Today I'm sharing another one of the millionaire success stories from my book, 21 Questions for 21 Millionaires. I love John's story about how he grew up, his confidence to start his own business and from where that came, and how he lives his life.
I hope you enjoy!
Millionaire 12 John Simcox
Retired: Founder, JC Keepsake; currently involved in private finance ventures
Married, six children
I knew of John through Ed Reynolds, a friend and former boss, and then met him at a self-employment seminar he taught.
Tell me about graduating high school and then what was your plan in life?
My plan in life really started as a boy. I was the oldest of eight kids. My dad worked hard and struggled. Financially it was really a tough battle all the time.
My dad was from the hills of Tennessee. He was an honored pilot in WWII. He flew 104 missions without being shot down and was a very decorated officer.
He came home and started looking for what he was going to do. He had saved his money and had a pretty good amount of money saved up and decided to raise chickens. He was a hard worker. Everything was going great and then a disease, Newcastle’s, hit the poultry industry. A vaccine was quickly created, but he lost everything before that could be done. He had 25,000 chickens and they were all dead in a month.
I remember as a little boy, standing there with my mom and dad in tears as they buried the chickens. They borrowed the neighbor’s backhoe and pushed these loads of dead chickens into holes. That’s all they could do.
My dad [had to then] lease the land and farm it. My whole life as a boy I was working. I was always selling something so I’d have some money; otherwise I wouldn’t have anything. I’d raise chickens, fatten them up, and sell them in the neighborhood.
My dad would let me throw in a couple rows of sweet corn in the silage field. I had a place in town under the shade trees where I would sell corn by the dozen. In the morning I would get up early, pick the corn, and do the same drill again until the corn was gone. So that was the start of my entrepreneurial spirit.
I would collect the eggs out of the chicken coops, carried them in buckets or baskets down into the cellar and then my dad would pay me 25 cents a case to case them. I’d do a case a day, some days more, some days less. I was saving to buy a horse. I had $25 saved up and we found a horse for $25 when I was about eight.
You learned at eight-years-old the value of working for yourself, entrepreneurism, the value of being able to communicate and sell, and working toward something?
Casing the eggs was first. I was probably 11 or 12 when I was doing the corn and the chickens and all that stuff. My dad taught me how to milk a cow at a young age so twice a day I’d milk the cow.
I always felt a little aggravated because I couldn’t go do the things my friends would because I always had these responsibilities in the morning and at night. I’d always be missing out on things.
In spite of all the challenges, and it was always a financial struggle, it was still a good life. My grandparents, who I lived with for a few years as a boy, lived just a short walk away. They were wonderful. I had high regard for my grandfather and he taught me a lot.
I had severe hay fever as a boy so I would be sitting there with a handkerchief, mopping my eyes and nose while I was trying to sell somebody corn. That was pretty miserable.
I remember watching the guys at the co-op where all the farmers take their stuff to sell it. I liked seeing these guys sitting at a desk, figuring everything out. I thought, “It sure is a lot easier and cleaner and there aren’t [any] problems with hay fever in this office.”
After years of farming, my dad went to work as a car salesman. He did very well, everybody liked him and he was the top salesman right away.
That changed everything. We left the small farming town and moved to an area that was very different than what we’d been used to. I couldn’t do the same things I had done before.
I went from a small town, farm boy in [a close-knit church community] where everybody knew everybody else and everything was wonderful–I had all the merit badges to get my Eagle Scout award, I had been actively involved in leadership as a boy–and moved over to this new area that was much bigger. I didn’t feel like I fit with them.
I backed away from it and never got my Eagle. That was a disappointment I had. For some reason I kept having rubs with some of the church kids in this new ward so I kept pulling away from the church, and the church was different. I didn’t go on a mission. I hid from the bishop for months during that time. I didn’t want to go to college either.
I had jobs all the way through junior high and high school. I worked for a grocery store as a bagger, then a guy opened a furniture store and hired me to deliver the furniture. As his store got bigger, he had me hire friends and we’d deliver furniture all over Salt Lake.
I went through all those years of working for people and finding ways to do things and then when I met my sweetheart I thought, “This has to change, my life is going to be different.” When I met her I was driving a gasoline tanker for American Oil. For a young guy my age I was making great money, but the guys I worked with who were in their 30s and 40s were making as much as I was. [It was good money for a single guy, but not enough to really raise a family on.]
I thought, “This isn’t going to work now that I’m falling in love with this great gal. I have to get educated. I know what I want to do. I want to market, I want to sell. I want to be doing some services where I’m the organizer between producers and the users.” That was the plan.
