Dean Parker with Vita Capital

Dean Parker with Vita Capital

This week Marcus sits down with a man who is partly responsible for the start of this podcast. If you've been a long time listener you'll remember Marcus mentioning 1702 and his meeting with two local business owners that he hadn't heard of but felt he should have based on what they were accomplishing in our area. 1702 was founded by Dean Parker, the president/CEO of Vita Capital; Marcus was in the first class when he met those 2 entrepreneurs. Dean has a great story of getting here from his humble beginnings trying to get a pager system to work in the middle of a hospital to win a contract. Instead of rehashing the entire story, let's dive right in with Dean Parker!


Dean: My name's Dean Parker, and I'm the founder and president/CEO of Vita Capital based here in Mobile, Alabama.

Marcus: Well, thank you for coming on the podcast, Dean.

Dean: Oh, it's great to be here. I'm so excited. I've been a big fan of what you're doing, and have tracked and listened to the podcast, and actually you know you have influence when you did something probably about a year ago, right when this started, and I got seven Facebook messages saying, "You've got to go listen to this!" So, I love what you're doing.

Marcus: I appreciate you saying that. I mean, you were kind of the catalyst for this because this came out of 1702, which was something that you started about three years ago, is that ...

Dean: It was; we're gonna have our third graduating class this year. We're really excited.

Marcus: Yeah, I was gonna say. Yeah, it's a really cool organization. So, the purpose of the podcast is really to kind of share the story of the individual as well as some of the lessons that they've learned in business. So, why don't we go back to "who is Dean Parker? I mean, where did you grow up? Where'd you go to school? How'd you get started?

Dean: I can officially say I was not born under an azalea bush like everybody else in Mobile ... or I could say conceived, I guess, not born. But, I will tell you I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but I've lived here now longer than anywhere else in my life. I've been here over 18 years now.

Marcus: Very good. Where'd you go to school at?

Dean: So, I went to school at a place called Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and studied business management and finance, and was blessed to take four years of school and shove it into three.

Marcus: Nice. I went to school at James Madison right around the corner from there.

Dean: Right around the corner.

Marcus: Yeah, so I know-

Dean: What a run they've had in sports for the school -- the last couple years have been awesome.

Marcus: Yeah, I don't keep up with it as much as I probably should, as a good alumni, but I've heard rumors that they've won a couple of championships within their division and stuff like that, so it is pretty cool 'cause when I was there, there was none of that. From my knowledge, because I just moved here in 2004, you have a very compelling story in that you are one of the very first successful business people in the Mobile area that built a business up, and exited successfully, and have now gone on to do additional investments and helping other businesses grow, but how did Callis Communications even get started? I mean, what was the story behind that?

Dean: I appreciate you asking the question. It really started with selling a car. So, I had grandiose plans coming out of college that I was headed to Silicon Valley. If you remember, that would have been the ... I finished my junior/graduation year in May of 1996, so that was like the pinnacle of Yahoo just taking off.

Marcus: We graduated at the same time.

Dean: Then you know how everything was going. So, I had set my sights and already had interviews lined up with Yahoo, a company called [Indus International 00:02:40], and I just gotten married. My wife had to student teach. So, like any other good aspiring young businessman, his father says, "If you're gonna get married, you better pay for your wife," so I started selling cars. That November, a gentleman walked on the lot and I sold him an Explorer. He sold me a job. I told him I didn't want to stay in Lynchburg, Virginia -- a small town, as you know, of 60,000 people. He said, "No. I work for this little company called General Electric. It would be the best thing you ever did if you stay here." So, I accepted a job, and I was blessed that within three months of getting there, GE had sold the division to Ericsson, the Swedish telecom company. Over the next ... I guess it was about 18 to 23 months or so, 24 months, I escalated from being a salesman up to running a 180 million dollar sales division. It was a blessing in disguise because when you have that much success early on in life, I thought, "This is easy. Anybody can do this, and my life will be simple," but I had customers at the time that were based in Huntsville, Alabama; Tupelo, Mississippi; Columbus, Mississippi; and they had these paging companies. They were making ...

Marcus: Excuse me -- what? Paging?

Dean: Paging -- like beepers.

Marcus: Yeah.

