Interview: Matthew Kemp, former CMO BlueGrace, Part 1

My guest today is Matthew Kemp, principal of SCP&CO, a mid-market private equity firm. Prior to his role at SCP Matthew was CMO of BlueGrace Logistics, and the founder of three very successful companies. This is Part 1 of the interview where we explore Matt’s very unusual career and path to CMO. Tomorrow we will talk about BlueGrace and the 3rd party logistics industry.

(This was meant to be a premium-only issue, but due to my error last week not sending the sponsorship on Sunil’s interview, you are the lucky winners of two episodes this week)


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Transcript:

Edward: My guest today is Matthew Kemp. Today, we discuss Matt’s career and path to CMO. University of Chicago, CouponCabin, Federal Student Loan Services, Local Ad Face, NSS, BlueGrace, Matthew is now an Operating Principle at DCP, a leading private equity firm. We're lucky to have him here today.

Matt. I usually start these interviews with how you get your first CMO role, and then jump back on the path that got you to that point. Back in 2005, you're a consultant at CouponCabin and they asked you to be interim CMO. How were you qualified for that job?

Matt: Thanks for asking that question, Ed. The company CouponCabin was actually founded by a very brilliant young man who worked for me at sears.com and both of us had aspirations during that time to become entrepreneurs. He left shortly before me and he became the CEO of couponcabin.com.

We stayed in touch and I helped to mentor him through his first few years as he was growing the company. He brought me on because he was fielding on a regular basis, marketing inquiries. He would be regularly asked to perform radio interviews and also do a variety of business development. He didn't have time to do all these things. He was running the coupon side, the technology side of the company, the customer service side of the company, so he had me come on board and act on his behalf to help grow the company and to answer all these media inquiries.

I actually was on the phone with someone very similar to what you're doing right now, speaking for a microphone on the radio. I did those sorts of things to help him out and get the word out about coupons, fourth-quarter forecasts, our opinion of what the economy was going to look like. People were asking these questions way back in 2003, 2004, and 2005. That's the kind of role that I had.

After a couple of years, he didn’t need my help anymore and I went on to do my own entrepreneurial company. I sort of passed the torch to a full-time person. It was a great experience, I was happy to help Scott, my friend of the time, and we really had a good time growing the company together.

Edward: You're almost less of a CMO and more of a celebrity spokesperson.

Matt: I wouldn't say that but he advertised with things like Kim Komando, who is still on the air today and places like that. I was on the local radio a lot. People are looking for content on radio, especially AM radio, so we would do these quick 7–10 minute segments. They were looking for people who could speak out. Remember at that time, online couponing was very early. This was not something that was commonplace in 2001 and 2002.

The concept of the company was really born out of a consumer need, where Victoria Secret, Coles, or even sears.com started putting these things in check-out that said enter your promo code. People would say, what's a promo code? What's this coupon thing? You would stop what you're doing in the shopping cart if you were to go looking for promo codes. Scott got the idea, why don’t you have a company that put all those in one place? It was a great idea and it's a very successful company and still successful today.

Edward: Matt, I would go back on the path that got you there. You're an extremely bright child and I believe that the experiences you have when you're young affect our entire lives. Talk to me a little bit about working at a plant nursery when you're young.

Matt: I was very successful in high school, but also, being a first-generation American, I was not born in this country. I was born in England. My parents were very much stiff upper lip if you will, and you need to account for your own welfare. If you want a car, then, of course, you're going to buy it. If you want to go to college, then, of course, you're going to pay for it.

As soon as it was legally possible in this country, they sent me off to find work. I really enjoyed the job around the corner. I rode my bike over to a place called Marvin's Gardens, which is a play on the monopoly piece. We had things like waterworks and silly stuff like that around the nursery. I worked my way up from the guy who took a shovel and shoveled dirt into bags. We sold those bags with peat to people, taking cow manure and putting them into people's cars.

Eventually, if you had enough experience working with the plants, hundreds of varieties of flowers, perennials, trees, annuals, shrubbery, you're putting these things on people's cars. You're learning what goes in the shade, what stays in the sun, what needs the most water, how tall things get, and eventually, I had all of these things memorized and my life has come full circle.

I did leave Tampa, Florida to go to Chicago for 10 years. Now that I'm back, it does drive my wife a little crazy that as we go on walks from anywhere with our dog, I regularly point out what people have in their yard, why it's a certain color, how tall it's going to get, and they shouldn’t have planted it out there. It's not her favorite thing about my personality. Once you've got three years of that knowledge in your head, it doesn't ever leave your head.

Edward: Matt, what were the biggest failure points in your career? Where did things not go as expected?

Matt: Very early, I had to learn some valuable lessons. I was not good at making the transition from a student in high school and college to working with others. Interestingly enough, I was valedictorian of my high school and to me, it felt like—it's competitive now, but I felt like it was a competition back then—I was competing with my peers. There was only going to be a person who got that title. I spent four years attaining it.

