Welcome to the Unstoppable CEO Podcast. I’m your host, Steve Gordon, and we’ve got a dynamite episode here for you today.
I’m talking with Jay Lucas. Jay is an accomplished businessman. He’s an author, a leader, a philanthropist, and he believes in the power of positivity, patriotism and community engagement. He’s actively spreading his message through his bestselling book “American Sunshine: Rays Of Hope And Opportunity”, and Jay is an example of service. He was an elected state representative while still in college at Yale. He then earned his MBA from Harvard Business School, and his law degree from Harvard Law School. He’s now the chairman and managing partner of the Lucas Group, where he and his team focus on working with private equity investors and with their portfolio companies. He’s now also actively involved in revitalizing his home town in New Hampshire, and we’re going to talk a little bit about that.
He’s just got a wealth of experience. This is going to be a different interview than I think anything we’ve ever done before. I think you’re going to get a ton of value out of it. Jay Lucas, welcome to the Unstoppable CEO.
Oh, thank you very much, Steve. It’s a delight to be with you today.
Yeah, I’m excited. I think we’re going to cover some new and interesting things. Just before we get into the meat of things, I think it’d be helpful for everybody to have a little bit of context for your background, where you’ve come from through your career to get to this point. Can you give us a little bit of background?
Yeah, sure. I’d be delighted. I started out, I grew up in a very small town up in western part of New Hampshire, and I went to public school in Newport, New Hampshire, Newport High School. Then had the great experience, great opportunity to go for my undergrad work at Yale, and as you mentioned, then onto law school and business school.
My career has largely been around business. I was also really fortunate to be one of the early partners at a fast growing and now global consulting firm, strategy consulting firm. Bain. Some people may know of Bain & Company, B-A-I-N, or Bain Capital. Our most famous alumnus is clearly Mitt Romney. He was a partner in the early days with me.
Thereafter, having been part of an organization that … I mean, it’s interesting. When I joined the company, the firm, about 80 people in the entire firm. When I left about 10 years later, there were about 1,200. So, just a meteoric growth opportunity, basically helping businesses grow. That has been our focus, aligning with one client in a particular industry, and then really trying to help that client win, that company win in their business. An enormous amount of fun.
I decided that I was becoming a little bit of a small cog in a large machine, and then I wanted to set off and become much more entrepreneurial. So, I did, founded the Lucas Group. As you mentioned, Steve, our focus is not so much working with Fortune 100, Fortune 500 kinds of companies, but instead working directly with private equity investors. We analyze and identify good investment, good companies to acquire, and then work with them and work with the management teams to help grow those companies, develop their strategies, to grow the companies, really create great opportunities for people inside the companies and do things that are going to really satisfy their customers.
As you mentioned, along the way, I have been involved in politics, early on government. I was fortunate enough, as actually a college undergraduate, to run for state elective office. Also, in New Hampshire, I served two terms as a state representative. Then, many years later, I felt as though the state was moving in the wrong direction, and I got involved in the … I actually ran for governor. While my party’s nomination lost the general election, but what a great experience that is and was. But, one of the things it taught me was just how behind the times, really, state government really is in terms of being a modern, functioning organization.
I subsequently took many of the skill-sets and business capabilities we have in the consulting firm and began deploying those on behalf of states and governors around the country, to help improve the, some would say the efficiency of state government, but really the ability of state government to use modern business practices to help people do the jobs that they need to do.
Beyond that, I’m more recently involved in a couple of causes that I feel really strongly about. I’m happy to walk through some of those as the conversation develops. But, that’s just a very quick sketch of some of the things I’ve been involved in, Steve.
That’s quite a diverse background. It’s interesting having, in the past, had the thought of moving towards politics myself. I’ve got to tell you, the way things are in our discourse right now, you’ve got to be bulletproof if you’re going to do that. So, I commend you for serving in that way. I think it’s very difficult to put yourself out in that arena. It operates very differently than the business world.
