Posted by: Nancy | February 27, 2009

Entrepreneur Exemplar

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Mike Russell was the first entrepreneur I ever met. He shaped my perspectives on entrepreneurship and business.

Mike was the founder and CEO of the Kansas City Business Journal, which ultimately grew into the newspaper group American City Business Journals Inc.  He died last week.

When I met Mike, I was a 20-something reporter, struggling yet full of ambition and can-do fearlessness — but I’d never been around someone who dreamed as big as Mike did. It was liberating and infectious, and it was from Mike’s example that I came to a  desire to become an entrepreneur. I admired Mike, and I learned a lot from him, including principles that I continue to hold.

The first thing you would notice about Mike was his confidence and charm. He was always self-assured, self-reliant. The next trait was his curiosity and his ability to come up with ideas — he always had a dozen ideas in motion, in various stages of fruition. His longtime business partner Doc Worley used to say that it was his job to help Mike toss out the bad ideas and focus on the good ones. (In fairness to Doc, I think the original quote was a lot more colorful.)

Then there was his business acumen. Mike would talk with reporters about their stories and always be full of  questions: what’s their strategy? why would they do this? what will happen next? who will benefit from this? He led us to become better reporters and editors by always pushing for more insight, using all the information we had at hand and working hard to develop the instincts to anticipate what might be unfolding — and then ask about it.

But perhaps the best trait I saw in Mike was his willingness to give people a chance. He believed in people — all kinds of people, but underdogs especially. I think he liked seeing how people respond to opportunity and I think he delighted in seeing others grow and benefit, sometimes in intangible ways. I wonder if he saw an underdog in me? I like to believe that he did.

For example, in those ACBJ days, Mike and Doc and Don Keough, the editorial mastermind, would hire folks based on attitude they displayed. If you were smart and willing to work and willing to learn, they would be willing to teach you how to do the job. It was a stroke of genius that instilled incredible loyalty in the young reporters and editors, like me.

There was one more example of Mike’s respect for people. He had a simple rule that was inviolate throughout the chain: Always return phone calls. No exceptions. Mike believed that if someone took the effort to call, it was our obligation to listen. No matter if it was a sales pitch or a wacko — you never know where the next idea or connection or valuable information might come from, besides the simple matter of showing respect.

Respect for others. What a powerful idea — no wonder Mike Russell was such a brilliant entrepreneur and successful leader.

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Responses

  1. I worked at The NETWORK of City Business Journals, the national advertising arm of American City Business Journals, for five years. Unfortunately, my time there (1990-1995) was after Mike sold the business to Shaw Publishing. But his legacy lingered on then, and it was a great place to work until the Shaws decided to move the advertising division to Charlotte, NC, to join its family’s other publishing businesses.

    Thanks for sharing your remembrances of Mike, Nancy, as they helped to complete the picture.


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