Exclusive Success Secrets From A Polymath CEO
Dennis Simmons, CEO at WASC HOLDING LLC
by, Chris Dessi
I’m a good neighbor. I plant flowers in my yard. I smile, and wave hello. I offer to help to move furniture. The main thing that makes me a good neighbor is that I mind my own business. That is, until I met my neighbor Dennis Simmons. I remember the first time I saw Dennis. I was standing in my kitchen sipping a fresh cup of coffee. I had been out late the night before with my wife. It was a Saturday morning. My wife woke up early with the girls and she let me sleep in. When I looked out the window and saw Dennis I thought I was still asleep. He was wearing a red car racing jump suit. I blinked my eyes to confirm what I was seeing. Yep. Red jumpsuit. Now, I don’t know the technical term of the outfit. But I could tell it was for car racing. There I was, hung over, sipping coffee, after having slept in late peering out my kitchen window like the neighborhood gossip. And there was Dennis, across the street, getting out of his Audi sports car in a racing jump suit. A real life James Bond, to my real life hung over schlub. Apparently, he had been a bit more productive with his Saturday morning than I had. Oof. I was overcome with curiosity and jealousy all at once. Who was this guy? What car was he racing? Why was he racing? What does he do for a living? We had been living across the street from Dennis for months, but I had never had a real conversation with him. We were friendly, for sure. Right then, I decided that need to change. My wife and I have since become dear friends with Dennis and his lovely wife Laura. I was curious about Dennis then, and I remain so today. As our friendship has grown, my curiosity has deepened. He is a true renaissance man (don’t roll your eyes). This guy is the real deal. He’s a powerhouse intellectual. Who happens to be a CEO. Who is a passionate wine connoisseur & collector. Who races cars from time to time. That enjoys scuba diving (even though it used to terrify him). Who is in better shape than most people 1/2 his age because he bikes more miles on weekends than I drive. Who’s also a musician. The list goes on. And on. And ON. Every time we meet for a double date, I grill him. You did what?? Why?? How?? For how long?? Wait. WHAT? Start that story from the beginning..etc, etc.
A few weeks ago we were at dinner. We were drinking some of his amazing wine. Of course, I was grilling him, and it dawned on me. I need to share Dennis the with the world. This dude is fascinating. His life and the way he lives his life has inspired me. The way he shares his success and supports those that he loves is exemplary. He’s just one of those guys. I love him. You’re gonna love him too. Wait until you read about Dennis’s Grandson Reese. Read on, and enjoy.
Chris Dessi: In the process of your amazing career you’ve been able to travel the world. Was traveling always your goal, or did travel just manifest because of your profession? Tell us about that journey.
Dennis Simmons: I grew up in a military family with four other siblings and we were always moving from Air Force base to AF base. In fact, I went to 10 different schools my first 12 years. You learn very quickly to make friends as they might not be there tomorrow. Our family lived for several years in Germany. I traveled extensively throughout Europe as a teenager and it was a real eye opener for me.
After undergraduate school I served (drafted) in the U.S. Army. I was stationed stateside for several years (missed Vietnam by 10 days). After active duty, while serving in the reserve after active duty, I spent part of the summer of 1980 in Germany on the border between West and East Germany (before the Berlin wall came down) for REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany), a cold war exercise sponsored by NATO. I was the “official” tour guide for a number of soldiers who had never been out of the U.S.
Finally when I had a chance to take my own family overseas in 1986, I took it and traveled to the Middle East! We spent 5 ½ years there and that was a springboard to traveling all throughout Europe, Africa and the Far East. The world is full of beautiful, interesting people and places. I always say my children no longer belong to me, but belong to the world! I continue today to travel outside the U.S. with my new wife. Laura and stepson.
Chris Dessi: I speak with many successful executives that question the value of college. What do you say to those detractors of education?
Dennis Simmons: I went to undergraduate school as I thought that was what you were supposed to do when you finished high school. It took me two years to figure out what I was doing there. I nearly flunked out my freshman year. I did, however make the Dean’s list the last two years! Seven years later I went to graduate school for an MBA at night for three years while working a full time job and that was a different story. It was not just about course work and assignments, but real life experiences from my professors and most importantly my fellow classmates, all executives, engineers and professionals.
Dennis Simmons: Success to me is contributing to something (whether a service or product) that benefits a person or a group of people. And if you are lucky, sometimes it is recognized and acknowledged by your peers.
Chris Dessi: Can you explain the impact, if any, that social networking/digital media has made on your business/career and/or you personally?
Dennis Simmons: Funny you should ask this, while I was in the Middle East, I utilized the first email provider CompuServe. With a satellite uplink I was able to communicate back to the US for work and then ultimately my family.
