Lee Rutherford Interview

Hi this is Bob Poole.  Welcome to the Water Cooler Hangout.  Here’s where we conduct interviews with personalities all over the world that are experts in the field of sales, marketing, leadership and creativity.  If you’d like to be on the Water Cooler yourself someday, drop me a note at [email protected].  Now let’s listen to today’s show.

I’m here today with CEO Lee Rutherford.  Lee is the founder and CEO of a company called EchoSat; a company that you may not have heard of because it’s not a household name.  But I’m going to bet that when you have purchased gas or gone to a convenience store, you’ve likely interacted with EchoSat.  So welcome, Lee, to the Water Cooler Hangout.  Let’s discuss how that’s possible.

Lee Rutherford:  Thank you Bob; good to talk with you.  Let me just take a moment and say how much I enjoy reading your Water Cooler every day.  Whereas you and I may not always agree on the political aspect, I appreciate your common sense.

Bob Poole:  Well, thank you very much.

Lee:   When I read the Water Coolers it reminds me of going through a sales motivation seminar.   You leave there saying, “Gee, I knew all of that.  I just didn’t do it”.  And so for me, your Water Coolers are a reminder of the basic things that most of us are looking for…just plain common sense which is not too common anymore.   So that’s nice, Bob.  Keep it up.

Bob:  I do appreciate that; thank you.  It’s nice to know that someone is getting value from it.

Lee:   Well, I appreciate that.  Now our company is actually a group called Tower Communications Group, of which I’m the CEO, and we have a couple of organizations under the Tower Communications Group.  When you say that we’ve probably touched someone; that’s probably true.  And I’ll explain that.   I have a younger son who at one time asked me about our company.  We had just put together a pamphlet to say what we did.  We did that because many times when talking about our company it was like the blind man or group feeling of an elephant.  Of course, if you felt of the tail, you’d say “it’s a rope”.  But if you felt of the leg, you’d say, “no, my goodness it’s more like a tree”.   So our company is sometimes really hard to describe.  But in the basic terms, one of our division’s; one that we are extremely proud of, is EchoSat, which actually started because of the satellite division years ago.  Echo means bounce off of the satellite and it’s a multi-faceted communications company.  In the EchoSat Division, we supply satellite communications for business communications such as critical data for convenience stores and utility companies, for example oil and gas.  A subset of EchoSat is SPG, which stands for Secure Payment Gateway.   Now this is a solution for convenience stores, retail stores and those types of outlets. The better we explain that, it becomes clear how we may have touched someone or many.  Let’s take the example of a convenience store.  Maybe it’s the Gulf store or the Citgo store or any of the ones we serve.  You can put your debit card into the pump and that transaction goes into a controller.  It then goes into a point of sale, which is a cash register so to speak.  Then it goes into our Secure Payment Gateway device where we encrypt that transactional information and ship it by satellite or the Internet.  By satellite, I mean twenty-three thousand miles up into space and then twenty-three thousand miles back down to our data center to our Secure Payment Gateway.   So it’s either entered by the Internet or by satellite.  The equipment at our Secure Payment Gateway looks at the card and determines, for example, the transaction came from the Citgo Store.  (I’m enamored by all of this and we’ll talk about age in just a moment.)  Then their credit processor determines it’s a Heartland payment person and we send it off to Heartland.  Heartland looks at it and then settles with the credit card company, such as Mastercard, Visa, Discover, American Express or whatever.  It’s then returned to our gateway and sent back to the pump.  You are now ready to pump your gas.  That’s just one aspect of it.   All of this happens in about two to three seconds.  And our part is only six/tenths of a second of all of the processing that’s going on.   For a guy that’s my age, who’s very familiar with the Royal typewriter, and who still thinks of the fax machine as being a technological advance of communications, I still get amazed.  To me, it’s still amazing.   Another division of ours is Melody Line which is a professional music and message on hold service.   We provide music and messaging that you hear while you are on hold when you call a lot of businesses.  No one wants to be on hold, but if they’re on hold, it’s good to utilize that time with the right kind of music or to tell them about your services until somebody comes on the line.   One of our largest customers is, without naming the name, probably the largest nationwide insurance carrier in the United States.   We supply that service to all of their offices and their agents.  And so yes, you’ve probably used our service or heard us somewhere and didn’t know who we are.  You could have cared less but hopefully we did it with excellence.

Bob:  Well, it’s a fascinating story, but I want to go back to the beginning because I know a little bit already about your story.   So why don’t you start with radio, because you have a great voice and you should be on the radio or you were.

Lee:  Thank you.  Are you trying to tell me that I don’t have a face for TV?  Is that what you’re trying to tell me?

Bob:  I’m not sure.

