MarketMate interview with John Fenton
John Fenton helps CEOS, Business Owners and Executives energize their businesses, execute on their strategies for success with greater results, and empowers them to lead and live their life by their design. John’s proven methods result in better teamwork, enhanced leadership skills and methods to better manage stress.
His work with executives and business leaders includes One-on-John Coaching℠, workshops and team facilitation, challenging them to think differently and achieve more. He delivers thought-provoking and experiential workshops, retreats and presentations to companies and organizations, leadership groups and others, integrating the latest thinking on leadership, teamwork, team building and trust incorporating the art of self-mastery.
John’s mission is to inspire executives and entrepreneurs to be their authentic best.
Formerly the managing partner of the Atlanta office of one of the largest accounting firms in the world, John has worked with CEO’s and executives for almost 40 years. He helps executives and business leaders achieve success with fewer hours and improved relationships. John guides CEOs, business owners and executives challenging them to think differently, take bold action and create meaningful results.
John is an executive coach and mentor, bestselling author, a Member of the Forbes Coaches Council, a certified Brain Management Consultant, a healthy lifestyle coach, and an expert in the art of self-mastery and a black belt in Tai Chi. John’s new bestseller 5 Minute Mastery™ is available on Amazon. He is a certified Vistage Speaker and member of the Business Resource Network in the BDO USA Alliance.
In college, John competed on one of the Nation’s top collegiate football teams and he incorporates his experience as a business leader and a leader on championship teams in his coaching and workshops.
Intro: Broadcasting live from the Business RadioX Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, it's time for Atlanta Business Radio. Spotlighting the city's best businesses and the people who lead them.
Stone Payton: Welcome to this very special edition of Atlanta Business Radio. It is time for MarketMate Atlanta. Stone Payton and Corey Rieck here with you. Today's episode brought to you in part by ARC, American Reprographics Corporation. If you print it, print on it, or simply want it printed, head on over to arcinatlanta.com. Or, better yet, reach out to our good friend Mindy Godwin. Let her know that Corey Rieck and Stone Payton sent you, 770-394-2465. Corey, good morning, sir. How are you, man?
Corey Rieck: I'm great, Stone. Great to be here again. How are you on this fine November day?
Stone Payton: I am doing well. But I want to honor you. I want to give you a personal shout out. It has been a couple of weeks now, we had a breakfast supporting and celebrating the whole ecosystem surrounding the Tuesdays With Corey show. And there was coffee there, there's point -
Corey Rieck: Crucial, crucial component.
Stone Payton: But most important, there was grits. And I got to tell you, I really believe with all my heart - and I've been helping people produce better results in less time with their marketing efforts for some 30 years now - I believe the answer to world peace and most marketing problems in the professional services arena, I believe, they can all be solved with a plate of grits. What do you think?
Corey Rieck: I'm not really a fan of grits.
Stone Payton: He's from Minnesota.
Corey Rieck: So, I don't really have an opinion on that, Stone. But thank you.
Stone Payton: Yes, sir. Big shoutout to you, man. You're doing some great work with the show and the relationships that you've cultivated, you know, with and through that show are just fantastic. And we're delighted to be a part of it. But I love doing the MarketMate Atlanta show with you. One of the things I like doing about it is, you always seem to get a set up with the most fascinating, most passionate, sharp guest. And I'm sure today's episode is no exception. Who did you bring with you today, man?
Corey Rieck: Well, today on MarketMate Atlanta, we have the distinct pleasure of a guest who really doesn't need an introduction. John Fenton comes to us today with decades of business success with, what is now, BDO. The last eight years of his tenure there, having culminated in him being the managing partner of the Atlanta office. I've known John for many years and he brings a multitude of both personal and business success to our show today. In addition to his previously mentioned business success, John is an author, executive coach, as well as an X Division 1 football player for the Miami Hurricanes in the late '70s and early '80s. John, welcome, my friend.
John Fenton: Thank you, Corey. It's great to be here.
Corey Rieck: John, why don't you take a minute and introduce yourself to the listenership. You've done so much. I don't know that I could do it justice, so I thought I would throw it over to you to do that.
John Fenton: Thank you. Yeah. As you mentioned, I played at a very high level in collegiate athletics. I got my MBA -
Corey Rieck: The highest level.
John Fenton: The highest level - that's right - in football. And I got my MBA my last year at the University of Miami. Go Canes. We're playing FSU tomorrow. Big game. Big game for us. Big rivalry game.
Corey Rieck: Is that really going to be a game given where FSU's program is at now?
John Fenton: Well, both of our programs are having their struggles right now. So, it's always just forget about everything else. That is a big game. All hands in Tallahassee. You know, it's going to be no holds barred. And it's going to be full on and full go by both teams. It's going to be an exciting day. And one of those games I was in has always been decided by a point, or two, or three, and you hear about wide right and wide left. So, I had that experience. I, you know, became a CPA, ended up with BDO USA, and was a managing partner in High Point, North Carolina, as well as Atlanta. And had a great experience there and retired about six years ago. I'm an executive coach. I do team building, lead workshops, retreats. I work one-on-one with executives and their key executives. I, also, am an award winning speaker, inspirational and motivational speaker, really helping executives and their teams be the best they can be.
Corey Rieck: How does your experience as a college athlete, how does that help you help others?
John Fenton: That's a great question. I had this question in another podcast I was on a few months ago. I played center. And I played for three different head coaches over a five year period. I got Richard in one season. And there's a lot of ups and downs in those years. And, yeah, very fortunate in high school to be in a state championship team, undefeated team, very successful team.
Corey Rieck: Was that in Florida?
John Fenton: It was in Florida, near Miami and Hialeah, Florida. For anybody that knows, in Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School. We were 14 and 0. And a lot of great lessons there. But I was never an athlete. Before I got to high school, I was not athletic at all, honestly.
Corey Rieck: Really?
John Fenton: Yeah. And that's kind of part of my story. And, really, about eighth grade sort of getting into athletics. And it's part of my origin story. If you want to hear it now.
Corey Rieck:Yeah, I do.