Dean: In the old days before cell phones came out. They had these paging companies and they were making hundreds of thousands of dollars a month with four employees, and I was mesmerized by these southern gentlemen that had no real formal education, that were just killing it in technology in the southeast. So, one of them said to me, "Why don't you get your money together, and if you do, we'll help you be part of our paging network." They were local networks tied together via satellites before the internet came out.

Marcus: Sure.

Dean: I looked at my wife and said, "Let's give all this up, and the corporate life, and let's move to Alabama," and she said-

Marcus: "Where?"

Dean: "Where is Alabama on the map?" Because she was from Pennsylvania also.

Marcus: Sure. Obviously, I've heard this story before, and I always just am so blown away by it. I mean, just the "all-in" kind of attitude that you've had with this, but I've known you long enough now that I know that that's how you approach basically everything. It's like, "I'm going all-in," whether it's helping someone with a campaign, which you've done, or also with the new investments that you're making. I mean, what is that ... Where does that come from? Have you gone back and figured out like ... There's a mentality, I think, that goes along with that, whether it's just a sales or just a passion or ... Dissect that for us a little bit.

Dean: So, for me, it comes down to my faith, because I looked at life when I moved to Alabama. I was ... just turned 24, actually, when I got here, and I figured the worst thing that could happen is I could fail, and if I failed ... We had borrowed $300,000. I said, "I can make that back by being a salesman." I could sell ice to Eskimos -- I knew that -- so I figured the worst thing that could happen I fail. But, I know that with my faith ... For me, I'm very outspoken about my faith. I don't push it in people's face, but when you ask the question I knew the good Lord had a plan for me, and he'd give me peace, so I knew it was all gonna work out. Not that I didn't have to work hard, or not that we didn't have failures or challenges, but we always found another path. I think the other thing you have to remember is ... A friend of mine in Atlanta has a movie studio and he did the "Madea" movies, right? What people don't know is when Tyler Perry started, he borrowed all his money. He borrowed $20,000 that he saved to start his first production. It was a single man play, and the only people that showed up to the first year were his friends and family, and he lost all his money. He saved money again the next year and did it ... This went on for five years before he finally had enough traction. I think the problem is most people don't succeed because they give up too early. You have to be able to evaluate and figure things out. I mean, I had a paging business that turned into the ... Inc. 500 ... We would have been if we applied the last year, nine years in a row on the Inc. 500 list of the fastest growing companies in the United States in Mobile, Alabama. This is not the tech capital -- it was really hard to find tech talent here. But it's so different that my friend ... You've probably talked to him -- Andy from Southern Light? Andy, and Eric, and Paul ... I think part of it is you got to be in the right place at the right time. You got to understand your markets because you can never change a market. One of my key principles is bad management teams will succeed in great markets -- markets will drag businesses -- so you got to figure those things out. And then, I always go back to the last piece is you have to listen to your customers. If you're not listening to your customers, they go away.

Marcus: Right. Yeah. Do you remember ... So, starting college, do you remember the first couple of sales where you thought, "Man there might be," ... or was it always just, "Yeah, there's something to this," but was there a tipping point at the very beginning where you were like, "We're onto something here. This is gonna be huge,"?

Dean: So, when I did it, I ... Everything I do I always try to do it like if I was doing it with somebody else's money. So, I wrote a 75-page business plan and I had tracked every month -- sales, expenses, costs, cash flow, burn, everything. We opened April 22nd, our grand opening sale was June 1st. By December 31st, we had exceeded our budget to our business plan, and then in December something unique happened. It was the ... the one dollar cellphone came out, and they lowered the plans of most people that were paying for cell phones, so beepers went away. While most people thought, "Oh no -- this will be the end of your business," I saw something different. I saw that this would be actually the proponent that would allow me to succeed, because at that time you had nationwide publicly traded paging companies with lots of cash in the bank, or they had stock they could sell to get cash that would bury us in the corporate accounts.

Marcus: Sure.