Over all of that span of experience, I’m sure there were times where things didn’t go exactly as you had planned. What are some of the ways of thinking or the habits that you’ve accumulated over time that kind of helped propel you forward, even when things were tough?
What Positive Thinking Really Means – and How to Use It
Well, I am a huge proponent of positive thinking. Some of the phrases or some of the beliefs I have and the framework I’ve developed is really around the notion that there’s a great power to the human spirit, and if you’re optimistic, you’re enthusiastic, you’re positive, you’re going to send out vibes, and those vibes are going to really … They’re going to have a dramatic impact on your ultimate destiny.
When you find yourself surrounded by circumstances that appear negative, hopeless, there’s a great temptation to give into the pessimism, to get actually into kind of almost a physical position where you’re all crouched over, you’re tightened up, and things … When you get into that kind of a position or that kind of thought pattern, things generally are not going to go well for you because you’re not feeling optimistic, you’re not positive, you’re not making things happen.
So, one of the things that I developed early on was, when you find yourself in some moment like that, this great tendency to be looking back and having regrets, or looking … Like I say, imagine yourself way up high and looking down. When you’re way up high and you’re looking way down, it can be pretty scary. Don’t look down. Don’t look back. But, always look forward, and look up. In other words, look what you can do in the future, look forward, and look up with great optimism and enthusiasm too. Have a vision for where you want to get to, because there’s really no …
There’s nothing harder for the human mind to do than to be looking at a set of circumstances, and rather than have those circumstances really influence his or her own world view and opinion, have a mindset that says, “Regardless of these circumstances, I know where I’m going. I know where we’re going to get to. I have faith. I have faith that we’re going to get there.” That’s the mindset that I think is so powerful, because it not only has a direct impact on the way you think and on the way your actions will progress, but I really know that in human interaction, people sense it. They can sense the confidence. That positive vibe, there’s an energy.
Some people will say, and I do like this, this notion that thoughts are things, that thoughts can manifest themselves into great realities. I think people around you get a sense of … If you really do have those positive thoughts, they’re going to be feeling more positive and much more inclined to be helpful to you, and good things tend to happen. That’s been my philosophy, and it’s worked for me. It’s something I really subscribe to.
I think that’s a great way of looking at things. I do agree, that thoughts are things, or at least they turn into, because the thing that you’re most focused on is usually the thing that you end up working towards, whether you want to or not, whether you’re conscious of it or not. It’s the thing that you work towards most.
One of the observations that I’ve made over the years, particularly with business owners, is when things get bad and they focus on all the negative events that are happening around them, they tend to withdraw and isolate themselves a little bit. When you’re really positive and you’re looking towards the future, I think it’s very hard to do. It’s almost like you’re driven to go and connect with other humans. So, to me, that’s a fantastic way to be.
Oh, yeah. Yeah. Your observation, Steve, I think is right on. If you remember going through some of these economically more challenging times, certainly the ’08/’09 recession for many people was one of those, you had a couple of different things you could do. One, which was not a particularly successful strategy, is exactly what you just described, where business owners would feel threatened, and understandably threatened, and really kind of withdraw unto themselves.
Here’s a story for you. If any of our listeners remember what it was like in that fall of 2008, from a business and economic perspective, it was feeling as though the world was just about to end. Maybe it had ended. We didn’t know. Orders in many businesses totally dried up in the months of October and November, 2008. We, being a consulting firm at the Lucas Group, it was a time when new business also was not coming in the door, and a consulting firm with many employees, with a number of employees, have fixed costs, and you really need those revenues coming in.
How One Firm Weathered the Great Recession
So, our choice was either to hunker down and withdraw, or to do what you’re suggesting, Steve. So, what I did is, I decided that, and just purely made this up, that it would be a great time to hold a forum. What we’d do is, we’d invite all of our clients and all of our friends, and we’d get a big conference room, and we’d bring everybody into town, and we’d have a forum where we talked about a little bit … We’d talk a little bit to start the meeting about, gee, things are really tough, but what was really, really exciting is that, as the meeting developed, just having that group of people and the synergy of it, there was a great sense of optimism coming out of that.
