Episode 401 – Stephen King

Stephen is a CEO & Gardener & Charity Worker

Stephen King, President and CEO of GrowthForce, talks about his experience as a concert promoter and how it plays a role in his career in accounting today! He also talks about how gardening and running a business are similar!

Episode Highlights

• Working as a concert promoter
• Being introduced to his first accounting client
• Getting into gardening
• Raging incrementalism
• Why it is hard to be open about hobbies at work


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    Welcome to Episode 401 of What’s Your “And”? This is John Garrett, and each Wednesday I interview a professional who, just like me, is known for a hobby or a passion or an interest outside of work. And to put it another way, it’s encouraging people to find their “and,” those things above and beyond your technical skills, the things that actually differentiate you when you’re at work.

    If you like what the show is about, be sure to check out the book. It’s on Amazon, Indigo, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop, a few other websites. All the links are at whatsyourand.com. If you want me to read it to you, look for What’s Your “And”? on Audible or wherever you get your audio books. The book goes more in depth with the research behind why these outside-of-work passions are so crucial with your corporate culture. I can’t say how much it means that everyone’s reading it and writing such nice reviews on Amazon, and more importantly, changing the cultures where they work because of it.

    Please don’t forget to hit Subscribe to the podcast, so you don’t miss any of the future episodes. I love sharing such interesting stories each and every week. And this week is no different with my guest, Stephen King. He’s the President and CEO of GrowthForce out of Kingwood, Texas. Now he’s with me here today.

    Stephen, thanks so much for taking time to be with me on What’s Your “And”?

    Stephen: John, thanks for having me. I can’t wait.

    John: No, this is going to be awesome. I’m excited to have you on. But first, I have my rapid-fire questions, get to know Stephen out of the gate. So seatbelt ready. You’re buckled in.

    Stephen: Yep.

    John: Easy one. Here we go. Favorite color?

    Stephen: Green.

    John: Green? Nice. Okay. How about a least favorite color?

    Stephen: Orange.

    John: Orange. Okay, interesting.

    Stephen: My parents are Irish.

    John: So you only like half the flag?

    Stephen: Green and gold, baby. Green and gold, not orange.

    John: Oh, yeah. There you go. All right. I see. I see. How about a favorite Disney character?

    Stephen: Mulan.

    John: Oh, solid answer. Solid answer. How about a puzzle, Sudoku or crossword?

    Stephen: Sudoku.

    John: Sudoku? Okay.

    Stephen: Numbers guy?

    John: Totally. Totally. How about a pizza or a hamburger?

    Stephen: Pizza. New York City, baby. It’s the only place to get your pizza.

    John: Amen, man. Amen. I agree. Totally. How about a favorite actor or actress?

    Stephen: Oh, Julie Andrews.

    John: Oh, yes. Solid answer. Okay, classic. Would you say you’re more of an early bird or a night owl?

    Stephen: Night owl. As I get older, neither.

    John: That’s awesome. And naps in the middle, right

    Stephen: That’s part of the day.

    John: Yeah, absolutely. When it comes to books, audio version, Kindle, or real book?

    Stephen: Real book, highlights, underlines, pages folded.

    John: Okay, you get into it.

    Stephen: Not enough of them. No, not enough.

    John: Right. Right. How about a favorite number? Is there a reason?

    Stephen: Yeah, because I could legally drink instead of illegally drinking like I had.

    John: That’s great. That’s maybe the best reason I’ve ever heard. It’s hard to argue that. Absolutely.

    Stephen: I was in an Irish neighborhood in Queens, you know.

    John: Oh, well, there you go. Absolutely. Absolutely. As long as you can get up to the bar, then you’re in.

    Stephen: You’re walking home after your parents go to bed.

    John: Right. Totally, totally. How about a favorite animal? Any animal at all?

    Stephen: Favorite animal, turtle, no question. I have two in my backyard. One will come out to eat from my hand and will bang into me if I’m not paying attention that he’s hungry.

    John: That is cool. Okay.