John Fenton: Okay. Great. And so, I was not athletic at all. And back in those days, like '69 or so, '70, the President's Physical Fitness Award was a big deal. And, like, I started testing it in sixth grade and through junior high. And if you got the gold award, you got this patch you could wear on your sweater or your jacket, like the Presidential seal. It was a really cool thing. In the junior high I went to - we called it junior high back in those days and not middle school - they were very proud of the fact they had the most award winners every year. And we had phys ed every day in class at school. And I lived, literally, right across the street from the school. And we had an obstacle course we had to navigate as a warm up for phys ed. At the very end of the obstacle course was a green wall. And coach has us in platoons. It was Coach Heki. He was a great man. Your typical flattop haircut with the boxer shorts stuck out the bottom of his shorts.
Corey Rieck: No gray area.
John Fenton: No gray area. Right. And he had some sort of platoons based on how we performed the year before in the President's Physical Fitness Award. And there was boys who wore gold t-shirts that won the award. And there were boys who wore blue t-shirts and red t-shirts. And everybody else who failed miserably wore white t-shirts. And I was in the white t-shirt group.
Corey Rieck: Initially.
John Fenton: Initially. Right. And as, you know, things turn out, sometimes you get feedback from your peers. And it was a boy in the gold t-shirts group that said to us boys in the white t-shirts, "You're nothing but a bunch of cream puffs."
Corey Rieck: I'll bet that cheered you up.
John Fenton: I love pastries and cream puffs. But it just landed with me. And I kind of looked around the other boys in the white t-shirts and not that I was any better than they were, but it didn't define me. And my mindset was, "You have a gold t-shirt, but you're no different than I am. You just did better on this test." And that was a pivotal moment for me. And, really, middle school, junior high, a lot of anxiety going on, right? But I went home and I kind of thought about this and I decided that I was going to win the President's Physical Fitness Award. And we would run that obstacle course. I was overweight. I was 30 pounds heavier than my age group. So, I never played any sports before that because I was too big, too heavy for my age group. I could never get over that green wall. I didn't know how. I didn't have the tools or the mindset to how to do that. And coach would get frustrated with me.
So, I made it a mission to climb that green wall and get over that wall. And I could see that obstacle course from my front yard every day. And coach would also have us run laps around the field. So, I used to run way in the back and whine and complain, "Why are they making us run? This hurts." That kind of stuff. And I just chose to run near the front of the pack the next time we had to run a mile or whatever around the field. And I chose to tackle that obstacle course, so I practiced it every weekend, every weekend, until I mastered that green wall, and won the award. In about two years time, I won that gold award. And that changed my life. That set me on a path to where I'm at today.
Corey Rieck: I think everybody that's played college sports, they can, on many occasions, look to one or two events that happened and count it as a turning point. And it sounds like that woke you up, the comment by the guy in the gold t-shirt.
John Fenton: Absolutely. I call them defining moments. I mean, you know, many times we have many defining moments in our life. And that was definitely a pivotal moment for me. And it changed my whole life.
Corey Rieck: When did you get to University of Miami to play football?
John Fenton: In 1976, my freshman year.
Corey Rieck: Okay. So, you graduate from high school in '76. And you played for three different head coaches.
John Fenton: That's right.
Corey Rieck: How was it transitioning from one coach to the next? Was that difficult?
John Fenton: It was hell.
Corey Rieck: How so?
John Fenton: So, the coaching staff that recruited me my freshman year, they were fired the end of the season. And this is well documented in books that the University of Miami almost canceled the football program my freshman year.
Corey Rieck: I remember that.
John Fenton: And one of the administrators, I believe it's Dr. Greene, provost, I believe, he said, "No. We told the board of trustees we need to invest in the program." At the time, it was costing a lot to run these programs and they weren't bringing a lot of money and not a lot of T.V. revenue. The team was not very good. And, you know, it wasn't the popular choice to go to University of Miami. I was a top 20 recruit. I was recruited by South Carolina, Florida, Florida State, Pittsburgh, and some other universities. And I chose to stay closer to home.
Corey Rieck: What made you do that?
John Fenton: It was more of a gut feel than anything. I just felt like I fit in there. And they had a great history of guys going on to the NFL. And I had that dream to go to the next level. And I also knew my parents would not be able to travel to see me play. And so, that was part of my decision, too. So, freshman year, all the coaches are fired. They brought in Lou Saban from the Buffalo Bills. I asked Nick Saban a few years ago - he was actually the president of the Touchdown Club in Atlanta - and I was at a dinner and Nick was there and I asked him, "Are you related to Lou Saban?" He said, "No. Maybe distant cousins, but not." So, Lou Saban came in spring football my freshman year. And it was just like he was making it so difficult to see who really wanted to stay, who really wanted to be there. Today as it was back then, you get a one year scholarship that's renewable. So, it's not guaranteed four years or five years. And guys were just packing up their stuff and "I'm done". I'm not a quitter.
John Fenton: But one day in the locker room, Lou Saban sits me down during spring football. And I'm playing miserably. I'm not doing well. I couldn't even explain why I wasn't doing well. But I wasn't performing not nearly to the standards that I was used to. And here I was less than a year ago, the year before that, I was a top 20 recruit in the State of Florida, Blue Chip prospect, highly recruited. Coach sits me down in the locker room. There's no one else in the locker room. And he says, "Fenton, I don't think you really want to be here." I was shocked. I was in total disbelief.
Corey Rieck: What gave him that idea?
John Fenton: He was testing me. And I wasn't performing, right? So, I didn't believe him. I didn't quit. And I wasn't playing center then. I was offense line, but not center. One of the other coaches came to me and said, "You know, you might have a better chance making the team if you play center." So, I said okay because we needed help. The first string center was hurt. There's only one back up to the first string center. And I was entering my sophomore year. So, I got redshirted that year. I played center. I was backup. I traveled every game in case the guy got hurt. Mike Smith was his name. And he was a great center and great athlete. But he had a banged up knee. And so, I was kind of insurance. And so, I got to travel to every game. So, I went to Tuscaloosa, and Notre Dame, and all these great places. Of course, we got our butts kicked then. And we were three and eight, I think. But it was a great experience.
And then, the next year, Lou's second year at Miami, I was second string center now. And it's interesting and I want to share the story. So, talk about defining moments or pivotal moments, I was second string. I was on special teams. But I was always ready to go in the game. I was always prepared. I knew the game plan. I knew the play calling. I knew down and distance. As a center, you have to really know all these things. And there was one play against Florida State. Florida State was our second game of the year. We lost our first game miserably to Colorado. Second game of the year in the Orange Bowl. And it's middle of the game and it's third and long.