I think that optimism literally did, in several instances, help people get through the recession in a good way. As I sit down with some of them today, their businesses are so much stronger than they were then. And, too, I think some small amount of credit does go to that forum and just kind of getting positive energy flowing through those folks, and giving them the confidence that they really needed. It’s just a small example of what you were saying, Steve, I think is so, so very true.
What a great strategy. I want to turn our focus a little bit onto some of the things that you’re working on now. Before we do that, we’re going to take a quick break. But, you’re going to want to stay tuned, because Jay is working on some really amazing projects, and I think everything from what it means to be a modern patriot to how to revitalize a community, and all within the context of business, you’re going to want to stick around to listen to this. We’ll be right back with more from Jay Lucas.
Welcome back. This is Steve Gordon, and I’m talking with Jay Lucas. Jay, we kind of left off, and I want to talk now about the things you’re working on now. You’ve got a book out called “American Sunshine: Rays Of Hope And Opportunity”, and you talk about this idea of modern patriotism. I’d love to understand that a little bit more. I also want to dive into what you’re doing in your home town, in Newport, New Hampshire.
Let’s start off with the book. Tell us a little bit about the book and what motivated you to write that.
Yeah. The book “American Sunshine”, its title kind of does give it away a little bit. But, American Sunshine, it’s a vision for America, but it’s a vision that says what if we could get past all this political bickering and divisiveness and all the negativity, where we really go back to somewhere of our founding values, and projected ourselves and said, “What could we be as a nation?” That literally is, that’s the central theme of American Sunshine. It’s a very positive view of our country and what our future can hold.
But, at the same time, it’s also got a second dimension, which is, in parallel, is a spiritual dimension. Think of it as just I have a strong belief in the power of the human spirit, of the potentiality of the human future and what we can achieve, and so it has this spirituality to it. It’s a very positive book in that respect because it comes back to some of the things we were just discussing earlier, Steve. You can manifest you’re future and really create a positive future if you send out those positive vibes.
Then, thirdly, it has one other piece to it, which I think is it’s a fun book. It’s a fun book in the sense that it has 28 chapters, and each chapter has its own cartoon. So, people can read it, and you get cartoons and it’s fun, but it also I think has some very positive messages.
I wrote the book really because at a certain point in your life you’ve gone through a number of experiences, and you feel as though it’s a great opportunity to share some of those insights and experiences with others, and hopefully you’ll have a good impact on other peoples’ lives.
Living Your True Potential
Well, I’m glad you’ve shared it. I think tying these ideas together, I mean, if you think about the way that the United States was founded, it really was founded on this principle that there is this great potentiality in human beings, and that there is this growth to come in all of humanity. The country was really created to create a place where that could be allowed to flourish.
Now, have we had our problems? Of course we have. We’re human. But, if you go back and read what was observed about this country’s founding from people in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe, because they probably had the most contact with us, there’s that thought that here’s something new and different that had never happened before, and it unlocked something.
I appreciate you shining a light on that, because I think that’s missing, and I don’t think that the United States has a complete lock on that anymore. Other parts of the world have gravitated more towards the same ideals. But, that line of thinking for humanity I think is important, and it’s missing now. I think we’ve lost focus on it. So, I appreciate you taking the time and the effort of writing a book to point that out.
Steve, you are so right. You are absolutely so spot on in what you’re saying. That was the founding ethos and principle of America, was really to create a place, a place where we were joined or united by a set of ideas, where we’re not one ethnic group or a group who’s come here without homogenization. The reason that we’re here, and the reason that we’re so special, is that we all subscribe to this common set of beliefs, of things like freedom of speech and freedom of religion and tolerance, and the idea of the great potentiality of the individual and the individual’s supreme, and that our government works for the individual, not the other way around.