    Stephen: Yeah, yeah, Kingwood, Texas, I’m in a livable forest outside of Houston, and my grandfather in Dunleary outside of Dublin, he had a tortoise. So when you’re a little kid in this yard and there’s no kids to play with, find the tortoise was the daily fun.

    John: Yeah, that’s not easy, man. They are like, they’re built to hide. So that’s cool, though. That’s very cool. I have to ask, a balance sheet or income statement?

    Stephen: Income Statement. My company is called GrowthForce, right? What we do is we help grow your bottom line. We help you make more money. So the income statement strengthens the balance sheet.

    John: Yeah, there you go. There you go. How about a favorite day of the week?

    Stephen: Thursday.

    John: Okay. Is there a reason?

    Stephen: It’s a state of mind that starts the weekend.

    John: Yeah. Okay.

    Stephen: It’s abundance, right? It’s just, okay, almost the end of another good week, and start of a weekend.

    John: I love it. Okay. How about Star Wars or Star Trek?

    Stephen: Star Trek.

    John: Yeah. Okay.

    Stephen: Yeah, especially originals back to the ’70s in black and white on a TV where three kids had to watch the same show.

    John: Right. Those are the glory days, man. That sounds so normal to me. But you’re right, that is way not normal now. We got four more. Your computer, more PC or Mac?

    Stephen: Wow. I consider myself bilingual. I would say more PC only because that’s what business is, but anywhere else I can possibly have at home and it’s a Mac world after all.

    John: Okay, okay. How about a favorite ice cream flavor?

    Stephen: I go to chocolate. Can I give you the whole Mr. Softee?

    John: Oh, yeah.

    Stephen: The double cone with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sprinkles and a little bit of the schmutz, what do you call it at the top? Caramel or something or other.

    John: Yeah, exactly.

    Stephen: That’s heaven. A double cone could last an hour.

    John: eah, totally could. How about your first concert?

    Stephen: Oh, I remember exactly. It was Jefferson Starship in Central Park. It was 1976. Billy Castiglione and I went. Free show on a Wednesday and it poured rain. There was nobody there. The show went on because Grace Slick said that we played in the rain at Woodstock, and we’re playing in the rain in Central Park. We are going on. There was probably 300 people there, and it was awesome. You know, right at the point where my love of music was starting and I got, you know, you’re in New York, so it’s like everywhere. Yeah, Marty Balin on guitar. They were doing the Red Tiger tour, I think was the album. Yeah, it was great. Jefferson Starship, not airplane.

    John: Right. Right. Right. Right. Right. Very cool. The last one, the favorite thing you have are the favorite thing you own?

    Stephen: Oh, I know exactly what that is. I have a piece of the World Trade Center.

    John: Oh, wow.

    Stephen: I have a core sample.

    John: Yeah.

    Stephen: Ground, it’s about eight inches tall. You can see where the cuts are, where the rebar cuts through the cement and the speckles of what they used as a binding agent to pour the cement. I was a manager of accounting system design at a big bank and global bank, and they had a $20 million gold bullion vault to physical inventory difference. And the auditors called me in to help figure out why.

    And so what I had to do was to match up the trading system with the general ledger with the all the systems, and I needed some more computers in this conference room that was down six storeys below ground where the gold bullion vault was. They actually stored the gold in the World Trade Center.

    John: Wow. Okay.

    Stephen: Yeah. So anyway, I needed more computers. Instead of getting another extension cord, some guy came in because the CFO of the bank carved a hole in the ground, extended a power supply to the other side, and he pulled out this big 36-inch core sample. And I had a bank playing on the top floor, the 102nd floor. It was a fiduciary trust company. Barry O’Connell, who is the senior vice president, had one of these on his cadenza. I said, “What’s that?” He’s like, “It’s a piece of the World Trade Center.” I was like, “Can I get one?” He goes, “No, just the top dogs get that.”

    So anyway, I say to the guy, “Can I have that?” He goes, “No, just the top dogs get that.” And then he pushes it off the table. It falls to the ground. It breaks into two pieces. He goes, “Unless, of course, it’s broken.”

