An entrepreneur at heart, Bill Jones left TRW’s electronics division in the early 1960s and bought a tiny outfit called Cleveland Machine Controls. When he sold the company 32 years later, it was worth $75 million.
In the meantime, Jones became well-known in Cleveland’s small-business community as the founding chairman of the Council of Smaller Enterprises. COSE got its start in 1972 as a branch of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association. Previously, the Growth Association had mostly catered to large corporations — although its membership roll included small businesses.
Jones came out of retirement in 2000 to start Dynamotors, a small firm now located in Warrensville Heights that makes high-torque, high-efficiency motors controlled by LED technology.
Being an entrepreneur is like being an Olympic athlete. You’ve got to devote your energies and time and thought and imagination at the sacrifice of some other things sometimes.
I decided when I left TRW that I liked the industrial side of the business better than the consumer side. The consumer side was too much hype and advertising.
I liked the relationship with industrial customers where you served them well and became part of their team. They depended on you.
When I bought Cleveland Machine Controls, there were five people working there. It was small but growing.
You don’t write a prescription to go out and buy a business. I went out and looked at 60 businesses before I ended up buying one.
I wasn’t very keen to go out and borrow money. I decided I would try to grow as fast as I could out of my own money. I set a goal of growing 20 percent a year. On average, in 30 years, Cleveland Machine Controls grew 19 percent annually.
In a small business, new challenges come up every day. Some of them are problems, and some are great opportunities.
A major electronics company came in and said, “We’ll offer you so much money for your company.” They came back after they’d looked it over and taken a lot of our time with an offer for a lesser amount. In the meantime, we spent a lot of time talking with them. Big companies like that can really swarm all over you. You think, Wow, I’ve got somebody with a lot of money here, but they know more about buying and selling companies than you do.
I had 500 people when I sold Cleveland Machine Controls. I knew a lot of them by first name.
We worked as a team because we were able to convince people that their payroll came from the customers, not from me.
We had to do everything we could because there were big guys out there we were competing with. We had to beat them and earn their respect.
If you have to bite your fingernails over every risky decision, running a business isn’t going to be any fun.
When I sold Cleveland Machine Controls, I walked out without any further responsibilities. If you hang around in a company you really don’t run anymore, you’re a lame duck. You can’t affect change.
In the early ’70s, the [Greater Cleveland Growth Association] was run by major corporations. But it soon became apparent that the people running it weren’t making any points with smaller businesses.
Small-business people started dropping out. They said, “You know, the government’s coming out with a 900-page manual on OSHA, and the big guys can hire experts to tell them what this is, but we don’t know what the hell to do with all this red tape.”
There had been a show of small-business strength. There had been a truck strike. The big companies had been able to survive because they had their own truck fleets, or they could hire people from out of town. But the small businesses couldn’t get goods in, goods out. It was a crisis situation.
A small-business man named Ed Richards really took matters in his own hands. He put an ad in the paper and called people up. He got 200 people to protest at City Hall. They demanded the mayor and the governor go out and intercede. A few days later the strike was settled.
It showed that small businesses did have some muscle, and if they got together, they could do something.
We met for the first time in January 1972 to begin forming COSE.
Our goal was to get 500 new members. Everybody went out and worked very hard, and the growth came faster than we had thought. Two or three years, and we were up over 1,000 members.
We started Dynamotors about nine years ago. We’re just at the point where we have our first customer, which is a hell of a long incubation period.
At small companies, it’s tough to find a successor. If somebody wants to run a company themselves, they don’t hang around for 10 years waiting to be promoted.