All of these are just so fundamental to America. Just like you said, in the early 1800s, when foreign European visitors would come … Notably a fellow named Alexis de Tocqueville who had written great volumes about what he observed by traveling really, throughout America. He was breathlessly taken away by just what an entrepreneurial unleashing of the human spirit that he saw here in America, which was so much in contrast to the Europe of the time. I think the other observation I would have today is that, while all of that remains true in our history, that today we as Americans, particularly if we’ve grown up here, we’ve a tendency to take it for granted and not really fully acknowledge or appreciate or recognize just what a special place we have.
Wisdom From a Taxi Driver
But, I do see that. This is kind of an interesting example. I tend to, because I travel, I travel a lot in business, so I find myself in the back of either a taxi cab or an Uber, or whatever it might be, and I get into a … I love to have conversations with people. Many of the drivers, by the way, didn’t grow up here in the United States. So, an initial question often times is, so I’ll ask, “So, you didn’t grow up here in America. Where did you come from?” They’ll tell me what country it is. I might ask them how long they’ve been here. Then one question I always ask is I say, “Do you like it here? Do you like it here in America?” Almost 10 out of 10 will say, “Yeah, I love it here.”
Then I’ll ask, “What’s so special about America?” 9 times out of 10, if not more than that, the word that’ll come … It’s a word. It comes back as “freedom”. In America, you’re free. You can do anything you want. You can become anything you want to be. It’s so recognized by these people who have not grown up here. They see that distinct difference and they just so fully appreciate it, and they love being here in America. That’s how it comes to life for me.
It’s almost like … I try and convey this to our kids all the time. I mean, our repeated phrase to them is that you have won the genetic lottery. You happened to be born here. You could have been born anywhere. You happened to be born here. My next question to them is, “Okay, what are your plans now? What are you going to do with it?” I think it’s difficult for them to understand. I think it’s taken me … I’m 47 years old this year. It’s taken me most of those 47 years just to realize that I’m a fish swimming in water. If you grow up and you have these freedoms, it’s easy to take them for granted because it’s just the way things are.
I have that same experience in Ubers and cabs, and all the time when I’m talking to a driver and they’re from somewhere else, they have an appreciation for all of the freedoms that exist, particularly here, but also exist in a lot of other places in the Western world, that those of us who were born here and grew up here don’t have, because they’ve seen the contrast.
Yeah. It’s striking to me, and it’s taken me a long time to really come to that realization. One of the things that that freedom affords you is you get to go out and pick projects and choose things. You can look at a situation that you want to improve, and you’ve got the freedom to go do that. I know that you have done that in your home town, in Newport, New Hampshire. Tell us a little bit about that initiative. I know you’re doing some unique things to attract businesses in.
Yeah. I’ve never done anything as rewarding as what I’m doing now. It’s a revitalization project in a town I grew up in.
A Small Town Boy Returns Home
So, picture a town in western New Hampshire, a town of about 6000 people, called Newport. It’s unique, but it’s not unique in a lot of ways, in the sense that there’s so many other towns around New England and around the Midwest, really throughout our country, who have shared experience with what’s happened and been happening in Newport, in the sense that over the last say 20, 30, 40 years, what was a bustling main street, very vibrant main street in a small town, wonderful place to grow up, today when you go back and you take a look at that same main street in that same town, is this long, slow economic decline as jobs have left the area, in some cases left the country.
That main street is not that bustling place anymore. It’s not entirely vacant for sure, but there’s many vacancies along the main street and it just doesn’t have the vitality. You get a sense that if you’re a young person, you’re not looking to stay or some back to Newport because the jobs just really aren’t there, the opportunities aren’t. Of course, in our area, we’ve been hit with a double whammy because the opioid crisis has really been a major impact on the region. But, that’s true throughout other parts of the country as well, for sure.