The center comes off the field because he had an equipment problem. I ran out. My chinstrap was already on. I ran out in the field. I called the huddle. So, pass play called. Ron Simmons, who was a great all-American nose tackle for Florida State in those days. He became a professional wrestler later. Some people may know him from that. Or if you're an FSU fan, you certainly know the name Ron Simmons. And Ron was a nose tackle. And so, we call the play. I think Ron kind of tripped. I jumped on him. We threw the pass incomplete. We run off the field and put the ball. Now, one of the other assistant coaches recounted the story for me.
And so, the coaches the next day on Sunday, they're breaking down film, they're watching film. And we come in, in the afternoon and we have exercises and we watch film. We kind of see where we screwed up, what mistakes we made. And they never point out the good stuff. Always the stuff we messed up. And so, the coaches were breaking down the film before the team got there. And they're watching the film and they're going back and forth and go, "Wait a minute, who's that playing center?" And someone said, "I think that's Fenton." And what happened was, the coaches on Monday decided to revamp the entire offensive line. And so, we move guys around to positions they were better suited for. Because we were 0 and 2 at that point. And we had Ottis Anderson, O.J. Anderson, who played in the NFL for a lot of years, MVP.
Corey Rieck: And he was a stallion.
John Fenton: He was great. Great teammate. And it was his senior year at Miami. And he has still a lot of records at Miami. And so, they made a change. And we had a team meeting and the coach went through all the changes, but he didn't say he didn't say anything about center. So, I went to the office [inaudible], I said, "Well, Coach. I guess I'm still second string." "Oh. No, no, no. You're starting." So, we played against Kansas. Ottis had 100 and something yards in the game. We won the game 36 to 9. We played Auburn on the road. They were ranked. We were one and two, we were unranked. And we won that game, 17-15. And that kind of put me on the path as the starting center. And Lou left before I did. Lou went to Army that Christmas break. And Howard Schnellenberger came. And, again, Howard made it really difficult. He wanted to see who was going to stick it out. And, you know, it's like a fist fight. You know, his alignment, it's like a fist fight. You're just in a fist fight with the defensive line every play in scrimmages and that in spring football to see who's tough enough, who's going to hang in there.
Corey Rieck: So, who's the first coach that you played for at Miami before Lou Saban got there?
John Fenton: I call it the three S's. So, it was Carl Selmer. Carl had come from Nebraska. And when Tom Osborne got the nod to be the head coach, Carl left Nebraska. He was an offensive coach. He came to Miami, ultimately, became the head coach for two seasons. And a great man. We just weren't winning. And so, he was fired. He and the staff were fired.
Corey Rieck: That's interesting that they were thinking about canceling the football program. You know, Miami is sort of one of those iconic D1 football programs. I mean, you know, certainly when you talk about the top five or ten programs, Miami seems to always be in the discussion.
John Fenton: You know, I think about that. I've thought about this. So, if you go back to the decision to invest in the program, bring in a pro coach, and not take resources away - because they had done it with basketball. In '72, Rick Barry was on the last basketball team in Miami, until we brought it back after the success of the football program.
Corey Rieck: I did not know Rick Barry went to Miami.
John Fenton: Yeah. Yeah.
Corey Rieck: Did you help him with his free throw shooting skills?
John Fenton: No, I didn't. He graduated before I got there. I was still in high school. But at any rate, you know, that decision in that moment to build a program - I mean, look at colleges now, they all want to have football programs. Why? Alumni giving. It bolsters the good feelings for the university. You get more dollars from your alumni. And, you know, I was very fortunate, I was at the university last week. I was in Coral Gables delivering two workshops. And the university is in Coral Gables. And so, I made time to go by, watch practice, get a tour of the facilities. It's amazing the transformation that it has gone through in the last - well, now, it's 40 years for me - 39 years. Aging myself here. But it was just amazing what we've been able to put into the program and the facilities are just top notch.
Corey Rieck: Well, you were an important part of turning that around, getting that moving.
John Fenton: I feel that. I mean, Howard Schnellenberger was the first coach to win a national championship at Miami. And he did that in five years. And I played for him for two years. I always wished I had another year or two to play. I used to have dreams about that, "One more year." I had suffered a knee operation that I overcame and came back and played my last year. I had a serious knee operation. My academic senior year, my junior year, eligibility-wise. I came back from that. I earned my job back and played the entire season. I played my last game here in Atlanta at the Peach Bowl. We were ranked 18th in the country and at a nine win season with Jim Kelly, Mark Richt, and a lot of great guys that went on to the NFL.
Corey Rieck: What was it like playing with Jim Kelly?
John Fenton: It was great. Jim was a really hard nosed guy. And it was interesting because the year I got hurt, he was at the starter right out of the gate. We had three quarterbacks that came in together, Mark Richt, Jim Kelly, and, another gentleman, Mike Rodrigue. And they all were competing. And we're kind of running a combination veer offense, pro style. And Jim was not the starter right out of the gate. Well, he was a red shirted freshman in 1979, his second year at Miami. That's the season I got hurt. But when Jim would go late in the game, we would move the ball, we'd score touchdowns. And he was a great competitor. Really, just a good guy. Matter of fact, Joe Paterno had recruited him to be a linebacker for Penn State. And he grew up in Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, and he went to play quarterback. And so, I got to Miami. And he's a great competitor. And so, the week after I had my knee operation, we played Penn State on the road and he started that game and we won that game. A huge upset. And that put Jimmy on the map as the starting quarterback.
Corey Rieck: How did you handle three different coaches in your - what? You were there five years, right?
John Fenton: That's right.
Corey Rieck: And you picked up an MBA in your fifth year. I want to come back to that.
John Fenton: Yeah. I did.
Corey Rieck: What did that teach you, the transitioning from each of the coaches and their styles and dealing with that? I mean, it seems to me sitting on this side of things that that would have served you very, very well for any sort of transitions down the line, handling controversies and so on.
John Fenton: Yeah. There were lots of those down the line. You know, it's really interesting, so I always took a mindset of, "I'm going to work on me." Because I never really played sports until high school, really. I always listened to my coaches. I took the advice of my coach. Sometimes I got bad advice. Sometimes I got great advice. But I always listen to them. And I just fully invested myself in what the mission was. Now, I could have chosen to transfer to somewhere else. It wasn't popular in those days to do that. It's more popular nowadays. But I could have transferred to some other university. But I had made a commitment. Like I said, I'm not a quitter. The coaches weren't going to get rid of me. And just understanding of the game plan and the direction of the program.