Lee:  I’m joking with you, Bob.  In fact, I learned a long time ago I didn’t have a face for television so that’s one of the reasons I chose radio.  You know I’ve had a great life.  I’ve enjoyed life and my work greatly.   I think very few people in the United States can say that.  I feel for the people who don’t like what they do because I’ve always been blessed.   I’ve really been blessed because the things I enjoyed doing, somebody paid me to do them.  In fact, in the early days of being a broadcaster and a disc jockey, people paid you to do that.   You could also emcee the concerts, whether they were “The Supremes”, or “The Beach Boys” or whatever and someone paid you for that.  I thought “wow, that’s fantastic”.   That later morphed into a more responsible thing in my opinion as I went into journalism and news broadcasting.  And I started doing commercials.  I was blessed with a good voice.  I think that’s the gift from the Lord actually.  So, I started doing commercials for some people in the New York and New England area.  And I worked at an advertising agency at one time.  I placed the orders; did the buy orders.  I would write commercials; I’d voice them; I’d produce them and then put them out on the market whether it was in Philly or in New York State or in the Catskills.  So, this started our evolution, I suppose.

Bob:  I know that at some point you started your own radio network which I think people would like to hear about.

Lee:  Yes.  You know, there’s a basic philosophy that I’ve always tried to live by.  I think that it’s important in sales, to sell widgets or anything is to find a need and meet the need.  As a result of being in broadcasting, I started doing some commercials for a group out of New York and one of the principals in that particular business asked me to come to one of his stores; he had several.   He said “hey, you know we’ve got beautiful stores”.    They were beautiful stores, they had beautiful ads, and the color combination was just right.  But as we walked around the store I asked, “why are you playing the music that you’re playing?”  Back in those days, it was mostly elevator music like Mantovani and The Yellow River; that kind of music.  Then I asked “what’s your demographics?”  The demographics sounded to be eighteen to about thirty-five, thirty-eight year olds and it was mostly female.   I asked, “why don’t we experiment with something.  Why don’t we create a radio network that I would supply for you, just like it was your own radio broadcasting station?”  And let’s just call it for example WJKY or whatever happened to be, the so and so Radio Network.  You know, we did that and it was a phenomenal success.  It was before it’s time actually but it worked and it worked very well.

Bob:  When did you do this?

Lee:  This had to be maybe twenty years ago.  It was back in the time where it really worked in this store. Of course, then I went around peddling the idea and had a bit of success in that and in meeting different people.  But for the most part, the reaction I got from a lot of people was, “you want to put singing in my store?”  It worked out well that we programmed the music to the demographic profile.  The music was something popular at that time like Julio Iglesias, some of the love songs and various things like that.  And the music was interspersed with commercials about something in the store, like “shoppers, back in our pantyhose department we have…” this or whatever.  Sales increased immediately.  You could see the results.  People were happier; they spent more time in the store.  The ladies spent more time in the store and sales went up.  It did catch on.  We sold a great number of stores in that particular manner.   One of our crowning achievements was, during the heydays of Kmart when they were really booming; we supplied this in all of Kmart stores nationwide.   In any of their stores people would have heard me; the voice inside of Kmart stores.    That’s how it all started as far as the broadcast background.  Now to pivot off of that, and to say, find the need and meet the need.  I think it’s important to keep your antennas up and as you are always saying Bob, “ask questions and listen”.  I think that’s big.  That’s your slogan so to speak and how very true it is.  Be aware of what’s going on and think outside the box.   We were supplying music to a particular store via satellite.  I was listening to one of their guys talk about the difficulty they had getting data back.  In other words, at night they had a bank of phone modems in their headquarters.  The phone modems called out to every one of their stores.  They had maybe 125 to 130 outlets that were located in the Catskills and Punxsutawney and different places.   The calls were made automatically at night, accessing the servers in the stores and trying to drag back information.  It wasn’t a very reliable way of doing things because the telephone lines had broken connections resulting in incomplete data.  Some stores couldn’t be accessed.  They had a small window, from the time the store closed at ten in the evening until the stores opened up the next morning at 10, for management to look at the data to see inventory; what’s hot, what’s not, what things need to be done and what shipments need to be sent somewhere.   They were working with incomplete information.   So I said, “Ok, we’ve got satellite dishes now.  We’re pumping music one way with the satellite network; why don’t we look into doing two way transmissions?”  We’ll send music to the store and we’ll stuff data back into our place; type it in for you to use so that you’ll have data you can put together in time to use it.  It worked, and so we went into the two-way satellite business.   Then of course, that evolved to handling credit card transactions.  I’ve been around for a while, as you can tell.   We could process credit cards real quick by pulling information to the satellite; get them all through the processor and get them back.   To me it was an evolution.  I happened to be at the right place at the right time.  And like I said, I really do believe my life has been blessed.  I have a lot of favor and I really, without getting too much into it, believe a lot of divine providence has happened many times.  But all under the principal of pray as hard as if God had to do it all; then work as hard as though you had to do it all.  With that kind of deal it worked out good.  That’s kind of how it evolved into where it is today.