Dean: Well, what happened is within almost nine months, those companies were cratering on bankruptcy, so they get rid of all their staff. So, I now was able to go in and pick up major accounts because I was the aggressive little yapping dog that was there going, "I'm here to take care of you. I'm here to take care of you." I'll never forget, the tipping point for me was ... We started in '99, it was 2002. It was June 28th, the day my second son was born, 'cause we had no kids when we got here. I'll never forget, Steve Crenshaw was over at Facilities at Springhill Hospital, and my son was born, and he had told me ... he said, "I got a problem. There's a one spot in radiology and no one can get a page there if you solve that I'll give you the contract." So, you know what I did? I figured out we were on a frequency that was the same as the cable television frequencies, so I went to RadioShack, and I got some ... It was an RG6 cable cord -- put two amplifiers on with antennas on both sides, and shoved it into that office and the pagers worked in there every single time. He found it that day. He walked in after my wife ... the child was born and he said, "Congratulations. Here you go -- you got a contract." That led to another hospital, another hospital -- that gave us enough stability to be able to obviously move into other products.

Marcus: That's really cool. That is really cool, 'cause just looking at businesses and how ... there's usually a defining point there where you know, "Okay, well I'm onto something, and now I've got the capital. Somebody else is believing in the services that I'm providing, now I can really lean into this and grow it." So, not only are you investing money, but you're actually investing a lot of your time and energy into businesses here in Mobile, and so I wanted to kind of ... I went through your first class of 1702, and it changed everything for me. There were a lot of lessons that came out of that -- some networking that came out of it -- but it was more just the lessons that came out of that, and also the mindset that changes when you really start to kind of believe in what it is that you're doing. But why don't you tell us a little bit about 1702, and why did you start that?

Dean: So, I was blessed that my attorney and one of my board members were up in DC, and they had something in the DC region they called Mindshare. So, Mindshare was started during the dot-com era when all these guys were coming out of the dot-com that worked for Steve Case and AOL, but they all wanted to be entrepreneurs and they were in the tech side of it. Most people don't realize it, Washington, DC, is one of the biggest data centers in the world, in the northern Virginia area. So, you had all these companies popping up, but they all had the same struggle. One: they needed service providers to help them along because we all needed to understand how to legally set our business up -- what type of account did we need. They also knew that there was not a peer organization of like-minded peers because at the end of the day it doesn't matter if you're running a one million dollar business and I'm running a billion-dollar business -- we are peers. We have the same challenges -- they may be at different levels, they may be of different complexities, but we have the same challenges. So, they invited me, and I was the first person ever to be invited into this organization in DC. If I would show up once a month for a year and then graduate, that they would allow me to be in a class. So, I was in that class, and it changed my world. Actually, one of my relationships that actually introduced me to C Spire came out of a relationship from that class in DC, which introduced the guys from Madison, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama, together. But the funny thing is I felt the value in that, and I'm also as you know very heavily involved in Young Presidents' Organization worldwide, and there's a value to a peer in that organization supporting each other. But I got a call from ... When Michael Chambers was Chairman of the Chamber.

Marcus: Chamber Chairman, yeah.

Dean: And Bill had just stepped in as president, replacing Win Hallett, which is an absolute rockstar. Bill has done a phenomenal job. I will tell you that when he stepped in they said, "We need mentorship," and they took me to lunch and said, "Can we talk to you about this?" And I said, "I don't think we need mentorship. There's a lot of mentorship out there; I think what we need is we need a network and a support system." I basically said, "If you guys will support me, I'll volunteer my time and build it," and so we've built it. We're on our third year, and we're ... Every market's gonna be different, we're not gonna be like Mindshare is in DC. We're gonna have to refine it, so we're trying to fight to get outward. We're changing up board members. We're now gonna see board members like yourself coming in and stepping in on more leadership roles where the service providers ... But I still think that the value of that was ... I'll never forget, one of the most impactful stories I can share with was with a gentleman named Paul that ran a software company. Paul was sitting there -- you may remember this -- he was selling software to hospitals and he couldn't get in with the infirmary, and Brian Willman, president of Regions Bank, the region president, said, "Well, why don't you just go to the gala with me, and if you do, I'll put you next to the CFO," which [inaudible 00:12:54] biggest account being Mobile Infirmary, and that's the power of networking. It's kind of interesting, I walk in here. I had just flown in from Boston this morning, and I told my assistant, I said, "I don't want to miss this because this is something Mobile needs if I can share a story that will encourage somebody." So, I got on a plane at 5 AM. You walk in here and you have a guy talking about ... He took a paperclip and what value you could turn it in. Now that paperclip guy is walking out with the equivalent of a $15,000 check because of relationships and introductions you made that happen. That's the power of networking. The reason why Sandy's back in as mayor is he doesn't believe in doing it all himself. He believes in getting the people empowered, and getting programs started, and let it happen. We needed grassroots effects.