I got to the University of Florida. I felt like it was a race. I finished a year early. I graduated from college in three years. I was always sort of pushing and reminding people how smart I was. That did not go very well at all. Even starting out in investment banking like I did, which is full of really, really smart people, I didn't know how to interact in a way that was collaborative. I learned the ultimate lesson that when you start espousing to your boss (when you’re a young professional) how much smarter you are than they are, that they can certainly do something to rectify that situation.

I would counsel young people everywhere that no matter how smart you are, your personal skills are really what make you successful in business more so than your technical knowledge if you want to succeed at the highest levels. That took me a couple of iterations. I had an initial one in investment banking. A little bit later even at Sears, again we had a strategy group at Sears. There were a lot of smart people. I needed a second lesson in post-business school, working as a team, and helping others succeed. Not just looking out for you and about your own career. Those are things to me that I struggled with and hopefully now have learned those lessons and help try to pass those lessons along to others.

Edward: What were the ramifications of that at the time?

Matt: I got fired. They sent me packing. That was it. That's how you learn that lesson. You are told we don't need someone here that acts like you.

Edward: What do you do? How do you recover from that? How do you learn your lesson to change in the future?

Matt: I thankfully bounced back quickly and found other work. Funny enough, the next job I got was managing people. I went from being an individual contributor at Raymond James to a supervisor of other people at Citibank. I had a phenomenal boss at Citibank, somebody who, to this day, I keep in touch with. We're talking this is going back 20 years, 25. His name is Mark Froman. He was the kind of manager that I've always wanted to be. He led by example. He got down and did the work with us. He never lost his temper.

One evening, something went awry and made a $7 billion mistake one night. He kept his cool for months afterward. Since that day, I've always wanted to be like him as a manager. I think that's important, too, for people to happen in their career, is to have someone who they can emulate and look up to.

Edward: Matt, your resume (I think) is very difficult to read. You left Sears in 2003 and you started NSS, and then you really just kept NSS going even through today, but then you did other things at the same time. You had this multi-job career. Talk to me about how that worked.

Matt: I—as I call it—left the real world in 2003. Just like most people, I'm sure that go-to business school at some of the top schools these days, my aspirations were to be entrepreneurial and be my own boss, be a CEO one day. I took a lot of the learnings that I’d had at sears.com and a friend from the University of Florida and I started an agency that supported the newspaper companies. Newspapers are very sort of slow to adopt the internet. To this day, most of them are still giving away their content for free and they didn't know how to acquire customers online. They were still doing the very traditional things of door-to-door kiosk sales and direct mail.

We came along and said there are people who are going online looking to subscribe to your paper and we can help you process those subscriptions. We launched that company and within three or four years, we achieved really, really rapid growth and had hundreds of clients. Beyond that, we were able to automate the process. You came to a website where we were offering the newspaper for sale. You placed an order that order went into our database. The database sent that order to the newspaper. They picked it up and they processed that. If you do that really well, it's a very low touch business.

With a very small number of employees, 8–12 people, we were processing hundreds of thousands of subscriptions every year. The process was very automated. We had a steady stream of income, and both of us being entrepreneurs while the company was going on doing those transactions, we both had an appetite to do other things. Both my business partner and I separately started other businesses.

To your point, I did start a student loan consolidation company. That was a big business here in the Tampa Bay area in late 2000, between 2000 and 2005 and 2010. Ted Kennedy ended the industry before he passed away. He passed a law that said the only entity that could consolidate student loans was going to be the actual Department of Education. However, back then, private companies and private banks, Sallie Maes and JP Morgans of the world, could buy loans from students, bundle them up, and resell them to other banks. That’s what we were doing. That was a really successful company.

Subsequent to that, I did start an outdoor billboard company with another friend here in the Tampa area and we grew that for five years. I sold my stake. He still stayed on with the company but we sold it to a New York, out-of-home media company in 2015. That company is still very successful today. In fact, it's the largest digital billboard company in the Southeast.

Edward: I want to talk about a few of those businesses. At Federal Student Loan Consolidation, again, very wildly successful business you built until the government basically shut it down. What was your secret sauce there? How were you able to get your employees to be motivated to make that business happen?

Matt: We highly compensated them on success. We had hundreds and hundreds of calls coming inbound to the call center every day. They were commissioned, very low salary employees but very high commission employees. Our average sale was significant. We were consolidating bank loans. Our average bundled loan was $60,000. A bank would probably pay us $3000 for that. The employee would get a lot of money for consummating the transaction. Therefore, as the owners, we benefited. What I quickly realized was that these people who are only making $10 or $12 an hour would actually cost themselves, and me quite a bit of money if they weren't sitting in their seat.

I effectively came to bribery where I just employed a policy where we worked from 9:00 AM to 10:00 PM every day, long hours, but I paid for everything. You did not buy a drink, you did not buy lunch, you did not buy dinner. Once you enter the building, all of your needs were taken cared of. It was worth it to me to spend hundreds of dollars a day to feed and give these people everything that they could ever imagine. We ordered take out from places all throughout Tampa Bay and had it brought in, knowing that any one of those people could consummate a sale that would make the company $3000 over the lunch hour or over the dinner hour.