Well, earlier this year, back really in about January, February, I decided that … I just happened to be driving through town one day, and it just came over me, and I said, “You know, I’m going to change this. I’m going to revitalize Newport.” So, it began, and I must admit we really didn’t have any particular concept of exactly how that was all going to happen. But, I just knew that here’s an opportunity, and I’ve got relationships and resources because I’ve done a number of things in business, and there’s some things I can bring to the community to be very, very helpful, and at least be a spark plug, maybe be a champion, put some energy into this.
So, we began with two people, and then 12, and now we’re up to about somewhere in between 150 and 175 people, with our shoulders leaning into this initiative. The whole idea is to bring vitality and economic opportunity, and just a sense of real life back to Newport, so that we can give opportunities to the next generation. They really afforded me some wonderful opportunities growing up and being a Newporter. I’ll always be a Newporter. But, you’ve got to think a little bit out of the box. We’re doing some things that are a little bit, I would think, traditional, trying to find businesses to relocate in the town and so forth. But, some really cool things that we’re doing.
In addition to that, there’s an old mill in town. Beautiful old mill. But, the problem is that it’s been vacant or dormant for the last 40 years. While it’s been sort of kept up physically, there’s just nothing there. So, we’re revitalizing and restoring that mill. We’re putting in 47 independent living apartments. We’re putting in a health center right in that old mill. We’re keeping the character of the mill. And also a restaurant, with river front dining. This old dormant mill that people would pass by day in and day out is now going to become sort of an economic center, become a vibrant place for the community. Working with a developer to help get the various tax credits and financing that’s required to make this project really work, but that’s an exciting project to be a magnet for the whole community.
But, then I’ll just mention quickly, Steve, two out of the box ideas that I think can be employed by other communities. Certainly the method of thinking at least, let’s say. So, Newport being remote, being somewhat isolated, I was thinking there must be digital opportunities that can really revitalize this community. I began working with three entrepreneurial digital firms in New York City, and they were kind enough to volunteer to put together a program, a training program in digital. So, web design, coding, programming, some java.
What we constructed was a 12 week training program for 20 students in Newport, to be fully trained and certified at the end of this period. They could get their training without even leaving the community. But, even more important, that once certified, they will be qualified to do work for these same firms in New York City, or really any place around the world, and really earn some great income. We’re in the midst of that program right now. It’s really working.
What’s really interesting, and probably one of the most important parts of it to me, is that the people … We originally thought this was going to be a program for only high school students, but what it turned out is that we have several high school students among the 20 students, but we also have people in their 20s, 30s. We’ve got two people in their 60s. Because the town and community just hasn’t afforded the opportunities, and they see this program as a real way of achieving and improving their set of opportunities, and they’re so enthused about the program.
I’m enthused about it for that reason, but I’m also thinking that … We’re doing one 12 week training session now of 20 people, but that’s really … The way to think about it is, it’s not the only 20. It’s just the first 20. We’re going to do 20 more, and 20 more and 20 more. It’s really going to change the fabric of the town. So, that’s, I think, a real game changer for Newport, and I’m really enthused about it.
Yeah. I think we’re in a great retooling in this country, and I think it’s happening in others as well, as we move … I don’t think we’re moving beyond the industrial age, things need to be made and built and all that, but where that happens has shifted. I think we’re in this great retooling of our economy. It used to be that you had to centralize everything because of the need for massive capital, and now we’re seeing that the opposite can happen. Because of technology, because of the internet, you can now work in this distributed way. I mean, we’re a great example of that. We’ve got a team that spans both sides of the Atlantic, and none of us in the same physical location.
I happen to live in a little town called Tallahassee in Florida. I didn’t grow up here, and it wasn’t the first place I lived. I moved here by choice, and I’m able to work with companies all over the world because of technology. I couldn’t have done that 15 years ago, or 20 years ago, at least not to the degree that we’re doing now. It creates all kinds of amazing opportunities for little communities like Tallahassee, like Newport, like all across the country, these little towns that have been kind of forgotten but are great places to live, where you can find … hardworking people, and smart people, that have the skills. They don’t need to live in New York City or in LA or in Silicon Valley. Just huge opportunities. So, I applaud what you’re doing. It’s fantastic.