    John: I love it. Love it. That’s so New York.

    Stephen: And he handed me the small piece and he ferried away the big piece and I had it.

    John: That’s very cool, man. That’s really awesome. That’s an awesome story, for sure. So yeah, so let’s talk — I mean, we have so much here to cover, which is really cool. But I guess we’ll start with music. I mean, you’re obviously in New York, so music is everywhere in the city.

    Stephen: And I’m from an Irish family, and so every party that we’ve ever had, there was singing all night.

    John: Yeah, right, right.

    Stephen: And that’s a tradition carried over from Leitrim and all of Ireland. So I did inherit the gene, though, to have the talent despite my mother giving me eight years of accordion lessons and four years of clarinet, it just didn’t work. But I always wanted to be a rock and roll accountant. I would go to these concerts and shows and I’d be thinking, this is such a cool business to do for the rest of your life.

    John: Absolutely. You’re rounded.

    Stephen: Yeah. So I was at Ernst & Young and I told them I wanted to do that, and they actually paid for me to go to Ron Delsener and had a class at the new school and taught how to be a concert promoter. And I started a little hustle on the side. In fact, that’s how I got connected with Amnesty International. But I found that the music industry ethics I just couldn’t live. The Irish Catholic boy from Queens could not cheat artists and the venue.

    John: You’re right. I mean, I did comedy, I mean, full time in the city even. I mean, if anybody could stiff you 10 bucks, they would. And it’s like, really? And there’s nothing you can do about it. As the artist it’s like, well, I guess just don’t work for that person anymore but —

    Stephen: They own the venue.

    John: Yeah, exactly. What are you going to do? What a cool story, man. That’s really awesome. Really awesome. And then that led to the Amnesty International?

    Stephen: Yeah. I feel like I’ve been on a mission for God. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but crazy stuff has happened. So I had this little concert production company. The business model was, can we meet girls?

    We guys, we’re putting on parties and clubs in the city. We’re in tuxedos at the door. It was a successful business. We met a lot of people, had a lot of fun. But one person I met with Celeste Amelia, who was the art director for Gloria Vanderbilt. And she said, “Hey, Amnesty International is having this big concert. It’s on MTV, but you can’t get any tickets. It’s Bruce, Sting, U2, everybody.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I know.” Because I want to do something for Amnesty here in the city. I want to do a concert for Amnesty International. Like we’ll do it the Saturday night before the show comes to United States. Excellent. The Cucumbers were the headliners. Oh, I’m going to forget. There was some good names on that bill. So Irving Plaza went bankrupt the night before the show. Closed down Friday night. Show was Saturday.

    John: Oh, no.

    Stephen: Yeah. So one thing led to another. I have to tell you, the owner at the time disappeared to his mom’s house in New Jersey. I put 5,000 — no, Celeste put $5,000 up of her personal money as the deposit, and I went in the heavy and said, “Look, this is Amnesty International’s money, dude.” The people who were cleaning up were like, “He’s at his mom’s house. Here’s his address.” I go to his mom’s house right away. I’m not going to do it. She’s like, “Come on in. He’s going to be home in an hour.” She set the table. I tell her the whole story. She’s like, “He’s going to pay you back.”

    John: Oh, wow.

    Stephen: And he did. He wrote a check. He gave me 5,000 bucks, and I gave it to Celeste, and we became lifelong friends.

    John: That’s cool.

    Stephen: My first failure, though. I learned a lot from that. I learned I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this. This is not fun. The night before the show, you’re sweating, breakeven points. It’s like — but I got hooked on Amnesty. Again, I’ve done this already. It was three years. So now I come back and to the head office and they say, “You know what? There’s a volunteer position of the coordinator of the New York City High Schools.” Sixty-three schools were organized by this guy named Konstantin Dierks, and he was moving on. Amnesty swelled in high school participation after the concert. So would I help coordinate them? Sure.