Edward: How often were they making sales? Was an average employee making a sale an hour?

Matt: Not every hour but when you think about the call centers, people who call in are calling it on their lunch hour. Or we were sending out direct mail, people get home from work and they look at their mail, and we were providing the caller an incentive to call us. You get home from work at 5:30, you open your mail, you see this offer from us, you call right away.

Funny enough, our busiest times were actually during lunch hours and dinner hours. Therefore, I couldn’t really afford to have my employees leaving during lunch and dinner. I just bought them for all their meals for their entire lives at the company so that they would be there knowing how valuable that was for them and obviously then for me.

Edward: Let's talk about your digital indoor billboard company. At that point, you weren’t doing marketing so much as sales, but you're actually selling marketing services. What was your sales pitch for those companies to be on those billboards?

Matt: We found a niche where small businesses, really local small businesses, your local electrician, your plumber, your accountants, even some lawyers, are doing business in a very small ecosystem around where they live. We're not just talking about Tampa Bay, which is an MSA of millions of people. We’re talking about sort of Brandon, Florida. A place with 40,000 or 100,000 folks. If you haven't graduated your business to be able to afford your radio or TV ads on cable TV, even the newspaper, or if you're unsophisticated with outdoor online advertising, we wanted to find a niche where these businesses could reach the types of people that they wanted to do business with. We found that niche inside restaurants.

You think about every local diner and independent restaurant in the country, those were our partners in the venture. We would partner with restaurants to put billboards inside. We would give that restaurant a portion of the inventory, as we called it, and then we would sell the rest. As the restaurant owner, you benefited from being able to promote the things you were trying to promote, whether it was take-out, a new menu item, what your hours were, et cetera. You could do that for free. And then, the small business owners who are going out into the community and eating at these diners for lunch, breakfast, or dinner, their customers, the people they were trying to reach, we're also eating in the same establishments. They were able to promote their message to the exact people in their neighborhood that they're trying to reach. We didn't think that that medium existed anywhere.

Edward: Matt, when you sold that business, effectively at that point you had your FU money, why keep working at that point?

Matt: Initially, I didn't. I still had the newspaper company and I was very comfortable watching Dan Le Batard and his friends on ESPN Radio all day long for actually a couple of years. It was sort of embarrassing how much I knew about certain ESPN Radio hosts at the time. But I got a phone call from a very, very old friend. I've started all my businesses with friends, whether it was people I met at school at the University of Florida, my student loan company, and the billboard company with a friend from Raymond James who sat next to me before they booted me out. BlueGrace was founded by a company that dates back to when I was in 6th grade.

I would stand at the best bus stop with Bobby Harrison’s sister. His family had immigrated to Tampa, he had moved into the neighborhood, and I got to know the family. We’ve kept in touch all these many years because he has become a very successful person. We would have lunch occasionally. He knew that I was available for lunch at a moment's notice. One day we're having already a quarterly lunch and he says I need help with marketing. What do you think? I said what kind of marketing? I just don't know if we're doing the right things. Would you come and help? I have time. I'll just come over and check things out.

What I thought was just going to be sort of a friend helping a friend, we kind of formalized into a consulting agreement. It was only supposed to be six weeks. I did a little six-week project and thought I actually learned a lot about his business. It was great because one of the things I enjoy is, I don't give advice regularly, but when you listen to it, actually, I get more engaged in the process. He actually took the advice I gave him over six weeks and started implementing things right away. He said, you got to do another six weeks. I said, okay, I'll do another six weeks.

Lo and behold, after a couple of times, he tricked me (I call it) to working there. I've been there for three months. He said, you’ve got to come. You got to stay. You have to be the chief marketing officer. I accepted the full-time role and I was there for over three years.

Edward: Matt, what are your productivity tricks? What do you do that most people don't do that allows you to be so successful?

Matt: The main thing that I do is I'll listen more than I talk. I've always been fairly introverted and I don't actually speak very often unless I think I have something really informational for people to hear. Especially if there are meetings of 6, 8, 10 people, you're not going to find me dominating the conversation. I really prefer and enjoy absorbing the thoughts of everyone else that are going on and try to assimilate all of that information into something that I think would wait until I formulate an opinion and then offer that. I'm perfectly happy to dig in. There's no task that I'm above.

Even as the chief marketing officer, most of the content that we’re publishing I literally wrote it, as opposed to handing it off to someone else, and here's an idea, go make it happen. I still feel like I have a lot to offer at the very basic level. I find that's a good way to lead employees by example. I try to do those two things which are to listen and also to pitch in wherever I can.

Edward: Matt, this has been fantastic. We're going to continue this tomorrow where we dive into BlueGrace and how you helped grow that business.

Matt: Great. Thank Ed.