Marcus: Absolutely.

Dean: The second thing is after grassroots effects, we need businesses like yours to succeed to be able to hire more people, to grow in. We need to be promoting each other, and also hold each other accountable to the quality business we need to be because it doesn't help if we don't make each other better.

Marcus: Absolutely. Yeah, I know, it's been ... I think that mentality of supporting other local businesses, and I know going through the 1702 program was transformative for me for a couple of reasons. One: you mentioned Paul and I'll also mention Nick, that they were the conversations that I was having one night when I realized nobody knows who these people are. And one, Paul was running quite a large software company. Nick, who's also been on the podcast ... I can say his name, Nick Martin. He has run a couple of companies; he's making a go of it -- software companies where it's just a one or two person shop. But nobody's gonna know these stories, and really the birthing of this podcast was out of that in that I wanted people to hear these stories because I was hearing so often that there was nothing going on in Mobile, that the entrepreneurs here were not hearing the other stories, and so there was just this belief that Mobile is always gonna be the city that "could have been", right? But what we're seeing now, and I think Mayor Stimpson has done a great job of this, as well was Bill and some of the other folks that are just passionate about changing things here, including yourself, is that the tenor of that conversation is actually changing and people now are saying, "Well, there's a lot that's possible here. There's a lot that can happen." They're starting to believe in the impact that they can have on the city. So, I guess I would just ask you ... I know you do a lot of traveling and you're involved in a lot of different things, but what do you see in Mobile? Like, five years from now, what do you see Mobile being?

Dean: Well, I think a couple things. As you know, in a couple of my different companies, one of them I have a real estate development company where we build developments, and I will tell you it's interesting Pensacola's done really well in building, I call it the "retail" -- they have a brand new stadium downtown, people want to live there, housing prices are through the roof, like there's great appreciation happening, but there's very few businesses down there. So, the people down there says, "We don't have the jobs Mobile has," and Mobile people are saying, "We don't have the living environment you have." I think Mobile's at the precipice where you're starting to see people ... I mean, I just told you when I walked in here that one thing I'm looking to do is start buying land and buildings down here because we want to transform Mobile. I myself want to move our offices down here eventually, and so we're looking for opportunities to do that. I think so what you're saying is you're at a tipping point now that five years from now, if everything keeps going the way it is, you're gonna see bigger companies move in that are relocating, you're seeing startups starting to feel success because there's enough critical mass for you to get ... I mean, you guys are the perfect story. I mean, when I met you, I think you were one or two people, now you're like 10 or 12. If you keep going like this, you're gonna be 25 or 30. You're gonna keep going.

Marcus: That's the hope.

Dean: No, but you're doing it because I think what you have is you know the value of customer needs, and when they're getting that value then they're repeat buyers, right? They're coming back because they like what you have to offer. I've never heard of one person say, "Well, Nick leaves me high and dry." He doesn't you built a reputation of, "Whatever it takes, if I got to be there Saturday morning to deliver I'm gonna do it." I think that's what it's about. The other thing I think that has to happen is ... Mobile's done a great job at transitioning from what I'll call the "southern blue-blood town" that these families own it and ... I will tell you, the families that used to control this town still have a lot of influence, but they've been very welcoming of other outsiders, let's say, that are making it better. I'll tell you, I'm so proud. They're my friends, your friends, that have invested maybe five generations back here. I think because of that, hey, we're gonna make this everybody's town. That's part of why it's gonna be great.

Marcus: Yeah. It's promising to be ... I tell people, there are opportunities in other cities, but here you have a chance to really make a difference, right? We want to be part of telling those stories.

Dean: The one thing I will tell you that I think you guys have the chance to do is ... Even though we're the same age, you look 15 years younger than me, and I wish I had your look. That's because the hair and the way you dress. What I will tell you is I think you guys have a social calling in this town, that you have the ability because of your platform to attract young people that may be interested in this town.