And each coach got a little bit better. So, Lou is great at recruiting, having a winning mindset. We had a winning season his last year and then he left. And then, Howard Schnellenberger brought in even higher level of commitment to excellence and really set the tone and had vision and great vision. And so, I bought into that. You know, I allowed myself to buy into that and to believe that we could be better than we had been.
Corey Rieck: Well, it's easier if you have a coach that you put faith in and you know you trust them. It makes it a lot easier.
John Fenton: Trust is so huge in life and business and everything. I mean, it's one of the things I really work with teams and focus on. Really, interesting, too, little anecdotes. The last week I was leading two workshops with a bunch of CPAs and consultants in Coral Gables. And the first was on leadership skills. The second was on team building. And we had a cross-section of folks in that meeting. And we had some millennials, and we had some Gen Xers, and baby boomers, and all the other generations in between there. I only got through, maybe, two or three slides and the whole conversation shifted. And so, I had, like, an hour presentation and then we had, like, a 45 minute kind of roundtable discussion kind of format.
The conversation just took off because one of the millennials spoke up. And she has some very interesting points to make. And it fired up the whole audience, 45 people. Everybody got engaged. The whole conversation just took off and we went an-hour-and-40-minutes. And the host said, "Okay. We got five minutes left." And we just had a great, great conversation but it's all around communication.
Corey Rieck: Yeah. Well, I think one of the things of all the things I'm impressed with about your history is, you did pick up a four year degree in four years. And then, you picked up an MBA in the fifth year. And Miami picked up a tab for all that, right? You were still on scholarship.
John Fenton: Yeah. I'm very fortunate.
Corey Rieck: Well, I think you applied yourself. I mean, there's no question about that.
John Fenton: Well, I did. I always carried a full load. And you don't have to. In college, a certain minimum of credits you can carry and some guys do that. I'm going to tell you right now, it's a full time job, seven days a week. Even in the off season, there's always something to do and focus on. But I had a goal in myself to finish in four years. And I was in the accounting program. And I got to tell you, I struggled. Intermediate accounting, it's kind of like it's the course that they weed people out of the accounting program. It's kind of like the coach in spring football. And I just really applied myself. I had a couple of teachers that sort of mentored me a little bit to help me get through that. Excuse me. And I stuck in there. I hung in there. I got finished on time.
And what happened was, I really didn't plan to get an MBA. But the athletic director came to me. Dr. Harry Mallios came to me and he said, "What are you going to do your last year?" And I was still rehabbing my knee and all that. And it was a nine month process to rehabilitate my knee. And I said, "Well, you know, I'll stretch out my credits, and I'll graduate in December, and I'll go to work in January. Accounting firms need people in January because they're busy season." And he said, "Why don't you apply for an MBA? Take a GMAT and apply." And I never thought of that, so I did that. And I scored well enough and I was accepted into the program and the university paid for that.
And sometimes you get these people along in your life that are sort of a voice for you that can be a mentor or a guidepost.
Corey Rieck: Well, they're looking out for you, which that guy clearly did.
John Fenton: Absolutely. And so, I finished my last season. It ends in December, right? I was still in the MBA program. I did it in 12 months, 36 credit hours in 12 months. I really worked my butt off. Oh, and we got married in May, so I wouldn't even finish when we got married.
Corey Rieck: Yeah. You didn't have anything going on.
John Fenton: Nothing going on. But I was anxious to get out in the working world and start earning some money. And I went to work in Houston, Texas right out of college.
Corey Rieck: Knowing you now for eight or ten years, it's really still hard for me to believe that you were a CPA. You know what I mean? I mean that respectfully. How did you decide that that's what you wanted to do?
John Fenton: Well, it's interesting, my roommate and I were in business school together. We were business major, but I wasn't sure what I wanted to study. I took some marketing classes. They were okay. And the accounting class I kind of liked. But then, my roommate's father was an internal auditor with Florida Power and Light. And he said, "Oh, the best way to go is get your accounting degree and then go to law school and you can write your own ticket." And so, we both started going through the accounting program. And it was not easy. It was very difficult, especially carrying a full load. And that's why I kind of gravitated to that.
And, you know, it's a lot more than just numbers. There's some benefit or, I guess, some - you know, I like to see numbers and that kind of thing. But that's not what drives me. But it's working with people. And so, there's a lot of rules and regulations and things. And it's gotten much more regulated, obviously. But I've always focused on the people side of the business and it's all about relationships. And so, I used that as a vehicle, basically, into accounting firms. The only ones that were hiring back then because it was a huge recession. That was the other great recession before the one we had in 2008, 2009 - 1981. I mean, nobody was hiring and accounting firms were. Accounting firms generally seem to be sort of recession proof in some regard. And so, I kind of followed the opportunity.
Corey Rieck: It's very impressive, you graduated from high school 1976. You have three different coaches that you played for. You had to assimilate and get to know and survive. You didn't quit. You got your degree in four years. You got an MBA in year five. You had a serious knee injury. I mean, that, in it of itself, we could spend hours talking about that. I think that that says a lot. And I'm just curious, how many hours a day did you do football related items when you were at Miami?
John Fenton: Oh, I mean, classes were the easiest part, that was three hours. And then, you had practice. And season practice was three-and-a-half hours. Plus, you had meetings before and sometimes meetings after.
Corey Rieck: So, seven, eight hours. Easy.
John Fenton: Yeah. And it's seven days a week. I mean, even on Sunday. We got a little bit of a break on Sunday. You wanted to dress out and you wanted to go to travel to the games because you got Saturday night off after the game. And then, Sunday, you had the morning but should be back in the afternoon. So, you have, like, less than 24 hour reprieve from the rigors of what we had to do. But you're back at it Sunday afternoon.
Corey Rieck: Was it gratifying to see Howard Schnellenberger beat Nebraska in that game?
John Fenton: It was.
Corey Rieck: And the national championship in 1984.
