Episode Sixteen… David Tenny: Military Lessons and Business Success

Episode Description

Every person’s career path is a one-of-a-kind adventure, and these experiences are what guide us toward where we might eventually land. Every decision, no matter how seemingly small, can nudge us in a certain direction.

In this episode, we had the privilege of sitting down with David Tenny, president at Firstar Precision Corporation. He took us on a captivating journey, sharing how his military background paved the way for his transition into business ownership. David described how his time in the military profoundly influenced his views on leadership and the art of cultivating strong relationships in the workplace. Additionally, he offered valuable insights into the life lessons he gained during his military service and how he skillfully integrates them into his role as a business leader.

What You’ll Learn

  • How discipline, work ethic, and a sense of purpose can transform your perspective and drive success in the workplace.
  • Why challenges can be catalysts for personal and professional growth, and learn strategies for overcoming obstacles with resilience and determination.
  • Practical strategies for building strong relationships with colleagues, fostering teamwork, and inspiring others to bring their best to the table.


[01:29] David’s military background
[08:01] How David’s experience in the military impacted who he is
[09:38] Lessons in leadership
[13:12] How Firstar was founded
[20:55] Career tips from David

How to Listen or Watch

Listen below or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Watch below or @Empowered_Ventures on YouTube.

Read the full transcript here or below the following media links.


Episode Transcript

Chris Fredericks: Welcome to Empowered Owners, the podcast that takes you inside Empowered Ventures. I’m your host, Chris Fredericks. In each episode, I’ll have a discussion with one of our employees to discover and highlight their distinct personalities, perspectives, and skills while also keeping you in the loop with exclusive news, updates on company performance, and a glimpse into the future plans of Empowered Ventures. This is an opportunity for me to learn more about our amazing employee owners and an opportunity for you to hear regularly from me and others from within Empowered Ventures. In this episode of empowered owners. I’m talking with David Tenny, one of the founders of Firstar Precision and the sole owner, who decided to sell Firstar to Empowered Ventures after spending five years in the military, mostly stationed in Europe, dave took a job as a machinist, which he’d been trained to do in high school and was the same occupation as his dad and brother. We’ll dive into the story of how Dave came to business ownership, how his military experience changed his life, and how he thinks about leadership and building great relationships at work. I’m excited for this chance to feature Dave, the owner of our first Diversifying acquisition and someone with tremendous integrity who has worked incredibly hard for his customers, his employees, and his family. With that, let’s get to my conversation with Dave. David Tenny. Welcome to Empowered Owners.

David Tenny: Thank you for having me.

Chris Fredericks: So I’ve been excited to have this conversation with you. Obviously, we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over these last few years, and there’s a lot about your story that I feel like I know, but there’s a lot I feel I’m not sure I know. And one of the things that an area that you’ve mentioned and has intrigued me but we’ve never really dove into is your military experience and your background. And I know that kind of came not too long before Firstar being founded. So I wondered if you could just tell us a little bit about your military experience, maybe from the beginning.

David Tenny: From the beginning? I graduated in 1984 from high school. I started taking some college courses at Corning Community College, and I was working some of the machines you own now are called Hardings. That’s the machine brand, and that’s who I actually worked for straight out of high school. But the economy at the time was in really poor shape, and I ended up getting laid off. And there was other jobs that I could find, but nothing really excited me. And because of maybe some other personal experiences, difficulties I was going through, my brother had just finished a two year stint in the army in a completely different field. It was an option. And so I decided to join one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made, by far. My parents did a great job raising me disciplined, great work ethic, but I wasn’t ready to really be an adult yet. And that’s what the military did for me. There were so many intangibles that you get going through a basic training and being part of that kind of an organization that there’s no question it’s one of the biggest things that created who I am today. Just that understanding that you can achieve anything if you try hard enough. And it really teaches you that you don’t really have limits unless you put limits in place yourself. I had great experiences. I went through basic training in MLS. Training in Fort Benning, Georgia. So I was down there for 13 weeks. And then immediately after that I went to jump school in Fort Bragg, which was six weeks. And then I was immediately relocated to Europe. To Germany? What an experience. A being in a different country and experiencing all that Europe represents. It’s a 2000 plus year old world. And then I had the opportunity to do a lot of unique things. I was on the rifle team for a couple of years. One year I was an M60 machine gunner, and the second year I was on the M16 team. And the second year on the M16 team was when we won. I had a chance. General Powell is the commander at the time, so I had a chance to meet him. He gave me an accommodation ARCOM my time on the rifle team. We get to fly in his personal chopper. So those are some of the things that 40 years ago still is a strong memory, and I got to see most of Europe. When I transferred back to the States, it was a little different world. Stationed in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and sense of urgency, the sense of responsibility was quite a bit different. So originally I thought, I’m going to do this for at least 20 years. But once I got the experience of the Stateside service, it wasn’t the same and I really struggled with it. So right after Desert Storm, I had the opportunity to exit early, and I did. That was 1991. So I served five years. Loved every second of it. Don’t regret a minute. I know it definitely has made who I am today.