As soon we were married, I enrolled in LDS Business College. The first year I took classes at night trying to transition myself [because] in high school I was much more interested in all my various pursuits of earning money than I was in listening and working in classes; my mind was always somewhere else. If they were to measure my graduating class, there’s no question I was in the bottom 20 percent.
College was hard for me. I was more of a conceptual thinker, not a detail thinker. I wasn’t used to reading and I had to re-discipline and re-teach myself to become a student. It was hard, but I was motivated. The next year I went full-time and finished up. It was a two-year associate degree program and I finished up in about a year-and-a-half. I did fine and liked it.
First I thought I’d go on to the University of Utah or BYU [Brigham Young University] and get my bachelor’s degree, but I was too impatient. When I met my wife she had been married previously and had a little boy. He was six-years-old; his dad was out of his life and never gave my wife any support so I felt highly motivated to get in the work place. She worked as a secretary while I went through school. She’d always been a hard worker; she’s very smart.
That was a very exciting time for us. One, falling in love and two, I just knew that we were going to do well in life. I was excited to get out, get after it, and get going. I knew it was going to happen.
How did you know that?
I had watched other people.
I knew I had been blessed with a lot of things my dad had. I knew how to work hard and influence people, and I’d been taught leadership in the church as a boy priesthood leader. I had some great leaders that were highly influential in my life that taught me about leadership and organizing; how to have a meeting, to have an agenda, and all those things that they teach us as boys in the church.
That put me, I felt, way ahead the whole world, even though I felt like I didn’t have much advantage in Utah because everybody else was doing the same thing. As a result, I wanted to move out of Utah because I wanted to go out where there were bigger populations and more opportunities.
I went on a lot of interviews before I got a job. I got hired by a pharmaceutical company and they moved me to Kansas.
I liked the job and was highly motivated by it. I’d be up early in the morning. I had a car, expense account, salary, and bonuses; I thought I was on top of the world. I told everybody as long as I would be financially elevated based on my performance, that I didn’t care what they started me at.
It was exciting because I was in a professional environment. I was wearing a suit and tie. I’d never tire. I was so energized by the opportunity I’d run everywhere. I immediately started having measurable success. They were highly pleased and I was excited.
Then I met a friend who worked for a company called Farah. Their deal was they gave you nothing but a territory, products, and a percentage of everything you sold. The more you sold, the more you made, and I liked that. My friend was a highly motivated guy and he was doing very well, making twice what I was.
I was still a very conservative, careful, young guy that wouldn’t even consider going into my own business at that point. I had a paycheck, I had cash coming in, I had a wife and a son to support and it wasn’t long after that that our daughter was on the way so I wasn’t ready to start my own business. I was too nervous, too conservative. I knew how much I’d have every month. We knew how to budget. We never out-spent our income, whatever it was, as low as it was.
When I did eventually make the move to Farah, it was a big jump and a big risk. I had to go on a six-month training program. We moved to Montana, and later they moved me to California.
It went great. I was the number one salesman in California after being there six months. Within a year I was number one in the company nationally. They moved me to Colorado to take over.
I knew how to work with people, how to work hard, how to gain others’ respect, and I wasn’t afraid to ask for the order. I wasn’t afraid to be a little aggressive and at the same time I had a good, country, down-home approach. The combination just worked.
[After we moved to] Denver I wanted to have my own business, [but] I had no idea what [it would be]. There were two guys at church who had a diamond ring store [and that was interesting to me because] in the apparel business if you didn’t sell an item within the first four months it was obsolete. You had to mark it down to practically nothing and I didn’t like that.
I got into the jewelry business, opening a store [while] I was still an independent contractor with Farah.
B: How long had you been with Farah when you started JC Keepsake?
I think it was nine years. Then we got into the fitness business [Nautilus] and had fitness centers. They were all growing so fast I was trying to keep all three balls in the air.
A friend of mine became the national sales manager for Farah. He knew what I was doing [with JC Keepsake and Nautilus]; it wasn’t like this was being done behind their back. They didn’t care as long as the orders came through and I always gave them a high order rate.
I told him, “My heart’s not with Farah anymore it’s with my own stuff. I know this real sharp guy here in Denver and it would be a big boost for him to get the job and he’d do a great job.”
I left and they hired the friend. I went full bore into being an independent, self-employed person for the rest of my work life.
The process of getting JC Keepsake started: Was it as simple as finding where to buy the diamonds and then finding a storefront?
Yes and no.
The model then was a new phenomenon in the United States–regional shopping malls–and one of the first big successful ones was in Englewood, CO. That’s where you wanted to be.
