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Lessons From The CEO of America’s Fastest Growing Gun Company

September 4, 2015 Jeff Bradford

Daniel Defense is the fastest growing gun manufacturer in the world. This Savannah, Georgia maker of high-end AR-15 rifles grew gross revenue from $525,000 in 2005 to $56 million in 2013 – an increase of more than 1,000% in eight years.

Phenomenal.

Our EO Nashville Forum had the good fortune to sit down with the CEO of Daniel Defense, Marty Daniel, during our retreat in early August. This incredible opportunity was made possible by forum member John Cook, who also provided accommodations for our crew at his family’s beach house on nearby Tybee Island.

Marty Daniel

Marty Daniel, CEO of Daniel Defense

For practically the whole day, we sat in the boardroom at Daniel Defense and asked Marty how he built such a successful company. He told us whatever we wanted to know. It was like condensing an MBA into about five hours.

Here is some of what we learned:

 

Hire people who already know what do to.

“The biggest step your business can make is moving from hiring talent and teaching them what to do to being able to hire people that already know what to do,” Marty said.

Now, this doesn’t mean you don’t hire some entry-level people and train them up in the way you do things. That is important, too. But if you want to grow, you have to hire people who have already done, and done well, what you need to get done – because having these kind of people on your team will allow you to move beyond thinking about solving today’s problems to identifying and taking advantage of tomorrow’s opportunities.

Of course, these kinds of people are not cheap. Which leads us to Marty’s second maxim:

 

Don’t be afraid to pay people more than you make.

Marty said it was only recently that he, the CEO, became the highest paid person in his company. When he was building his company, he had to pay people more than he made in order to attract and retain the best talent.

Why would a CEO pay someone more that he makes? Because that person can do important things better than the CEO can, and therefore brings more value to the company – at least for the short-term. Over the long term, a CEO should build a company that is successful enough to pay him commiserate with the risk he assumed in starting and maintaining the company. And you build this kind of company by building a great team.

 

The most important thing a CEO does is build a great management team.

You hire expensive people who are smarter and more experienced than you in order to build a great management team – which is the foundation of a great company.

Marty realized what many entrepreneurs can’t get their heads around: You don’t hire people just because you can’t do it all yourself, you hire people to build a team that is greater than yourself. That’s what a great company is – versus a lifestyle business – a group of people of different, complementary skills, all the best at what they do, who focus on accomplishing something that none of them could do alone – no matter how much ‘help’ they hired.

 

Don’t let them see you sweat.

Well, actually, Marty said “pucker,” not “sweat,” as in, “When a CEO is in the middle of a storm, project calm to your employees: Remember, they can’t see your butt pucker.”

The idea is to lead through difficult times, not moan about them, share your feelings with employees or project anything other than resolute belief that things will be fine. Employees want to feel that the CEO is in charge, is not afraid to make difficult decisions or face unpleasant facts and has a plan for success. “Employees don’t’ want to think that you’re oblivious to a problem, of course. That’s not leadership. The message needs to be that we’re not doing well right now, but we know what we are doing and will be fine,” Marty said.

The reality is that everything is not always cut-and-dried, you can’t control everything and plans sometimes go awry. And you and your management team need to deal with things, not just hope they go away. All of this can naturally lead to a little clinching of your posterior. But nobody has to know but you.

 

Find a mentor who runs a business 10-50 times as big as yours.

Do this for the obvious reason of learning from someone who has dealt with issues you’ve not yet dealt with, but will. But it’s also to put your problems in perspective. When the CEO of $3 billion public company talks about missing his quarterly earnings projections by $10 million, or the challenge of opening a facility in Europe, or a multi-million unit recall, well, your problems don’t seem so bad after all.

 

Build a team spirit of winning and losing together.

Successful teams are more concerned with letting down the team than in letting down the coach, and they need to know that the team is behind them when they fail.

“The guy that drops the ball in the end zone knows he screwed up, the coach doesn’t need to point this out to him. He also needs to know that the team is there to pick him up, just as they are them to lift him up when he scores,” Marty said. “When you get to this point, you’ve got a winning team.”

 

(Thanks to fellow EO Nashville Forum member Dan Stephenson for sharing with me his notes of our meeting with Marty Daniel.)

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