Hugh Campbell spent 10 years in active duty with the United States Army, but he’d never hurt a fly.
What he did have was a unique ability to assist operations through advanced communications, and a knack for understanding technology.
Currently, he’s the co-founder and president at AC4S Technologies in Tampa.
He’s also the chairman of the board for CEO Council of Tampa Bay, which is a membership organization that has more than 200 CEOs, representing a collective $6 billion in revenue and employing more than 30,000 people in the Tampa Bay region.
Between running the business and growing the council, Campbell has his hands full these days. But he juggles it all with laughter, a smile and a little salsa dancing.
Campbell was born and raised in Connecticut. His father was a Methodist minister and his mother ran the household. He is the youngest of six siblings.
“You had to be dead to not go to church on Sunday,” Campbell says, only half joking.
While growing up, Campbell’s family moved around a lot as ministers’ families often do. When Campbell was about 12 years old, they landed in the South Side of Chicago.
“The biggest, most significant, event was moving from Connecticut to Chicago. And not just to Chicago, but to the south side of Chicago. Talk about culture shock,” he says.
And then again, between his sophomore and junior year of high school, a formidable time in one’s life, his father moved to another church, bringing the family to South Bend, Indiana.
“Ed Ellsasser [president of PrimeGroup Insurance and fellow CEO Council member] was in the next town over. It’s a small world,” Campbell says. “Our high schools were rivals.” [Campbell and Ellsasser have a couple of years difference in age but the rivalry transcends time, according to Campbell.]
As Campbell approached college application season, he had no intentions of enlisting in the U.S. military.
“The story goes that you take the sheet and check the little box that says, ‘Send me brochures.’ I got a ton of brochures, letters, brightly colored envelopes and packages” he says. “At one point, I got a brown envelope that said, ‘The Army, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York.”
He didn’t even open it. The other envelopes and brochures were inviting, intriguing and exciting. They were unique, or more engaging, he describes, and demanded his attention immediately—the boring, brown envelope, not so much.
When his father saw the envelope, he asked, “What’s this?” which Campbell shrugged off. “I don’t know. Something from the Army,” Campbell responded. “He said to me, ‘Do me a favor. At least open it.’ ”
Campbell did, in fact, open that brochure eventually.
“It was unlike any of the other brochures from any of the other colleges,” Campbell remembers.
On most Saturday mornings, college students are recovering from Friday night, or still awake. At the United States Military Academy, in West Point, it’s a lot different.
“Saturday mornings at West Point, you’re putting on your dress gear and going to the field to do a parade before the football game,” Campbell says.
The early mornings and hard work didn’t appear to phase Campbell. He was an intelligent student growing up, had a solid work ethic and came from a foundation of solid family values.
Upon visiting, he fell in love with the campus, notably the history behind it, and found the first footings for his professional path. He never even considered any of the other schools that were courting him, once he stepped foot on that hallowed ground.
The son of a minister could have had a very short-lived military career. Not to mention, Campbell’s gentle, mostly, soft-spoken demeanor.
Jumping out of airplanes didn’t appeal to him, violence wasn’t in his nature but he was gifted with the art of communication. And what is a minister if not a communicator of ideas and values? Campbell had learned that art from his father, and was proud to carry on the tradition.
“I was pretty sure that I could not be an infantry guy where you’re going to be charged with killing people,” he says, earnestly.
When he began his time at West Point the question, reasonably so, was asked if he had it in him to be a soldier.
“I told them, ‘I understand what I’m signing up for and when the time comes, I’ll do my duty,’ ” Campbell says with a bit of a far-off look in his eyes.
The time came and duty called but, fortunately, Campbell had already began working with the electrical engineering side and moved into management quickly.
“I thought communications would be the best way to apply what I had learned, from an academic perspective,” he says.
This experience, ultimately, landed him at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base as chief of plans for an elite communications unit.
“I think that was one of the best jobs ever,” Campbell says. “I was the guy that made it so when the commander said, ‘We’re going to do a field exercise and we’re going to practice X, Y and Z,’ I would, then, turn to the operations guys, who coordinate it all, and then turn to the chief of plans and say, ‘Make it so.’ It required me to understand all of the capabilities of the organization, what all of the equipment can do and what all the people can do … it’s moving stuff, literally, all around the world.”
This all-hands-on-deck mentality directly contributed to Campbell’s ability to later become a CEO and manage large teams. When he was a commander, in Panama, he led a team of 220 soldiers and 100 civilians at the tender age of 28.
Campbell had been on temporary duty at MacDill, before his time there as chief of plans, spending time in the area for meetings and other related tasks.
