Have you ever met someone you instantly look up to? I’m not necessarily talking about someone famous or someone that you know a lot about and respect. I’m talking about people who have a certain presence about them. They carry themselves in such a way that you can’t help but watch their every move or hang on to every word they say. I don’t experience people like that often, but when I do I immediately know they are destined for, if not already achieving, a high-level of success.
Oh yeah, that word. It’s a big one. It’s what most of us are trying to figure out the meaning to, even if we don’t know we are. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try and tell you what success is. I have my own definition that is continually being refined, but I don’t think it applies to everyone. There’s certainly not a definitive answer for what success is, but there are people that everyone can agree are successful. Usually, people with the presence I described earlier meet this criterion.
Recently, I spent part of a Friday morning with an individual who had that kind of effect on me. We talked about his business, the way he lives his life, and how he challenges people to be better every day. Yes, he was inspiring and encouraging in his own right but I left feeling much better about society as a whole because of him. To know that there are leaders out there who live in a principled manner and are bringing about positive change and influence through business is really refreshing.
Meet Matt Lowe, CEO and founder of pine straw distributor, Swift Straw. He’s completely turning a more-or-less unknown industry on its head and not stopping any time soon. They’ll do $35 million worth of business this year and continue to sustain incredible growth rates for years to come. In an industry solely centered on pine straw, this is impressive. It would be easy to say that building a business of that size equates to success. While I don’t necessarily disagree with that thought, I can’t help but think about Matt’s mindset and its’ bias towards success. It’s a mindset that is constantly learning and trying to be better. A mindset that invests in people and brings out the best in them. A mindset that ultimately helps everything flourish around it.
How and why did you start Swift Straw? Has the initial vision lived up to what you hoped/expected it would be?
So, I used to and I still work with an entrepreneur in town named Lee Woodall and he is a real estate entrepreneur but he’s a contrarian investor. A value investor in real-estate in the same fashion that Warren Buffett is a value investor with stocks. With that mindset, He’s typically doing the opposite of the greater market. I partnered with him just before the downturn and co-founded a company to buy back bad debt through 2007 and 2008. I was very fortunate to hook up with him because he was one of the only real estate guys around town that was in a position to capitalize on the downturn. I attribute so much of my, well any perceived success I’ve had, to Lee. I learned so much about the fundamentals of business and investing in real estate through his mentorship.
Due to our backgrounds in real-estate and being outdoorsmen, we’ve always had an interest and connection with land and timber. I also had a friend from Auburn that got into the pine straw business through a landscape venture. He needed help procuring land tracks that had pine straw that he could harvest himself. I started helping him do that on the side by lining him up with landowners that I knew had pine straw. The business started growing and he came to me with growth capital needs. The timing of this worked out really well because at the same time that he needed capital, the distressed real estate window was closing. The world had had enough time to get their feet under them and people were paying more for a portfolio of distressed assets than you could actually sell them for. When I would go to a cocktail party and everybody in the world was talking about buying distressed real estate, I was out. However, when I looked at a $600 million pine straw industry that hadn’t innovated since the 1950’s and literally the entire market was complacent, that to me was ripe for disruption.
Just by doing it on the side, we built a little operation up to $3 million in revenue. I went to Lee and said, “Hey, why don’t we hire somebody to manage the real-estate assets we’ve acquired? I’ll move over to Swift straw and I think we can build a $100 million company.”
So, you said you were at $3 million at that point, but when did you realize that you were probably on to something with the pine straw operation?
Well, it worked out really well that doing it on the side was a way to test the market and test the players to learn more about it. At that inflection point where the distressed asset window was closing we knew there was something there. It was like a force pulling me towards it that I couldn’t fight. So back to your original question, the initial vision was to come in and totally change the industry through disruption. I can’t say the strategies have remained the same, but the guiding north star has been to come in and disrupt an entire industry through innovation. To really become the first dominant player and clean up the mess of fragmentation in the industry.
That was really what was most appealing to me. With real-estate it’s a lot of fun buying and selling on a value basis, but it was not fulfilling for my personal mission. My personal mission is to empower people to become the best version of themselves. That ultimately required an operating company and a leadership platform. Swift Straw was an opportunity to come in and actually build something that was bigger than the next real-estate deal.
How has your view of leadership and doing that successfully changed during your time running Swift Straw?
It’s changed a lot. I would say that the number one thing that has become apparent to me is that there are all kinds of leadership, but the kind of leader that I want to be is one that’s inspirational not motivating. I see a lot of bad leaders out there that try to drive people with fear, fear of getting fired or whatever and that’s not the kind of people that I want. I want people that want to be there because they want to be there. I want people that are growing because they want to grow and that’s a big part of what I want to do is challenge people. I have no problem challenging people and in a lot of ways, I think that’s my job.