John Fenton: It was amazing. And my wife was pregnant with our daughter. We were living in Houston, Texas. And for Christmas, she got me two tickets to the Orange Bowl game. She couldn't fly. So, I flew back. My dad and I went to the games. My parents still lived in South Florida then. And it was amazing to be part of that. And I actually went to the after party after and saw Coach Schnellenberger. And he made a comment. He said, "You know, you were part of the foundation that helped build this program to where it was at."
And I wanted to find him. I hadn't seen him since 1984. And he literally lives five minutes from my mom in Boynton Beach, Florida. So, through a friend of mine, I connected with him. I went to his home, about, two summers ago, and had a great, like, an-hour-and-a-half conversation with him. And I mean, his house is just like a plethora of memorabilia from all his coaching experiences at Alabama, and the Dolphins, and Hurricanes, and Louisville, and other places he coached at. And I wanted to find him because I wanted to say to him, "Coach, I want to acknowledge you for allowing me to play my last year." So, I come off a knee injury and the first day back in August of 1980, coach had us all run. They called it the 12 minute run. You had to achieve a certain distance for 12 minutes. And I was determined. There's a picture of this, I use it in my materials too. The picture of this was in the Miami Herald front page of the sports section of all the linemen running together the first step of that 12 minute run. That was the first step of me coming back for 1980.
I was not the starter when I came back. I had to earn my job. And right next to me is the gentleman who played center when I got hurt. And he was a very good center. Three years younger, so I had more experience. And I was determined to finish first to prove that I was back, and I did. And I was going against Jim Burt, who was an all-American nose tackle and played for the Giants for a number of years in the NFL. So, I had the opportunity to play against a very good nose tackle. And as I told Coach Schnellenberger, "Coach, thank you for choosing age over beauty and giving me the starting nod." And I played the whole season without injury. And the other gentleman who played center, Don Bailey, is the voice of the Hurricanes. He's a successful businessman with a carpet business in South Florida. And he does a radio for the Hurricanes and we still stay in touch.
Corey Rieck: Well, that must have been gratifying for you to come back from all that adversity and play in that game. Watch Schnellenberger beat Nebraska in that game in January of '84. And how old would Coach Schnellenberger be now, roughly?
John Fenton: He's, like, 85.
Corey Rieck: Yeah. I kind of figured that. That must have been great to kind of go back and thank him and spend that time. I think that's really important if you've got coaches or people in your lives that you take that time, because I think it's important for them, but I think it's also cathartic and important for the person that is sharing the information.
John Fenton: Absolutely. And his wife, Beverly, they've been married for a long, long time. And Beverly, they invited me to his Facebook group and that kind of thing. And Beverly sent me a text message later that night that said, "Thank you for coming to see coach. He really, really appreciated the time you spent with him today."
Corey Rieck: Yeah. That must have felt great. So, you work for BDO. The last eight years you were there, you were the managing partner of the office here in Atlanta. Tell us about that.
John Fenton: Wow. There's a bit of a story to that too. So, I was in North Carolina - and I moved around with the firm. I'd been in four different offices of BDO. I started in Houston. We came back to South Florida. I was asked to go to North Carolina. And I became the managing partner of the High Point, North Carolina office at the time. And the firm asked me to go to Atlanta. And my wife's family and all moved to Atlanta before that. So, it was like kind of going back home, so it was a good move from a family perspective. And our daughter was getting ready to go to college, so timing worked out. And I was not the managing partner when I first came back. But a series of events occurred and I became the managing partner. And we were going through just crazy transformational growth. And so, we had decisions to make in that time about how are we going to grow this practice? What type of clients do we want to take on? Sarbanes-Oxley and the regulations had just come out. One of our major competitors had gone out of business at that time. And so, there was just a lot of activity in the marketplace and a real game changer.
And, you know, when I got the nod, my first approach was that we need to really build a coalition of the partners to move in the same direction. Because I can't do it all myself. And so, we did that. And we promoted some partners within the firm. And we really looked at our culture and who we hired. We had great people on board. We did not have enough of the right people or the great people to get to where we wanted to go. So, we had a vision of where we wanted to go. And we just transformed the business. We doubled our size in a few years, took on great clients, you know, brought in great people from other firms, and recruiting from colleges, and really focused our efforts there with that mindset. And, of course, there was a lot of stress with that. Lot of hours, 60 hour, 80 hour weeks.
I remember I was with a client. They were working on a transaction that was going to be tens of millions of dollars for their business. And I got home late one night and my wife, Vicki, who was always very understanding, meets me in the driveway and she's pounding her fist on the hood of my car. And she says, "Why aren't you ever home? Why aren't you ever home?" Screaming at top of her lungs. So, that was kind of a wake up call for me. And I was always concerned about my team and about the stress they were under. I'm really concerned about them, so I was always focusing on them a lot. And I knew they were under a lot of stress. So, we try to find ways to be creative to help relieve that stress where we could. And bringing more quality people on board helped with that a lot.
And something I thought about every day, I want to be the best leader I could be. And I can tell you right now, I was not always a great leader. And I could hold emotions and kind of bottle it up. And then, I would kind of explode, usually at home or something. And what helped me through that process was, I discovered Tai chi and fell in love with it, the discipline of it. I worked one-on-one with a master for over a year. We'd meet 7:00 in the morning together. And I practiced regularly and went through 12 levels of training with him and became a black belt. And I've had a great opportunity to learn meditation and to incorporate that into my every day. And I've been to, literally, the top of a mountain and been with great teachers and masters around mindfulness and meditation. And so, it's part of all these experiences I bring together, business success, collegiate athletic success, the failures along the way, mindfulness, and Tai chi, and integrating some of the latest thinking on leadership and team building and integrate that into everything that I do.
Corey Rieck: I think one of the takeaways that I have is that you were also a great teammate. I mean, what I get from you is that, you know, you're unselfish, you're kind of laid back, you don't really run your mouth. You know, and one of the reasons why you're on MarketMate Radio is that you are unselfish. You have been good with referrals. You're willing to help. And so, part of the genesis of the show was to really highlight people that are good to work with, that are good resources - that's a word we use a lot here - that are unselfish. You know, there's a lot of ways you can help somebody. You can help somebody with a direct referral that turns into money in their pocket. You can help somebody by making an introduction to them that will help them with their business. So, there's business development angles here.
