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The “entrepreneurial personality” is a phenomenon of great importance, mainly because its existence is arguable, as it were. With this in mind, I tried to organize my interview so as to single out the most peculiar individual traits of an entrepreneur and analyze their success with this in mind.
Mr. Matthew Simmons proved to be a figure of exceptional qualities: a melting pot of contradicting character traits that somehow led him to success, held him ahead of five restaurants, and earned him Presidency at the restaurateurs’ association.
This report is aimed at presenting the information obtained in the course of the interview with Mr. Simmons with a special emphasis on his insights and best practices that might be of help when revealing some of the unique personal traits that make this particular entrepreneur successful. Having refrained from asking superfluous questions, I tried to delve deep into the personality, analyze it critically, and formulate what I have learned from this experience.
The background and characteristics of the entrepreneur
Mr. Matthew Simmons is the CEO of the Capital Ale House and the President of Virginia Restaurant Association. His emergence as an entrepreneur is a story of an inborn talent applied to practice at the right time, in the right place, which was one of the factors stipulating his success. He spoke fondly of his family and mentioned, not without a touch of pride, that he had the Ukrops among his relatives – a family with adventurousness and entrepreneurial courage flowing in their veins.
Football obviously has an important place in Mr. Simmons’ life as one of the Ukrops is known as a talented footballer, and Tom Coughlin (the Jacksonville Jaguars manager) was the person the young Matthew admired as he grew. He did not receive higher education, instead helping his family by working at a restaurant run by native Italians. The restaurant where quality and customer loyalty were among the top priorities became his first business school; it was an experience he carried on to his subsequent workplaces, namely, Pizza Hut. That small restaurant taught Mr. Simmons integrity and commitment – the values he would never abandon.
As a young kitchen worker and odds person, however, Mr. Simmons did not dream of being ahead of a business. Although some pre-conditions were beginning to form, the idea of his own enterprise did not fully develop until he turned 18. It was roughly at that time that alcohol turned legal again, and the young Matthew found himself taking great interest in the industry. It was not the money matters that attracted him and made the idea root firmly in his head. He liked beer, liked the taste and texture of it, and was utterly fascinated by the way beer was produced. That, and not the money, was the foremost motivation for him to start the career.
Mr. Simmons does believe he is a person best suited for leading a business efficiently. Without false modesty, he emphasizes his ability to see the business as an embroidered canvas, up to the smallest detail. He might not have the best education but he learns fast and is capable of synthesizing information, making the best of his experience, and learning from the others’ mistakes. He also possesses what he refers to as “a hunch,” which was precisely the trait that enabled him to notice an empty niche in the market – the one that perfectly coincided with his tastes and inclinations: the marked was in need of craft beer.
The rest, as Mr. Simmons says, is history. He took it as a goal to fill the niche for craft beer that was just gaining popularity at the moment. His experience at the restaurant made him integrate the values of homeliness, transparency, respect, and quality into his vision, which he pursued with all the dedication he had. He supposed there must be enthusiastic people out there who would appreciate what he had to offer, and he was determined to provide them with a wide array of beers and a pleasant atmosphere of fellowship.
When asked about his beliefs, he emphasized the need to rely on one’s vision when starting a business. However, no business can strive on vision alone: the choice of structure, the trusted people, and the readiness to take the time and spend the money to get some professional advice are just as crucial.
The history and nature of the business
Capital Ale House was started in 2002, after Mr. Simmons had had his work experience at Pizza Hut, Applebee International, and the pub at Legend Brewery where he took a chance to become General Manager. It all started as a Virginia-based enterprise with a few personnel members and a limited range of products on offer, although the atmosphere was homey and mellow from the start. Over time, the start-up grew into an independent chain of five restaurants with more than 300 cooks, waiters, managers, maintenance personnel, etc.
The new destinations are quartered in Downtown Richmond (where the first one was opened), Innsbrook Shoppes in Glen Allen, Midlothian, Historic Downtown Fredericksburg and Historic Downtown Harrisonburg. Each of the facilities has trademark craft beers on offer, both draught and bottled. The product range varies from 51 to 100 in different locations. Each of them partners with local food providers to complement the drinks, which deserves every appraisal. Indeed, the chain prides itself on opting for the local raw materials to produce their beers and facilitates the growth of the local food providers by purchasing meats and poultry that are either grown or caught within the state’s borders.
Mr. Simmons relates that he has developed many policies with the community in mind. The chain takes active part in social life and strives to increase its visibility. In other words, Capital Ale House actively targets its devoted customers and seeks to expand its clientele by increasing its visibility via assorted media and events.
