Douglas Therrell - Charlotte North Carolina Entrepreneur

Douglas Therrell hails from Charlotte, North Carolina and graduated from Myers Park high school in 1958, having known since the sixth grade the career path he wished to pursue. At an early age, he had already decided to be a college professor in music. He completed undergraduate and graduate degrees in five years. A month after receiving his MA degree, at age 23, he became a member of a college music faculty. At age 25, he gave a solo voice recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall and at 26, received faculty tenure. Shortly thereafter, he took brief sabbaticals for additional graduate study at LSU and Boston University where he was a grant recipient.

Also, at age 26, the entrepreneurial family genes began to kick in and with the encouragement of a local mentor and self-made businessman, he purchased his first investment property which was a tract of unimproved land overlooking the college campus. Then with the encouragement of his mentor he did the unthinkable and resigned his tenure, moved back to Charlotte, and began to study business opportunities. Even then, he assumed he would be back teaching within two or three years. However, the entrepreneurial genes had locked in to stay.

Through a process of elimination, he decided being new to the business arena that the risk would be much less if he chose a service business, rather than manufacturing, or a distributorship either of which would require much more risk capital.

Thus, his choice was the casualty-property insurance business with emphasis on commercial/business insurance. He signed on with the Travelers Insurance Company to properly master the business and then established his own independent agency. As one of the quotes above states, he quickly decided on a uniquely different business model. This model provided him the instant platform to compete with major national insurance brokers and to pursue accounts with offices in New York, Chicago, Dallas, etc..

As word spread about his dramatic growth and unusual marketing program he received an unsolicited purchase offer from First Union National Bank/Wachovia Bank. He remained as an executive with the bank for five years to the day. During his tenure there he had frequent interaction and access to the Chairman and CEO which permitted him to continue working with his unique business model.

Simultaneous with the development of his insurance agency, he developed a commercial real estate brokerage division. The real estate activities were comprised of discreetly selling large income properties between his various large commercial insurance clients.

Since that time Therrell has founded and owned a number of companies in several business arenas, e.g. insurance, real estate, industrial psychology driven sales enhancement programs and seminars, and unimproved land acquisition and entitlement.

What are you working on right now?

Having retired briefly a number of times, I finally realized that I was continuing to function in the mode expressed by Harry Reasoner the TV journalist at his retirement roast. It seems I keep tripping over the news and at least some of the time I recognize it as an opportunity. Sometimes I use this story to explain my continuing work and starting new endeavors. When I was still an infant my Mother was saying work hard, work hard, work hard and unfortunately I let that dear lady die without telling me when I could stop. And, as I have not yet received any messages back from heaven on the subject, my default mode seems to be to continue working as long as I am able.

Currently, I am working on several things: tying up loose ends brought on by the recession, updating and reworking the instructional and seminar program I founded together with several prestigious PhD industrial psychologist, SELL (Self Effectiveness Learning Laboratory); consulting and acquiring some foreclosed properties during this unfortunate recessionary period.

Where did the ideas for your careers and businesses come from?

From a young age, I was constantly exposed to music and positive reinforcement led me to believe it was something I could do and probably do very well. Further, it quickly became something I enjoyed. Therefore as rapidly as possible I progressed through the years of music study and the requisite college degrees until I had achieved the first goal as a tenured college professor and director of opera at the college level with the added benefit of some unique recital and concert experiences.

Unimproved land acquisition was fostered by my original mentor in the college town where I was teaching and later encouraged by evangelist Billy Graham’s brother Melvin and a couple of large and growing developers with home offices in Charlotte, North Carolina and New York. These activities have continued through the decades and I still find them invigorating when the opportunity is available.

The selection of insurance is probably adequately explained in the preface shown above. Commercial real estate brokerage of large income properties seemed to me to be a natural when I was willing to think out of the box yet again. In so doing I was rendering a valued service to my large national and regional insurance clients by making discreet acquisitions and sales for them with my other existing clientele. At the same time I was maximizing the value of the business relationships already established. An additional benefit was further solidifying the previously existing relationships.

SELL was founded by, “recognizing the news when I tripped over it”. Just before leaving the office one afternoon I saw that a well-known PhD industrial psychologist was giving a lecture at a hall nearby that evening. This particular gentleman had been on the faculty at both the University of Florida and Duke University and was currently functioning independently as a consultant to a number of large accounts including Piedmont Airlines, Bluebell Textiles, and a variety of other accounts including life insurance companies. I immediately recognized his name. I flew a great deal in my business and every issue of the Piedmont Airlines onboard magazine had an original article written by him and displaying his photograph. I went to his lecture which I greatly enjoyed. Later that evening I found his home number in the telephone directory and gave him a call. I complimented him and told him how much I enjoyed his speech. He thanked me graciously. And then I added: “the reason I particularly enjoyed the lecture is because it’s my speech.” He replied, “I don’t think so I’ve given it many times before.” I replied, “Nonetheless, it’s my speech almost word for word or at least thought for thought.” The next night I was at his home from about eight o’clock until three in the morning. After that the relationship grew and my experiential awareness of the need for SELL was embraced and enhanced.

How do you make money?

By identifying a need or opportunity which is within my scope of knowledge, experience or ability to quickly master. Determining if the endeavor is within the scope of my rather limited risk tolerance and if so, taking action and doing so with as little notoriety or fanfare as possible. Only my clients and prospects need to know if I am doing a good job. My competition does not need that information and if I still needed applause, I could still be performing on stage, or directing operas or Broadway-type musicals.