Mindset is something that’s so important for our business and our culture. As the business has evolved and grown, the only people that we have outgrown are the ones without a growth mindset. If I’m not challenging people to push themselves and to grow mentally, spiritually, and physically then we’re not going be able to do what we want to do and they are not going to become the best version of themselves. My job is to lead by example, challenge people and push people, and hopefully give them a vision that’s inspiring enough to make them want to get out of bed and get their teeth kicked in every single day; But also, at the end of the day be able to smile and say “that was a great day”.
What has been the most surprising thing you have learned about running a business that you didn’t know prior to starting Swift Straw?
Well lots of things, but the most surprising thing has been how many forces are fighting against you when you are creating something new and growing it. I understand now why the failure rate is so high for startups and for young growing companies. Every single force on Earth is battling against you. People resist change so employees that don’t have the right mindset are fighting anything and everything you’re doing to improve or change. The competitive marketplace is fighting you because nobody wants you in there. We came elbowing into an industry that has been set for years before we got there. Nobody wanted that change. Banks don’t want to deal with a new company. They want five years of stable, no risk, low growth. Thankfully I’ve had an unbelievable experience with investors who have been great people and great mentors, but investors aren’t going to take a chance on somebody that doesn’t have a proven track record. I think it’s the reality for businesses that every force possible is fighting against you in the beginning and it’s a game of gladiators.
That didn’t deter me, it just changed my mindset for what to expect. Again, back to mindset, we have to have people on our team that are okay with overcoming the challenge of climbing a mountain and getting their teeth kicked in. That’s kind of what we signed up for. Looking back, it hasn’t necessarily been harder than I thought, but I would say understanding why it is so hard has been the most surprising thing.
Are you able to identify that type of mindset in the hiring process?
Yes, but we’ve had the most success recruiting from within. We’re very protective over our team and we’re very cautious to hire just because we know over the last several years we’ve got a really good team that that works together well. In terms of hiring we are very cautious to hire, but we view every hire with a 90-day trial period. We don’t make time for rigorous training or robust handbooks so everybody has to have the mindset that they can step in, ask enough questions to figure things out, and not require a ton of oversight. We move too quickly and cover way too much ground to try to box somebody down with very strict processes and procedures. We know pretty quickly if somebody can handle it.
What have been the most rewarding aspects of starting and running Swift Straw?
A big part of the way we built Swift Straw was trying to create alignment because I’m a very big proponent of our team becoming the best version of themselves. Part of that is having them understand how to create long term wealth. Side note, there’s a very important distinction between cash comp and wealth creation. I’ve tried to balance and create alignment around stock vehicles where our employees can benefit and create wealth as the value of the company goes up. We were fortunate to have an event a few months ago where everybody got their first payout from a liquidity event. The most rewarding thing for me was pretty much everybody on the team tangibly seeing what they’ve been working towards.
On an ongoing basis, just watching our people grow is the most rewarding. John Babington started right out of school, now he’s managing a $35,000,000 distribution business. Ralson Goetz is the best leader in the industry. He knows our structures and processes and watching him grow into that and the leader he has become has been awesome. Brent Hall started working for us while he was at Georgia. A few months ago, we had a quality of earnings report done by Bennett Thrasher, and they had no reason to tell us this but they said that Brent Hall is one of the the absolute best CFOs they’ve ever worked with. So, watching these guys and girls grow, that’s the most rewarding thing for me. I could say something similar about every person on the team if we had more time.
Who/what have been the inspirations in your life that have helped get you to where you are today?
It’s a long list so I’ll try to go through quickly, but my immediate family, parents and grandparents, have been unbelievable from a faith, integrity, and character perspective. All my foundational character comes from them and they’ve been an unbelievable example, which is amazing.
In addition to them, well, a lot of my heroes I’ve never met. Robert Woodruff has been my hero since I was about five years old. Truett Cathy, Richard Branson, although I have spent time with him, most of what I learned, I learned through reading about him. Lee Woodall, Cam Lanier, I’ve got a laundry list of people that have helped me tremendously and have been very inspirational but also some of the most inspirational people I’ve never met, I’ve just learned about them.
What has been the greatest failure you have experienced up to this point in life and what did you learn from it?
Well from a personal standpoint, my biggest failure is I did not take advantage of the learning opportunities in my earlier years. Making good grades and actually learning something are two different things. I missed out on endless opportunities to learn things that I wish I knew now. Didn’t pay attention in Spanish class, but if I was fluent in Spanish right now, I will be so much more effective. In history I didn’t pay attention, and those are the things I’m now doing and reading about. I’m now very intentional about not missing an opportunity to learn something.