Well, we’ve got one more … I’ve got many more, but here’s one other out of the box way of thinking that also can work maybe for some other communities. As we’re thinking about trying to attract businesses into our community, a thought bubbled up and said, hey, 30 miles away from Newport, there actually is a much more thriving economic area, around the place really dominated by Dartmouth College. Sort of Hanover and Lebanon, New Hampshire, and so many communities nearby will have a community like that. They have lots of jobs. There’s great educational opportunities. It’s a great place, a thriving area.
However, when you have an area like that, real estate prices tend to go up, and it becomes somewhat unaffordable for folks. We said, “Gee whiz, if that’s the kind of place that is only about 30 miles away, what if we flipped things on the head and instead let’s think about Newport’s a great place for folks to live, and maybe we can take advantage of the business and job opportunities that are really only 30 miles away. But, what can we do to foster this?” So, the answer, or at least the answer we’re pursuing aggressively right now, and I’m pretty excited about, is a bus service.
Not just an old cranky old bus service, but a really nice one where there’s daily commuting capability, where people can get on and get their WiFi and be in a really comfortable location where they don’t have to drive and do the commuting back and forth, and several times a day, and be dropped off, and make the commuting a really pleasant experience such that people will not only be able to live in Newport and work 30 miles away, but choose to. There’s really those great families locating in Newport and finding it to be a community where they can actually afford much more housing and real estate and just great place to live, and have the best of both worlds.
Finding Entrepreneurial Solutions in Unexpected Places
So, we’re in the process of instituting that now. It’s just another one of those real game changers that either could happen or would not happen, but with a concerned group of citizens organized, coordinated, really tapping intro resources, as we call the Newport Sunshine Initiative, we’re able to make this happen. So, just another idea, Steve, on ways people can break out of traditional thinking and try to innovate in ways that are going to help their community.
Yeah. It’s interesting as I’m listening to you describe that solution, it just occurs to me that’s an imminently entrepreneurial solution to that problem. The bureaucratic solution might be, well, we need to lay a train track, we need train service and we need all this stuff, and it’s going to take us a decade. But, the entrepreneurial solution is, well, let’s just go get a bus because we’ve already got the roads, and let’s get a bus that will go back and forth, and let’s get a nice bus, but let’s see if this’ll work without-
Well, you know, Steve …
… betting the farm.
… you’re so spot on. We’ve kind of lived this, because this same set of issues has been studied many times. But, it has the problem, the governmental or the nonprofit organizational sometimes is difficult to get to action. It can study a problem, and maybe find some resources and maybe not, but tends to build a construct of a much larger solution set that has to be addressed. Whereas, the way I’m thinking about this is exactly as you described. Let’s pick a route, get a bus. Let’s start it, and then we can build from there.
So, you’re absolutely right.
That’s brilliant. Well, Jay, I appreciate you coming on today. I know we’re about out of time. You’ve shared a tremendous amount of wisdom with us. And for folks listening, even if you’re not in a situation to implement any of these specific ideas, what I love, at least what I gained from this conversation is a different way of looking at problems. Jay, I appreciate you sharing that with us.
Where can folks find out more about what you’re doing, and where can they connect with you?
Yeah. Two things. Certainly learn more about the Sunshine Initiative book and everything we’re doing at my website, which is Jaylucas.us. It’s spelled J-A-Y, Lucas, L-U-C-A-S.us, so praise upon Jaylucas.us
The other thing is the book. The book is listed there, but if you want to go find it, it’s on Amazon. It’s really simple. It’s American Sunshine at Amazon. Either of those two ways. Love to hear from you. You can email us at that website. There’s some info, a place to send us some comments. Love to hear your comments, and we’d love to get back to you and develop a relationship. Anything we can do to help, in other words.
Outstanding. Jay, thank you so much for being on the show today. It’s been a pleasure, and look forward to connecting with you in the future.
Thank you, Steve.