    We had a meeting every Friday at four o’clock at the corporate office. I left Ernst & Young at 2:30, three o’clock, and did that for three years. I’m working on the ninth floor, where all the human rights activists were downstairs. And I remember my favorite one was Magdaleno Rose-Avila, who was the national director of the campaign to abolish the death penalty. And they were going to Albany to rally against the death penalty with eight buses. And he called me in, and he’s a big guy. And he says, “Stevie, I need you to get banners. We’re going up to Albany with buses. And I want on CNN. I want big banners across the pavilion. I want you to make as many big banners as you can.” I said, “Lenny, how are we going to make banners? I don’t have materials for banners.” He goes, “Your mama’s got bedsheets.”

    John: There you go.

    Stephen: True story. So I’m like, “All right. All right.” So I go back into the conference room because he pulled me out of the meeting. He goes, “All right, we got a job. We got to make banners.” “How are we going to make banners?” “Your mom has got bedsheets.” So anyway, a month or two later, I left Ernst & Young. I started my own CPA firm. I gave them two months’ notice. And after two weeks, right at the time I gave notice, I get a call from a partner, an audit partner that I worked with and as an auditor who said, “Hey, I just got a new client. It’s a nonprofit. I know we don’t do a lot of nonprofits, but I think they do exactly what you do. You do accounting systems and internal controls, right?” “Yes, that’s exactly it.” “Okay. This nonprofit, Amnesty International just signed us as an auditor. And we can’t do the audit because they don’t have any systems of internal controls to audit. They have outgrown their whole interest. They went from $6 million to $18 million like that. Can you help them?”

    John: Wow, that’s serendipity right there, for sure.

    Stephen: Oh, my God. So I said, “Do you know that I have a poster on the wall that says question authority?”

    John: Yeah, right. There you go.

    Stephen: HR tried to make me turn it down. I said, “Well, you take it down, because if I took it down, I wouldn’t be questioning your authority.” My partner protected me. They never took it down.

    John: That’s cool.

    Stephen: So anyway, I get invited in to make this bid. I had already given notice. Ernst & Young says, “Look, we don’t want this audit. We don’t do nonprofits. It’s too much risk for our insurance.” She said, “Just give me a proposal for $10,000 or less, and I’ll hire you because you know what we do for a living.” I would hire you. Ernst said make it 15 grand.” I was like, “But we’re going to lose.” She goes, “No, we don’t want it.”

    So when I started my own CPA firm to have Amnesty as a client, I remember charging then $45 an hour, thinking like, okay, I’ve added up all my expenses and this is I have to get at least this much because taxes because I don’t want to make any money. So three months later, they asked me to be the CFO.

    John: Wow.

    Stephen: It was really cool. Yeah. I did that for a total seven years in charge of all the money, at first managing it and then director of development for fundraising. But what was really cool was, as the director of development, you got to meet all these Amnesty International VIPs like Reza Jalali, an Iranian writer, a prisoner of conscience, who just became a friend, became a board member. He had an NPR thing in Maine. He’s like, come on up to Bangor and get on my show. It’s like, it was life-changing people.

    John: Yeah, that’s cool. And making a huge difference.

    Stephen: Making a huge difference.

    John: Yeah, that’s so cool to hear, man. So cool to hear. I mean, also too, the gardening, which I know is a really big piece of your life as well. Is that something that just came up later on in life?

    Stephen: No, my mother was a gardener. My mom comes from Ballinaglera, County Leitrim, cora lover, cora lover as is well known, and she’s a farmer. A dirty day is a good day. From being a little kid, I got a little dirt under my nails today because I was in the garden last night. She had everything growing in the yard. We had marigolds and tulips. I remember she’d cut bunches of them and have me deliver them to her friends in the neighborhood, and they would give me a dime. And I’d be like, “Okay, this is great. I got money.” So you know, ever since then, you know, I was the eldest son, so I say, “Come on out here and help me in the garden. You didn’t have a choice. Pull those weeds.”

