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Dr. James Goodnight, part 2: Advice on overcoming adversity, his proudest SAS memories, and the Triangle's bright future

Jim Goodnight takes great pride in his SAS employees

Apr, 27 2017, 7:53 AM

"I’ve dug a couple of deep holes." - Dr. James Goodnight

CARY, N.C. - For all the success Dr. James Goodnight has had in building SAS into a global $3B-plus company over the past 40 years, he's also had to overcome adversity (Midway Airlines, a video game startup).

So how should people deal with their own setbacks?

In the second part of an exclusive Q&A with WRAL TechWire, he also offers advice to entrepreneurs about startups, his proudest achievements, and his recommendations on how to keep the Triangle great.

On Tuesday night, Dr. Goodnight was one of the first five people inducted into WRAL TechWire's Hall of Fame during its fifth TechWire Awards program.

Here is the Q&A:

My best advice is to recognize when to stop digging a hole. Sometimes things don’t go as planned and it’s ok to walk away. Let go of your pride or investment if a product or venture isn’t succeeding.

Once that hole is deep enough you might as well just get out of there and stop digging.

I’ve dug a couple of deep holes, mostly in non-core businesses – an airline and a video gaming company, for example.

I was persuaded to buy Midway Airlines to bring a hub to RDU. It had some ups and downs, but 9-11 broke its back. The video gaming company was grossing $55 million a year – and costing $85 million to run.

I don’t punish myself for taking risks and making mistakes, and I don’t punish employees for that either. That’s part of the process of innovating and growing.

There are plenty of areas of opportunity. The important thing is making sure you have something people want that you can monetize.

In the early 2000s, a lot of dot-com businesses went bust because venture capitalists supported anything with .com in the name. They ended up losing their shirts because they didn’t do their homework.

Creating an award-winning workplace culture that has become a model for so many others is one of my proudest achievements. We pioneered progressive benefits like subsidized child care, on-site primary healthcare services, fitness facilities and wellness counseling.

I’ve always said that if you treat employees like they make a difference, they will make a difference. There’s a direct correlation between our culture and our business success. We empower our employees to take risks and be creative, and we trust them to do their jobs in the way that works best for them. As a result, our employees are happier and healthier, which impacts the relationships we have with our customers.

For many years, reporters would ask me if our workplace model could work in other companies. I think we’ve seen that it can. We’ve been profitable for over 40 years. And plenty of public companies rank well on the Great Places to Work lists. We did it because it was the right thing to do. It also turned out to be the profitable thing to do.

When we moved SAS from Raleigh, near N.C. State University, to Cary in 1980, there wasn’t much out here. But this region of North Carolina has become a hotbed of innovation. Three world-class universities, UNC in Chapel Hill, Duke in Durham and NC State in Raleigh, are within minutes of each other, providing a steady stream of talent. It’s also a magnet for highly skilled talent.

In spite of the tremendous growth, the region still has an affordable standard of living, but with many cultural amenities. Excellent sports, art and museum facilities, and the airport are within an easy drive. The area has excellent outdoor facilities, including greenways, bike paths and sports complexes. Local government partners with the business community to support growth. All of this helps us develop, attract and keep the best and brightest.

The Triangle has been ranked among the best places to live and work in the country. If we want to keep it that way, we need to continue to invest in education. North Carolina made strides ahead of other southern states because of our commitment to education.

We should continue making the investments required to get all our children reading at grade level by third grade so they’ll stay in school and graduate. We should be investing in STEM education, because those skills are needed for future innovation, which leads to new jobs.

The future for the Triangle is bright if we continue to invest for the long-term.

Note: Part one of the interview was published Tuesday.





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