And so, I think there's a lot of ways in a business relationship that you can appeal to someone. And so, you certainly helped me. But one of the things, discipline, being able to handle stress, you have to have that if you're a Division 1 athlete. I mean, it's not an alternative to not have those things. But I think being able to roll and, you know, three head coaches, and all the things, let's take away the fact that you were playing Division 1 football. Let's take away that you got two degrees. I think, tearing up your knee, that's a big deal. You know, being able to handle three different head coaches. I mean, I'm certain that that's really serve you well, those experiences.
John Fenton: It really has. I mean, there were all sorts of leadership changes in our firm. I was with BDO for over 30 years. Lots of leadership changes and ups and downs. Being in different offices. Not being the managing partner, so you're always reporting to somebody. Even a managing partner, you're reporting to somebody always. And so, changes in the structure and all that goes on in everyday business life. But being adaptable, being open. One of the biggest things is - and you asked this question earlier - but it's really about being open to see possibilities. I'm all about creating possibilities.
And I have this phrase I use, Sharing it Forward. I'm all about sharing my experiences, the things that I've learned, sharing wisdom to help other people, to kind of maybe shorten their time frame with their learning curve or the amount of money they spend in their own self-development. And just bringing that all together for folks.
And, you know, you mentioned I was a great teammate. There were times where I was not a great teammate. You know, there were times I had to focus on me. But I always cared about my teammates. I think, I was somewhat immature from an emotional standpoint as a young man. Probably, I could have been a better teammate or a better leader than I was looking back on it. And that's one of the things I regret.
But I'll never forget, like, we had a hurricane coming. I forget the name of the hurricane. But, you know, South Florida, you grow up with hurricanes. We had lots of them. And we had practice and coaches hate to miss practices. They hate that. Well, this hurricane was coming. I think it was David. Anyway, a hurricane coming. And so, the coaches said, "Anybody have any room at their homes or whatever nearby they can take some of the athletes -" because a lot of guys were from out of town "- to give them shelter?" Well, my parents lived 25 miles away. And so, I took four or five guys to my parents home. And I was like, "Yeah. We got to do this." There was no equivocation about that. I wish I could have taken more. You know, just my parents couldn't handle more. I've always had that mindset, but I, maybe, didn't always demonstrate that. And some of that was trying to prove myself, trying to prove myself as a man, trying to prove myself that I belonged. You know, being a person who had never played any sports before, really, eighth grade or ninth grade, and playing at that level, it's funny, right? You self-talk. These voices in our head.
Corey Rieck: The imposter syndrome.
John Fenton: The imposter syndrome. Like, "How did I even do this?" Like, I was unconscious doing this, but I did it. And I would sometimes doubt myself. Finally, it took me a while to figure that out. That's why I wish I had another year, because I finally figured out like my fifth year, I just thought, "You know, I'm just going to have fun. I'm just going to play and have fun." And I played so much better and it was just so much more enjoyable. But being open, being adaptable, you learn that as an athlete. You have to be able to shift. You have to be able to adapt and shift. And maybe the way I would think of something maybe isn't the way things are. So, I have to be open to new ideas and thinking differently. And one of my taglines is, Think differently and achieve more.
Corey Rieck: Yeah. Well, I think that all that is a great story. But what I heard when the guy in the gold t-shirt said what he said to you, what I got loud and clear is you decided. You decided that you weren't going to be a part of the cream puff club anymore. And I think that's cool.
John Fenton: Thank you. And I've learned a lot more about this as I've gone on in life and all the things I've experienced. I was in a victim kind of mentality before that. I'm not good enough. I'm not strong enough. I can't do it. Complaining and whining. Resignation. And when I made that, it took courage. There's a tipping point in human emotion, and it's courage. The courage to step out of my comfort zone and to push myself in a place I was totally unprepared for. I had no way of knowing how to do that. I didn't know how to get over that green wall. But I allowed myself to push myself outside that comfort zone.
Corey Rieck: Well, I think it's John Wayne that said, you know, having courage doesn't mean you're not afraid. It means being afraid and saddling up anyway. And that's clearly what you did.
John Fenton: Absolutely. And kind of, you know, I've done it throughout my life. Putting myself into situations where, maybe, I don't have all the answers. But I was driven by there was something more. There's something more that I could do or I can contribute. And that's really what led me to retiring early.
Corey Rieck: So, you were with BDO for, roughly, 30 years. And that's pretty much the only company you ever worked for, right, corporately?
John Fenton: Well, no. I mean, I started with Arthur Andersen in Houston, Texas, which, in the industry, was kind of ground zero. There were lots of great people at Andersen. I was only there a-year-and-a-half. So, I'm going to have full disclosure, I was laid off from my first job out of college in a strange town. We just got married. I took my wife to Houston, Texas, 1,200 miles away from Miami. The oil economy had just crashed. Like, the whole rest of the economy was in a huge recession. The oil economy was bolstering, Texas, and Oklahoma, and Colorado, et cetera. And that finally crashed. And I was in an office of 2,000 professionals and, about, 200 of us got laid off. And I was caught up in that. We just bought a house, 15 percent mortgage rates. Double digit inflation those days. And I went home to my wife and I literally sat on the couch and I cried. Because, like, I'm a failure, right?
I picked myself up the next day, I got with some headhunters. And I found the firm that I, ultimately, work for, for over 30 years. And I got a raise and a promotion in less than two weeks.
Corey Rieck: You didn't like that?
John Fenton: No. Like, I was just sort of a fish out of water at that other firm. And when I came to BDO, it was like a warm hug. I just felt like I belong. And that's really important. Culture is really important. And I didn't know coming out of college, I just went where I could go and get the best job. And Andersen at the time was the top firm of all the Big Eight back in those days. And it was the best move that ever happened, because the type of person I am, as you've heard, I'm not a quitter. I might have been with Andersen when the final demise of that firm that happened many years later, and that would have been devastating. And that was devastating to a lot of good people. But these events happen in our lives and there's always an opportunity. When one door closes, another one opens.
Corey Rieck: One hundred percent. What gave you the most satisfaction when you were working at BDO?
John Fenton: I always thought there was a better way. A better way to lead, a better way to really focus on how can we be our best. I heard another coach talk about this a few months ago. Evaluation is the stuff we can talk about. Well, you know, you've been reviewed by people. You got 29 things you did really good and there's one thing you need to improve on, which means you're not good enough. I hate those evaluations. In my opinion, they suck and they're not useful. They're really not useful. The best feedback you can get is you get people around a table and talk face-to-face. But it's working with the people and helping them be their best. How can I be the best leader I can be? How can I help them be the best that they can be? Finding their unique talents.
