How Bob Birdsong overcame adversity to run a mega generator company
Bob Birdsong is CEO, president and owner of OK Generators, the largest independent dealer of standby power systems in the United States. The company has 20 factory-certified technicians and more than $250,000 in parts inventory for rapid response. It has locations in Deerfield Beach, Jupiter and the Orlando area.
Birdsong is also managing director of ValiDATE, an online dating service that differentiates itself by verifying names, ages, photos and criminal background, and checking for illicit web activity.
Birdsong spent his formative years in South Florida, graduating from Nova High School. He subsequently graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in nuclear engineering; he served in the U.S. Navy for 10 years.
Birdsong is also chairman of the Broward Health Foundation, 2-1-1 Broward and HANDY. He is also on the boards of the Broward College Foundation and Broward Workshop.
Birdsong was interviewed by SFBW Chairman and CEO Gary Press on the seventh floor of Fort Lauderdale’s 110 Tower, which includes a conference area and expansive terrace. CEO Connect was presented by Greenspoon Marder and TD Bank.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
You always have such a strong, powerful, magnetic presence, but I understand you had to overcome adversity in your life, including getting picked on as a skinny kid, struggling academically in school and having to live with your grandparents.
The first year of my life I was very ill. I was in the hospital most of the time. They thought I had tuberculosis, but I actually had asthma and a heart murmur. I was the smallest, skinniest kid. My school was very urban. My mother would send me with two lunch moneys since one was taken. You learn resiliency. As I go through life, everybody has something to teach me. Everyone leaves an imprint on you. You have to look at the person and see what they can teach you.
How did you end up going from Michigan State to the U.S. Naval Academy and studying nuclear engineering?
I always wanted to go the Naval Academy. During my junior year, I wrote to my congressman. I went to Michigan State to play soccer. I found out something important: I was not good. I played all the guys born with soccer balls. Halfway through my freshman year, my congressman said, “If you stop writing, I’ll nominate you.” Nuclear engineering sounded cool and I was interested in physics.
How did you end up at OK Generators?
When my son was almost a year old, his mother unexpectedly passed away. The Navy would not let me stay as a single parent.
I couldn’t work at a nuclear power plant because that was shift work. I needed a 9 to 5 job. I came down here where I have family. I found an ad that said, “generator technician” and “health benefits.” I was hired for $14 an hour. I literally did every job in the company from scrubbing toilets on up. Eight years later, I bought the company with a partner, and six years after that, I bought him out; since then, we have quintupled our revenue.
Hurricanes caused a lot of problems in Florida in the mid-2000s, but was that actually a positive for you company?
You would think so because of our service business. However, our sales far exceed our service revenue. We want people moving down here and moving people into the area. We do not do residential generators at all. When your homeowners insurance becomes more than the payment and interest on your house, it’s not sexy for employers to move down here.
You are exemplary in your charitable endeavors. How do you decide who to help and find the time to do so?
It’s actually been a three-and-a-half-year thing. I attended a breakfast that 2-1-1 Broward put on about making real connections. I joined the board. Then these weird sets of circumstances happened and 14 months later, I found myself chairing the board. 2-1-1 just took off and I got to ride their coattails and take all the glory. [2-1-1 Broward provides community, health and disaster services.
I went on the board of the Broward Health Foundation. We turned that board around. We went from seven members who didn’t show up to 30 members who are very passionate. We raised
$20.2 million to renovate and rename the Chris Evert Children’s Hospital.
When I went to HANDY, I met CEO Evan Goldman. He’s a wonderful, wonderful man – so in tune. HANDY is doing amazing. If you are looking for a cause to go to, HANDY is it. [HANDY helps abused, neglected and disadvantaged youth.]
You are chairman of Broward Health Foundation during a turbulent time for the South Florida Hospital District. What has it been like seeing all the headlines and losing someone like Dr. Nabil El Sanadi?
When Dr. El Sanadi came on board, he and I struck up an instant friendship. We talked once a week. It hurt me personally when he passed away. The controversy doesn’t detract from the wonderful things Broward Health does. It provides two-thirds of the indigent care. It has the best staff and the best doctors. They don’t have the best facility, so we embarked on the capital campaign to rebuild the children’s hospital. That’s our legacy to this community. As far as the turbulence, Broward Health is going to come out stronger, bigger and better, and it’s going to happen quickly.
Do you think the governor wants to see Broward Health go private?
It will never happen. The math is simple. Broward Health is a taxing authority. They get $250 million in taxes; they spend $375 million a year in financing indigent care. You take that $250 million away and then saddle them with that $375 million a year – nobody will take them in.
Tell us about your newer business venture, ValiDATE. How did the concept originate?
I work out with these two guys in a gym in Coconut Creek who are private investigators. They were telling me about all the private background checks they were doing and how many people were failing them.
What if you had a site where all the people were validated or verified? We verify their background and check for a criminal history. We capture their IP address to look for pedophilia. The site has taken off.
We developed a piece of software that does a background check. We do ours with TransUnion, which is the largest, most reliable. That’s what we are talking about to the big-box people – selling the software or licensing it to them.
Talk about politics. With where we are going with Bernie hanging on but probably not beating Hillary. Then, you have Donald Trump.
This election cycle is the best thing to happen to “Saturday Night Live.” I am truly nonpartisan in my beliefs. To every senator or congressman that gets elected: Myself and the people who are my friends are watching that you vote our best interests and that you show up for votes.
There are three failures of our political systems. One is the two-party system. You either have to be this or that and can’t be anything in between. Campaign finance reform has to happen. People need to educate themselves. They need to go to the polls and know who they are voting for and why.
Did you see the “60 Minutes” piece? Once they are elected, they are not allowed to do campaign fundraising in their office. So there are all these telemarketing places across the street. They have to go into little booths. All these PACS are meant to do is skirt the campaign finance law. How about you gather 200,000 signatures on a petition and the government gives you $5 million to run your campaign? Or, once you are successful, and you become the candidate, the U.S. government writes you a check for $500 million to run your campaign? The system is set up for failure now. You can’t get in without major corporations sponsoring you. It’s a flawed system. We are covertly corrupt in the United States.
You are involved in so many things in addition to being a husband and father. How do you find the time?
If I sleep four hours, that’s sleeping a lot for me. I’m up at 1 and 2 in the morning. I’m in the gym and my day is halfway over at 8 in the morning. I fall unconscious at 9 p.m.
What do you find most important in the relationships you have in business? What do you find most important in your relationships that are personal?
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called “Blink,” the science behind meeting somebody and in 10 seconds knowing whether you trust them. I’ve actually turned down some big deals because I didn’t feel good about them. My personal life is the same way: Good people are good people whether it’s business or personal.
Tell us about a significant bad decision you made and what you learned from it.
I started a company with a friend where we sold and installed residential generators. You can deal with a CEO on a $5 million generator and he’s the most pleasant person to deal with. You put a $5,000 generator in his home and he becomes Lucifer. I sold that company. I aged in dog years. There is no reward without risk. All you can do is minimize your risk. I’ve had several business ventures that have not made it.
How do you pick the nonprofits you want to serve on? What’s important to you as far as your passion and commitment?
I need to believe in the cause. I need to feel the CEO or executive director is a powerful person – the right person for the job. I do dive into it and I don’t make a lot of friends sometimes in the process. I have to believe I can make a difference.