Marcus: Yeah.

Dean: It's one thing if you're offering a job at the steelyard or something like sales, it's another thing when you got something hip and hope that they really think that this would be something to be cool to be a part of.

Marcus: Yeah.

Dean: Would you look at your surroundings? This is awesome. I'm living in an office with traditional cubicles -- I'm like, "This looks awesome to be a part of."

Marcus: Well, I appreciate that. Like I said, you talk to a lot of different business owners, if there was one bit of advice that you would give to somebody that was just starting out as a new business owner, or they were just trying to get their start -- what's the one bit of wisdom that you would give to them?

Dean: I think it has two parts to it. Know that you fail your way to success, and on the way to failure, treat everybody with equal respect because those people -- they may be a criticizer of what you're doing today, and they can be a promoter tomorrow because you've treated them with respect and loved all of them different than anybody else has ever done in the business world.

Marcus: Yeah. Yeah, that's some powerful stuff there, folks. What are the last two books that you've read that you've found helpful?

Dean: One was actually ... I actually don't read as much, I listen to books. There's a great app called the Blinkist. If you haven't used it yet, I highly ... It's $79 a year, and there's 2,000 books in there, and instead of reading a whole book, it condenses it into 7 to 14 points that are five minutes a piece, and you can listen to the book in 20 minutes versus having to spend hours of doing that.

Marcus: That sounds right up my alley.

Dean: 'Cause every great entrepreneur is probably [crosstalk 00:19:19].

Marcus: Who has time anymore to read?

Dean: Or the dedication to do that.

Marcus: Right.

Dean: So, the one was actually one about a diet and exercise because obviously, I'm running a fitness company. I must [inaudible 00:19:31] education on that ... or educating myself on that. The second one was ... Actually, it was a principle of power that interviewed ... I don't remember the title, but they interviewed all these successful companies and they asked what the one principle was, and that was by a guy named Ken Coleman. Actually, I remember, it was "One Question". He now -- just been announced on September 11th -- he is going to have his own XM station, and his XM talk show off the Dave Ramsey platform, so Ken Coleman and he gets into what are those fiber ... what makes people special, what makes businesses succeed, and that was really impactful to me because I know I make a lot of mistakes, but I can learn from somebody else's mistake, I have a higher probability to continue the success in my life.

Marcus: Now, you're moving Blast Fitness to Mobile. What does that look like? 'Cause they haven't been located here, so ... and also, tell us a little bit about that business and what you saw in them that made you, as a venture capital organization, want to invest in them?

Dean: So, first thing, I was asked to come in. Blast Fitness was purchased by a father-in-law of one of my friends in YPO. He was not ... Basically, he was sold a bill of goods versus what we actually got, and it was having some challenges, and they asked would I come do a turnaround -- we were 25, 26 locations at that point, a little bit under a thousand employees. I thought, "I've done a turnaround. Everything I've built is from scratch -- this could be a lot of fun." And somebody says, "Why do you want to go into something that is really struggling and turn it around?" I said, "I think those are good." So, after spending my first month there I realized there's really special people working in the gyms, and we didn't [inaudible 00:21:10] leadership, brought on some changes. So, over the last year, we've worked through those changes and got people, the right people, the right spots in the community moving. Through that process, I went from just running the company to owning 50% of the company. That happened in the last two months. Well, when that happened, I realized this company had been around and had been sold a couple different times, and the leadership and in that office building, they're just beat down. They're just exhausted, and sometimes you need a change. I know what Sandy's doing what the leadership here in Mobile's doing, and I wanted to be one of those people to say, "This is a 700 person company," which isn't huge, but it's not small, "I want to bring the headquarters here." So, we're relocating. Before 2018, we'll be done. Our executives will either live here, or they will fly here every week. It was really important because I thought given what's happening here in this community, why not have something where we can run off that energy, and enthusiasm, and knowledge, and then we'll do that. I was surprised ... The day after I announced it, it was on the news and whatnot, and they were interviewing. I walk into Waffle House where I go every morning for breakfast when I'm in town, and the lady, she goes, "You're Dean Parker." I said, "Yeah." She's like, "You're at Callis Communications. You used to come here all the time, but I haven't seen you in a couple of years." She said, "but I heard on the news you're bringing Blast Fitness here and we're so excited." And then the other day, going into ... This is what makes Mobile special, I walk into Edwin Watts because my wife called and said, "Hey, kid's football game -- it's pouring down raining. Grab some umbrellas.' So, I was like, "All right, I'll go grab some umbrellas." Guy says, "Thank you for bringing Blast Fitness here. We're really excited." I mean, for people to pay attention, that doesn't happen in New York or Connecticut. I know, they're small cities, but they're all focused on themselves. For people to actually take the time to know who I am and acknowledge that given I'm only here in Mobile six, eight days a month ... I was really thankful and proud of what's happening in our city.