Chris Fredericks: That’s great. There’s a lot there I actually would love to keep to dig in a little bit further into.

David Tenny: Originally I was going back a few years, so I have a hard time remembering, but I was just a regular infantry rifleman. We did have an armored vehicle. It was a personnel carrier. And then before I left Europe, I transferred or the entire unit was retrained on the Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which also is an armored personnel vehicle. So it carried a squad within the vehicle, but it had a lot more weaponry and armor. Armor. So I did get a chance to become Eleven Mike, which was mechanized inventory. And then when I transferred back to Fort Polk, I ended up working the entire time. I was there, which was close to two years or a little over a year. I ended up working in the division headquarters under G3, which was the operations.

Chris Fredericks: What years were you stationed in Germany?

David Tenny: 85 to 90. As a matter of fact, a year before the Berlin Wall came down, I had the opportunity to visit East Berlin. Real rare opportunity. It was a chance because I had won Division Soldier of the Quarter, so I always found ways to exceed in those things. And yeah, I toured East Berlin when the wall was still up, and it was again, one of those experiences you’ll never forget.

Chris Fredericks: What did you do to win Soldier of the Quarter?

David Tenny: It starts out as Soldier of the Month for your local battalion, and then you advanced Division Soldier of the Month and Soldier of the Quarter, and I ultimately became the Division Soldier of the Year, but lost to the next round. You had to study a lot. You had to know everything about the flag, everything about the equipment, everything about the enemy’s equipment. You need to be able to identify. You had to have all the understanding of military procedures and protocols and things like that. You sat in front of a panel of high ranking non commissioned officers, and you go through questions, and it all depends on how well you answer the questions and present yourself. And I did really well at it. I was good at it. I did that for about a year and a half, where it was one stage after the next.

Chris Fredericks: That’s really neat. What drove you to excel at that in particular?

David Tenny: At that point, I was told I had to do it. When it first started at the company level, they picked one person from each squad, four squads, and I was told that you’re going to do this. And I just found that it fit me very well that I could present myself as a good soldier. And that’s really what it was about.

Chris Fredericks: What if you hadn’t gone into the military? What do you think you would have done?

David Tenny: I would hate to answer that question because I wasn’t on a great path. I just lacked focus, I lacked maturity. I made a lot of poor decisions by then. My parents were a bit older, and I was the last of four children, so they retired. And yeah, I was making a lot of poor decisions, and I just couldn’t commit to anything.

Chris Fredericks: Did you have a sense and come to the military approach on your own, or was that strongly encouraged by anybody, or how did that really come about?

David Tenny: My brother was first one to go into the military in our family. My dad couldn’t serve because he lost an eye when he was little. My older brother didn’t choose that route. My second to oldest brother did serve for two years. He was in Europe. It was getting to the point where I either had to get in the military and get away from what I was involved with, or I could have end up just as easy. I could have ended up in jail. I guess I should back up because when I was a senior in high school, I had actually joined the military with a delayed start, with a delayed entry. And when I graduated, I had gotten this job from Hardings, and it was a good job. And my dad actually stepped up and said, look, he’s not going he’s got a good job and he’s just not going to go in. And they said, that happens. And then it was a year later that I reenlisted or not reenlisted, but I went through it again.

Chris Fredericks: What about leadership? Did you learn anything about leadership in the military?

David Tenny: I struggled as a leader. That was probably one of the biggest negative comments that were always made because I was in a leadership position as a corporal, as an E four corporal. And the biggest complaint that I was given is I didn’t lead. It was easier for me to just do it myself or to avoid the conflict or the argument or whatever. I just do it myself, and that’s not leadership. So that taught me what leadership really was and that you couldn’t just lead by example, that at times you had to lead by voice. I have to give a lot of credit to the leaders that I had more mature people. That taught me to be a quiet, firm, respectful leader.

Chris Fredericks: So I think maybe for some people, if they think about leadership in the military, an easy stereotypical idea could come to mind of a loud commander barking orders, yelling, screaming. I guess I’m curious if that’s any kind of a real a stereotype at all. And also, you just mentioned some leaders that didn’t sound like that. So I’m curious what you think about that.

