Kevin Jackson, high school freshman, could drop out of school provided he meet his father’s one condition: Find a job.
Until he found employment, his father told him, Jackson was to stay in school. In staying in school, he stayed with football. And football put him in contact with coach Curtis Kell, who one day in 1978 informed Jackson he could be a “generation changer.”
“I didn’t understand then what he meant – that I could end up changing life for the following generations of my family,” Jackson said. “My dad’s dad had made him drop out of school at age 14 to work in a textile mill, and I was on the same path.
“I’d be dying carpet right now if not for one guy.”
Instead, Jackson runs the region’s largest industrial cleaning and environmental service companies. Jackson shared his life story and the business philosophy that has made Enviro Vac into a $48 million business over the last 14 years during a BiS Forum on Wednesday at the Savannah Morning News auditorium.
Jackson peppered his presentation with lessons learned from his high school football coach as well as his better known college mentors: coaches Vince Dooley and Erk Russell.
Jackson played for Dooley and Russell at the University of Georgia in the early 1980s. Dooley’s preaching on stability and Russell’s “hands-on” leadership would become the pillars on which he would build his business career.
“Leadership is the art of getting somebody to do something they don’t like to do and get them to like it,” Jackson said. “I learned that on the football field.”
Jackson also learned to take advantage of opportunities, and he recognized one in a fortuitous meeting with a family friend, Dave Hailey, in 1998. Hailey was the plant manager at what was then known as Union Camp and called Jackson soon after he had left a sales job with a British bondings and adhesives manufacturer.
Hailey recognized a need for an industrial clean-up service provider. He drove Jackson around the Union Camp campus on a golf cart and explained the potential.
“Let me show you something about industrial cleaning,” Hailey told Jackson.
Jackson went home and went to work on a business plan. He started the business not long after with one vacuum truck, one hydro blaster, three employees and two clients: Union Camp (now International Paper) and Kimera (now Tronox).
Today, Enviro Vac operates one of the largest fleets of mobile clean-up equipment in the Southeast and boasts 477 employees and more than 40 clients in five states.
“You beat 50 percent of the people in life by hard work, and you beat another 40 percent with honesty and integrity,” Jackson said. “The last 10 percent is a dog fight.”
The biggest fight for Jackson and other Savannah business leaders these days is to help develop an educated workforce with a personal and professional work ethic that will work smart. He noted he currently goes through 100 applications to find a single hirable employee.
“As community leaders, we must bridge that gap,” Jackson said.