Hugh Campbell spent 10 years in active duty with the U.S. Army. Currently, he’s the co-founder and president at AC4S Technologies in Tampa.
He’s also 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.
Bridgette Bello, CEO and publisher of Tampa Bay Business & Wealth, interviewed Campbell in front of a live, sold-out audience at Vu Studios in Tampa. This transcript has been edited for length, and brevity.
You’ve had some cool things happen to you since becoming Mr. July [on the magazine’s cover that issue]. Can you tell us about that?
One of the things I’ve been working on is my transition from an operator of companies to board work. I was in discussion with a company to become a board member, and after this story came out that whole process accelerated.
During our interview you described yourself as an “accidental entrepreneur”—your corporate growth opportunities were stunted, through no fault of your own. Tell us about that?
I got out of the military and took my first corporate job in Tampa, at a great organization. I was in the engineering department and I was running all the data networks, except for the internet, my boss had that.
My boss was leaving for a startup company. He’s now the VP for infrastructure for Google. I went to my senior vice president and said, “Hey, I want that job.” And I knew the network like the back of my hand. I knew everything. And everybody in the company thought I was going to get that job. I went into his office to talk to him. And he said to me, “You’re too young.”
Naturally, I was very disappointed by that.
If you had known then what you know now, it would be called the Hugh Campbell Co., right?
That’s right. And then they put in a guy that knew nothing. And so that was very disappointing. But it was a great thing. I didn’t know it at the time. Because some people heard about it. And they said, “Hey, we know you should have gotten that job. We’re leaving. We’re going to hook up with some venture capitalists out of New York City, Dolphin Equity Partners. And we’re going to start this internet company. And we need a vice president of engineering.” They wanted to know if I was interested.
And my response was, “Hell, yeah, I’m interested.” So that started my entrepreneurial journey. And if I had not hit that glass ceiling, in corporate America, I would have not started my first company.
One of the other things that I really enjoyed learning about you, even though I thought I knew everything, was about your dad. You’re a son of a preacher man. And you said that a preacher is a communicator, and no wonder you ended up in communications, having grown up in that environment. Talk about how that influenced your career.
If you look at a minister, or pastor, in your church, he’s some type of leader and he’s leading a flock, right? All the things that I’ve done since then have really centered around leading people.
We talked about leadership at West Point and running these companies. All those things are about leadership, taking care of people. And, you know, I got to see that firsthand. Every Sunday morning.
You spoke of leadership, which is a great segue to the next question. Being a member of the CEO Council of Tampa Bay, I think I know the answer to this question. But when you were a commander, you led a team of 220 soldiers. And now you’re leading a team of about 200 CEOs. Which is easier?
Oh, that’s an easy question. The troops. [laughter] That’s easy.
The thing with the CEO Council is, it’s a wonderful organization, but they’re all successful people. And they’re all type-A personalities. And they’re all always right.
In the military, we get everybody, right? From the very poorest people that come from, all over, to people that have means but they want to make a difference. They want to be part of something bigger and they’re drawn to helping the country. It’s a leadership challenge. But I wouldn’t trade either one of those.
Some of our previous covers in the room know this, but when we do our cover stories, we show up with kind of an entourage. It’s not just Jo-Lynn and the cover subject. It’s me, and Jason, and catering, wine and Champagne. We walked into Hugh’s home and he was playing salsa music. And he left salsa music on the entire time we were there. Where did the passion for salsa dancing came from?
First off, I’ll tell you I’m a lover, not a fighter. But, seriously, the story goes … I was stationed down in the country of Panama. I get down there, I’m in my mid-20s and, you know, I’m like anybody else, I listen to hip-hop music. And you turn on the radio, you can’t find any American music, right? And I’m like, man, this is going to be a long three years.
We were hanging out at the military bars and finally somebody said, “Let’s go downtown.”
There were people dancing. And it was the first time I actually saw people dancing to this music. It struck me. There’s nothing else like it. It’s passionate. If you understand the words, it’s some of the most passionate music, and words, that you can talk about. It’s always about relationships. So, it’s fun, it’s passionate and you get to dance with some pretty good-looking women.
We’ve got a roomful of business owners and CEOs. You’ve had three major exit events and they were successful exit events. But if I’ve learned anything, through my involvement with other CEOs and business owners, it’s that there are always learning opportunities. Talk about something that you would have done differently, had you known.
When you’re exiting a company, there are so many different things. First off, about only 30% of every deal that’s proposed actually closes. Right? So there’s something that goes wrong just about every time. The question is, can the parties overcome those obstacles to consummate marriage? You must be mindful of what you’re getting yourself into. Who are you getting in bed with that’s going to change your company?
You’ve probably heard a lot about culture and people fitting. You can always make the technology work. You can make the systems work, but what you can’t do is make the people work together.
I think that’s probably the biggest thing, who it is that you’re going to marry? It’s a big deal putting two companies together.
How do you know when the right time for an exit is?
Oh, man, you never know. They say you want to sell the business on its way up. The second company, we sold too early. And it sold five years later for 10 times [what we sold for].
We had an adviser once that told us every year, you need to sit down, whoever’s running the organization, you need to sit down and talk about what the objectives are for the organization. He also said that you need to talk about your personal goals. What’s important to you? Because running these companies takes a toll. It’s a lot of work. It impacts relationships. It impacts families and you must figure out where you’re at in life.
You talked about the BayCare board with a lot of passion. You were emotional when we talked about it.
I happen to love it because you’re impacting people’s lives. If you talk about leadership, you talk about taking care of people. To me, it was such a natural fit and the fact that it’s based on religion is a bonus. We get to really impact people. We’re not just driven for profit, it’s nonprofit.
BayCare spent $450 million in free health care, last year alone. One of the things I’m most proud of, quite honestly, is when I got on the board, I started asking the question about small businesses and diverse suppliers. I asked the CEO, “What are we doing?” And just by asking some of the questions about small companies, veteran-owned companies, minority-owned businesses, and all that, we moved the needle.
We spent an additional $300 million with small, diverse, businesses. And that’s just because of being on the board and asking the hard questions to the leadership team.
I think it’s fantastic to be able to make a difference. And as I told you, much of what I do is to make my parents proud because they sacrificed so much. And I think they would be proud of what we’ve been able to do there. ♦
ABOUT ‘CEO CONNECT’
TBBW’s “CEO Connect” series is an exclusive, invitation-only, event that brings together Tampa Bay area’s top business leaders to meet and mingle. SouthState Bank and CLA were presenting sponsors. The host sponsor was Vu. Diamond View Studios is TBBW’s production partner.
The evening begins with a cocktail reception for about 120 guests, followed by an interview with that month’s cover CEO.
Partnering with TBBW, on future editions, provides an opportunity to network with the area’s business elite, generate new business opportunities and increase brand awareness.
For information about event sponsorship opportunities, email Jason Baker at [email protected].
Photos by Ryan Gautier