David Tenny: There was those leaders that were very gung ho, that were very they were so committed that they were loud and they were forceful, and that’s just not a style that I picked up. I was more in. One person that comes in mind, his name is Brian Cram. He was my squad leader when we were on the rifle team together. And I probably got more from him as far as how to be a leader. He made you do your job and do it right, but he never yelled and screamed at you. He found a way to motivate you to want to do your job, and I give him a lot of credit for that.

Chris Fredericks: That’s amazing. And then I know you and obviously Jack West and you have worked at Firstar together for a long time, and Jack has some military experience as well. Did you guys find that was a good kind of shared set of values that you would draw from together?

David Tenny: Probably not until after we knew each other for a while, we both knew we were in the military, but we did quickly start to see we had common characteristics when it came to work ethic, commitment, believing that if you work hard enough, you can do anything. Both of us, we became machinists, and then eventually leaders consider it manufacturing engineers. And we did it without professional training. We did it from learning from the people that we were lucky to be surrounded with.

Chris Fredericks: Is there anything else about your experience in the military that you think was really important and informative ultimately, and how Firstar ended up becoming what Firstar is today.

David Tenny: The way that Firstar started and the way that the opportunity arised had I not had the belief that I could do anything, if I put my mind to it, it probably wouldn’t have worked, because in the beginning, I was the workhorse. I had a great partner who managed the business and worked on the sales side, but when it came to actually functioning the company, I was the workhorse. And I never questioned whether I could do it or not. I always felt that I could do anything I put my mind to, and it worked out well.

Chris Fredericks: Yeah. I wanted to dig into the founding of the beginning of Firstar in the early years. And it sounds to me, and from what I’ve gathered, that it was a risk for you to take on. I mean, that it was a big commitment to start this business from scratch, I imagine in a lot of different ways, but it sounds like you didn’t feel were you scared? What was that like, starting Firstar?

David Tenny: I don’t think I was smart enough to be scared. I worked for a machine shop for nine years. I learned a lot there. I eventually moved up into the production manager position. So from 96 to 99, I was thrown into that running the business part of it. And at the same time, Jack Horseman, who had a lot of different careers, he’s 20 years older than I am, he was their salesman. And when Firstart was determined that they were going to eventually close their doors, of course I immediately went out and found another job, and at the same time, my wife was having our first baby. So February 19, our oldest daughter was born, and March 17 was my last day at Diamond K Industries. And I was supposed to start the 20th at another company called High Production, the 18th. Jack Horseman called me in the morning and said, all I’m asking is you meet with this guy for a couple of hours and let’s talk about what opportunities maybe are available. I had nothing. I owned nothing. I had no money and no. For me, the risk was I knew I could get a job anywhere. So the risk was, am I going to waste my time? So we met with his name was Tom Penolino, and he was the financial support. So Tom decided that he would put in so much money that Jack and I was responsible for putting in a much lower, smaller amount. And we started Firstar with $300,000. And Jack and I were 20% owners. Tom owned 60%. And that’s how it started. We are fortunate because the year 2000, the economy was not great, but we are fortunate that Diamond K was closing. And we knew companies were looking to have this work done. They needed somebody, and we were able to pick up a couple of the customers right away. I could go on for hours telling you these unique stories where we incorporated March 30 and our first employee started May 1. We had our equipment and building and stuff by May 1, but early April 1, of our customers, which was Parker Hanifan, it’s a pretty big customer company there was this part that Diamond K made and they couldn’t find anybody else to make. So the buyer was like, If I give you an order, can you get it done? So this first order that we processed, I had different companies doing different parts of the order just to be able to satisfy that they’ve been a steady customer ever since. And then another unique one was the buyer at Stanley Assembly Technologies, who’s always been our number one and number two account. We had a really good relationship with the buyer. He was leaving Stanley and he was going to go somewhere else. The day before he left, he assigned this new company, Firstar, a vendor number. And had he not assigned us that vendor number before the day before he left, we would have probably never done work for Stanley. But because we had that vendor number and we had history on some of the parts, they gave us a shot and we proved ourselves.

Chris Fredericks: Why did he do that?

David Tenny: Him and Jack Horseman had a very good relationship, similar ages. As a matter of fact, I just talked to him this morning. His name is Mike Vericchio, and he eventually did go back to Stanley. It’s hard to find that relationship where there’s trust on both sides. And he trusted us, and we trusted that he would do right by us, and he got the same thing in return. And that’s with every customer. But that’s what we give our customers, is the trust that we’re going to treat them consistently. We’re never going to go too high. We’re never going to go too low. We have a job to do. We have to make money to do our jobs. They had the same thing. And our customers, I think, always feel like they’re getting the right treatment every time, not just sometimes.

Chris Fredericks: What would you say some of the other pivotal decisions in the early years were that ended up leading to what Firstar is today.