    John: Exactly. And you learned all the tips and the tricks and —

    Stephen: Yeah. You learn to enjoy. We used to come over from Massachusetts, which was the country and bring manure and just really till the soil. It was so cool to have this farm smell in Queens.

    John: Right. And you can grow this stuff. It actually works. So do you feel like any of those skills, like the love of music or even the volunteering and the nonprofit stuff and even gardening translates at all to work?

    Stephen: Gardening totally does. Gardening is a direct correlation. Yeah. I mean, we follow a process here at GrowthForce called raging incrementalism. I learned that some Bob Goodman at Bessemer Venture Partners. Raging incrementalism basically means, okay, you plant some seeds, and you nurture them, and you give them some support and some water and some sun and some love, and some will grow and some will get blown away, and you’ll forget about those. Same thing is true in business. You’re the CEO, you’re the visionary. See, you got a lot of ideas, and the organization can’t handle all of them. So you try what you think will work the best and you give it the support that it can and you water it with money and you give it love from the managers, management team. And some of these ideas make it and become moneymakers, and some of these wither away and you write off a loss.

    John: Some of them you cut and give to the neighbor for 10 cents, and then there we go.

    Stephen: Exactly. And your people are the same way, right? They’re growing. They need to be nurtured and loved. And so —

    John: I love that. That’s really good. Yeah, that’s exactly it. You’re right. Is it something that you talk about at work? I mean, I love how you had the question authority poster in your office back in the day, but is it something that even today, whether it’s music or listening to music or talking about gardening or what have you?

    Stephen: I think the nonprofit stuff is something we talk about work all the time. We had a company meeting Thursday, and it was all about, how are we going to be a company with a conscience? How are we going to make the world better than we found it when we come to work each day because of the people we serve? And the nonprofits, what is the work that they do? And how does that help really make a difference? And how does that mean your life makes a difference? For our clients, we are them. We’re committed to their mission and their vision and their values. And so I think that thinking about others and helping people as much as you can is why people come to work here.

    John: I love that. That’s awesome. Yeah. Because, I mean, there’s a bigger picture here. There’s more to it. You can be good at your technical skills, but what are you using those technical skills for? And do you know what the other people around you also love to do and what lights them up as well?

    Stephen: Yeah, when you’re attracted with other people who are here to serve, it’s easy to want to help.

    John: Right. And why do you think it is that it’s difficult to get people to open up about those outside-of-work hobbies or interests or passions that are beyond their degrees and certifications?

    Stephen: Fear and time. Maybe time and fear in that order. Well, I think, you know, we’re all insecure and don’t want to be judged, I guess. I think it’s also social norms. We try to think of GrowthForce as part of your family. And so it is important that you dig, for all of us to have the time to be able to really know who we are and what our fears, uncertainties and doubts are, right?

    I’m a parent of two and just came from lunch with one of our accounting managers, and we spent almost the entire time talking about the challenges of our kids in their 20s and it’s hard and that’s life and not about whether or not this client is happy or not.

    John: Yeah, right. No, because the work happens, it’s going to happen. We don’t have to be intentional with making time. We know why we’re here to get paid and what our job is. It’s just I feel like most people, we need to make time for these other things.

    Stephen: Yeah.

    John: Or we just let them slide and then we forget.

    Stephen: It’s interesting, I got a chance to work for Paul Sarvadi, who’s the founder of Insperity and CEO and founder. He’s my boss, and he was a board member for one of my companies for years. And he said, you know, I remember I came to Texas and the first week there, I walked into his office and said, “How is it? How do you like us?” I said, “At seven o’clock, this building is spooky. I mean, it’s empty and it’s noisy. It creeks and there’s lights flickering like it’s really loud.” He said, “What are you doing here at seven o’clock?” I said, “You know what, I’m from New York, that’s half a day.”

    John: Right. Right.

    Stephen: And he’s like, “You New Yorkers, you live to work. I’m going to teach you how to work to live. You have to leave at five o’clock.” I try now every day to leave at four o’clock usually to meet one of my friends for a glass of red wine and unwind about the day.

    John: There you go.

