Lunch With: A successful young entrepreneur doubts his leadership abilities
Accurate Network Services' Luke Williamson meets with McCoy Global CEO Jim Rakievich
by Michael Ganley
Photograph Colton Ponto
Young Exec: Luke Williamson, owner, Accurate Network Services
History: Williamson says he started Accurate Networks six years ago “with a suit and a box of business cards.” He knocked on doors and offered to work for free to prove his worth. “Believe it or not, enough companies took me up on the offer and some of them are still clients today.”
Lunch (at Sorrentino’s Edmonton): Sablefish special, with lemon preserved tomatoes, basil jam and balsamic prosciutto chips
Senior Exec: Jim Rakievich, president and CEO, McCoy Global
History: Rakievich joined McCoy Global in 1996 and has been president and CEO since 2002. He has recently set the company on a new and aggressive path to be the “global leader in tubular makeup solutions.”
Lunch: Sablefish special, with lemon preserved tomatoes, basil jam and balsamic prosciutto chips
Luke Williamson has built a successful business providing IT services in Edmonton. After six years, Accurate Networks has eight employees and a strong roster of clients. But Williamson, who has demonstrated entrepreneurial skill since his youth, still doubts his ability to lead.
He’s been to Entrepreneurs’ Organization events and has appreciated the fresh perspectives on management and leadership that he’s received. He’s read books and absorbed advice, but still he has his doubts. So, to tackle them today, he asks Jim Rakievich, CEO of the 600-employee McCoy Global, to join him for lunch. Rakievich picks Sorrentino’s as his preferred dining establishment.
Before getting down to Williamson’s questions, Rakievich has a few of his own. He wants to know about Williamson as a person, and about his business.
Williamson does not come from an entrepreneurial family. His parents were teachers and encouraged him to get a salaried job. But he thinks he was born with an entrepreneur’s DNA. He got his first job, delivering papers, at 14 and used the income to buy a computer. Then he went to the local computer store and begged for a job, quickly rising from help desk to supervisor to an IT director for an insurance company. Then he went out on his own with Accurate Networks.
“So what differentiates your company?” Rakievich asks. “There are a lot of IT companies out there.”
Williamson identifies two things: culture and business model. “Right from the start the focus was on being a real person and speaking a real person’s language,” Williamson says. From a business model perspective, Accurate Networks doesn’t do a managed service in the traditional IT sense. “What you usually see is the small ma-and-pa IT shops,” he says. “If something breaks, you call them up and they fix it, but they might not know anything about your organization.” Then you have the managed services which involve a contractual obligation based on the number of users in the environment and a set fee. “We go in the middle, where we do prepaid blocks of time with our clients in 40-hour blocks. We started with 20-hour blocks at $75 per hour. Now we’re at 40-hour blocks and $105 per hour.”
But back to leadership. Williamson wonders if he’s doing a good job or if he’s just one of the lucky ones. “Sometimes I have these dark thoughts, asking whether it’s our skills and culture or are we just the lucky recipients of living in Alberta at this time,” he says. “I like to believe it’s based on those fundamentals, that our business model is sound and our culture and values of honesty and straight dealing are sound, but I’m never sure.”
“Those are foundational and non-negotiable,” Rakievich says. “Sometime you’ll have a customer that doesn’t appreciate your values or operates in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. The worst mistake is to say, ‘I don’t like the way they operate but I’ll bend my values because of what I’m getting in return.’ Generally, that doesn’t work out well.”
Rakievich says, first of all, it’s important for Williamson to be himself and develop his own personal leadership style. “The biggest mistake some people make is to read a whole bunch of business books and try to be Jack Welch,” Rakievich says. “I’ve seen it and it’s a recipe for disaster. First of all you’re not going to be very happy because it’s hard to keep that up. You have to be yourself. Your DNA is set.”
Rakievich asks Williamson about his strategic plan, about where he sees Accurate Networks in 10 years.
“My answer is, I don’t know,” Williamson says. “Part of that is the nature of the industry, which changes so quickly.”
Rakievich says he’d like to challenge that point. “Every industry can say the same thing,” he says. “My industry has had dramatic changes in the last five years with multi-stage fracking and it will look completely different five years from now. You’re driven by tech. Quite frankly, our company is driven by tech.” So pace of change is no excuse. Rakievich insists that Williamson should spend some time and figure out where he’d like his business to be in five and 10 years.
Williamson says he has a one-year plan, but it gets fuzzier after that because there are so many variables he can’t control. “I always feel like the numbers don’t have teeth because they’re so far out,” he says. “How can you possibly put together a five-year plan?”
“I started out the same way,” Rakievich says. “The only way I could think about the long-term plan was to start with numbers. But eventually I switched to a vision. It took me a long time to learn, but you eventually have to put a flag out there. You’re the leader, and all the folks around you are trying to understand where you’re taking them and the organization.” Three years ago, Rakievich led McCoy through a huge strategic change. The executive team spent a lot of time off site with an external facilitator and settled on the goal of becoming the global leader in tubular makeup technology (essentially designing and manufacturing specialized equipment for oil and gas drilling). Those few words, he says, now guide every decision. First of all, they caused McCoy to focus its efforts, and the company shed assets that didn’t feed that vision. They forced McCoy to invest more in product development. The company now spends four times as much on product development as it used to. And one of those words, “global,” forced the company to look abroad: McCoy opened offices in Singapore and Scotland last year, and this year will open in Dubai and somewhere in Latin America, probably Bogota, Colombia.
And now, Rakievich says, every Friday on his drive home, he forces himself to ask himself what he did that week to move the strategic plan forward. “I don’t know about you, but there are a lot of emails, a lot of minutiae,” he says. “It’s all noise. It’s not strategic stuff. I could spend my whole week doing stuff, but I always ask, ‘What did I do to get closer to that vision?’ Every once in a while I get mad at myself because I can’t think of anything.”
Williamson asks Rakievich if he thinks humility is a good leadership characteristic. “Absolutely it is,” Rakievich says. “Then your ego won’t get in the way of making good decisions.”
And what about the changing challenges of leadership as an organization grows? How much harder will it be to lead a team of 100, as opposed to a team of nine? “Don’t even think about that,” Rakievich says. “It will come. If you come here 15 years from now, you’ll say the same thing but you’ll have 250 people working for you in Western Canada. You’ll still wonder if you’re capable.”
The conversation pauses as Williamson soaks up what the elder executive has said. Eventually, Rakievich breaks the silence. “You wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing if you didn’t want to lead and run a business,” he says. “The thing I enjoy the most is not opening up in Aberdeen or Dubai. It’s not seeing the newest tool. All that stuff is exciting but my biggest satisfaction is seeing where people working for me are now. Then you know you’ve done something.”
Rakievich closes with a final pearl of wisdom, hard learned over a long career in the C-suites. “If I leave you with anything today, it’s that as the leader you have to put that flag down,” he says. “It’s amazing how everything gets easier to figure out. If someone has an idea, you stop and ask, ‘Does that fit our vision and strategy.’ Otherwise, you start following rabbit trails.”