PERSPECTIVE: Taking Risks, Serving Customers Key to Sustaining Success

by Mickey Herbert A few years ago, I was asked to talk to a group about my career as an entrepreneur.  I had never considered myself an entrepreneur, but I realized that I had taken risks in my professional life that were, in retrospect, pretty significant.  Here’s what I had to say regarding risk taking and a company's corporate culture.

My parents were always my mentors, teaching me integrity, and how to be respectful of others.  I'm not sure how they taught me to be a risk taker, but somehow, I think I got that from them too. 

Nobody in my family had ever gone to college, and I remember when my Swarthmore College acceptance letter came in the mail to our home my father took it to work before I even saw it. He wanted to show it to all the PhD's he worked for at the U. S. Naval Research Laboratory.

He hadn't finished college because of WWII, but he had learned glass blowing in the Navy and he was the only one who could build those lasers they designed.  He was also a terrific athlete, a football and baseball player in the mold of Babe Ruth, who might have played professional sports except he opted to be the first kid on his block to enlist after Pearl Harbor.

So, in a very real sense, he encouraged me to take the risks he never had the opportunity to take.  Above all else, he wanted me to go to college and/or to play professional baseball, the two life choices that had eluded him because of the war.

Throughout my life, I have always wanted to live up to the person my father wanted me to be - indeed, to be the person he wanted to be if circumstances in our country were different, almost 80 years ago.

To quote Mark Twain, one of our state's most famous citizens, who died over 100 years ago, "Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did.  So, throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore, Dream, Discover.

So, with a firm sense of right and wrong, but no money to speak of, I went off to college in Pennsylvania, foregoing, by the way, an opportunity to sign a professional baseball contract. After college, I went straight to the Harvard Business School, then to New York City for a couple years before I headed to Minnesota - where I didn't know a single person in the upper Midwest.

Six years later, I set sail for Connecticut where, again, I did not know a single person in this state, but I was determined to become a successful CEO of a new health plan which would challenge Blue Cross and Blue Shield - Connecticut's dominant health insurer - covering most of our state's 3.5 million residents. I also took advantage of an opportunity to play fast-pitch softball with the Raybestos Cardinals in Stratford, the defending national fast-pitch champions at that time.

Management guru Tom Peters has said that the greatest predictor of one's success in business is one's willingness to take risks.  I used to have a sign in my office which said "Mistakes don't matter, it's the response to error that counts".  In other words, I believe we should all be risk takers, and not be afraid to make mistakes; but when you do make one (and I've made a few doozies in my life), learn from it so you won't make that mistake again.

Because I was a CEO from 1976 to 2010 (and am now one again), I had the incredible opportunity over three and a half decades to define the corporate culture at three companies - PHS, the Bridgeport Bluefish and ConnectiCare. In looking back, I realize that so much of what made these three companies special is very simple.  Peter Drucker once said that successful management is doing a few simple things and doing them well.  For me, it was figuring out what business we were in, and then sticking to the knitting. 

  • At PHS, and then again at ConnectiCare, we determined that our business was delivering the highest quality, affordable health care, with unsurpassed customer service, to the citizens of our region. Notice that I said nothing about health insurance. At PHS, we had a slogan, "Intensive Caring" that we trademarked and ingrained into every employee we hired.
  • At ConnectiCare, our slogan, and theme song, was "You Know Us by Heart" which carried the very same message.
  • At the Bluefish, we determined at the very outset that we were in the business of delivering the highest quality, affordable, family entertainment to the citizens of our region. Notice I didn't say anything about professional baseball.  We made the ballpark a happy, happening place where people wanted to be, a veritable town meeting place, a place where they could be proud to be in and from, Bridgeport, a place where something was going wonderfully right in a city that had often seen things go wrong.

At all three companies, we made all kinds of decisions to increase our likelihood of success, not the least of which was to hire the best people we could, provide them with extraordinary training, and then empower them to go out and make decisions on their own.  What I guess it is about more than anything else is having a totally-focused, customer-friendly culture.

I feel very fortunate to be able now, at the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, to continue the legacy.


Mickey Herbert is President and CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council