Sitdown with Success is a feature of the Huntsville Business Journal spotlighting local entrepreneurs and their path to success and advice for future entrepreneurs.
We sat down and spoke with Bill Roark, Torch’s co-founder and Freedom Real Estate’s CEO, and it was clear to see that employees are a top priority of the 100 percent employee-owned companies.
And it is because of the employees and management’s vision and direction that Torch Technologies was one of the Top 100 Fastest Growing Companies in America, according to Entrepreneur Magazine, and on multiple selections on the Inc. 5000 list recognizing the Fastest Growing Private Companies in the U.S.
How did you get started in the business?
Torch Technologies was founded in 2002 and I stepped down as CEO from Torch at the end of 2018. Torch and Freedom are sister companies and under the umbrella of Starfish Holdings for which I am chairman of the board. Freedom Real Estate was started, mostly in the beginning to be an alternative investment for the profits Torch Technologies was making. It was a way to diversify a little bit and it’s been very successful.
What obstacles did you face/how did you overcome them?
Early challenges were cash flow. The company grew very quickly and started to hire people. We had to have cash to pay them. We initially used my home equity line of credit, but as the company continued to grow, we took on some angel investors. We were fortunate to get good investors who were supportive of the company and were not invasive into the operations.
How are you able to keep your business relevant?
We are constantly updating and changing things to respond to a changing market. Every year assess exactly where the company is. We also look at where we want to be two years from now. We then develop a detailed plan to make the changes to make that happen.
To what do you attribute your success?
Good people. I’ve been able to surround myself with really good people.
Early on, I reached out to a lot of folks I had worked with in the past that I knew who were good and those people knew others who were good. We generally get people who fit our culture that want to be here; that want to be doing what we are doing. The people and the culture are really what have driven us.
One of the key things is that everyone has a stake in the outcome.
Everybody is an owner. If the company does well, then they do well. There’s motivation for them to have the company do well.
When the employees are the owners, they benefit from the success of the company.
What is important to your company culture?
Being good stewards of the community.
That has been with us since the early days. We try to always give something back to the community and grow that as we grow. Some of the big projects that the company will take on are decided on the executive level, but we have created a community within the company that decides how to spend the company money.
Any employee can volunteer and help with Torch Helps, the employees decide which community charities are selected.
Several years ago, we considered leaving south Huntsville, but the mayor encouraged us to stay and asked us to help revitalize South Huntsville, so we did. We started buying buildings such as the Freedom Center and Office Park south.
We have spent close to $20 million revitalizing old buildings in southeast Huntsville and bringing them back to a premium where people would want to be in them again.
What advice do you have for future entrepreneurs?
Learn as much as you can about the business area you want to go into.
If you want to start a business in engineering, you will need to get a college degree, a few years of experience and get some customer relationships such that you have the influence to be able to bring the contracts to the company that you start and the experience to justify bringing in those contracts.
It’s important to build relationships with companies that can help you and with government personnel that would be willing to provide the funding.
Also, for decades, we had that belief that everyone needs to go to college to be able to do business. I don’t think that’s as true anymore. There are lots of good trades out there and there’s a shortage of people to work those skilled trade jobs.