You know, you look at some great coaches, like in the NFL, in particular Don Shula. I'm a huge Dolphin fan. It seemed like he always had a knack for finding the right player for the right position.
Corey Rieck: He did.
John Fenton: Or adapting the offense to the skills. When Dan Marino came on board, it was a whole different offense. And he was adaptable and he adjusted, right? And he found the right talent in the right place. And the same thing is true in business. You know, all of your people are good people. And they want to do their best. And sometimes they're in the wrong position, the wrong place.
There's a great book by Dr. Gay Hendricks called The Big Leap, and he talks about there's, like, four quadrants. And Dan Kennedy, marketing specialist or expert, talks about this in a different way. But similarly, there's four quadrants. One is kind of your area of incompetence where you're not really good at something. Then, there's area of competence. So, you're really good at it, but it doesn't really provide any value, doesn't excite you in the context of your business, doesn't really add value to your business. The area of excellence, which is you're really, really good at something but, also, can kind of lull you to sleep a little bit.
You know, Jim Collins in Good to Great talks about good is the enemy of great. Just good enough. And sometimes we just get stuck in that zone of excellence. We don't push into, what's called, your unique ability. So, we really thrive. Like, the one thing you could do if you could do it all day long, you would do it. And time will just fly and you would feel so fulfilled, if money was no issue. And what's that one thing in your business that you do? And so, for me, a good leader finds the people that can be in their zone of excellence or their zone of unique ability and tap into that.
Corey Rieck: Is there a test that somebody can take that shows that?
John Fenton: I don't think so. There are lots of tests out there. I mean, you'll see it in different ways, you know, the disk model and Myers and Briggs. I've done 20 or 30 of these different personality tests. So, there's always some tendencies there. I don't think Gay Hendricks included a model or a test in his book. Good question.
Corey Rieck: You know, when you retired, what prompted you to become a coach? It seems like a natural transition, though.
John Fenton: Well, thank you. A lot of my friends are retired and they're just like they're retired. Like, they're playing golf all the time. I never had that mindset. I just couldn't see myself sitting on the porch drinking cocktails at 5:00 everyday and playing golf all the time. First of all, I don't think my body would allow me to do that.
Stone Payton: I thought, you're going to say your wife.
John Fenton: Right. No, my wife would rather me do that, honestly. But I had this idea I wanted to help people. And so, long answer to your question. You know, I had an incident that occurred where I was at a doctor, a stress test. And my heart started racing during the stress test. And the doctor rushes in, "Lie down. We're calling an ambulance." And they rushed me to Emory Midtown. They take me into the cardiac ward and they're going to do a heart catheterization. I can still feel the cold operating room table in my back. They rushed me in there. They're hooking up all this stuff to me. They're going to do a heart cath. And I blacked out. The last thing I remember was my wife and daughter.
And when I recovered, the first thing I remember was my wife. The first people I saw are my wife and daughter, Vicki, my wife, and my daughter, Jennifer. And that was a wake up call for me. And I was deciding, I want to take a retirement, but I'm not sure when. Well, that was kind of the straw that pushed me over to make that decision. And within less than a year, I was eligible for it. I took early retirement. So, I took six months off to kind of play around and do some things. But I always wanted to help other people and, particularly from my background, executives. To be their best leaders they could be and have the best companies and teams of people they could be, because they impact their employees, their families and the communities in which they serve.
And, actually, I ran a yoga and Tai chi center for a-year-and-a half. I don't know if you knew that.
Corey Rieck: I do now.
John Fenton: I was asked to run it through an organization, Body and Brain Yoga and Tai Chi. And it was closed and I reopened it and stabilized it. They then sold it as a franchise to someone. I didn't want to be confined by the four walls. I want to be out in the world sharing my message or my experiences, sharing it forward. And so, I had this idea, but I wasn't sure how it was going to look. I took a big leap of faith to do that and here I am today.
Corey Rieck: How did you decide to write a book?
John Fenton: I always had this idea I wanted to write a book and share my story. And there'll be other books coming out. As I mentioned, my book, 5 Minute Mastery, was a number one new release and bestseller a year ago today.
Corey Rieck: Congratulations.
John Fenton: Thank you. And it's a little bit of my story of my life and also some experiences, and I give some guidance in there. It's not a long read. And I don't believe in these - I mean, I read some books that are so lengthy and so wordy. It's like, "We could say this in a lot less words."
Corey Rieck: If you had more time, you'd written a shorter letter in one of those deals.
John Fenton: Exactly. Right. But I had this idea I wanted to share some of my learning and my experiences with folks. And so, that prompted me to think about writing a book. And I started that process and thinking about it in 2016. And I got into some coaching programs. I have a great mentor, Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul and The Success Principles. And I'm now in training to be a certified Canfield trainer using his methodologies. I've gotten to go to a mastermind retreat at his home, which is really cool. And I learned a lot there. That was in 2017.
And so, in 2018, I rebranded myself. I redid my website, changed my logo and some other things. And begin the process of finding someone to help me write the book, and that's what I did. And so, it's my mission in 2018 to do that, and we did that. We got it done. There'll be other books coming out in the future. And as I mentioned, 5 Minute Mastery: The Surprising Secrets for Transforming Your Stress to Success and Mastering What's Important, is really a message that I think a lot of people can hear or should hear or want to hear because we're dealing with so much stress in our lives. And other books will come out. And I may have more of a memoir come out down the road, but I'm not ready to do that right now, sharing my life's experiences. But, you know, kind of my transformation from being a victim to being the master of my life.
Corey Rieck: Yeah. It's a great story. I mean, one of the things that I wanted to ask you is, what gives you the greatest satisfaction now?
John Fenton: Oh. It's seeing the face of a client or a team of people when their eyes brighten up and they have an epiphany for themselves. They learned something that they hadn't thought of before. That they open up more and they allow themselves to be more vulnerable and open. And I can see that in their face. And a lot of times I help people, executives, sort of focusing on what is your unique ability or what's some of your unique expertise. And kind of explore the possibilities with that in a group setting about opening up communication and, you know, recognizing everybody is people. We're all people and it's all relationships. We all have our talents. We all have our experiences in life. So, that affects our beliefs and our thoughts and all those things. And we can find some common ground there and really do great things as a team. And so, I just really love to see the impact of when I talk to a group or I lead a retreat or workshop or one-on-one, that the light bulb just goes off for them.