From a company perspective there’s not one big thing that I would consider to be a success or a failure. It’s a lot of little wins and a lot of little losses. We’ve made a million small mistakes, but they have all been learning opportunities. If you’re blazing your own trail and creating something that’s never been done before, the faster you can fail small, the faster you can actually learn to take the next step. In that way, we kind of lean into failure and embrace it. I’ve always told anybody and everybody, I do not care about mistakes, but I want to learn from it and take immediate corrective action.
What are some of your daily rituals that are really important to you getting things done?
I implemented the best version of daily rituals I’ve found personally about two years ago. I was struggling to build in to my schedule all of the important things that weren’t urgent. Through working with Tommy Newberry (founder of the 1% club) we created a custom-made early morning success routine that is two hours every morning. At the same time every morning, I walk two miles and listen to a book while I’m walking so get some mental stimulation in. As soon as I’m done with the walk, I stretch then come in make a very healthy smoothie. It’s usually a good mix of fats and a lot of vegetables. Mainly things that actually nourish the brain or body. I have about a 15 minute devotion and then usually will have about 45 minutes to focus on whatever I’m learning at the time. Right now, I’m getting my pilot’s license which is a tremendous amount of studying. I’ll usually use that 45 minute block to either study or use the time to write a few blogs, which I do a few times a week.
By the time my kids get up, I’ve already knocked out the physical, mental, and spiritual things I want to do for the day. That has been paramount and I don’t break my routine period. For a while, I was inconsistent on when I would come home, but now I’ve got a six o’clock appointment with my kids every night. So those two things have been the most impactful from a routine standpoint.
How have you learned to balance the demands of your job with demands of family/personal life?
What I’ve tried to do is trim as close to all the fat as I possibly can. So, in doing that, I made a decision that I’m not going to watch TV. It’s very easy to turn on Fox News and listen to political pundits talk about nothing and it’s just a complete waste of time.
Not even Auburn games?
Nope. I don’t watch sports. I know I don’t have the mental bandwidth to focus on keeping up with recruiting or keeping up with sports while also trying to be as effective as I want to be with our business and my family. So, anything that’s not directly focused on something important to me, I don’t do it. I’m weird from that standpoint, but like I said, I’m not smart enough to do it all so I have to stay focused.
What one thing are you really into right now?
I’m a voracious reader. Whatever book I’m reading is what I’m into at that time. Right now, I’m rereading Blue Ocean strategy, which is one of the absolute best business books on Earth. I mean, it’s so good.
If someone should learn anything from your experience starting Swift Straw, what should they know?
One lesson learned is about the concept of comfort and easy. When you really understand the forces we’re all bombarded with through marketing and advertising and when you understand what’s behind the messaging. Whether it’s the idea of going to the beach for weeks at a time, or the idea of focusing on material items in order to get a small dopamine hit when you buy them or to make things more comfortable. It’s all a fallacy. There’s no fulfillment in easy. There’s no fulfillment sitting on the beach all day. There is no fulfillment in comfort. There is no fulfillment in doing things that are not hard.
You won’t be sitting on your back porch when you’re 80 looking back and be like, “man, I sure had it easy.” No, you’re going to be like, “When I was 25 I didn’t have anything, but I busted my butt and by the time I was 35, I did this.” Those are the things you look back on that are fulfilling.
So, the one principle is, don’t buy into the lie that comfort and easy and relaxation on the beach is where fulfillment is found. Fulfillment is found in the hard stuff. Once you wrap your brain around that, it makes life a whole lot easier. You expect hard things and you use it as an opportunity to grow. That’s why the hard stuff is the good stuff.
What does the future look like for Swift Straw? Any major challenges that you are looking forward to figuring out?
We’re are projected to grow about 30% this year and that’s all organic. That is a huge strain for us on bandwidth without adding any people mind you. With that kind of strain in mind, one big initiative we’re doing right now is overhauling our technology stack. Everything we do is with scale in mind and we constantly need to automate things that are unnecessary. We also have to invent better ways of doing things because the manual labor market is diminishing every year. People are not as willing to pick up the broom and work, and that’s fine, but it means that we have to innovate and mechanize rapidly in order to keep up and maintain our position. Really our biggest challenge in almost everything is innovating because we’re creating something that’s never been done before. It’s an expensive process and it’s also a very failure driven process. We have to fail quickly and come out on the other side with something that is going to create a new way of doing it.
For more information about Swift Straw visit their website at http://swiftstraw.com