Mississippi Leaders: John Lewis
by Martin Willoughby
Published: July 29,2012
Scott Shane, a professor and author of “Illusions of Entrepreneurship”, shares in his book the actual statistics on new business failure rates. The analysis was over a 10-year period revealed that over 50 percent of businesses fail within five years of launching and over 70 percent had closed their doors within ten years. This data comes from the U.S. Small Business Administration and debunks some of the even higher reports that tend to float around cyberspace. However, the statistics still reveal that starting a new business is no easy task, and that the risk of failure is substantial. I always take note of entrepreneurial leaders who defy the odds and not only survive over the long term but THRIVE.
I recently had the opportunity to visit with John Lewis, president of Security Card Services Inc., who along with his business partner William Alias III has built several thriving businesses that have stood the test of time. Lewis and Alias are great examples that you don’t have to be the inventor of the next Google or Facebook to create a great business. The first business they started in college was Security Check, which provided check collection services and was twice named to the Inc. 500 and was the fourth-largest check collection company in the nation when it was sold to a private equity group in 2008. Today, they operate Security Credit Services, LLC, which was 48th on the Inc. 500 list of fast-growth companies in 2010. Lewis and Alias also formed Security Card Services, LLC in 1996 and through hard work, focus and a strong emphasis on customer service, it is now one of top 70 credit card processors in the country and will process over $2 billion in credit card transactions in 2012.
Lewis’ family moved around a good bit and after living around the state, Lewis graduated high school from Lee Academy in Clarksdale. A talented athlete, Lewis played a year of football at Millsaps before hanging up his cleats and moving on to Ole Miss. The move to Oxford turned out to be fortuitous as Lewis ended up sharing an apartment with his current business partner William Alias III. These two young men had an entrepreneurial spirit and the courage to follow their dreams to build a business.
With almost 60 employees, Lewis acknowledged that hiring great people has been a key to their success. He shared, “Early on we tried to save money on some of our hiring, but we soon realized that hiring the best people is critical.” In order to make sure that they get the “right people on the bus,” Lewis takes a team approach to hiring. He along with his business partner and their staff all interview prospective new hires. They have found that this helps with buy-in and creates a sense of ownership.
Lewis shared that his experience with team sports growing up taught him the value of hard work and teamwork. He also learned the importance of persevering when the “going gets tough.” In fact, he credits his high school football coach, Ricky Weiss, with instilling a number of these values into him. This reminds me of the old Japanese proverb, “fall down seven times, get up eight.” This type of determination and “never say quit” attitude is a common trait I have found in studying the lives of great leaders and entrepreneurs.
In the credit card processing business, there is often a “churn and burn” attitude with customers. Lewis noted that one of the most important aspects of their business has been the customer service and retention. He said, “We have tried to keep growing our business one satisfied customer at a time, and we work hard to keep our attrition rate very low.” This is a great point. We can often get so focused on gaining new business that we forget to take good care of our existing customers.
I am encouraged to learn about entrepreneurs like Lewis and Alias, who are building nationally competitive businesses and creating jobs here in Mississippi. I am no public policy expert, but I do know that if we can create the right environment and culture here in Mississippi to encourage entrepreneurial leaders like Lewis and Alias, then we will be leading the way.
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