Firstly, although the chain is far from being globalized, it has good visibility on the Web and in print. The chain has several groups on the major social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, where the users can share their experience and provide feedback for the chain to reconsider its policies and make some improvements. Its website runs under the slogan “Raise the bar” and provides the necessary information on the beer-related events it hosts or takes part in.
The three restaurants located within the immediate vicinity of Richmond are known for their live music evenings, and the users can see the appointed events listed on the website and buy tickets online.
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Interestingly, the choice of music bands is dictated by the restaurants’ image. The culture of craft beer and comfort foods that usually go with beer has a very distinct conceptual framework in what concerns music, which is why the restaurant opts for either alternative rock or instrumental singer-song performances.
One such event that Mr. Simmons is particularly proud of was meant to serve the community and highlight Capital Ale House as an establishment that is not indifferent to people’s needs and does its best to meet them. It was a benefit concert organized by the students from Charterhouse School’s Courage to Succeed program and hosted by Capital Ale House in Richmond on September 18th. The concert was aimed at raising social awareness about the needs of the children undergoing treatment at institutions under the guardianship of the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
Specializing in child diseases and injuries, the alliance raises funds for children’s hospitals nationwide and on the local level, Richmond included. The chain took on the ticket distribution and availed its main dining room as a mini concert hall for several local music bands. Most of the money raised by the event went to the Children’s Miracle Network. To attract even more people to the event, the chain offered gift cards and raffle tickets. Mr. Simmons refers to the event very seriously; he acknowledges the criticality of social issues such as this and takes it as the chain’s and his personal obligation to do whatever needs to be done to help.
Mr. Simmons does not deny that, apart from the noble purpose of these charity events, they are self-serving in that they improve the chain’s image and are, as it were, one of the factors increasing customer loyalty. More importantly, however, the chain prides itself on providing the best customer experience and tailoring the array of its services to what their clients need. For instance, Mr. Simmons enlists some unique features the chain has to offer that make it recognizable.
He recalls that, when he and his associates Mike Jones, Linda Jones and Chris Holder just opened the first Richmond restaurant, it had an “ice strip” at the bar. A long basin filled with ice was extremely convenient to put the drinks in to keep them cool. It was a unique piece of designer thinking and craftsmanship that immediately became the restaurant’s signature and was featured in just about every critique article.
Another policy developed with the customer in mind was collaboration with MyFitnessPal, a service that, among other things, provides detailed information about the nutritional value of assorted foods and products offered in popular food chains. Some of the menu entries offered by Capital Ale House such as their famous stuffed pretzel sandwich and several kinds of burgers can be found under the restaurant’s tag at MyFitnessPal website. Mr. Simmons comments that he values the customers’ nutritional needs pertaining either to their health or dietary requirements and takes it as hit duty to have them fully informed as to what they eat.
It would be true to say, therefore, that the Italian restaurant experience had a strong influence on Mr. Simmons’ entrepreneurial practice. He was able to witness people at work and take some of his visions from them. However, upon later reflections as a manager, he realized he had been witnessing a lifestyle business. These people did not shoot high, aiming instead at fulfilling an idea and finding satisfaction in small things.
Starting his own establishment, however, he did not want to draw a line between a lifestyle business and growth. He did not believe these two structures were mutually exclusive and tried to work on both the values and the profits. He does admit, however, that his business grew so rapidly not least because he happened to be passionate about what was currently in demand. Still, he does not believe his success is built up on luck alone.
Mr. Simmons knew a lot of CEOs who ceased to control their establishments before they even started making profits and soon dropped out of the venture altogether. Therefore, control is by all means a matter of importance to him. As a founder-CEO with managerial experience, he made managerial control his credo. Another important aspect of his success was how he treated risks and risk taking.
A skilled manager, he was perfectly aware of the hazards of private business, the cash flow issues, and the uncertainties pertaining to the product marketability, customer demand, market positioning, staff turnover, etc. What urged Mr. Simmons forward was his need for fulfilment, the desire to perform his best and accomplish his mission. This is why he was so determined: he embraced “every challenge that was inescapable” and managed to turn it to his profit in his pursuit of excellence. It was not by accident, however, that he made this specification: he had never fostered unrealistic expectations. Although he led his business passionately, he never took a risk unless he was 100% sure it was thoroughly calculated and perfectly manageable.
At the same time, he admits it was impossible to plan through everything. Answering my question whether or not he had a business plan on which to rely, Mr. Simmons says he cannot remember. Although he did take risk management very seriously, he refers to himself as “the guy next door,” which hints at his background and implies that he values simplicity in all matters. When I note that some people would, perhaps, find it more simple to stick to a plan, he says he must be different.
He states that real business does not happen by the book and that an entrepreneur has to rely firmly on their intuition to develop trend-sensitivity, forecast the outcomes, and lay the course accordingly. Although he cannot remember having written up a plan, he has taken his time to organize a market analysis and sketch out the financial projections.