What does your typical day look like?

To answer this, let’s look at a couple of time capsules from the past. In the last few years before the unsolicited offer to be purchased by the National Bank, I was working about 12 hours a day or more, as fast and as creatively as I possibly could. I would occasionally awake in the wee hours of the night lying on the sofa in my office with an open file on my chest and dictaphone in my hand. Nonetheless, I was the ultimate delegator. My instructions to new staff were, “try every source you can think of to solve the problem and handle it, and then if you fail I am your last resource.”

Boy, with that, I stumbled into something great. As a result, the staff grew in confidence, capability, and sense of responsibility and rose to the maximum of their abilities, and consequentially the company benefited. I was on the telephone constantly. The joke, which was all too true, was that the office manager would hand me a note every Friday afternoon asking how much pocket money I needed for the weekend because she couldn’t get time to speak to me unless it was a business emergency.

Risk avoidance was prevalent even then. This was before the days of computers and automation so most of the work was done by hand and typewriter. On the weekends, I would have underwriting managers from insurance companies come to my office and review all of my commercial files. We had devised a checklist that was stapled inside of each file. The consultants would check everyone’s work for accuracy, thoroughness and would check off all of the coverages that were provided and any that should be recommended and had not been treated or documented in the files. Every weekend, they would come to the conference room and work through stacks of accounts. When they were finished the whole process started over again.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I review them in my mind numerous times, compare the risk to reward. Then I “sleep on it” and before going to sleep at night tell my brain – automatic computer – to review and sort through it all and give it back to me in proper order the next morning.

Surprisingly, that process has served me well ever since my college days. If the idea passed that test, then I see what – if any – additional talent personnel are needed. I generally use my referral network to find the best people, review the program with them and establish a plan of action for implementation and continuation.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The answer to this varies in different economic climates. I try to identify and act on the most likely business model that will work in the prevailing economy with consideration to my experience and ability; and to a far greater extent to the talent, if needed, that I can attract to join me in the endeavor.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I worked part-time one summer in college selling encyclopedias. From that, I learned that door to door sales was no fun and that if I ever engaged in sales in the future, I should develop some better confidence and techniques. The lasting take away was that I only wanted to do sales via a referral network, or via centers of influence.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

With the benefit of getting a do over, I could do most things far more efficiently. Most importantly, I would think and act on a much larger scale. Most limitations – it now appears – were self-imposed.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you would do over and over and recommend everyone else to?

Develop and more fully utilize my largest centers of influence, e.g. think and act bigger in my business models.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome?

Generally, the failure that stings the most was not thinking big enough and I did not overcome it. I vacillated between thinking small and thinking large and thus acting small and acting large in my business pursuits. I wish I’d been more consistent and am still working on this to this day.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I’m sorry this is not an idea, but I feel it’s great advice, learned over and over through my 50+ years as an entrepreneur: Beware of banks. Rule number one is never personally endorse a loan. I have rarely borrowed significant amounts from banks and find that in observing my friends who have been consistently heavily leveraged that their banks have been fair weather friends.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

I am currently studying and working with some friends on a co-evolution movement which hopefully will prove very helpful regarding world improvement. I’d like to help modify the human condition, replacing war with effective communication.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I believe I have done that herein. To that I might add that most monumental task come with some pre-performance jitters, e.g. “stage fright”. In one pre-performance television interview of an outstanding solo instrumental musician he was asked, “Do you have stage fright about your performance this evening?” which was a concerto with a major symphony.

He replied, “Yes, I’m scared, I’m scared to death.”

The interviewer said, “Why? You are a great musician. You have performed this work and you have performed it extremely well in the past.”

The musician’s reply was, “Yes, I know I can play it and I know I can play it well. I just don’t know if I can play it tonight!”

What are the books that you recommend our community should read and why?

Anything by Paul Tillich, i.e. “Moral Imperatives” etc. The US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The Bible. It’s a comprehensive study of history that led to neighborhood, tribal, national and international war with emphasis on the fact that the human condition has historically led to a constancy of war, i.e smaller wars unless there was a larger common enemy, etc..

When was the last time you laughed out loud?

Today and every day. Sometimes there is another listening reason. However, most of the time, I do it because it is a trick I learned from a professor emeritus friend of mine at Vanderbilt University Medical School. He and some of his colleagues have come to believe, and some research may have been done, that a good belly laugh is healthy and therapeutic. Hence, he and some of his friends will just point at each other and both began to belly laugh. Others watching immediately assume there is an inside joke. However they’re just doing it on command because it feels good and is therapeutic.

Who is your hero?

My parents, mentors and most of my successful musician and business acquaintances.

How important is a good website?

Although I am a very old-school guy, I have come to realize that the initial impression of most companies that are not directly known or directly recommended is determined by the quality, thoroughness and user friendliness of their website. Credentials, areas of activity, and complete contact information to me are the most important items for inclusion.

What are your hobbies outside of work?

As the years pass, the hobbies modify. However, I have greatly enjoyed snow skiing, tennis, sailing and swimming. In my younger days, that included baseball and basketball. Now in those team sports I am relegated to being an avid spectator both in person and via television. I often describe myself as a rocking chair aficionado and a world-class air-conditioner hugger, as I do not like hot weather.

Connect With Douglas Therrell: