expansive view of what people could achieve,” Sherman, the oldest of seven children, said. “He would say, ‘If we could put a man on the moon and bring him back safely, we can do anything.’”

During his nearly three decades in business, Sherman has had the opportunity to work with and for some great people, he said.

“In Kansas City, I don’t know if there is something in the water, but there have been some tremendous role models,” Sherman said, citing legendary entrepreneurs Ewing Kauffman and Henry Bloch as a couple of examples.

“Ewing Kauffman had a very simple philosophy: treat people like you like to be treated, share the rewards with those who produce them and give back to the community,” Sherman said.

Sherman has spent the past 30 years studying leadership styles, he said, and two tenants of servant leadership are understanding human nature and applying common sense.

“If you want to create a vision, and you want people to buy into that vision, it requires collaboration, team building, communication, empowerment, delegating — those are all things that make sense to me,” he said. “... Part of this is just smart business. It makes you a better organization, and I think it makes you more interesting as a person as well.”

In deciding how to give back to the community, Sherman said, it’s important for business leaders to learn the passions of their employees. Inergy has been active in raising money to research multiple sclerosis.

Lifelong learners

Addressing the students in the audience, Sherman urged them to become lifelong learners.

“When you leave here, you’re still going to school — the process of learning is just beginning,” Sherman said. “I am always looking for generalists, people who are curious, think critically and solve problems. Learn all that you can about the organization you are going to work for ... that will make you more valuable over time, both to the organization and to yourself.”

Sherman encouraged students to seek out internships to gain experience. And, when it comes to applying for jobs, he urged them to not focus all their energy on distributing resumes and making contacts through emails and social media. Instead, he said, go “old school” and pound the pavement and knock on doors.

“If you get in front of somebody and differentiate yourself, that’s still to me the best way to sell yourself,” he said.

Other speakers during the symposium Thursday included Katie Blot, president of Education Services, Blackboard Inc., Laura Owen, chief executive officer of PontSalus LLC, and Phillip Anderson, director of Learning and Development for the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Luncheon keynote speaker Jerry Haney, development director for All India Mission, was the recipient of the Owen Leadership Institute Award.

Sherman told would-be entrepreneurs that it’s simply not enough to have an idea for a new business.

“You need a clearly defined set of objectives, and understand the downside and your ability to deal with the downside,” he said. “If you’re willing to put yourself at risk, that’s certainly one thing. But you have got to have an idea that makes sense and — more importantly — you have to be able to communicate it in a way that the people that have capital understand how it works, how it makes money, how it serves customers.”

Competitive advantage

Today’s business climate is moving at a faster, more complex pace, Sherman said. Business leaders who learn how to develop competencies for dealing with myriad regulations will have a competitive advantage, he said.

“You have to cross the Ts and dot the Is, but you can’t let compliance [with local, state and federal regulations] chew you up,” Sherman said. “If you let [focusing on] compliance become the culture of the company, and you’re not thinking strategically, then that’s a problem.”

Business leaders also have to be decisive.

Sherman’s company went public in July 2011, just weeks before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, he said.

“We went public as a small company in 2001, in fact six weeks before 9-11,” Sherman said. “I think that’s a great example of you better have a sense of urgency. Back then, Wall Street basically shut down for the month of August, so if you didn’t [go public] in July, it was going to be after Labor Day. After Labor Day, two jets knocked down the World Trade Center [towers]. That’s not a risk I had in my business plan.”

Sherman testified before the Congressional Small Business Committee in July in Washington D.C. about access to capital and growth, he said.

A professor from Duke University testified that it’s really not small businesses that are the job engine in the United States — it’s the young businesses, Sherman said, agreeing with the professor’s contention.  

“There are a lot of small businesses that aren’t young, but most young businesses are small because they are early,” Sherman said. “Though small businesses are an extremely important part of the dynamism of our economy and the fabric of our communities, we need to find ways to take more risks so that people are willing to start young businesses that are going to become big businesses — those are the businesses that create virtually all the net job growth in our society.”

An education major at Ottawa University, Sherman said he originally wanted to be a teacher and coach.

“Then I found out how much money they make,” he said, to laughter from the audience. “Actually, I have been a teacher and a coach. I think it’s a big part of what I get to do every day, and it’s very, very rewarding in a business setting.”

comments powered by Disqus