Bob:  Great.  So we end up with the EchoSat and your entire Secure Payment Gateway.  This is all from a guy who remembers Royal typewriters and enjoys them.  So, you must have a pretty good team.

Lee:  I have an excellent team.  By the way, you’re up in PA, you probably remember the Clover Stores.  The strawberries and clothier division of the discount stores; do you remember those?

Bob:  Sure

Lee:  We used to do Clover before they finally went out of business or got sold or something.  And they were great people by the way.  Wonderful people; ran good operations.  But speaking of people, I have excellent people.  I have awesome people.  I am blessed in that area to have a team of people that you can rely on.  I think the secret is to find the right person and then invest in that person because the greatest asset we have is, not a pretty building, not a pretty table, not a pretty share, but people who love what they do and who are empowered to do what they do and can be creatively thinking.   And I get to be a coach, so to speak.  I like to think a coach or a moderator is to stimulate discussions and ideas from all of these people who are very, very sharp.  I mean they are great people.  I do have a good team, yes.

Bob:  How did you find them?

Lee:  Two ways, without belaboring that point, there’s a lot of prayer about that.  Once I happened to be upgraded to first class on an airplane and a guy sitting next to me, who was a human relations recruiter, asked me the same question.   I said, “Well, we pray a lot”.  He thought that was kind of funny.  But it’s not.  It wasn’t funny.   My sons and I are believers and we are very concentrated about that as a faith effort.  When we have a need, we pray about that; that the right person would come in.  You know what?  It’s happened that way.  Great people have come through our door. But before we ever have a discussion about how they do something, I do all the first interviews.  I do them because I want to first of all know who this person happens to be.  I have another saying that, you can teach any monkey to do anything but you can’t teach character, honesty, integrity, and caring.  Now if a person has all of those things then you are way ahead of the game.  If they care about people; if they have passion for what they do, then it’s time to turn it over to one of the guys in the department who can drill down to see how much he does really know.  I’m not strong technically, but I have core CTO’s and TIO’s and different people who are extremely bright guys.   And you know that’s what’s worked for us, Bob.  That’s just the way it is.

Bob:  I love it. I think it’s a great formula.  I think looking for those things like integrity that are either there or they’re not there.   And I think you probably have a pretty good intuition when it comes to figuring that out with people too.

Lee:  Well, I hope so.  Sometimes I miss it and I’ve really messed up.

Bob:  Well, we all do that.

Lee:  Yes, as a salesman, I’m easily sold too, you know.

Bob:  We’re allowed to make mistakes.  If we’re not making mistakes then we’re doing something really wrong.   We’re not doing anything.

Lee:  You’re right and hopefully they don’t cost you too much.  The ones that really cost you a lot, you remember them very well.

Bob:  Yes, they are good lessons.  I got a couple more questions I want to ask you.  At least one more and then I want to ask you one final question that I think is important to talk about.   How have you seen business change in the last few years?   I mean you’ve been around, you know, almost as long as I have.

Lee:  I may have been around longer, Bob.  But we won’t get into age here.  I’ve seen a great transformation of business over the years, since 1973 when I actually incorporated the Tower Communications Group.   So that’s a long time and I’ve seen so many pieces in communications change.  I can remember when the fax machine was the new technology.  Oh man. That was the most awesome thing in the world.  We didn’t have to have this big stack of incredible expenses going out overnight for somebody to see.  We could just put them into the machine and they would get it.  I’ve also seen what I consider the bad side of that technology; something I think is lacking in business today.   We used to have a whole lot more of personal relationships with different people.  You picked up the phone, you called, and something was going on.  Today, we have more technologies.  I utilize email.  I’m a big fan of the Internet and email communications.  I think it’s wonderful to put all of that information together and you have a track record.  You can respond immediately and everybody can be online.  My team can get online and we can find an answer for you or assess your situation very quickly and not have to wait to schedule for tomorrow or the next day when fifteen people can get on the telephone.  But that has also robbed us of calling people and being able to just say “hey, Charles, how are you?”  Many times now, I see those calls being avoided in business today.  People want to hide from the call because it does take time. It takes time to talk to somebody.  Many think it’s better to use email.  Unfortunately, not a lot of people are thoughtful in their email.  They may be sharp in their personalities and just crank out a few things that somebody misinterprets it on the other end.   That causes anxieties and then the reply may be some other way of answering and that’s not what was meant at all.  I think I’ve seen the deterioration in communications with the advance of communications.   And the demands are now that you do it now.  I’m on duty twenty-four hours a day; seven days a week.  There is no changing that.  If I’m on vacation, that doesn’t mean I have a vacation from work.  I have the tools, you know, I have the IPhone.  Different people have other similar devices like the Blackberry or whatever.  The one thing that I realize is that my customer comes first.  I have to.  I have better responsibility to my team, my team has better responsibility to me and we have that responsibility to each other.  These are the people that pay our salaries and keep the lights on and allow us to do these wonderful things that we do.