Most of the jewelers were national and internationally owned companies. The malls wanted those well-financed, big companies as their tenants. They didn’t want the little guy so we had a hard time trying to find a location where we could get in.
The Aurora Mall was just being built at that time so that’s where we decided to try to get in. They turned me down many times, but I just kept after this guy. I became friends with him and worked through the whole process. Eventually he said, “OK, I’m going to give you a space.”
I had some partners in the business, two brothers from church who were contractors; good guys.
What is your passion?
My passion is multi-personalitied.
I have that inner need for security and financial stability. I think about finances and how to manage money a lot. It has just [been] part of my DNA since I was a little boy. I’m always looking for ways to increase our financial position. Some might say I spend too much time thinking about it.
I was never one to work long, incredible hours, but I’d get so focused. That was all part of that drive, of always having a little bit of the fear from my youth of seeing mom and dad crying because they couldn’t pay their bills and couldn’t buy their kids the things they wanted to and me never wanting to be like that.
The other thing is I was always motivated by working with people and doing two things: trying to have people around me that were smarter than me and trying to find people that had the same work ethic that I had. That was motivating to me, finding those kinds of people. It was always a wonderful thing when they came to work and they were happy and I was happy. Those people were what built our business.
When I was running the business actively, I had as much fun everyday running the business as I did on any vacations we took.
I said I was never going to be held hostage to our business. Early on there were times when I was, but my wife straightened me out and I wanted to be straightened out. She would see that I’d be with the family, but my mind would be somewhere else. That would irritate her and rightfully so. When that happens, the gospel keeps us in line.
What’s your business now?
I look for ways to loan money.
Real estate was really good for us for a number of years, now it’s a problem.
I make short-term loans to people at high rates where their banker wouldn’t loan them money. Some people call it hard money lending.
We know that, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”1 How have you reconciled yourself to the fact that it is OK to be financially prosperous and think about finances a large portion of the time?
My approach has always been this: when I was a boy and being taught by my [local] leaders and the leaders of the LDS Church they were constantly encouraging us to get educated. We were all poor farmers; we lived on nothing. We were encouraged to get educated and become solvent, financially secure, and self-sufficient.
I’ve been doing that ever since. Yeah, it’s worked better for me than maybe it has for some and so maybe I have more than some do, but my approach is the same. I pay my tithing faithfully. I’ve never turned down a calling in the church, by saying, “Oh, I’m just too busy out there chasing the dollar. I’m opening three stores this year and I won’t have time. I’m sorry. I can’t serve now. After this year’s over I’ll be able to.” Never have we done that.
I’ve always rationalized that I know the other side and I know that [it] wasn’t good for anybody when we couldn’t pay our bills, and I know the [LDS] Church teaches us to be self-sufficient. I’m just being self-sufficient. Maybe it’s [at] a little different [level] than other people are.
My wife and I have always given of ourselves and we try to be very generous with people and helping others out that aren’t in the same position we are.
We’ve always lived our life as though we were the same young, aspiring newlyweds that are trying to live like students. We’ve always been those same people.
We’ve never had debt. The only things we borrowed money on are our house and business. Early on we did have a car payment, but that was only for a while. We made that decision years ago that we’d never borrow money. Now in our station in life we don’t borrow money on anything. If we can’t pay cash for it, we don’t do it. I think that’s all part of being responsible and conducting our stewardship in accordance with what the Lord would have us do. I think we’re on track with what the gospel teaches us and our circumstances are just what they are.
Would you say it’s your drive that’s brought you to the point where you are?
B: Your intense drive to be number one, to be successful, the fear of what you saw when you were a young boy.
B: And then your constant focus on, “How do we improve this situation? How do we manage it well?”
Manage our position and not put us in risky environments. That doesn’t mean we don’t enter into risky situations, because anytime you invest there’s risk. But you do everything you can to minimize it. It takes a lot of thought and planning and research to figure out if it’s risky or not. And then I try hard to do due diligence to ensure that I don’t put our resources in places that are going to hurt us.
Did you do due diligence before you were in this position or would you say you learned to do due diligence once you started to really experience success?
I’ve always done it. Sometimes it was the little things and sometimes it became big. Before we opened that first jewelry store I planned and plotted and thought and talked for I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of hours before we actually went forward.
Did you ever expect, think of becoming, or desire to be a millionaire?
Never thought of it in that way, no.
B: You just always thought of it as, “I want to be number one”?
I want to be successful. I want to be profitable. I want to have adequate for our family needs. The money was an issue because of my past, but my passion was more about being good at what we were doing, whatever it was. Having our stores be well run, having good customer relations, creating a niche that worked and that had long-term success available to us.
