Jerry Brazie is a serial entrepreneur who comes from a very poor and rough upbringing. The seventh child out of nine, Jerry’s family survived on food stamps and government assistance for much of his early childhood. His family (of eleven people) lived in a three-bedroom house, with one bathroom. Jerry’s first job was at eleven years old, washing dishes at a local restaurant, steadily moving up from one job to the next, always leaving for better pay. Surviving violent teenage years, Jerry is fond of saying that at age eighteen, he was certain he would not survive to age twenty-five.
With no education and no prospects for the future, Jerry took a job as a local messenger, delivering packages and paperwork, starting at the age of twenty-one. With a gift for operational efficiency, Jerry was running all of the dispatch operations for the company, and was instrumental in its growth from $2 million to $5 million in revenue within two years. After managing that company for six years, at twenty-eight years old with a infant son at home, Jerry was approached by investors to start a new company.
He took the offer and the company failed within a year, so Jerry went into business for himself. With no education or business training, but street smart, Jerry grew his business to $14 million in revenue within the first four years. Twenty years later, Jerry still operates that business, along with many others. He has owned multiple gas stations, car washes, convenience stores, a real estate development company, has developed 100s of lots that were sold to national builders, built houses, and also owns and personally manages over 130,000 square-feet of commercial real estate in multiple locations in Portland, Oregon. He has a management company, as well as a driver management company. He has purchased four of his competitors over the years, as well as bought and sold multiple other businesses.
Jerry’s newest passion are the daily videos he publishes on YouTube and Facebook. With a lifetime of experience and stories, combined with owning companies that have generated over $330 million in revenue over the last twenty years, Jerry sees this as a way to give back. In the videos, Jerry shares strategies, real life experiences, and advice on how to live a successful life. The goal is to inspire people to reach beyond what they think they are capable of by showing them how to break through barriers, both mentally and physically. He sells nothing and charges nothing, but tries to show what it takes to be a successful business owner, both the good and the bad. Straightforward and direct, Jerry’s story is the epitome of the American Dream.
Jerry has been married for twenty years and is the father of three children. An avid outdoorsman, Jerry hunts all over the world whenever he can.
Tell me about your early career.
I come from a very poor background, and was number seven (out of nine kids). So, when you grow up in poverty, with that many siblings, you do everything you can to get out of the house and work whatever jobs you can find. I started working at eleven years old as a dishwasher at a local restaurant, graduated to IHOP, then McDonald’s, and every job in-between. The key was that I constantly left one job for a better-paying one, until I eventually landed at a courier company, where I was managing the dispatch operations within six months. That’s how I got into the transportation industry.
How did the concept for Senvoy come about?
I was approached to start a new company by an investor. He knew of me because I had worked with many dispatchers in the area, and had helped build the largest company of its kind in Oregon. I remember, clearly, sitting in my office and he sent me a pro forma, and I had no idea what I was looking at. I led this very busy company for years, but only operationally. I knew that side of the business, cold, but had never seen the numbers.
And that is when I had an epiphany. I was twenty-eight years old and had been managing employees much older than I was, for years. I was the hotshot, operationally, but I had no idea what I was looking at. I had never heard of a P&L or a balance sheet, and I certainly did not know how to read them. So, I was sitting there and it hit me. I thought to myself, “I had better shut up and listen, or I am going to be doing this for the rest of my life.” Right then, I started buying every book on business, I ditched a bunch of my friends, I started hanging out with people who were smarter than me, and I took the investor up on the job offer.
How was the first year in business?
We did $3 million the first year, but the investor did not have the money to finance the cash flow. I was learning on the fly and was not experienced enough to figure out what was happening. I sold like crazy, but I wasn’t making any money. I learned that it is easy to sell, but very difficult to make money. One year to the day, the investor fired me.
Not one to back down, and armed with a bit of experience, I made plans to start my own company. However, I had no money, so I used what I did have: an excellent reputation as a straight shooter. So, I used that as currency, and I went to my five largest clients and told them what had happened and asked if they would prepay me for the first year. I was five for five. This is why I tell people all the time that the only answer to a question not asked is no. I have never been afraid to ask.
What was your marketing strategy?
Me. I had all the contacts, so I went to all of them and made sales. Most of the work came from the company that had fired me. I was a bull in a china shop, and I never hesitated for a minute to ask customers for their business.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
So, I started my own company with my customer’s money, and I did $3 million, $6 million, $10 million, and $14 million, during the first four years. It was at this point when we had to learn to make money, because I was bleeding at $14 million. So, I cut it down to $8 million, got our hands around it, and here we are, twenty years later.
How do you define success?
Learning. I come to work every day, knowing that we can go out of business because of the decisions I am about to make. So, I try to learn something from every situation. I am successful because of my adaptability, introspection, and lack of emotion. If someone can learn all three things, they are successful.
What is the key to success?
Easy. Hustle and outwork everyone, every time. There are a lot of hardworking people digging ditches, so you have to hustle for the business as hard as you work for it. I work fifteen hours a day, and have for twenty years. But I will outwork every competitor, no questions asked. I am also patient and think long-term. I also didn’t quit when it got hard. And finally, no emotion. I do not get up or down throughout the day. I enjoy the wins, and hate the losses, but that is for just the quickest of moments and then I move on. You can’t get too high on yourself or else you are heading for a fall.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Independence. The understanding that no one was going to help me and I was on my own. I was sixteen years old or so, and had gotten in a fight at a local mall with four guys. They put it to me pretty good, breaking my nose and leaving me under a bus stop bench. It took me two buses and a one-and-a-half mile walk to get home. About a third of the walk home, I was holding my nose and I remembered I had little to go home to, because we had nothing, and then I had the first of many hard lessons. I learned that no one at home was going to help me anyway, and if I wanted to survive, I had to do it on my own. To this day, I can still remember the feeling I had when I came to that realization. It guides me to this day.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“Don’t be afraid of change. You have to burn the ships and move on.” “Run, don’t walk, to a problem. Seek it out, pound it into submission, and dare it to happen again.” “The answer to every question never asked is always no.”
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Easy. In 2004, my partner who had helped me start and grow the company, and who also kept the books, decided that the company was going out of business because we were struggling. So, he quit collecting money, quit paying the bills, and took a job with my largest competitor at the time. Two days after suddenly quitting, I received a call from his boss, the owner, telling me that he understood the company was in trouble and offered me pennies on the dollar for it. I hung up, went to the office, told my management group what had happened, and all of us dedicated ourselves to fixing the company. Why? Because fuck him, that why. We weren’t going to lose, so I worked twenty-hour days, we pushed our collections and negotiated our payables, and we brought the company back from the edge within six months.
That was 2004. Jump forward to 2013, and I participated in the bankruptcy auction for that company. Sucks to be him.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I refuse to lose. I know that is a cliche, but some of us live it every day. I climbed out of the gutter, with no education, stealing food to eat as a kid, have seen four murders and three suicides by age twenty-one, worked twenty small-time jobs, all to get where I am. Adversity? It’s easier than stealing food and fixing a broken nose. I hate to lose and I never lose perspective.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
1) Know your numbers, know your numbers, and lastly, know your numbers. Pay attention only to the bottom line. Sales are easy, but making a profitable sale is hard. So, don’t get all excited when that top line grows, get excited when the bottom one does.
2) Outwork everyone. There is no work/life balance for entrepreneurs. You have to work harder than your competition. There are no shortcuts around this. If you are not willing to sacrifice and put in the time, don’t do it. Nothing will come to you. You have to hustle.
3) Money follows, it does not lead. Don’t let it. Do the right thing, take care of your people, and operate with integrity.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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