Bob:  I was going to say, I love how you don’t hide from them and that’s so important because I do see, even with sometimes my own clients, I have to remind them that an email’s great but picking up the phone and saying hello or discussing something is certainly just as quick and certainly more personable.  You need to do that.  You can’t hide.

Lee:  We may be in the technology business, but you know what?  The basic philosophy is, we are still in the person to person business.  It’s an old adage, it might be worn out and people get tired of hearing about it I think.  But people really don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.  I think you’ve got to keep it there.   I write to everybody I do business with.  People that I don’t do business with are friends that I haven’t met.    I believe that’s honesty is my part, because I’m a people person.  I like people and I actually get carried away sometimes and my team will say, “Ok, time for you to shut up”.  But I like people.  If you don’t like people, you don’t need to be in the business.  It’s simple.

Bob:  You need to be in the back room designing computer programs or something like that.

Lee:  Absolutely.  We’re in the people business first of all.

Bob:  Let me ask you this question because we moving on in time here.   Do you believe that business has, and I think you’ve already answered this for me, but do you think that business has any kind of obligation to make the world a better place?

Lee:  Oh, I do, I do. I think it’s up to every individual who’s in business to choose that part of it.  I feel a lot of big things happening and getting marketed. But I do think that some people exploit it.  I’m all for the pink we see for breast cancer awareness.  I consider myself to be a small business on the scale when you look at how the world runs and how many big businesses are out there.  My sons and I take the time and look to see where there’s a need.  We are big on education.  There are people that we know, for example; people who may be struggling with their children to provide the right kind of education so we’ve had the philanthropy type thing to help with that.  We’ve also been involved on a small scale if we are aware of somebody being caught in a bind. Maybe they’ve lost their job and they’re short on their house payment or whatever, trying to find another place.  We often play a small part in helping, you know.  We can’t be the guy that sends $100,000 to India.  I think that’s good; I’m not bashing that.  But we all can play a part; no matter how small we are, in doing something to better somebody else’s life or to better your community, or to be involved.  Again, it’s just being aware.  That’s a long answer but yes, the answer is yes.   We all have a responsibility.

Bob:  I kind of thought that’s how you felt and certainly I feel that way.   I wish that all businesses felt that way.  But, one at a time, we might be able to convince them it’s the way to look at it.  I like what you’re doing on a small scale when you can help people locally and in your own community to make a difference right there.  You can see the difference happening.  Sometimes when you send a check off to an organization, you don’t know how much of that check is going to expenses and how much is actually getting into the hands of the right people.

Lee:  You’re right.  You can make that decision and you look at some of these things that are bad reports where it’s said that 6% was used for building or for staff.    My entire team last year decided to forego their Christmas party which is usually fairly big.  We decided not to do that last year.  Instead everybody submitted names of people who they knew had a need.  Then we assigned tasks; to go out and meet those needs and to help other people have a Christmas that probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.  I think that was a whole lot better than all of us sitting around a table slapping each other on the back.  We all felt good about it.  I think that made a difference.  My people made a difference to somebody.

Bob:  And that’s a very, very nice story.  I’m sure the people, as you’ve mentioned you’re located in Washington and Kentucky, I’m sure the people down there appreciated that too.

Lee:  Yes.  They remained anonymous so that was good.

Bob:  That’s great.  So, let’s wrap this up here because you have a great story and I could sit here and talk to you forever and listen to, I’m sure, one story after another.  Maybe we can have you back on again sometime.  We can share a few more stories.  What do you think of that?

Lee:  I’d enjoy that Bob.  Sometimes you wonder if I have anything important to say but if somebody grasps one piece out of something, whether it be the Christmas party or whatever, then the time has been well spent.  I would be happy to do that.  Enjoyed being with you; I enjoy what you’re doing.  I would appreciate that, yes.

Bob:  Alright.  And thank you for being with us today.  Thank you very much.  Enjoy your fall weather down in Lexington.   We will talk to you again soon, ok?

Lee:  Thank you, Bob.  I enjoyed being with you.

Bob: Thank you very much for visiting with us today at the Water Cooler Hangout.  If you’d like to drop us a note, comment on today’s broadcast or ask any questions, you can send it to [email protected].  Have a wonderful day.