I have no clue when we became worth a million dollars. That was never on my mind. I guess I think a lot smaller than that. I think of the detail of the stuff that will make that happen.
Did you have written down goals?
Yes, all the time.
Did you have a vision of where you wanted to be?
With Farah it was always goals by customer: “Last year I did $50,000 with this customer and I know we should’ve done $70,000. What do I have to do different for us realize our potential with this guy and do $70,000 instead of $50,000?” It was always that kind of monetary goal, but never, “If I do $50,000, they pay me $10,000. If I do $70,000, they pay me $15,000.” Once it was my own business, it was the same process.
We were constantly thinking of ways to raise the ladder and climb up a little higher, always pushing to climb higher and be better. Always looking for the areas in which we needed improvement, and there were always lots of them. It was never hard to find things we needed to do to be better.
What were some of the mistakes you made along the way?
In our jewelry business there were some location mistakes where we should not have gone to that location. We should have said “no” when we said “yes.”
B: Even after due diligence?
Yes. Something else overpowered good judgment and said, “We can make it work,” when in fact we can control so much, but that’s all we can control. There were some uncontrollables there that we could not overcome.
We made people mistakes through the years. They were painful. Some of the most painful things in that business were people related. Most of the pain I had was through employees.
What would you tell someone who wants to be successful?
Be passionate and be willing to work hard and like what they’re doing.
Did you have a mentor or a role model?
I had lots of them. I never had a specific one, but I felt like I learned from everybody.
I learned from an alcoholic boss what not to do, how not to waste your life away. I learned from real smart people that did things a lot better than I did. I watched them and I tried to do things as efficient as they did. I probably didn’t measured up in a lot of cases. I think I learned from everybody, the good and the bad, and I try to not make the mistakes that I saw others make.
Do you have a restless soul?
Was your journey to financial independence relatively easy or hard?
Hard work and there were terrible problems through it.
We went through a big recession in Colorado in the late 1970s and early 1980s. People were going broke all the time. Everyday you’d hear about all the companies that had gone out of business and the people that were laid off. That hurt us. We were right out there in the middle of it with a bunch of jewelry stores trying to sell watches and gold and diamond rings when they’re telling us they’re losing their jobs.
Why did you stick with it? Why did you not walk away in such a tough time?
We learned how to stay profitable. I’d meet with my people and say, “It’s going to be tough, but we can do it. We won’t have the high profits. We’re not going to be able to give raises and we’re going to all have to work together on this, but if we do and we work hard now, we stay profitable and stay in business and not go out like others are. Then when it gets better, we’ll be there ready to make a lot of money and everybody will be happy.”
I convinced them of that and I had some good people who worked for very low pay for some tough years when the economy was on the skids.
Nautilus went from being a cash cow to being a bust for two reasons. One, the economy. Two, the bigger reason, was we had some former employees open their own. Ours was called Nautilus Fitness Centers and they called theirs 24-Hour Nautilus.
They sold to some guys who left town with hundreds of millions of dollars of unpaid bills. One day the clubs were boarded up. It was on the news, radio, television, and in the newspaper. Everybody was confused – “Was it Nautilus Fitness Centers?”
We had eight big facilities around Denver. The day that hit the press, our sales dropped in half and we never could get them back up again. We ended up selling. We had people wanting to buy us before that that would’ve paid us a lot of money. We said, “Why would we want to sell it to you? We’re making so much. Plus we like the business anyway.”
How would you define success?
First, the family. Right now my success is we have five great kids that are good people. They’re all hard workers. They have high ethics. All of our kids now have been to the temple, and I’m not putting that as a badge of honor on me, but I’m happy for them, what they are.
What do you wish someone would ask you?
I think a key question is, “Why do you think you were able to do what you were able to do when there were lots of other people that are probably smarter than you and good people and [they] were not able to do it?”
B: What’s the answer?
Focus, discipline, and consistency.
B: Focus on the end goal?
Focus daily. Discipline to not get distracted. There’s a lot of detail with that: time management, resource management.
Is there anything else you would want people to know?
The bottom line is you’re only as good as your people. You’re not going to have much success on your own. You’re pretty limited [on your own] so to really have any kind of success there’s going to have to be good people involved with you in some fashion. Every circumstance has a little different set of rules, but you just can’t do much by yourself.
And I don’t think you can do much without the gospel. Obviously there’s a lot of people out in the world that do well that don’t have the gospel, but I don’t think I could. My dad used to say, “This family wouldn’t be much without the Church.”