Sunday, October 24, 1999

Lessons from behind the lawnmower

23-year-old founder of financial planning company has the tools of the trade

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        After 11 years spent managing his own lawn-maintenance business, Chad Oberson knows tools. He still has the toolbox, full of screwdrivers, wrenches, air tools and other equipment that he used from the time he began the business.

        When he was in high school, he and his father would stay out late in the garage, replacing lawnmower blades and broken belts. “I was always fixing stuff,” he said.

        But the 23-year-old also learned the tools necessary for maintaining a business: innovation, dedication and motivation.

        They are tools that have been essential during the start-up of his latest company, MFI Investments.

        Mr. Oberson started the financial planning company in September 1998 at his main office in Fairfield with about 200 clients.

        In a year, the business has grown by 50 clients and one office.

        In February, he opened the company's second office, in West Chester, where he works with three certified public accountants at the Professional Services Group. The accountants and Mr. Oberson share their clients and expertise.

        The West Chester office is part of Mr. Oberson's vision. In five years, he said, he wants to open two more similar offices and hopes to be working with more than 50 accounting firms.

        Mr. Oberson is an independent contractor for Sky Investments, the company through which he and MFI Investments offer securities. Tom Losby, senior vice president of Sky Investments, said Mr. Oberson is an example of the entrepreneurial spirit.

        “He is creating new ways of finding customers and clients. He is working with different centers of influence, developing relationships with CPAs and business owners.”

        Mr. Losby said that's unusual for someone who has been in the field only two years.

        “Most reps with his experience do not go after relationships with other professionals — they're still learning the business,” Mr. Losby said.

        Although young, Mr. Oberson has had years of practice running a business.

        At age 12, he began cutting grass for his neighbor. He added more clients through a marketing strategy: He gave his neighbor a free lawn mowing every time he passed his name along to a friend.

        A year later, he had started his own lawn-maintenance company. At age 13, he hired his first employee.

        Soon, Mr. Oberson named his new company Pennywhistle Lawn Services and produced business cards.

        When he had saved up enough money, he bought a commercial lawnmower. He and his friends were known throughout the neighborhood for traveling in packs with lawnmowers, he said. They would ride from job to job on their skateboards, pushing their lawnmowers.

        When he was 18, he bought a Bobcat front-end loader and expanded the company to include landscaping. At 19, he had four full-time employees and rented a shop for the business.

        The trick to the business wasn't a green thumb, he said — it was managing greenbacks. When he purchased new equipment, he never went into debt, he said, and that is the key to his business today.

        He learned to save and invest his money so he could pay for purchases in full, he said.

        He opened a savings account as soon as he earned his first profit, and at 14, he bought his first share of stock.

        So when his success with Pennywhistle earned him a full-tuition scholarship to Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, he knew immediately what he would study. He pursued a business management major so that someday he could sell stocks.

        Though Mr. Oberson continued to manage the business from college, making frequent plane trips home and working through the summers, in 1996, he decided it was time to retool his career. He sold the Cleveland business for $50,000 and began his last year of college.

        When Mr. Oberson graduated in 1997, he worked for several months at Edward Jones Investments, a brokerage firm. Soon, though, Mr. Oberson felt restricted by the corporate atmosphere, he said.

        So he left the company in September and went out on his own.

        Dr. Dennis Jaffe, co-author with Cynthia Scott of the book Getting Your Organization to Change, said young entrepreneurs like Mr. Oberson should be careful not to grow too confident. They need to develop themselves emotionally and not just financially, Dr. Jaffe said.

        “Sometimes, there is an aggressiveness and callowness (young entrepreneurs) have,” he said. “Even though they are successful, they can be narrow and insensitive to some of the effects of what they are doing.”

        Dr. Jaffe, a professor at Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco, said young entrepreneurs like Mr. Oberson should travel and take courses to learn what other people in the field are doing.

        John Wendt, president of the Cincinnati chapter of the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization, offered similar advice.

        Young entrepreneurs “should constantly be seeking the help of other people to get their business to the next level,” Mr. Wendt said. “One of the things I've seen entrepreneurs do wrong with early success is that they become complacent — they forget that they need to have that entrepreneurial spirit every day.”

        Mr. Oberson zdoesn't appear to be in danger of that.

        Last month, Mr. Oberson passed the Series 24 examination, a test administered by the National Association of Security Dealers that allows him to supervise other brokers in day-to-day business.

        Since he passed the test, Mr. Oberson hopes to hire three more financial consultants at the Fairfield office within the next few years.

        He also is studying for a Master's of Business Administration degree from Xavier University. And next summer, he will become the youngest president of the Fairfield Rotary Club, a civic club of businessmen and women who devote a portion of their time and resources to the community.

        Young entrepreneurs such as Mr. Oberson make Mr. Wendt hopeful.

        “Early success will generate more opportunity for future success,” Mr. Wendt said. “It is a tremendous compliment to (Mr. Oberson) that he has been so successful at such a young age, and I hope he can keep his entrepreneurial appetite.”


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