How Bill Roark Built A Different Kind Of Company And Rocketed To Success by Forbes – Entrepreneurs

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Bill Roark, co-founder of Torch Technologies. Photo Credit: Jeff WhiteJeff White

Spreading out from the base of Emerald Ridge in Northern Alabama all the way to the Tennessee River, Huntsville is the third largest city in the state. Long associated with the U.S. space program – both the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and the Marshall Space Flight Center are located here – Huntsville is also home to a unique company called Torch Technologies. Sixteen years ago when co-founder Bill Roark started Torch Tech, he vowed to create a company that celebrated the smart, mission-focused people in his town. The results would catapult the startup to massive success.

The Journey to Greater Management Freedom

For Bill the journey to Torch Technologies began with an entry level job at a completely different company in Huntsville. Bill worked his way up to managing one of their business segments. He was given a lot of freedom to incentivize the work that the people he managed did, generally with bonuses or stock options that were tied to specific results. It was a method that kept the employees motivated and engaged. Business ran smoothly. Then, the company was acquired, and everything changed.

“The minute that acquisition closed, the ability to [..] follow through with those commitments became very difficult,” Bill describes. “I was in a new environment where I had very little influence to make [the promised rewards] happen.”

Bill’s ability to make good on commitments to his team that he already had in place before the acquisition was immediately scuppered. This was deeply disturbing to him, and in the end proved too much. Bill parted ways with the company that he had spent years working for, and pursued other opportunities.

After trying a few ventures and exploring other opportunities with established companies, Bill thought the time was right to return to his defense contractor roots. He convinced his former business associate, Don Holder, to co-found with him a new venture. Both gentlemen had gone through the unpleasant experience of having the teeth removed from their incentive-based growth strategy. Though Don was already looking ahead to his retirement, he agreed to this new venture. With control firmly in their capable hands, Bill and Don founded Torch Technologies, and resurrected the ability to create employee incentives for stellar performance. And they didn’t stop there. Don’s decision to retire within six years of starting the company provided an opportunity to enact a plan that they had been discussing since the company’s inception.

Creating an Employee Owned Enterprise

From the company’s beginning Bill and Don knew that they “wanted to do things differently.” They implemented their incentive strategy, promoting employee ownership via stock options on a smaller scale and embracing ethical business practices as their guiding stars. Six years in, the need to buy back Don’s shares preparatory to his retirement allowed Bill and Don to launch the next rocket for their company: a 100% employee owned company.

“Many companies, when a founder retires, have to look for a buyer, but in this case we were able to purchase the shares back from Don and [we] redistributed them to other employees.”

Through an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), Torch Technologies made the transition to employee owned, fully realizing Bill’s dream to create a different kind of company for a motivated, highly professional community. The company’s success skyrocketed.

Torch Technologies has made the Inc 5000 list of fastest growing companies in the nation for the last twelve years in a row (TWELVE!), boasts a three year growth rate of 113% and brought in just under $350 million in revenues in 2017.

There’s no question that this was a profitable move for Torch Technologies and its employees. In fact Bill believes that the unique community in Huntsville makes it a natural fit for their business model.

A Unique Town for a Unique Company

Nicknamed “The Rocket City” because of its long association with the U.S. space industry, Huntsville has been home to Torch Technologies for all its 16 year history. According to Bill, the quintessentially Southern yet also high technical expertise and collaborative nature of Huntsville makes it the perfect community for a company like Torch Tech.

Torch Technologies primarily serves the U.S. Department of Defense, providing long term technical services with the strength of over 800 employees. You might think that structuring an employee owned business model around a government service provider would be difficult, but Bill says that’s not so.

“It’s a natural fit for a services contractor doing business with the DoD, because you can make the ESOP contribution a part of the benefits package [so that it] becomes a billable part of your overhead rates, just like health care or 401k or life insurance.”

It’s also a natural fit for Huntsville, which Bill describes as “much like Research Park or Silicon Valley.” Huntsville boasts a high level of professional jobs, even beyond the defense and space industry. The community is upscale and rich in history (They celebrate their bicentennial this year) and culture. Huntsville even made New York Times’ list of 52 Places to Go in 2019.

Perhaps because of the long military and space association, the Huntsville people share a mission-focused language and high engagement with achieving results. This is a big part of why Bill has always favored an incentivized approach to business growth, an approach that Torch Technologies has proven successful.

Bill is a great leader in taking the notion of stakeholder capitalism and enacting some of the best practices that can be done in the realm of employee engagement. He gives his people the incentive to be creators and to be self-motivated to achieve their own success, which in turn brings success to Torch Technologies. It’s an inspiring approach.

After 16 years and establishing the success of an employee owned company, Bill has just handed over the CEO reins in order to focus on Torch’s parent company, Starfish Holdings. I’ll definitely be following along on Bill’s continuing entrepreneurial journey and remain inspired by his passion for sharing success with the people around him.

To listen to my full interview with Bill Roark click here.

February 6, 2019 at 03:58PM
https://www.forbes.com/sites/lewisschiff/2019/02/06/how-bill-roark-built-a-different-kind-of-company-and-rocketed-to-success/
Forbes – Entrepreneurs
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