Personally, I have learned over the last few years that social media is a great way to stay current with my kids and friends. I continue to work on the whole social media area with my profession; healthcare and all its rules and regulations about privacy. We are making progress. I have learned a lot from attending the Westchester Digital Summit twice (not just a plug but the truth)!
Chris Dessi: How much of your success was due to luck? Or are you of the mindset that you create your own luck?
Dennis Simmons: I believe that you have to create your own success. You have to position yourself to try new things, different experiences, both professionally and personally. Sometimes just being in the right place at the right time helps, but you have to be prepared to jump out of your comfort zone and take a risk!
Chris Dessi: Did you have a mentor? How important do you think mentorship is for all executives?
Dennis Simmons: Yes, two professors in undergraduate school, one professor in graduate school (the Dean of the business school), and one person professionally who convinced me to go on to graduate school and obtain an MBA while I was working full time. I actually received an award (unofficial) from those two professors after graduation from Texas A & M (I am an Aggie!); “Most likely to succeed, if he can ever decide what he wants to do!”
Having mentors was truly motivating for me; it inspired me and drove me not to let them down, but ultimately not to let myself down! I consider myself to be very lucky to have had / have them.
Chris Dessi: You participate in some of the most compelling and intriguing hobbies outside of the office (music; playing drums and guitar, racing cars, bike racing, scuba diving). Is this activity born from a conscious decision to be active? Or is this just the way you’re wired?
Dennis Simmons: I learned at an early age that music was very important to me. I started playing drums in the third grade. I picked up guitar in high school. I played in several bands growing up in Europe and stateside. I own several drum kits and many guitars! Being active was always a mindset.
Whether it is Scuba diving in the Red Sea/Persian Gulf/ Caribbean, or riding in a 220 – mile for a charity biking event, tandem skydiving, playing paintball, zip lining in Costa Rica, rappelling out of a helicopter or on a waterfall, teaching Spinning or racing cars with Skip Barber, I have always enjoyed being active and trying crazy things. It is my makeup (sounds a little cosmetic)!
Chris Dessi: When did you first think of yourself as a success?
Dennis Simmons: Probably in 1983-84, when I and a small group of people in Austin, Texas began working on the STARFLIGHT (Shock Trauma Air Rescue) project, a city / county and local hospital joint venture for a medical helicopter rescue program. The program successfully got off the ground in 1984 after many, many late night meetings, spanning over a year, and working with numerous elected officials (City and County) for funding. The program continues today as one of the premier air rescue programs in the United States.
Chris Dessi: You have amazing kids, and a wonderful marriage. Many young executives struggle with work life/balance – myself included. What advice do you give them? How did you strike a balance?
Dennis Simmons: I recently remarried in 2012 to a wonder lady, who like I, struggles with the balance between work and personal life. My only advice is find that balance and practice it daily. Decide upon a cut off time for work and head home. They are always going to be sacrifices but take the time you have with your family and maximize to its fullest extent when you are not a work or even thinking about work! Always be present!
Chris Dessi: On paper your resume reads like success, after success. Can you tell us about your biggest failure?
Dennis Simmons: In 1996, I came to New York with a start-up PPM (physician practice management) company that ultimately went public. I thought it was a great opportunity to build something from scratch. But I learned in short order that the founders were not really interested in developing a long-term company, but just wanted to make a quick buck. After less than two years, I left and several years later the company ultimately collapsed. I had to rebuild a large number of professional relationships and start over. That took me more than a year.
Chris Dessi: How did it change you or shift your approach moving forward?
Dennis Simmons: I have kept to smaller projects with more extensive due diligence on the principals and partners.
Chris Dessi: Who has been the greatest positive influence on your life?
Dennis Simmons: There have been many, but at the top of the list is my grandson Reece!
Chris Dessi: Tell us about that person.
Dennis Simmons: Reece was born with Cerebral Palsy 10 years ago and he has been a true inspiration to me and every life he has touched. I will never forget the day when my daughter called after Reece was born and said something was wrong with him. He was soon diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. But Reece was about to make his impact on the world. No matter what the situation, no matter what he does, there are no obstacles to him.
His every action no matter what he chooses to do he is so damn positive, you look at yourself in a mirror on a bad day and say, what do I have to complain about?
Quick story, last Christmas I bought him, his uncle and mother a helicopter tour of Houston to see the Christmas lights. Reece loves experiences rather than toys! When they showed up at the airport in north Houston, a lady asked what was he afflicted with? His uncle said “CP”. Reece said, “Yeah but it doesn’t bother me!” That response blew her away! He is one amazing young man! My Hero!
