By Lyle Fitzsimmons
For Alex DeBarr, it was football.
When times got tough during the recent recession or when facing an exciting opportunity for Naylor, the president/CEO gets going—back to his days as a high school player on the fields of suburban Cleveland. And to the mettle developed while trudging to late fall football practices on cold, blustery days.
I think the qualities you develop from playing sports are most pronounced in intense and competitive situations,” he said. “In some of the wild extremes I’ve been through in business, whether around opportunities, tough challenges or preparing and strategizing, I often think back to experiences I had playing football and baseball.”
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“There is plenty of drudgery in business, but the people that bare that and find ways to be constantly productive, prepared and positive are the people who succeed,” recounted DeBarr. “To me that’s analogous to those awful football practices in November when it was cold and windy, the snow was starting to fall, your coach is screaming at you, etc. It was the last place you wanted to be, but you had to learn how to get yourself through it and be productive and not just settle for getting through it, even though you’d have rather been in the hallway hanging out with your girlfriend.”
“Honestly, sometimes in the middle of a meeting or conference call, I’ll think of those football practices in the snow or batting with two outs in the ninth inning in a big game. Those experiences and lessons absolutely carry over to business.”
At Naylor, DeBarr’s not alone when it comes to drawing on sports-forged mental toughness.
The Gainesville, Fla.-based company boasts a roster of executive- and management-level standouts who can reach back for athletic memories while moving forward on a particular business task.
Standouts on the links, track, mat, diamond and triathlon course
Chris Caldwell, executive VP for sales and marketing, was a Division I golfer at Eastern Kentucky University and played professionally. Marcus Underwood, vice president of online media, played Division I soccer at the University of South Alabama. Charles Popper, vice president of association relations, has completed several marathons. And Camille Stern, vice president of operations for NaylorCMG, is an avid participant in sprint triathlons.
Elsewhere in the company, media coordinator Adam Lingenfelter spent a year as a minor-league pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds organization alongside three teammates who later reached the majors. And Hank Berkowitz, moderator in chief of the Association Adviser e-newsletter, was a nationally-ranked high school wrestler and later a 10-year member of the prestigious Central Park Track Club in New York City.
Collectively, it’s a mix DeBarr, now a fixture on Roy Hobbs League baseball diamonds throughout northeast Ohio, cherishes.
“When I started playing ball again, I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed the camaraderie and the focus that you share. It’s energizing,” DeBarr said. “And I see a real corollary to that at Naylor. The people here with varied experiences have built on it. I’m drawn to people who have that kind of makeup, whether they’ve gotten it from sports or music or art or any other competitive activity.
“It helps them to be calmer in crises and more measured in their reactions to the ups and downs of business. I’ve gravitated toward people with those core skills – coolness under fire, pragmatism and strong work ethics.”
Having some old-fashioned gumption doesn’t hurt either, according to Stern.
She admitted leaning on that intangible during past days as a multi-season athlete and now while overseeing a team of event management staffers who produce more than 15 association shows annually.
Specific situational skills gleaned from softball are a big plus, too.
“Perseverance and decision-making,” she said. “I played catcher for 16 years. You have the entire field in your view. Runner on third, batter decides to bunt. Do you throw the batter out at first and risk the runner coming home, or do you hold on to the ball, keep the runner at bay and let the batter on? It is a tough decision. You will have assessed the situation—what is the score, what inning are we in, who is up next, how many outs—all before the batter steps into the box.
“The decision seems like the hard part, but the perseverance to stand behind the decision you made and continue to play is even harder.”
The language of the field also resonates for Stern, even subconsciously, at hiring time.
“I find that employees on my team who actively participate in some form of exercise—whether it be a sport, or just a regular gym routine—are more disciplined in their work style and ethic, rarely call in sick and are persistent in their daily office routines,” she said. “I don’t ask a person’s athletic background when interviewing them, but, if they volunteer the information and two people are equally viable for the position, I would most likely take the athlete over the non-athlete.”
Rebounding from adversity
But not every sports lesson comes from a moment of glory.
Instead, both Lingenfelter and Underwood augmented their on-field talents with intrinsic determination made necessary when battling physical setbacks.
The homegrown Lingenfelter—who starred on Gainesville-area diamonds at a pitcher at Buchholz High School—underwent ligament replacement in his right elbow while attending Valdosta State University in Georgia in 2000, but rebounded after 18 months of rehab to return to the mound and eventually signed a free-agent contract with the Reds.
He pitched 25 innings over nine games with the team’s minor-league affiliate in Billings, Mont. in the summer of 2004 and was invited to spring training in Sarasota the following February, before the same arm issues required two more surgeries to remove bone spurs from the elbow.
After another season of off-field rehab, he was released by the Reds in January 2006.
He worked for 12 months in the shipping/receiving department of a nearby mining/construction company, then came to Naylor in 2007 as a sales representative.
Lingenfelter was promoted to media coordinator early in 2010.
“Baseball provided me with multiple non-physical skills that translate into the working world,” he said, “like discipline, competitiveness, dedication, time management, leadership and drive. Just thinking about the game gives me a rush that is indescribable, and it’s a feeling that I wish upon everyone I come across in life—to experience it once. If I could give that to someone, that would be my one wish.”
Underwood broke his leg the summer before starting college and was given a medical redshirt to retain full playing eligibility. But rather than rehabilitating on his own away from the team, he attended every practice, watched additional game film and brushed up on strategic elements he used to overlook.
The dedication paid off immediately with recognition as the team’s most dedicated athlete, then again the following year when he used the new-found smarts to earn its most valuable player award.
“I’m convinced it was because of how much I learned by watching and listening the previous year,” Underwood said. “The lesson is that even when things don’t work out exactly as you planned, make the most of it and turn it around to your advantage.”
He came to Naylor in January 2007 as the company’s first senior executive focused entirely on electronic media. Previously he was with Thomson Healthcare, a leading business-to-business media company focused on the pharmaceutical and health-care market.
“[Business is] different, but still exciting,” he said. “Where the athletic achievement was more physically exhilarating and had a definite winner/loser, winning in business is not as black-and-white. The things I work on can take months or years to develop, so success comes more gradually and is less defined—but because of this, it is often more fulfilling.”
Discipline, toughness, decisiveness and the resiliency to bounce back from setbacks: These are traits that take athletes and business decision makers far no matter what the opposition throws at you. We’re glad to have these leaders on our team.
Lyle Fitzsimmons is an editor at Naylor’s Gainesville, Fla. headquarters. He came to Naylor in 2007 after nearly 20 years as a newspaper reporter and a magazine editor. Sports-wise, he has completed two full marathons and three half-marathons—including the two-day “Goofy Challenge” at Walt Disney World in January 2010.
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