Corey Rieck: How is the transition when you retired? You're working 60, 70, 80 hours a week. Was that hard?
John Fenton: No. It really wasn't.
Corey Rieck: Why?
John Fenton: I really have prepared myself for that. But, you know, it's interesting, so I still work hard at what I do. My wife kind of gives me some grief about that. I do practice what I preach. Some days ebb and flow, like everything for everybody. I set, about, six months to kind of play around. I went to Hawaii and that kind of stuff. And then, really kind of got focused on what I want to do going forward. And I was teaching yoga and Tai chi and that kind of thing. And then, that led me into managing a center for a-year-and-a-half. And that consumed my time a lot for a-year-and-a-half.
And then, I discovered Vistage. I'm a Vistage speaker. I was a Vistage coach. They call it Vistage chairs. A lot of great Vistage chairs are in the Atlanta market. I know you're a Vistage member as well, Corey. And somebody recommended that I consider being one of the coaches. And so, I went through their training. I launched a group. Great experience. Great, great experience. I launched a group. At about a-year-and-a-half into it - so the theme here - I decided that's not what I wanted to do because I wanted to have more of an impact with my message. And I was trying to do two things at once. I was trying to run that business but also run my own private consulting business. And that was on a pivotal moment towards the end of 2017. And I transitioned my members. Most of them are still members today and I still stay in touch with them. And they got a lot of great value from that experience. And I learned a lot from that experience. But I felt like I need to be more independent and more doing my thing the way I wanted to do it, moving more into my zone of unique ability.
Corey Rieck: How do you find somebody's zone of unique ability?
John Fenton: There's a series of questions you can go through. It's a lot of self-reflection. Sometimes I can just see it. So, you don't want to blow all your listeners away with too woo woo stuff. But, you know, everything is energy. Everything is energy. If you read anything about quantum physics, you know, Einstein and other physicists kind of got this ball rolling - gosh - over a hundred years ago now, you keep breaking matter down and everything is energy and matter. But everything keeps breaking down to energy. And so, thoughts are energy. Emotions are energy. They ebb and flow. And so, I use my intuition a lot, right?
And so, I allow myself to be vulnerable, to be open, to open the conversation with my clients one-on-one or in a group. I create a safe place for them to do that. And as we open up more and more, they start to reveal more about themselves. Just I get a feeling or a sense of something that maybe this is a path they can follow. And so, I'll just call it, one of my secret powers, I guess, that I kind of follow my intuition. You know, we can get locked up on our thinking a lot.
Corey Rieck: Easy to do.
John Fenton: But really following your gut, following your heart, and your intuition, it's never let me down in the past.
Corey Rieck: What's an ideal client for you?
John Fenton: An ideal client is someone who feels there's more in their life. They're very successful. You know, really any age group. I mean, I think I relate more to millennials than my own.
Corey Rieck: Really?
John Fenton: I think so. I just relate to them.
Corey Rieck: Why do you think that is?
John Fenton: I think I'm a millennial in the body of a baby boomer. I always connect with them, it seems. Basically, it's on my experience with dealing with millennials. My daughter is a millennial - older millennial. There's different ages of millennials and different groups, right? But, you know, we don't pigeonhole people and put them in buckets. But everyone is people. Everyone is a person. And they all have different strengths and weaknesses, and likes and dislikes, and experiences. I enjoy being with people.
Corey Rieck: I get that loud and clear. That's clear. And that's been my experience with you. If you could give the younger version of John some advice, knowing what you know now, what would it be?
John Fenton: Follow your heart. Follow your intuition. I think if I done college over again, I would have gotten a history major. I love history. You know, I was practical. I didn't choose history because what kind of money can you make other than being a professor and you’ve got to get PhDs and all that kind of stuff. And so, it's more practical and pragmatic about it. But I think just being more open to possibilities and follow your intuition, and I think I did that a lot of times. I don't regret the decisions I made, I mean, each one was a learning experience. I think, too, being more self-confident in how I interact with other people could really help me be a better teammate and a better leader. And that's something I had to learn. It wasn't something that came naturally to me. I was very closed off in some regards growing up.
Corey Rieck: If there was a young person that wanted to follow your arc of success, what insight would you give them?
John Fenton: Be open. Don't believe your own voices in your head. Believe in yourself. Be open for new possibilities. Follow your heart and your intuition about what it is you want to create in your life. You can create anything you want to create in your life. And some people say that's trite and that's BS. And I don't believe that. I believe that -
Corey Rieck: No, that's true.
John Fenton: I believe it's true. And it may not look exactly the way you think it's going to look right now. But take that first step towards following your dream. Believe in yourself. Let go of the past. Focus on the future.
Corey Rieck: Well, John, congratulations on all of your successes, both business-wise and personally. You've been a great guest. We certainly wish you continued success. If there was one of the listenership, if they wanted to get a hold of you, how would they do it?
John Fenton: Great. You can go to my website, www.johnjfenton.com. Also, you can call me directly, 404-217-5889. Send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. And for all your listeners, I have a special free gift for all of them. They can go to www.johnjfenton.com/5 - the number five - 5daychallenge. It's a free guide. It helps them with dealing with some of the questions you asked about how do you find your unique ability. And, also, some helpful tips in there to be a better leader and a better human being. And so, it's a five day, five minute challenge. So, take five minutes a day. Steal five minutes. It's so hard for executives to do this. Steal five minutes in your day, focus on your breathing and yourself, and just be in a state of gratitude and appreciation. And do that for, at least, five days. You can do it for longer, 30 days is awesome. And see how your life might change. So, it's a free guide. Again, johnjfenton.com/5daychallenge, a free guide for them.
Corey Rieck: John, thanks for being such a great guest on MarketMate Atlanta. We appreciate you. And continued success, my friend.
John Fenton: Thank you so much, Corey. Thank you.
Stone Payton: All right. This is Stone Payton for Corey Rieck, our guest today, John Fenton, and everyone here at the Business RadioX family, saying we'll see you next time on MarketMate Atlanta.