Matt Aston – Founder, GPRS

Matt Aston founded GPRS in Toledo, OH in 2001. GPRS has since grown to be the largest provider of Ground Penetrating Radar services in the world, with over 300 employees and operations set up in 54 cities throughout the United States. Matt graduated from the University of Toledo with a degree in Business Administration. Prior to starting GPRS, he worked as a financial analyst for Dana Corporation. Matt is is married to his beautiful wife, Tara. They reside with their three children in Sylvania, OH.

How did the concept for GPRS come about?
I was working as a financial analyst for a tier one automotive supplier and had been there just over a year. At my performance review, I was given a high rating and was told I was being given one of the larger raises in our group (on the basis of percentage of salary). I was disappointed in the total amount of the raise and realized at that point, if I wanted to achieve my financial goals, I was going to need to be in charge of my own pay.

My father has owned his own concrete cutting and drilling business since I was a small child. I asked him about going into business with him and he encouraged me to do something on my own. A few days later, my dad handed me a magazine which had an advertisement for a company called Geophysical Survey Systems, Inc. (GSSI). They were advertising ground penetrating radar equipment that was intended to be used to identify electrical conduits and other subsurface piping prior to concrete cutting/drilling. I thought this concept could create additional value for the customers of my father’s business.

I ordered the first system from my cubicle the Friday before September 11, 2001.

How was the first year in business?
The biggest challenge I faced in the first year was introducing what was a relatively new technology to the construction industry. I live in Toledo, OH and the construction industry in that market was not exactly booming in late 2001 and early 2002, so I started selling in Detroit, MI, which is only an hour to the north.

I was fortunate on a sales stop on December 23rd, 2001, I stopped into a project site at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport and there was a clear need for a service that my new business could provide. I spoke with the Project Executive of Walbridge Aldinger, a large Detroit based contractor as they were the general contractor and construction manager for the MacNamara terminal and the attached Westin hotel at the airport. I gave a few demonstrations on the equipment and they gave me a shot at helping them. After the concrete slabs were poured, the architects made changes to the design and most of the plumbing needed to be moved. In all, I cleared over 2,000 holes that needed to be drilled in the hotel. With all of that drilling, the construction team only hit one post-tension cable – it was absolutely my fault, but they were gracious and said they were uncertain of what they would have done without my services. That job provided enough revenue that I was able to get into the black by the end of the first year and I bought another system, hired a friend of mine, and he started an operation in the Cleveland area.

The first year was tough, as were the next several. The biggest challenge was certainly creating awareness and turning that awareness into demand. Whenever I was not working on a job site, I was selling – in offices and on job sites, trying to create that demand.

What was your marketing strategy?
Our marketing strategy was simple. GPRS started before Search Engine Optimization as we know it today existed. My strategy was to get in front of people who I thought would benefit from using Ground Penetrating Radar as a service and to help them to understand the primary applications it should be used on.

Whenever I did not have work lined up for a day, I would target areas of Detroit and stop by job sites and offices of General Contractors, Engineers, Electrical Contractors, and Mechanical Contractors. On these stops, I would try to meet with someone in charge of field operations and would offer to come back and give a lunch and learn presentation, where I would bring in lunch for as many people as they could get together and explain the services we are offering. We continue to do this today, though we are more effective today than we were in the first couple years.

I was fortunate early on to be introduced to Dylan Balle. Dylan helped me to understand that our website should be used as more than just an informational tool for our customers and those we have been in contact with. Instead, it could become the primary driver of new business to our company. Dylan introduced me to SEO and he remains in charge of our website and SEO program to this day.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The company grew every year. In fact, in the history of our company, we have never had a month with lower revenue than the same month of the prior year. Over the first 3-4 years, we added one person per year and put them into a new city. We chose to put them in new cities because we were productive enough in the cities we were in to be profitable, but we were not close to 100% utilization.

It was not until 2006, when we were given the contract for the Trump Tower job in Chicago, that I began to have a vision for GPRS being a nationwide company. In March 2008, we began the process by planting our roots on the east coast and the west coast simultaneously. This was the beginning of our period of explosive growth and by 2009 we were hiring one person and planting them in a new city on a monthly basis.

How do you define success?
The way I look at success has changed many times over the last 18 years. Initially, I thought it would be a great success to just have consistently positive cash flow. When that happened, I thought it would be great to build a regional presence and, ultimately, a national presence. We tried to expand into Canada and we failed there, but we gave it a shot.

I have been tremendously fortunate to have built a great team and I have been able to surround myself with a core group of people who are like-minded and united in our efforts.