Dennis Simmons: Not worrying about what other people think of you. Be yourself and don’t be afraid to speak your mind and try different things!
Chris Dessi: You have 20 minutes to sit alone in a room with the 21 year old Dennis Simmons. He’s about to embark on a career that will take him around the world. What advice do you give him?
Dennis Simmons: Eyes and ears open, work hard, learn to work in a team setting and surround yourself with smart people. Place a high value on personal and professional relationships. Don’t take them for granted!
Chris Dessi: For someone who has seen great monetary success – what do you think is dangerous about that type of success?
Dennis Simmons: Take nothing for granted, it could all change tomorrow.
Chris Dessi: How important are habits and routine to your success?
Dennis Simmons: I have always tried to accomplish something each and every day. Whether it was something large or small, just something to hang your hat on each day! I also try and do something personally to help someone each and every day.
Chris Dessi: What is your Rhythm? What time do you go to bed? Do you exercise? Do you meditate?
Dennis Simmons: I am an early morning person (5:30 AM) so I try and get to bed by 10:00 PM. Though I must say the advent of iPads has affected that goal. I have been a cycling (Spinning) instructor for over 16 years. I have lifetime certification. I do exercise regularly and especially enjoy riding my road bike.
Chris Dessi: How has your childhood (the way you were raised, your birth order) affected your career success? Did it at all?
Dennis Simmons: My father instilled in me a very hard work ethic! Both in his military and professional career he worked incredibly hard. Work was the center of his world and it clearly rubbed off on me. I look forward to going to work each and every day!
Chris Dessi: I know you as a very humble person, but here is your chance to brag a bit – what has been your greatest career success to date?
Dennis Simmons: I came to New Jersey in 1999 to take over the opening of an ambulatory surgery center (ASC) with just 9 investor / partners. I was only to be here for two years. Since that time we have built a company with over 58 investor / partners, and have outlasted the “average” ASC. Stats reveal that a mature multi-specialty ASC will only last 10 years. Well, 16 years later and more than 110,000 surgical cases performed, we are a very strong company. And 2015 is turning out to be an amazing year for the company. Our same stores grow is in excess of 13 % while most centers are experiencing negative grow.
Chris Dessi: My daughters know that I hate witches – what’s one thing that scares the hell out of you? +
Dennis Simmons: I fear suffocating. It was difficult for me to learn to Scuba dive, as I was totally afraid of suffocation and not being able to breathe under water. Remember your mother always told you to hold your breath when you put you head underwater. I had to unlearn that skill. I ultimately became a PADI Certified Divemaster 25 years ago.
Chris Dessi: Best day of your life?
Dennis Simmons: Every day of my new marriage and watching my children / grandchildren grow up!
Chris Dessi: Worst day of your life?
Dennis Simmons: In 1991, while stationed in Saudi Arabia, the first Gulf War was about to start and we were told by our embassy and the Civil Aviation authorities that the civilian airport would remain open, should the war start. I wanted to be sure that if we needed to get our families out of harm’s way, the airport would be the first option. Well I took that info for granted and when the coalition forces started the bombing campaign the airport was closed. Thus, my family had to endure several nights of warning sirens, Scud missile attacks and Patriot missile launches. I was so mad at myself that I allowed this to happen. I remember walking out of our villa one morning and collecting pieces of missile parts with my youngest daughter after a horrible night of missile attacks.
I remember being confronted by British troops walking through our compound after one horrible night while we were collecting pieces of a Patriot missile. The soldier told us we couldn’t have any of the pieces. I explained to him that it was made in the U.S.A., and therefore I could have it!
After a couple of nightmare nights, I called in a big favor from a gentleman who worked for a major aircraft manufacturing company and he was able to get my family out of harm’s way on a non-scheduled flight / unmarked airplane out of Saudi Arabia. They had to leave first thing in the morning basically in their pajamas to get on the flight. I didn’t know for 24 hours that they made it back to the United States safely. And thanks to the kind heart of an American Express agent, I finally talked to them at an Air Force base in Kansas, and also get them a new AMEX card so they could catch a commercial flight back to Texas and buy some clothes.
Chris Dessi: You have access to a time machine, but you can never come back to present day. You can go into the future, or into the past. Where do you go in time?
Dennis Simmons: Future, after I am long gone from this world, I want to know that my kids and my grandkids are doing alright!
Chris Dessi: Name someone who knows more about you than anyone else in the world.
Dennis Simmons: Laura, my best friend, companion and wife.
Chris Dessi: Most powerful book you’ve ever read that you recommend to everyone.
Dennis Simmons: Yeager: An Autobiography.
Chris Dessi: Worst city you ever visited?
Dennis Simmons: Juarez, Mexico.
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