Josh Zolin is the CEO of Windy City Equipment Services, a restaurant equipment repair and HVAC company. From his beginnings as a technician, Josh rose through the ranks to become CEO, helping to grow the company from just him and his dad to forty employees. From 2014 to 2018, Windy City’s annual revenue rose from $1.2 million to $7.5 million, and in 2018 the company was named to Inc. 5000, earning spot #1,429 of the 5,000 fastest-growing companies in America. Josh lives in Arizona with his wife and two daughters.
How did the concept for Windy City Equipment come about?
My dad, Joel, was the foreman at a Chicago bakery for 10+ years. He was underappreciated and undervalued in what he did so he decided to go to trade school to improve his craft. His instructor told him that if he ever wanted to work for himself, Arizona was hurting for good repair companies. He succumbed to his entrepreneurial spirit, packed up everything he had, and moved to AZ shortly thereafter. Even though his schooling was for HVAC/R, he found a niche in hot-side commercial foodservice equipment (ovens, fryers, steamers, stoves, etc). That’s when Windy City Equipment was born. I came on about five years later to work along side my dad and grow the business.
How was the first year in business?
The first year didn’t amount to much. It was a lot of knocking on doors, networking, and spending. Tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt amassed. Most of it was learning how to make money and keep as much of it as possible. That meant sacrifices: little family time, late nights, early mornings, missed soccer games, etc. At this point, reputation was of utmost importance, being in the business of service. So, doing quality work and standing behind what he did was crucial to long-term success.
What was your marketing strategy?
Our marketing strategy for the first seven years in business was word-of-mouth. This was a bit of an old-school approach, but there is still nothing that compares to a personal recommendation. We would ask current customers to refer us and we would refer other companies in different trades in hopes of them returning the favor. We would also give a lot away for free. Without the overhead of a large company, it was easy to absorb a lot of the minor costs and it went a long way with potential clients.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The first few years grew steadily, but not tremendously…maybe 30% per year. Once I came on in 2008, we began to grow a little more rapidly, about 100% per year. And then in 2015, when we expanded from our hot-side niche to incorporate HVAC/R, we started seeing growth rates of 200-400%. Ultimately, between 2014 and 2017 is what landed us on the 2018 Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in America at #1429 with a growth rate of 327%.
How do you define success?
To me, success is accomplishment. Being able to lay my head on the pillow every night knowing that I grew that day in some form or another. Whether it was growing my business, myself, or my home-life. Accomplishment is everything.
What is the key to success?
Consistency. Just like exercising, the only way to become successful and stay successful is to be consistent in your actions and accomplishments. A lot of times, when people begin to feel even moderately successful or they are successful in a single event or action, they get complacent. They think “I’ve made it!” and so they start to temper their actions, work ethic, routines, etc. The key is to keep your foot on the gas. Never believe you are better than you are. And never think because you’ve tasted success, that the next sip will be just as sweet.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Discipline. Growing up with my mom, I cursed her name for being so strict. I couldn’t do anything, ever, until my chores were done, homework was done, and all of my responsibilities were satisfied. As a kid, I hated it so much. And it wasn’t until my early 20s when I began to realize what a valuable lesson it had taught me. Nothing in life worth having ever comes easy, and at the end of the day, the only person that can ever truly hold you accountable for your actions is yourself. So, if you don’t know how to stay disciplined, you can forget about succeeding.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“Never Die Easy” – Walter Payton
“Who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?” – Hunter S. Thompson
“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” – Abraham Lincoln
What are some of your favorite books?
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
Principles by Ray Dalio
Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki
Blue is the New White by Josh Zolin (a little biased toward this one, but I have to include it, right!?)
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
As an entrepreneur, life is one tough day with a lot of little breaks so to try and isolate one of the toughest is a fool’s errand. I remember the day we lost a key account. I was scrambling to figure out how we were going to supplement the income, if I would have to lay anyone off, etc. Even started talking to a therapist. At the end of the day, we didn’t skip a beat. There was also the state sales tax audit. They said they had received all of our returns for the past 10 years, but none of the checks. Confused as to why I would ever submit a tax return without the payment, I begged and pleaded with several state representatives who were adamant about the accuracy of their information. Spoiler alert, they found all 120 payments. Also, had to fire several friends…those never make for good days.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I’ve always performed better with my back against the wall. Fight or flight, sink or swim. Choose your analogy. I guess I just always figured “I know I’ll fail if I do nothing, but I don’t know that I’ll fail if I do SOMETHING” so why not choose the latter? When it comes to failure or defeat, I’ll choose the unknown over the known every time.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Stay focused and be patient. Don’t get distracted by all the noise: the social media influencers, promises of fame and fortune, the quickest way to make the most while doing the least. These things are entertainment. I know it’s easy to try and take the path of least resistance, and some may even make a compelling argument for it. But at the end of the day, you get what you give. So the more you want, the more you must sacrifice, and you can’t do that by jumping from job to job, venture to venture, or idea to idea. Pick something and make that fucker work. No matter the cost. If it doesn’t work after 10 years, then think about something else.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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