    Stephen: But I think we’re trying to here at GrowthForce work to live, and we’re challenged now figuring out how to keep our culture, which has always been centered around our office in a hybrid service model. How do we keep the connectivity of the whole company when you can’t have a company meeting and then everybody goes to a restaurant or a bar? We miss that. We need that.

    John: Definitely, it’s creating that connection beyond work. So you know, it’s what’s that connection? What’s that picture on your wall behind you? What’s that, you know, your dog that just went running across the screen? It’s creating those connections and creating intentional time to just learn about you or just hang out, like the wine at 4:00 p.m., because so many times, especially with the remote stuff, we have it scheduled on our agenda, we get on, we talk work, and then it goes dark. We don’t really take the time to have that idle chatter like we would have in the office on a regular day in person. It’s creating that connection above and beyond the work. There’s a myriad of ways to do that, but it’s just creating that time to just “Hey, how’s life? What’s up?”

    You know, some organizations actually do a one-on-one direct report for an hour every month. So the first two or three months, it’s kind of awkward because I don’t know what we’re going to talk about for an hour, but after that, it’s holy cow, that was 60 minutes. That’s amazing.

    Stephen: One to one, dig into that a little bit. So one to one who to who.

    John: Yeah. So everyone who has direct reports, you just meet with each of them for, you know, four or five people for an hour a month. In person is great but even remotely, and don’t talk about work, like maybe 5% of the time.

    Stephen: Yeah. No, no, I just had lunch. Just lunch, right? I got to get back to just lunch. Thank you. I learned something today.

    John: Hey, you’re welcome, man. You’re welcome. No, this has been so much fun. It’s only fair, though, that I turn the tables, though, since I so rudely peppered you with questions. You should probably ask me some questions, so then we even this out.

    Stephen: Okay. So favorite music?

    John: Favorite music, so it’s going to be like a rock, more like alternative rock, I guess, more upbeat.

    Stephen: How about favorite band?

    John: Favorite band. So like The Killers or Blink 182 or even like my first concert was Metallica, just kind of more upbeat. I don’t know, just stuff like that, that’s always good. I mean, it’s not necessarily like maybe the most musically — I mean, metallic has got some pretty good music into it, but it’s just fun to listen to. I mean, I’m not here to necessarily learn. I’m here to be entertained.

    Stephen: I want fun.

    John: Exactly.

    Stephen: Mountains or beach?

    John: You know, that’s a tough one because I live in Colorado, so the mountains are — I can stand in the backyard and see the mountains. So probably beach just because I’m on a vacation then, like I had to get on an airplane to go to the beach, so that seems more special, I think, so yeah.

    Stephen: All right. Ketchup or mustard.

    John: Oh, ketchup.

    Stephen: Okay, we have that a lot.

    John: The ketchup guy. There you go. There you go. No, that’s awesome, man. Before I leave though, do you have any words of encouragement to people listening that maybe feel like, you know, I have a hobby outside or I like to garden maybe, but no one cares and it’s not my job?

    Stephen: Yeah, I think we’re all looking to connect to something bigger than ourselves and by sharing that personal side, it creates connectivity with others that helps everybody work as one and care about having each other’s back because it’s not just the person in the next tube. It’s the mother of three who’s struggling and needs a little bit of extra time. And when you help somebody else, you feel good, right? So you know, by sharing, you end up caring.

    John: Yeah, I love that. That’s awesome. And it rhymes, which is even better. So that’s perfect, man. Well, Stephen, thank you so much for being a part of What’s Your “And”? This was really, really awesome.

    Stephen: Thanks, John. It’s great to be here.

    John: People listening, if you want to see some pictures of Stephen at a concert or gardening or maybe connect with him on social media, be sure to go to whatsyourand.com. Everything’s there. And while you’re on the page, please click that big button, do the anonymous research survey about corporate culture.

    Don’t forget to check out the book. Thanks again for subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or whatever app you use and for sharing this with your friends so they get the message that we’re all trying to spread, that who you are is so much more than what you do.


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