The Smartest Guy in the Room

I had a great opportunity last week to see a panel discussion featuring Titan alumnus, philanthropist, entrepreneur, and self-made millionaire Steven G. Mihaylo. This was a big deal to me as I could finally put a man to the statue I see sitting on a bench in the courtyard, and hear him tell his story. The business family at CSUF has a ton to thank Steve for.

In 2004 Mr. Mihaylo donated $4.5 million towards construction of the new business building. Steven G. Mihaylo Hall (SGMH), which opened its doors in the fall of 2008. That same year Mr. Mihaylo donated another $30 million to the business school, which is now known as the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics, understandably so. It was the largest contribution in the history of CSUF.

SGMH is an $87 million state of the art business building. The building is fully equipped with a large foyer for studying, as well as a strategically placed Starbucks for students across all disciplines to find their caffeine fix. A statue of Steve sits on a bench in the courtyard, at the backside of the building, reminding us every day of Steve’s impact. I am so fortunate for Steve’s contributions towards the program and having an opportunity to spend my Fullerton days roaming the halls of SGMH. Thanks Steve.

Mr. Mihaylo began his career as a salesman, selling intercoms, and then eventually moved to telephone systems. In 1969, Steve decided he had the right mix of entrepreneurial skills, education and industry experience to start his own company, so he did. Steve founded Inter-Tel Incorporated out of Phoenix, Arizona.

B y 1975, Inter-Tel was now developing, manufacturing and selling telecommunication systems and services with great success. Inter-Tel became the first telecommunications company to incorporate C++ software and microprocessors in its telephone systems for small and mid-sized businesses. Innovation was a key factor in the company’s success.

These visionary decisions came with significant technological risk, but ended up generating superior returns. At one point the system software crashed, leaving Inter-Tel with 3,000 angry customers. Steve vowed not to lose a single customer. Through dedication to customer and employee satisfaction, along with g00d customer service and tenacity, Steve and his team turned every angry customer into a happy one.

That’s what Steve says it takes for success, good customer service and tenacity. The unconditional will to never quit: the intrinsic drive to succeed even in the face of failure. I believe Daniel Goleman would consider this high emotional intelligence in the form of motivation, a passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status, a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence. Steve is definitely full of emotional intelligence, no wonder he is such a visionary.

Too put a little perspective behind Inter-Tel’s prosperity, from my understanding the company went public for the first time in 1981 and within 24 hours had a market capitalization of nearly $250 million. In 2007, Inter-Tel was acquired by a private equity group for $723 million and later merged with a Canadian telecommunications company. Wow!

I use to often believe that in order to make it big as an entrepreneur; I would have to invent something big. Ya know, like Mark Zuckerberg (although some argue that Mark didn’t invent anything) the founder of Facebook, or Alexander Bell the inventor of the telephone. I thought that Steve’s company invented advanced systems and software that bridged the gap between telecommunications and modern day computer technology. Well, Steve says he never invented anything. Hard to believe considering he founded, operated, and sold, arguably, one of the most innovative telecommunications companies of its time.

Steve’s success came from his ability to differentiate his company from its competition by doing a better job. He was the best because he knew his customers the best, which enabled him to solve their problems and improve their businesses. Steve assembled and led a great team that was able to develop quality solutions to real time problems. Steve said he likes to surround himself with people who are smarter than him. I think that’s a great strategy. The vision, persistence, tenacity, and unrelenting dedication to customer satisfaction, enabled Steve’s company to deliver a superior service and product. And that made all the difference.

Steve gives hope too all of us who don’t plan on inventing the next Google. Dedicate yourself to the customer, understand their needs, provide a product or service better than your competition, and never quit. This is a recipe for success. This is how you make it big.

At the end of the panel discussion the students were allowed to ask questions. One guy asked how he could reach his goal of becoming a millionaire and helping a million people. Steve said your goal should not be to become a millionaire. With that mentality, it is more than likely to never happen. He said the number one goal should be to meet, or exceed, your customer’s expectations. If you do this well, and you will help people, then the money will follow.

You have to find your passion, something that you are good at and know a lot about. Look for a need in the market and ways to do it better. Whatever it is, it shouldn’t be pursued solely for monetary gains. The motivation should be intrinsic. After all, money is merely the positive side effect of the good thing you do.

Steve said something I find compelling, truly sage advice. He said: “Never give up, never lose faith. You need a plan and you need to execute it. Push through your fears – don’t let them keep you from attempting to achieve your goals. Too many people are so afraid of failure they never attempt anything. It’s good to always be a little afraid – fear is a great motivator.”

Fear of failure and fear of the unknown is what I believe to be the fear that prevents most people from achieving their full potential. The fear of loneliness, sacrifice, and giving all you’ve got, without the certainty of a favorable outcome. Success can be a lonely world. However, with success comes confidence.

I try to embrace uncertainty. I feel as though the unknown is the greatest adventure of all. All I can do is expect greatness, pray for greatness, but when I get there, realize there is something just as unknown, and even greater. My fear comes not from an uncertain outcome, but the failure to create a positive impact. This fear motivates me. I hope one day I can make as big of an impact as Steve has. I will never forget his words of wisdom.

Steve graduated class of 1969 with a degree in accounting. Even though accounting is the toughest business major, it only took Steven two and a half years to earn his degree while working full-time. This is ironic because Steve says he’s not smart. He said on the panel that he might even be the dumbest guy in the room. Very modest Mr. Mihaylo. But now that the statue in the courtyard has come alive, I see who Steven G. Mihaylo really is, I see the truth.

To be honest Steve, I think you’re the smartest guy in the room.

Adam Levoy
CSUF Entrepreneurship Major

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0 responses to “The Smartest Guy in the Room”

  1. Truly amazing words of encouragement. I would say you are the smart guy in the room right now…
    Thank you for your inspiration to many future sucessful entrepreneurs out there.

  2. Well done. Thanks for the history on Mihaylo. Don’t know if you’re the smartest or dumbest person in the room, but you’re one helluva writer.

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