Happy New Year (In September)

This past week at a meeting with my executive team, one member said a really cool thing: “This weekend is our company’s New Year’s Eve.”

Yep, our fiscal or budget year runs September 1 through August 31. Given the timing of Labor Day this year, our first day of the new year will be Tuesday, September 2. I wrote a letter to everyone thanking them for a great 2014 and expressing excitement about 2015. We will be celebrating our 30th year in business in July 2015 and I wanted to take a moment to blog about my former business partner, Dr. Nyles Ayers, who started our company in 1985.

I first met Nyles when a business friend connected us because Nyles had decided to retire and was looking for someone to ‘run the business’. We met for lunch and I was immediately enamored with his down-to-earth style, wit and strong ethics. At 65, his head of thick, white hair was a plus. Nyles grew up in a small cabin in North Carolina without indoor plumbing. Naturally bright, he learned Spanish fluently while serving as a medic in South America. At company events, or when asked, he would recite poetry in Spanish. Returning from a tour of duty in Korea in the early 1950s, he arrived at Grand Central Station and asked a police officer for the location of the nearest university. The officer gave him directions to Columbia where, upon taking an admittance exam, he was awarded a full scholarship. He graduated with academic honors and is listed as an All-Time All-American for Columbia’s Athletics for Epee (fencing) in 1956 and 1957.

Sitting at that lunch table back in 2002, Nyles slid a large envelope across the table and said, “These are my last three years’ worth of tax returns. I have nothing to hide.” I bought 50% of the company and started work a few weeks later.

For the first 3 months, Nyles and I shared an office. I wanted to learn everything I could from him and he loved to teach. I took lots of notes and he enjoyed testing me: “What is a last dollar program? How is EFC (estimated family contribution) calculated? Why don’t we charge a % of the total dollars given?” These were some of his favorites.

Nyles also loved to use interesting vocabulary words and made some up, too. “When people ask what I do for a living, I tell them I’m a philanthropee. I get paid to give other people’s money away.” (That line always made him laugh.) “Asking for more than one letter of recommendation is uniformly laudatory,” he would say, smiling.

Once, during the interview process associated with a Best Places to Work award, the interviewer inquired about a $7.15 check recorded as ‘reimbursement for phone use.’

“What is this for?” the interviewer asked.

“I had a rather lengthy conversation with my brother who lives in California about a cruise we are going to take. He was arguing for warm weather places and I was on the side of an Alaskan cruise. I’ve always wanted to see a whale in nature and think the odds are better if we opt for Alaska. Jim thinks we’d be just as likely to see whales off the Western Coast of Mexico.”

The interviewer jumped in. “I mean why did you write the check back to your company?”

Nyles furrowed his brow at the man. “Because it was a personal call and I do what I expect my employees to do, not spend company money on personal purchases.”

The company won Best Places to Work in the category of small business (1-5 employees).

Nyles would beam when we met for lunch every other week or so after he officially retired and I would tell him about our growth levels or new team members. “I had no idea the launch pad I was building,” he would say. “I’ve created a monster!” he would joke. Even after I bought him out completely, Nyles and I continued to meet, sometimes for Chinese food and, as his health declined and he needed oxygen, at his home where I’d find him sitting, surrounded by books he’d recently checked out. Behind his favorite chair hung a picture of the little cabin he’d grown up in as a reminder of his humble beginning that kept his perspective in check.

Nyles passed away last winter and when he did, the waiting list for books to check out at the public library was reduced by hundreds. He was a prolific reader and learner his entire life. I am grateful to have gotten to know Nyles and for all he taught me.

This New Year’s Eve, August 31, 2014, I toasted him. Here’s to you Nyles, the white knight. May your supply of free reading be endless and your thirst for knowledge never quenched.

 

– Becky Sharpe, President & CEO

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