Ready for Takeoff

What is an astronaut feeling as he’s sitting on the rocket launch pad strapped into his pod at the brink of takeoff? Determination, fear, and an immense sense of faith are among the emotions tangled in the moment. As the countdown begins–ten, nine, eight, seven–a shot of adrenaline from anxiety and excitement can make the coming explosion seem like the beginning of the rest of his life.

Sitting at the head of a business that’s about to take off can be just as euphoric. This year’s Freshman Class, the newbies to the BE 100S, are seeing all their risk, sacrifice, and vision realized with successful companies that are experiencing substantial revenue growth.

Daring entrepreneurs, such as Walter F. Johnson III, chairman and CEO of Eagle Group International Inc.; Clifford Franklin, CEO of Fuse Inc.; Carvel Simmons, owner and president of Trio Trucking Inc.; and Art Allen, principal and general manager of Coastal Motorcars, are dynamic strategists, laying the groundwork for success with detailed planning and a resolve to get their due recognition.

Eagle Group’s Johnson is no stranger to risk. In March 1995, when he and his wife, Doris, launched the technical services contracting business, Johnson cashed out his 401(k) and the couple took out two mortgages on their house to cover the startup costs, which ran a few hundred thousand dollars.

When costs continued to soar and several banks refused to give them a line of credit, the Johnsons sold their yacht and the house Walter inherited from his parents. “I had a lot of assets,” explains Johnson. “They were not liquid assets, but I had to turn them into liquid assets as we progressed, first to keep the company going without any contracts and second, once we got the contracts, to pay the bills.”

For nearly a year and a half the company made no serious money, recalls Johnson, who had quit his $200,000-a-year job with the American Hospital Association and brought in three partners, some out of retirement, to form his company. Eagle Group (No. 36 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with $98 million in sales) got its lucky break in October 1997 when it received its first big contract with the federal government for logistics work, handling and maintaining equipment and supplies for the U.S. Army. Subsequent Army contracts helped the company grow and increase its services to include maintenance, information technology, administration, health services, facilities planning, and construction.

Though contracts were rolling in–despite formidable competition from major government contractors like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin–Johnson established conservative financial goals, aiming to meet $50 million in revenues by the year 2000. The company is now approaching the $150 million mark in revenues.

One strategy that helped Johnson was to surround himself with the right people. Not only do five of his six children work for the company, including son T. Fitz Johnson, who is president, but the number of employees has increased exponentially from the original five to 1,518. The Atlanta-based firm also expanded to include locations in 38 states