The engine was dead. This was a concern, because Randy Carver wasn't driving his car; he was flying an airplane. A rental. Some 6,000 feet over a mountainous region in Pennsylvania. Mindy, his wife and childhood sweetheart, was sitting beside him. Their 15-month-old daughter, Cidney, was in the back.
Randy attempted to re-start the engine, and it worked. It hummed along just fine--for a moment. And then it stalled again. The plane was going down.
Maybe Randy, who was then just shy of 25 years old, managed to remain calm because he'd survived a turbulent childhood. Perhaps it was thanks to his sky-diving experiences or his job training--working as a financial planner takes a cool head. Whatever kept his nerve box nailed shut, the engine's last gasp didn't ruffle him at first. Randy says now, a little more than 10 years later, "Truthfully, I thought we'd land it."
"When the air-traffic controller said, `You're on your own,' I figured we were in trouble," says Randy. "But it wasn't until we started hitting trees that I really realized we were going to crash."
The airplane hit the ground. For Randy, everything went black, but Mindy was alert, despite a broken collarbone. Leaving her unconscious husband for the time being, she removed her daughter from the wreckage--Cidney, strapped in a car seat, was unscathed--and set out on a strained hike across a field to an empty farm house. She called 911, and when an ambulance arrived on the scene, Randy was whisked to a nearby hospital. His right leg was shattered, as was his career, it seemed. Not even the best of fortune-tellers could have predicted that less than two years later, Randy would open Carver Financial, his own Mentor, Ohio, financial services firm, which today has 2,000 clients, manages a fortune of $400 million and brings in annual revenues of as much as $30 million.
Some fortune-tellers might have even hedged their bets. Some might have predicted the New York City native wouldn't live to see the next day.
The unconscious Randy lay in his hospital bed. "His nose was smashed. His leg was smashed. There were chest tubes and blood everywhere," shudders Mindy, who recalls that her husband had, at the time of their descent, been wearing a green T-shirt with a skiing-related slogan on it that went something like, "It screamed like an eagle...that fell like a rock."
Except that after they fall, rocks don't have cuts and bruises everywhere, and crimson-colored eyes.
"He looked awful," says Mindy. Worse still, when Randy came to, he couldn't speak. His throat had been crushed.
Geoff Williams is a features reporter at The Cincinnati Post. He frequently contributes to Entrepreneur and has written articles for many other publications, including LIFE and Entertainment Weekly.
Three weeks later, to the disbelief of doctors and his family alike, Randy showed up at his office. "I really love what I do, and I had treated the [financial planning] business I was working in (as a branch manager) as my own," he explains.
In the weeks following the crash, and long before e-mail was widespread, Randy would write out what he needed to say in notes to his assistant, Renee Singer, who would then call clients to relay the messages. And during his tour of duty in the hospital, it had been even more surreal: Randy would write notes to Mindy, who would relay the messages to Singer, who would later, if need be, forward the information to the client.
"We can laugh about it now," says Mindy.
But Singer wasn't chuckling. "I had only worked for Randy for two weeks before he crashed his plane," she says. "I had a bachelor's degree in interior design. I didn't know what I was doing."
Randy, however, now credits Singer for his success: "I wouldn't have a business without her," he says.
Indeed, Singer was there to help Randy get his own venture off the ground when he became disillusioned with the firm the two had been working for. A year and a half after the crash, in December 1990, after being told he couldn't expand his staff or offer the high pay rates he needed to in order to attract top-quality employees, Randy decided to start his own company.
Starting any business is tough enough, but Randy was hampered by his shaky speech ("a very shallow, gravelly voice," says Singer). Yet his clients, many of whom had been with him when he was a branch manager, were understanding, says Singer. They'd grown accustomed to his voice, and many of them attended in-person meetings at his employer's offices so that Randy, with his mangled leg, wouldn't have to travel. By the time he started Carver Financial, Randy's leg was mostly healed--the result, he says, "of heavy, heavy workouts at the gym."
Dealing with his extremely weak vocal chords was an obstacle, but in the long run, it was probably an advantage, and per Randy's philosophy, there was a lesson to be learned. He says, "[The experience] reinforced what I already knew: If you can't talk, if you can only whisper a few words, your sales ability becomes much more concentrated. You focus on what's really important."
And he learned to do something with his clients, something he had trouble with as a child: He learned to listen to them.
Randy's voice hadn't been strong to begin with. It was ravaged during a teenage bout with cancer. To this day, Randy and his doctors have no idea what kind of cancer he had; they just know nobody would want it. Randy was just 12 years old when it invaded his body, and it took six operations, which included having his spleen and half of his lungs removed before the cancer was defeated. "I was home a lot, and that's when I started the businesses," he says.
Businesses? Yes. Randy was evidently destined to be an entrepreneur. At age 5, long before cancer or a plane crash would challenge his ambition, he was holding his own garage sales. "I had all kinds of businesses when I was a kid," he says.
Randy became more serious about entrepreneurship at age 15, when he started his own catering company. At age 16, a construction company he started with $500 had 20 full-time workers and plenty of projects. He later sold the company, shortly after graduating from high school--and he graduated on time, despite being sick throughout most of high school.
The fight with cancer and weakened vocal chords taught Randy the true meaning of efficiency. When you have cancer and homework to contend with, "you get tired so quickly, you tend not to waste time and do things that aren't productive," he says. "If you can only work an hour or two a day, you want to get everything done, and certainly in the long run, that's made a big difference."
Which might explain why he decided to start a second construction company (which he eventually sold) during a break from college, where the budding entrepreneur became interested in stocks and bonds. Says Randy, in his hoarse but happy voice: "I've always been interested in money."
Power Of Positive Thinking
Today, the phone on Randy's desk has an amplifier so his clients can hear him better. And, Singer says, "We use e-mail a lot in this office."
Randy figures it's only been during the past two years that he's been able to speak louder than a whisper. And while his leg has more than healed, he admits he still gets tired.
But maybe he's tired because he works 60 hours a week, doesn't sleep a lot, and fills in the rest of his time with a schedule that makes you weary just hearing about it. Randy routinely collects food for the hungry and is active in the Rotary Club. He's finishing up a three-year construction project: a house that he's been building himself, with the help of his wife and daughter. He frequently rock climbs and skis--and still flies airplanes. And a few years ago, when there was no Internet service in Mentor, he helped found Lakenet Inc., a company that provides just that.
"I think you need to focus on the positive," suggests Randy, when asked if he has any words of wisdom for entrepreneurs who feel as though they are plagued with ill fortune. "And you need to focus on your long-term objective. If you can't do that, you probably should be doing something else. But you shouldn't give up easily. It's like sailing to some place: If you focus on the waves, you can't focus on your destination."
And reaching destinations is what seems to drive Randy. Even when he's going down--even when it's in an airplane--he always manages to come back up.
Carver Financial, 7473 Center St., Mentor, OH 44060, (440) 974-0808