“I was like, ‘Hey, this place is pretty nice,’ ” he says. “Getting assigned to an Air Force Base in Florida? That’s kind of a big deal.”
When Campbell was ready to transition to civilian life, there wasn’t really a question of where he would go. Or, more important, where he would stay.
“Tampa has been very good to me,” he says. “It had everything on my list.”
Campbell wanted to be in a place with a diverse culture and a warm climate. Tampa had it all, and so much more.
The first company Campbell helped to establish was called Accelacom, a high-speed Internet company—back to his technology roots, and of course, communications.
In the military technology world, C4 stands for command, control, communications and computers.
“You’re not a general in charge of an army unless you can talk to them (i.e., control, command and communicate),” Campbell explains. “[For us,] C4 is a double entendre.”
The four founders of AC4S, strategically, wanted a name that would float to the top of alphabetical lists. They needed an “A.” Leading to adding “Advanced” to the name, thus creating AC4S. The “S” stands for solutions.
“We had to provide solutions,” he further explains. “We had somebody tell us once, ‘If you actually solve your customers problems, they’re far more likely to write you a check.”
AC4S typically had revenues between $30 million and $52 million, Campbell says. “It was a monster,” he says.
In 2013, AC4S spun off an additional company, AC4S Technologies, with a primary focus of providing services to the non-government sectors. Campbell currently resides as president of that division.
“I equate running any organization like a football team. Specifically, if you’re running a company, it’s very much like the NFL draft,” Campbell says. “You have salary caps because you don’t have unlimited money. Even if you have venture capital, it’s not unlimited and they’re going to look at what you’re spending the money on. You’re assembling a team of people with complementary skill sets to meet an objective.”
“You never, ever, want to go into business with someone who is just like you. That is a recipe for disaster,” he says.
Campbell’s advice seems sound. To date, he has launched five companies and has sold three, very successfully.
“I tell people that I’m an accidental entrepreneur,” he says.
Campbell chooses his philanthropic endeavors by homing in on what he believes will have the most impact and lift up the Tampa Bay area community, he says.
Currently, he’s the board chair of the CEO Council Tampa Bay.
“I call it a sanctuary,” he says. “People that run organizations are under pressure from a lot of different places. This [group] is a sanctuary away from those pressures.”
He further describes it as a safe place to share the unique issues and frustrations these leaders encounter, and a place to share your goals and dreams.
“Quite often, sharing all of those things with your peers and contemporaries, it helps you get the validation that you’re thinking the right way and, occasionally, you will hear, ‘No, you don’t want to do that,’” he says, then he laughs.
It’s almost like a nod to the MTV show, The Real World, where people stop being polite and start getting real.
“No matter what you’re going through, there is someone on the Council [who] has been through the exact same thing,” he says.
The coronavirus pandemic presented a unique hurdle for this group of extroverts who often prefer to engage in person, and socialize with one another.
“We are a social group and we enjoy each other’s company, but we had to cancel a lot of things. It certainly hurt the organization,” Campbell says, acknowledging that all nonprofit organizations felt the brunt of the pandemic in a similar fashion. “I committed to the CEO [Council] members that we would never cancel anything and that we would allow people to make their own decisions on what they wanted to participate in, and it was really well received.”
It might not have been the year Campbell envisioned when he was named board chair but, like most strong leaders, he made the best of it and stayed true to what he felt the mission was all along.
“There are some incredible people in this town doing amazing things and our job is to support them,” he says. “My duty is to help this community to grow, and to prosper, and to support the business community.”
Duty comes up a lot while talking with Campbell. He acknowledges it when talking about his role as a member of the board of trustees at BayCare Health System.
“It’s a perfect organization for me. Not only do they have a direct impact in people’s lives, but it’s a nonprofit based in religion,” he says. “I think my parents would be proud.”
What’s next for this “accidental entrepreneur?” Let’s just say it’s very suitable for someone in the Tampa Bay area.
He’s currently working on moving into the yachting space. He makes no bones about it. Campbell enjoys his fast recreation. MarineMax is currently completing the made-to-order finishes on his new yacht and, as shown with this story, he certainly also has an appreciation for fast, sexy cars.
But make no mistake: There is no pretentiousness in Campbell’s heart. He’s still the son of a preacher-man, a blue-collar family man with God and strong family values as his navigation. A humbleness comes through when he speaks of his accomplishments and a very, tender emotion when he speaks of his parents. As he teared up, he said he does what he does every day because he wants his parents to be proud of him.
If you really want to get him excited, ask him about salsa dancing, which he practices for and is working to compete in, internationally.
“I’m a lover, not a fighter,” Campbell says. ♦