Marcus: Yeah, it is very much appreciated when people do like what you're doing, and also with all the other news about Amazon, and Walmart and the large organizations bringing in folks, but it just makes such a huge difference because people aren't used to that kind of investment back and that belief really, right? 'Cause what you're doing is you're saying, "Well, I believe in Mobile. I believe in it so much that I'm gonna go through all the headaches and expense of moving a business here because I want to be part of the change." You're changing and you're influencing the direction of this city, but it is very cool. It just goes back to that wanting to believe that you have the ability to influence something and be part of that movement versus ... They get tired of hearing me say it, but being from DC, I like being here because in DC you're just gonna be another number, right?

Dean: It's true.

Marcus: So, it's nice to be a part of that. You mentioned you're only here six to eight days a week, or six to eight days a month, so I'm gonna ask this in just -- what do you like to do with your free time?

Dean: This year ... Being an entrepreneur, you spend a lot of time building to get there and because the campaign was just so ... I was home 26 days in nine months, actually, and stuff. I have focused to make sure I'm not missing a single football game, so I'm home every Monday, every Friday, and every weekend right now ... for my kid's football game. My son, as you know, plays for St. Paul's as a freshman, and my daughter cheerleads as a senior. And then, I've enjoyed more and more time ... I did not know I would appreciate or enjoy so much my kids getting older. My older two are 17 and 15, and then we have another daughter that's 11, a son that's 9. My son and three of his friends are heading up to Atlanta to go to the Alabama kickoff -- the first game of the season -- and we just enjoy ... I really, truly enjoy whether it's we're out in the boat, or flying, or whatever we're doing ... I love spending time with him, and it's really been great. I probably am blessed because the schedule's so ... I've been in seven cities in three days this week, but because the schedule's so packed, I can get -- whether it's when we have business dinners or other things going on that [inaudible 00:25:14], and when I get here, I get to really spend time and that is something that by far has changed me in the last 12 months. I'm so thankful for the time with my kids.

Marcus: That's cool. Yeah. So, like, you spent all that time investing in them and then you actually get to enjoy them when they get a little bit older and they-

Dean: They're kind of cool kids. I kind of actually like them.

Marcus: Yeah. "I did a good job!"

Dean: And I'll tell you this, it takes two to tango. Not every kid is blessed with two great parents, but their mom by far invests a thousand percent more time than I could put in them, and so I will tell you that it definitely takes the investment and time of both people. Whatever the situation is, you can always invest in your kids. I believe whether you're divorced, you're married, you're separated you could do it, and not many people have that ability to do that.

Marcus: It's worth it.

Dean: I think it's really important to remember that next generation.

Marcus: Well, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments?

Dean: I thank you for having me. I'm blessed to be here, and I will tell you that I just hope that every person out there that is listening to this, there's something inspirational ... Remember, take that. Don't be afraid to ask the question. There are hundreds of people that have successful stories here in Mobile, Alabama, whether it's business, nonprofit, whatever it's about, but they're just afraid to ask that question or ask somebody to go to lunch or do what needs to be done. Ask the question -- worse thing you get is a no, but you'd be surprised how many people say yes. That's a beautiful thing.

Marcus: I asked you to be here. Yeah. There's definitely some truth to that. Dean, I always have this paragraph to close -- appreciate your willingness to come and share, but you've shared more than just this 30 minutes with me, with the people that you're pouring into, and so I really do want to say thank you for everything that you do for Mobile, for everything that you do really even just trying to change the country with the campaign for Ben. You have taken your platform and gone to town with it, so thank you very much.

Dean: Thanks for having me. It's an honor.

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