David Tenny: Let me back up Diane Bokar, who I think you just finished her podcast. Right? Diane came on board right away because she was friends with Tom Panolino and she had an accounting background. So she was just going to get us set up, work part time for a few weeks until we found some other solution. Here she is 23 years later. Right. I would say the first pivotal decision was bringing her on board. And then within the first year, we had brought Jack West on board. And it’s funny with Jack West because he was really taking over my primary job, which was running the had. I had some reservations with that. And what he said to us was, look, this is what I’m looking for. I realize it’s the high end of what you were hoping to pay, but hire me and I’ll prove it. I’ll prove that I’m worth every penny. Give me a shot, and that’s all I ask. And we did. And again, one of those pivotal decisions that, wow, it worked out very well.

Chris Fredericks: So people sounds like people, were some of the main decisions in hindsight, the right people at the right time, whether.

David Tenny: It’s employees or customers, it’s all about people and it’s about relationship. I could go into, yeah, we had this opportunity to buy this machine, or we bought a smaller company at one point in the early years. So there was a lot of what would be considered pivotal decisions. But the ones that really stick with me is the relationships.

Chris Fredericks: You mentioned. Jack Horseman and I’ve gathered that he was someone really learned a lot from or looked up to. What do you think about in terms of Jack Horseman and just what qualities come to mind, values, et cetera?

David Tenny: We’re really two different people. He was a salesman by heart, so he was all about the bragging, the bigger than life, sell ten times what you are. So we weren’t the same that way because I’m much more down to earth. So there was a lot of parts of us that were completely different. But on the other side, he was a father figure to me. There’s no question that he cared for me like I was his son, and I cared for him like he was my father. And we just had a great working relationship. You’re lucky to have one person in your career that you have that type of relationship with where you can be screaming each other’s at the top of your lungs 1 minute and hugging and telling him I love him the next minute. And I’m fortunate that I’ve had that multiple times with Jack Horseman or Jack West or previously I mentioned Brian Cram in the military. I’ve been very fortunate over my career that I’ve had great people to work with.

Chris Fredericks: Wow. I wonder if it’s not easy to find that. Any tips or thoughts around how people in the middle of their career, if they don’t feel like they have that kind of a person in their life or people in their life, like how to find that.

David Tenny: I would say they probably do have that person in their relationship, in their life, they just haven’t really figured it out yet or they haven’t put enough effort into it because it is a two way street. And I think that a lot of my success has to do with being consistently honest, truthful, and that my word has value. First R has a certain level of respect because for so many years, for close to 25 years, we’ve just been consistent. We’ve done what we said we would do. We’ve done it fairly, we’ve done it respectfully. We’ve never tried to hide anything or lie or steal. If you lose that unconditional trust, it’s hard. If you could ever get it back, our customers consistently will just give us an order and say, let me know what the price is. You don’t get that very much. But they trust us that we’re always going to be fair, that we’re always going to earn the money we deserve, but nothing more than that. And it’s been consistently successful.

Chris Fredericks: That’s amazing. Dave, this has been such a terrific conversation. My last question for you is, is there anything that you would want to say to your people at Firstar advice for the future? Just anything on your mind around the Firstar employees and also our general employee owners at Empowered Ventures? Just any advice or thoughts for them.

David Tenny: As far as the Firstar employees do what they’ve always done. And those are the Jack and I Jack West and I Those are our basic rules. No lying, no cheating, no stealing. Own up to who you are and what you do and just be consistent. And I think any employee in any job, whether it’s TVF or Paramount or Firstar or any of the other companies that eventually fall under Empowered, just live up to what you do, what you say you’re going to do and do it. That should be a general advice for any employee, whether you’re young or old, experienced, inexperienced. Just do what you do and do what best you can. And that’s the same thing I tell my kids, just do the best you can and own what you do outstanding.

Chris Fredericks: Thank you, Dave. Appreciate you coming on.

David Tenny: Thank you, Chris.

Chris Fredericks: I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Dave. Dave is someone I look up to and respect deeply, and I’ll be forever grateful and honored that he selected Empowered Ventures to be Firstars home for the future. Thank you, Dave, for joining me. And Firstar’s Jack West and Mark Leasey for suggesting topics for the discussion. Huge thank you as well to Emily Bopp and the team at Share Your Genius for producing this episode. Remember, we want to hear from you. Please give us feedback, suggest guests and topics for future episodes, and tell us how we can keep improving the show. To reach us, email [email protected]. Thanks for tuning in.

Tags: Podcast
Episode Fifteen… Exploring the Advantages of Employee Ownership
Episode Seventeen… Season One Reflections: Holiday Message and Thank You