But last week, the second-term Louisville mayor and longtime entrepreneur took an hour out of his schedule to tell a group of small and start-up business owners how to build a company.
Joining Fischer was his father, George Fischer, a serial entrepreneur in his own right. In the 1980s and ’90s, they and other Fischer family members took a struggling manufacturing company, SerVend, from the brink of bankruptcy to being the largest maker of ice- and beverage-dispensing systems in the world.
The key to SerVend’s initial growth, Greg Fischer said, was that its small size allowed it to move faster than its larger competitors and adapt to changes in the industry. The Fischers anticipated the rise of convenience stores in the early 1980s, for instance, and worked quickly to sell their beverage dispensers to companies in that market.
“You’ve got to get in the game,” Greg Fischer said.
The Fischers’ May 22 talk at iHub in downtown Louisville was part of the “Entrepreneurs Meet Innovators” series sponsored by Nucleus: Kentucky’s Innovation Center. Nucleus is an arm of the University of Louisville Foundation Inc.
The entrepreneurs’ series connects start-up business owners with successful CEOs. The hour-long discussion with the mayor and his father was recorded by KET and will be broadcast at a later time.
George Fischer, a former jet pilot in the U.S. Air Force, got his start in business working in sales at IBM Corp. He later launched his own computer processing company in Louisville.
He told the audience Friday that he never dreamed he would operate a family business, but the SerVend opportunity presented itself shortly after son Greg returned to Louisville from Vanderbilt University.
Greg Fischer said his net worth was about $3,500 at the time. All he had, he joked, was a used car and a vintage collection of Jimi Hendrix records. But he also had his father as a coach, and that made a big difference.
“I grew up in an entrepreneurial family,” he said. “We talked about business all the time.”
On Friday, the Fischers talked about the importance of having a strategic plan, setting goals, adjusting to industry trends, emphasizing quality control and finding a process that works. Business owners can’t let their guard down, Greg Fischer said. “As you grow your company, (it) can die at any time.”
Under the Fischers’ ownership, SerVend grew to more than 300 employees and more than $70 million in annual sales. They sold the business in 1997 to The Manitowoc Co. Inc., a Fortune 500 company, for $73 million.
George Fischer called running a family business the “biggest thrill of my life.”
His greatest challenge with SerVend, he said, was making sure each of his sons was working in a role suited to his strengths.
“Nobody’s got all the skills,” George Fischer said. “Unless you can mold that team, you can’t win the game.”