Two hundred million in annual sales, a corporation of eight companies and 250 employees and principal ownership of the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers only begin to tell the remarkable story of Steve Belkin ’69, the 2004 Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year. The 23rd Cornell alumnus to receive this distinguished award, Belkin shared his entrepreneurial insight with a packed crowd in Statler Auditorium this past Friday afternoon.
Belkin graduated from Cornell with a B.S. in industrial engineering and went on to obtain a MBA from Harvard Business School. He began his entrepreneurial experience as the founder of a small business consulting firm along with four other Harvard graduates before starting his own travel business, which evolved into the hugely successful Trans National Group that today also includes telecommunications, financial services, real estate and investments businesses.
Belkin began his talk with a brief personal history, from his school years in East Grand Rapids, Mich. to his college visit to Cornell, where even his parents’ hesitation towards the hippie scene did not dissuade his decision to enroll. He characterized Cornell as “very, very dear to me … the finest institution in the US with a diverse population … of high-caliber individuals.”
This idea of a “diverse population” was the first of many tips Belkin gave on how to create and maintain a successful business. Drawing upon his experiences as an entrepreneur, Belkin observed that “to be successful, you need to get along with different people.”
He stressed credibility as an important ingredient of new businesses. When he pioneered affinity credit cards — Mastercards and Visa cards affiliated with a particular organization — he relied upon the credibility and brand of these organizations to attract customers. Today, his concept has sold about twelve million credit cards.
When venture capitalists refused to fund his airline business because of the number of unfilled seats on his planes, Belkin turned the empty seats into free vacation trips for his friends as an incentive for them to inject cash into his business. He used this example to illustrate Einstein’s words — “in the middle of every crisis is an opportunity.”
Because Belkin always believed his company was in the business of direct mail, not travel, he conceived of 26 other direct mail businesses to start over the course of 30 years. Thus, businesses must be defined in a way that expands opportunity, not limits it, Belkin said.
For this successful entrepreneur, flexibility and creative thinking lie at the heart of business. “Starting a business is like sailing into the wind … you have to know when to tack. Some people just work harder, but they are not going to get to their destination if they stay in the same direction,” he said.
Belkin also highlighted self, spouse, children, work and community as the five major components of a balanced life. Devotion to each component yielded “positive, proactive” benefits, while neglect of a component generated “negative, reactive” repercussions.
For aspiring entrepreneurs, Belkin pointed to “sales, sales, sales” as the focal point for new businesses. Other economic tips for entrepreneurs included starting out with enough money and maintaining at least 51 percent of business control.
Positive cash flow, annuity and sales and marketing orientation were also important characteristics of a business that would allow managers to allocate their time running the business rather than raising money, according to Belkin. However, stressing that “the growth of the business is about the personal growth of the leader and staff” rather than the economic growth of the company, Belkin urged the audience to live life from their hearts instead of just from their heads.
“Take the education that’s in your head down into your heart and out into the world. Make lasting contributions,” he concluded with a smile.
John Jaquette, executive director of the Entrepreneurship and Personal Enterprise Program praised Belkin’s idea of success as living a balanced life. “You should have both success and significance in your life, but many people have success and not significance,” Jaquette said.
Members of the audience also appreciated Belkin’s discussion on the five components of life. “He’s so right, but it is not simple. The challenge lies in doing it,” said Rich Arena ’73, president of Boston’s Cornell Club.
Archived article by Cathy Xiaowei Tang
Sun Staff Writer