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Bottomed-out businessman nearer top - Owner's successful present imitates no past lessons

Sonya Colberg
10/14/2001


In 1987, Tom Pace had $62.53 to his name and a solid reputation as a failure.

He was 30 years old and had a string of 30 jobs that he hadn't been able to hold, along with failed attempts at college. He had entered adulthood with the ability to read at a fourth-grade level.

No one would have guessed that Pace would start a company and make it into a multimillion-dollar success.
But Pace recognized in the second grade that he would someday become a leader, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

"Each room had their own kickball team, and the less skilled kids didn't get picked. So since I didn't get picked, I organized all the ones that didn't get picked in all the other classes. We played the other teams," Pace said. "And we kicked their butts."

Pace, who may have an undiagnosed learning disability, couldn't replicate that kind of success in the classroom and managed to rack up an endless chain of Cs, Ds and Fs in school. He graduated from Putnam City High School believing he was stupid. His years in college only seemed to confirm his suspicions as he passed from the University of Oklahoma to Oklahoma State University to the University of Central Oklahoma, squeaking by or withdrawing from his classes.

Then his life got worse.

"In 1983, I... had hit rock bottom in my life. Total despair. Depression. Wanted to give up. Wanted to commit suicide," Pace said. "I made a decision that I had to change my life."

He heard about the book "The Greatest Miracle in the World," by Og Mandino. He began reading and when he finished, he couldn't wait to pick up another book. Self-help books. Motivational books. Autobiographies. Biographies. He loved them all and he found in them the inspiration to change his life.

Today, his PaceButler Corp. buys and sells used computers and other business assets and is headed toward $14 million in sales.

In 1999, the company won the Oklahoma Quality Award for its commitment to excellence. And Pace won the 1999 Model CEO award presented by the Council of Growing Companies.

The Oklahoman recently spoke with Pace, 44. Here are excerpts:

What is the secret to success?
To be successful, you have to take action. But you've got to take the right kind of action. So you've got to have knowledge. If you motivate an idiot, you have a motivated idiot. But if the idiot gets the knowledge and then gets motivated, then he can take the action.

Now you are an avid reader?
I performed miserably in school, and I didn't believe I could perform well until I learned that in order to become a reader, you've got to read. I'd never read because I thought it would put me to sleep. Now I read four to six books per month.

What is your favorite book?
"The Greatest Miracle in the World" by Og Mandino or "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey. Those are secular. The Bible. There's so many great books.

How did you get the nerve to go into business with just $62.53 in your pocket?
I worked for a company for four months that did similar to what we do. I saw a business model that I thought would really work.... I resigned. At the time I resigned, I had $62.53 to my name, in my checking account. Someone said, 'What are you going to do?' I said, 'I don't know.' They said, 'Why don't you start your own business?' I said, 'OK.'

I got a legal pad... two pages and I wrote out a business plan. That was it.... I was not a good credit risk. Banks would not loan me money. I ended up putting together from three people a little bit of money to start the business, and I started in the Founder's Tower on the ninth floor, about 400 square feet in 1987.

You didn't doubt your ability to succeed in business?
I used to wake up at 10:30 in the morning in such fear I couldn't go to work. But I went in anyway. I was very scared.

Was PaceButler a success from the start?
In 1990, we almost went out of business. That's when we brought in Louis Gandra (a former boss who closed his automobile dealership on May Avenue and became a business consultant). He helped us develop our first atmosphere statement. An atmosphere statement was written by the employees at the time about the atmosphere they wanted to work in.

The second thing he did was say, 'Let's make sure we have the right people in the right places. Let's make sure their skill sets are in the right place.' We only had seven or eight employees at the time, but we had people in the wrong places. So we made some changes and we started becoming successful.

Who's the Butler in PaceButler?
When I dropped out of college at 18 or 19 years old, I went to work for Larry Butler at Lawrence Construction Co. When I sat down to organize this company in 1987, I decided in honor of Mr. Butler, I would name this company after him because of what he did to help me when I dropped out of college.

You hire people with varied job and educational backgrounds, including some brokers who have no experience buying and selling property. Why?
We have several employees who've had bad starts in life and they've turned their lives around.
You can hire winners if you've got the bucks. But if you don't have the bucks, you can hire potential winners and help them develop.

How do you help keep your more than 50 employees motivated?
I try to share with employees what I'm reading and a lot of the employees around here read, and if they want to buy a book, they'll buy a book and we'll pay for it. If the prospectors hit their goal, we go to the movie that afternoon, then we go to Barnes & Noble and they get any book they want to get. Then we go to Braum's and have ice cream. It's juvenile, but it's fun.

A couple of years back I went to the state fair and I noticed the helicopter ride and I noticed that everybody that got off the helicopter was smiling. I called the guy and said, 'Hey, can you come out to my business?' He said, 'Sure.' I said, 'Can you land out here in the parking lot?' Didn't tell any of the employees.... All of a sudden this helicopter comes flying in and lands and everybody gets to take a helicopter ride. The next time we did it, we let everyone know in advance, so they brought their kids out.

There is no employee-to-employee competition. All competition is against past performance or goals. We have a sales contest where every member of the sales team can win a Harley Davidson or cash.

What was your first job?
My first job was selling Girl Scout cookies. I was 4 years old, and I didn't make any money from it. There were girls in the neighborhood who were trying to sell cookies, but they couldn't sell their cookies, and I could go door-to-door and sell cookies.

I used to sell a cleaning product called "Swipe" - selling door-to-door - and I used to take my products to school and sell them to the teachers. I've had over 30 jobs. A friend of mine in TEC said, 'No wonder you had to start your own business.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'No one would hire you with that kind of background.'

Did you have a lot of failures?
I failed in school. I was over 40 before I got married the first time. I was miserable at relationships before then. I used to smoke 2 1/2 packs of cigarettes a day.

Financially, I was a wreck. I'm not sure of the exact years, but from like 1983 to 1987, I didn't even file income taxes because I made so little money. So I had to get all that caught up. I had a negative net worth probably until 1990 or 1991. I sat down with Louis Gandra and he gave me a balance sheet form to fill out my assets and liabilities personally. With our accountant, I faced the IRS, and I had to go to the bank to get a loan to pay the interest and penalties. Self-worth, I continually have to work on that.

In order to be happy, I've got to work like hell. The reason why I run four days a week is because it releases endorphins. It makes me feel good. People that have self-worth do worthwhile things.
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