My long-term goal for the company has been to maximize its potential. There are two problems with that goal. The first is we do not know what the potential is; the growth potential of GPRS remains undefined to this day. The second problem is that as we continue to grow, I believe our potential does as well. We work together with the leaders in each of our markets to set annual revenue goals for each market and add those together for a collective goal for the entire company.

The way I look at success today is being able to develop our people and increase the opportunity that we provide to them. A good friend of mine and one of the smartest people I know has said, “The ultimate sign of success is when you work yourself out of a job.” I agree with that statement – when you have done well enough to move on to a greater challenge and bring up someone to take your role, I believe that is success.

What is the key to success?
I read a book many years ago by Lou Holtz called Winning Every Day. Not every play you call is going to yield the result that is intended, but a consistent and deliberate effort to move the ball forward and score when the opportunity is what I believe will bring success. At the end of the day, can you look yourself in the mirror and honestly answer if you did what it took to win today, or not? If you can be objective and admit that you move the ball forward consistently, that will result in wins.

The second critical component to success is the people you surround yourself with. That is a big part of winning every day. I’ve heard the saying that you are the average of the 10 people you are closest to. I believe that you cannot provide a great service without great people. I cannot overstate how fortunate I was early on to be able to surround myself with an incredible team of people. GPRS would not be what it is today if we settled for average people.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
There are many. The best sales call is a job well done. We live by repeat business. It does not matter what you tell someone, what matters is the quality of the work you do when given an opportunity. If we gave an average effort and did an average job when given an opportunity, I don’t know what the company would be today. When given an opportunity, we must perform at a high level.

What are some quotes that you live by?
My favorite quote is from Rocky Balboa – “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is going to hit as hard as life. But, it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward. That is how winning is done!”

This summarizes the way I look at most things. If your vision is worthwhile and you are willing to push yourself to make that vision a reality, you will make it happen. Most people quit when things get tough or they get pushed. If you keep moving forward, winning may not be inevitable, but quitting only results in a loss.

What are some of your favorite books?
My favorite book is the Bible and my favorite verse is 1 Peter 2:21: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

There is no greater example for us to follow than the example Jesus Christ set for us. I certainly fall short of setting that example, but I try.

My favorite books related to business are How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins, EntreLeadership by Dave Ramsey, and Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
The first time I realized I needed to fire someone who I really cared about was very difficult. I considered this individual to be a friend and he had a leadership role in our company, but he didn’t handle it well and he didn’t show respect for other people in the company. It got to the point where I knew this needed to happen and I didn’t even want to talk with him on the phone. How could I keep him on our team if I didn’t even want to talk with him on the phone? It was a difficult decision for me, but it shouldn’t have been. I called him and told him I would be down to meet him at his office and get his stuff. The meeting was cordial, but we haven’t spoken since.

I think that is the most difficult part for me. When you work closely with someone to build something together, there is a bond that is created. When it comes time to sever that bond, to tell that person they no longer fit on the team, it is difficult.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Years ago it was that fight for survival, for the sustainability of the company. While nothing is guaranteed, I am confident that we have built a sustainable platform that we can continue to build on long term.

The source of inspiration today is the people who continue to work at GPRS. Growth Mindedness is one of our core values (along with Integrity, Teamwork, Mutual Respect, and Safety). We chose growth-mindedness because we believe that growth creates opportunity. That is my focus today. As we continue to grow, opportunities will be created that do not exist at GPRS today. We will look to the people in our company who choose to separate themselves from the pack to fill those opportunities as they arise. Seeing that come to fruition is one of the most rewarding aspects of my role today.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Make sure you have a good idea. Don’t start a business that just does the same thing a hundred other companies in your town do – avoid being a commodity. I think all businesses should fall into one of two categories: does is solve a problem or does it make something better?

Manage your cash well. It is easier to spend money related to your business than it is personally. I would not obsess over the P&L, but you need a good understanding of your cost structure and where you can cut when necessary. Avoid the temptation to take money out of the company for personal use. If you have an opportunity to build up cash, take advantage of that. I think this is the trap I see a lot of entrepreneurs fall into – some excess cash comes in and they spend it on things they do not need, without having anything set aside in their business.

Surround yourself with a great team. You can only do so much on your own, but if you can unify a team and articulate the vision to them, you will be amazed by what can happen. It is important to invest in this team and reward them for performance. I believe nearly all compensation systems should be incentive-based. Incentive-based systems reward those who perform at a high level and separate themselves from the pack. It would be frustrating to be paid similarly to someone that you consistently outperform and individual incentive plans go a long way to prevent that from happening.

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Interviews are conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.

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