Clay Mathile is one of the 400 billionaires in the U.S. you may have never heard of. His claim to fortune was turning 40 years of hard work into $2.3 billion when Proctor & Gamble bought Iams brand pet food in 1999. Clay's giving, since 1989, totals more than $400 million in education and nutrition related projects in Ohio and around the world. He used $130 million of his financial success to personally fund Aileron, a foundation that helps small business owners understand where they want to go and apply sound business practices to get there.
I had the opportunity to interview Clay at Aileron in Dayton, Ohio. Here are seven lessons we can learn from him:
1. Be yourself
“Look at your strengths, look at your weaknesses, look at your opportunities, deal with your problems... and then assess what is the market, what is the product, how can I grow within that market, how can I be successful within that market? If the product is right but the market is wrong...then you got to think about another market. If the market, the product is wrong, we'll fix the product. When I joined the (Iams) company in 1970, it took me five years to figure out that I had a dog food that dogs wouldn't eat, and a package that consumer wouldn't buy. And the genius that I am, it took me five more years to fix it."
2. Dream no little dreams
“The vision of a company is a dream, the founders dream with a plan. I look for it in about every business owner that comes in here is what is the dream. And if I can tap into that dream, and understand where he or she wants to go and what aspirations they have, we can help them a lot because we can convert that dream into a vision, help them articulate that vision. Share that vision with their employees, share that vision with their family, share that vision with their suppliers, share that vision with your customers. Our dream, our vision (at Iams) was to be recognized as the world leader in dog, and cat food…and everything we did was aligned behind that vision and that mission."
3. Never make a decision before you have to
“You make the decisions that you have to make at the time. If you don't make those decisions that you don't have to make, invariably, there's new information that comes, there's more information, better information, better data. And then there are times where you don't have enough data. Most of the time, the big decisions you don't have enough data, you got to make the decision...there's two sides to every decision. There's the rational side and there's the soft side. So I say it's your head, and your heart are in the same place. You have a high degree of probability you're going to make the right decision. But if your heart is over here and your head's over here, you got to resolve that conflict. And part of the conflict is the intuitive thing that an entrepreneur has that he just kind of knows or doesn't. He knows and he's able to deal with fears and he's able to deal with all of those difficult things that he has in his marketplace. So you got to trust the intuition. But the, what happens is a lot of times, he's making all the decisions on the guts so to speak, and he's not getting enough data."
4. Find a mentor and pass it forward
“My success is really devoted to a lifetime commitment to learning; but learning primarily from my mentors...I would say, "Well how can I repay you?" And they said, "Pass it forward, pass it forward."
5. Get professional management
“One of the big shifts was when I realized that I needed professional management. But then I needed an outside board. Seventy-five percent of the problems that are existing are companies result [from] you. You're responsible, you're at fault because you've been in it too long, you've been in the cocoon too long. You got to come outside and have people help you look back inside. I would say one of the biggest threats I had in my business career was my own board who was composed of an attorney, insurance guy and others who had a conflict of interest. At the time I didn't see it as a conflict of interest. You need a group of peers who have nothing to gain but just the personal satisfaction of helping you grow your business. And I didn't even know that those people existed.”
6. Forget overnight successes
“I never thought that, absolutely never thought that the business would get to be that size. One of the big things that changed is that the whole demographic; the yuppie generation came along, they want the best of everything no matter what it costs.”
7. Hire employees that love your product
“In 1985 when we were wrestling about who our customer was and all that, we finally realized it was the dog and the cat; we also realized something else: we had some people in the company that didn't like dogs and cats. And we finally made that a requirement. The question on the application form was, "Do you like dogs, do you like cats, do you own a dog, do you own a cat?" We didn't keep people out because they didn't have a dog because they could have been living in an apartment. But we didn't want anybody in there that didn't have a good experience and didn't like dogs and cats. And it did change things. It really changed things, because we were really ramping up our employees with 85 on and we used to, I used to walk around the office, and walk into the plants, and see pictures of dogs, their dogs on their desk. You got to almost become your customer."