That, and the fact that he had been working as a General Manager at the Legend Brewery pub, made him believe in his readiness to take up a project of his own. As a General Manager, he had been studying the business specificities and “learning the ropes” for five years, which is when he made this decision. His commitment and passion, along with the risk precautions he felt necessary to take, added up to his confidence. It is true that the business went hard on him, at first. Because he felt the necessity to be in control of everything, Mr. Simmons often found himself working a full 7-day week for 12 hours a day, non-stop. Recalling this experience, he refers to it as the game that is well-worth the candles.
Lessons learned by the entrepreneur, in his own words
The values that Mr. Simmons fostered at the moment of the Capital Ale’s inception did not change much with the course of time. He emphasized that his vision was to unite beer lovers in a setting where they can relax and enjoy a large assortment of craft beer. He has been working on that goal continuously, doing his best to improve the customers’ experience. As he employed new, better practices and got more experienced, the level of uncertainty reduced. Mr. Simmons shared that he missed the excitement of the first days of the new business but stability is something he cherishes as well.
The last year’s accident when the roof of the Fredericksburg restaurant collapsed into the dining room, he felt he only managed to pull the restaurant out of crisis because he was prepared for risks and had a firm financial base to lean on.
Control has always had an important place in Mr. Simmons’ practice, and he does not underestimate its value even now, as a President. He still oversees the quality of the products and services in all of his restaurants, all five of them. Over the years that craft beer was at the peak of popularity, he opened four more facilities; naturally, redistributing his time between the five took some getting used to but he never complained. As the business smoothed out, Mr. Simmons felt he could even out his work-life balance and take up some sideways projects. He took up coaching and plays hockey in his spare time.
When asked about his errors in the past, Mr. Simmons admitted he may have relied too heavily on the product at the beginning. The beers were of exceptional quality, but apart from that, the restaurant did not offer much. His new approach is more customer-oriented, with numerous beer events and customizable banquets on the restaurants’ premises.
His other mistakes include his attempt to pigeon-hole the college audience with $10 beers during a failed Oktoberfest in Harrisonburg and the chili fest that worked in Cincinnati but was a massive failure everywhere else. Admitting that business is a rocky road, he states that his ability to learn from his own and the others’ mistakes was what kept him afloat and striving. Apart from these two failures, the business went relatively smoothly for a company with such scope and revenue.
Another instance of concern to Mr. Simmons is the mobile app technology. Dwelling on the things he would have probably done differently if he had this opportunity, he says he would rather adopt the technology earlier. Technology has clearly become an important part of his business as his future plans also pertain to mobile applications and POS. Utterly dissatisfied with the insights provided by his current POS provider, he allocated his intention to switch entirely to iPad-based one. Realizing the potential behind the tech, he says he is going to adopt it as well.
The subject of exit strategy seems to be of great concern to Mr. Simmons as he admits that he has often thought about the day he was going to “drop the mic.” Living for the struggle of running his business so that it justified the time and effort invested in it, he states he never forgets that every decision he makes is going to impact his future and that of the enterprise. As one of the many exit strategies, he considers the IPO, strangely as it is.
While he realizes the potential dangers of such a strategy, such as the need to reorganize the structure entirely and the potential downfall of the stock value upon the expiry of the lockout restrictions, he is tempted to go public. He is of the opinion that IPO is the most optimal way to say enough is enough because it draws the public’s attention, saves the business from the second-generation ruin, and is quite likely to raise the stocks’ worth up to a hundred million dollars.
When asked about the lessons he has learned over the years of running the business, he denoted the insights he gained as the most important one. As per Mr. Simmons, to gain these insights, an entrepreneur should adopt a thoroughly detailed approach from the very beginning. They should be able to see the business as a whole and yet notice every crack, every detail. Another thing that constitutes a successful business is commitment: the mission an entrepreneur pursues should matter to them personally, otherwise they will never be able to communicate it to the employees and persuade them to make it their own.
Financial history of the venture
When the venture was still at the project stage, Mr. Simmons made contacts and constantly expanded his network as General Manager. In the course of his duties and with a view to the prospective venture, he became acquainted with a circle of quality suppliers and experts at logistics to procure the supply chain, determine the prevalence of industry-specific products, and estimate the optimal quality-to-price ratio.
He also established connection with the maintenance personnel working for the Legend Brewery, which ensured quality services based on their long-term collaboration and trust. Another valuable resource was his own experience in beer products, ability to and desire to meet the customer’s needs, and the fact that he was constantly witnessing how successful businesses operated (such as the Ukrops’ supermarket chain) and learned from their experience.
The knowledge, the connection, and the commitment – all this served to prop up Mr. Simmons’ success with a venture of his own as he raised funds by partnering with the local nonprofit establishments, receiving donations and gift certificates. He did not expect the revenue to spiral up to $7-10 million on a yearly basis, although his hunch told him the first restaurant and the following ones would be quite profitable. After all, his intuitive thinking helped him to distinguish craft beer had a promising market value at the time, and his passion propelled his business forward.
The cash flow was, in fact, one of the issues Mr. Simmons anticipated, which can explain why his business was never put to face it. Mr. Simmons’ skillfulness at keeping everything under control (including the organization of books, the debts, the out-of-sync credits, and more) prevented the business from encountering the cash flow problems. One of the most dreaded pre-conditions of cash flow is lack of profit, which was not an issue either: the restaurant led by a passionate leader and offering a vast range of marketable product quickly became popular and well-referred.
Speaking about the cash flow, Mr. Simmons also mentioned overly rapid growth as one of the factors resulting in cash flow and states that was precisely why he did not plan his business as a rapidly growing one. Capital Ale House did grow but kept a steady pace so as to be able to pay wages without having to take big loans. Because Mr. Simmons paid close attention to every little detail, there were no surprises he encountered on his way, although it does not mean the venture’s financial situation was impeccable at any given moment.
One of the biggest financial challenges was the 2015 roof collapse at the Fredericksburg joint. Mr. Simmons recalls that is was an extremely rainy July and mentions that the roof of the old mid-1950s building would not withstand more than two inches of rainfall. The roof broke down and the debris fell into the main dining room. Fortunately, the restaurant personnel were alert and managed to lead the customers away from the hall, otherwise the possibility of injuries would have been considerably high.
Recalling the events, Mr. Simmons expresses his pride with his personnel and mentions, among other things, that the restaurant had good insurance, which is why the reopening was held sooner than later. Still, he refers to the incident as a severe blow to the restaurant’s financial condition and states that the losses were massive.
Now that I think of him, Mr. Simmons produces an interestingly contradictory impression. This remarkable person manages to combine sets of features that are, by nature, diametrically opposite. For instance, his commitment to the business and the reminiscences of his young age that he renders so warmly, make him almost sentimental.
His trend-sensitivity, the ability to gather a network of trusted employees, and inspire them with his vision of the end product and the core idea of “fellowship” speak of him as an emotionally intelligent leader and a person with exceptional intuitive thinking. At the same time, he is clearly capable of cool-headed premeditation and keeping his face when experiencing a failure; his readiness to dispose of his current POS provider in favor of the iPad-based evidence that he is focused on maximum efficiency.
As it were, his conduct, professional judgment, and business practices receive appraisal. To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Simmons was not caught on unethical practices relating to either labor, product quality, sustainability, or supply chain management. He is not an innovator, nor is he overly cautious in his decisions, which is evidenced by his customer-oriented projects such as beer events and banquets that a customer can order to be hosted on the premises of one of the Capital Ale House restaurants. The $10 beers while the ticket price was twice as small might have been a failure with this particular audience but even those events that failed served as a platform to avoid similar mistakes in the future because, clearly, Mr. Simmons is capable of applying experience to practice.
Mr. Simmons did not speak much of his personal life, although he produces an impression of a family person. With his present position, he seems to successfully combine his business and private matters and sideways occupations such as coaching and sports.
Some of the lessons I personally learned from Mr. Simmons success pertain to how I regard an entrepreneurial personality and the role of education in running a business. I also learned that I possess a valuable feature that can prop me up in the future.
In terms of an entrepreneurial personality, my initial position was that quality education and personal development can make an entrepreneur out of any (motivated) person. In other words, I have never taken the concept of a “born” entrepreneur seriously. The interview changed my position: having analyzed Mr. Simmons’ personality, I admit that born entrepreneurs do exist.
The role of education has always seemed critical to me, and although Mr. Simmons strives just as well without a college degree, I partially attribute his success to the spirit of the time he started up. There are some authors that do not speak in favor of schooling because standardized education, supposedly, leaves little room for talent. I find such opinions doubtful because in the course of education one can acquire an array of valuable skills – including leadership.
That Mr. Simmons was able to succeed without it only speaks of him as a naturally intelligent person with a toolkit of inherent skills suitable for his role as a leader. Thus, my judgment of the value of education and personal development is not changed after the interview. Moreover, I am just as determined to continue with my education and develop myself additionally in the course of my career.
During the conversation and upon some reflection, I learned something very important about myself: seeing a person as successful as Mr. Simmons, I never envy them. Instead, I ask myself what I can personally do to be just as successful and more. My natural inclination to analysis helps me with that: while I enjoy conversing with people and learning from them, I am also not devoid of speculation and in-depth thinking, which can prove valuable in the course of my career.