Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Brad Lager Built That

Brad Lager
The defining quote of presidential election may very well be Barack Obama's gaffe: "You didn't build that!" As The Wall Street Journal observed: "Rarely do politicians so clearly reveal their core beliefs."

One politician whose core belief in the American Dream is driven by hard work is Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Missouri, Brad Lager. Tuesday afternoon, I had an opportunity to speak with this state senator who hopes to move to higher office next November. We talked about the businesses that Lager's started and worked for over the years.

By the end of our conversation, it was clear to me that Brad Lager is a serial entrepreneur, but his political career is also of note.

Lager entered politics in 2001 when, at 25, he became the youngest councilman ever elected to the Maryville City Council. At the time, Maryville was facing some difficult fiscal decisions. The council reigned in the town's costs returning it to sound fiscal footing. That held an important early lesson for Lager: "That's when I realized that good people, who work hard, who are focused on good results, can change the way that government operates."

The summer after Lager finished high school, he went to work for a real estate office. That experience taught him about the importance of investing. With that knowledge, he saved money during his college years and used that money to buy an older, six-unit apartment building. He spent the next few years fixing up each unit and ultimately getting all the units rented out before selling that property. With the money he made from that investment, Lager and his father bought a car wash--Squeaky Clean Car Wash.

The real estate office where Lager started his working career was also a sales agent for Northwest Missouri Cellular. When Lager graduated from college with a degree in computer management systems, one of the partners at Northwest Missouri Cellular told him: "If you're willing to stay, run it like it's yours." At that time, Northwest Missouri Cellular had several hundred subscribers and two employees. Recognizing the great entrepreneurial opportunity that he'd just been given, he dove in.

With such a small staff, most of their business functions had been outsourced--billing, customer service, etc. Bringing those business functions in-house would allow the company greater competitive flexibility by reducing their cost structure, so they began to plan for growth. As each business function was brought in-house, jobs were created. In short order Northwest Missouri Cellular had five employees and had to start dealing with workers comp and the regulatory environment that faces all small businesses. Soon they had eight employees. Lager remembers setting up a retirement plan and shopping around for the best health insurance for his team.

In the late 1990s, the regulatory environment for placing cell towers became much more rigorous. In addition to the existing process for building a cell site which involved engineering and regulatory approval from the FAA and FCC, Northwest Missouri Cellular found itself having to do Indian burial ground studies and migratory bird reports. These added regulatory burdens drove up the cost of each new cell tower by tens of thousands of dollars.

In late 2001, as Lager began to focus more on his political career and a run for Missouri's House, he stepped down as the day-to-day manager at Northwest Missouri Cellular. At that time the company employed about fourteen people. He's still involved with them as a consultant for their strategic planning as they continue to grow their cell tower network. Today, Northwest Missouri Cellular employs thirty-two people.

Lager has started other businesses in recent years as well. He partnered with a friend in the lumber industry to form Northwest Additions which purchased fifteen acres in Savannah, Missouri, for real estate development. The economic downturn has meant that their new home sales have gone more slowly than he would have liked; however, the few homes that have been built have brought some contracting work to the area.

In 2007 Lager with two business partners bought a Made-Rite franchise in the food court of the Columbia, Missouri, mall. I couldn't imagine an elected politician working behind the counter in a mall food court, so I had to ask:
Me: You're telling me that a Missouri State Senator was making sandwiches while the General Assembly was out of session? 
Lager: No. Well... Occassionally, yes, but not very often. I didn't run the business day-to-day. We hired someone who had a background in the restaurant business.
At one point the franchise was employing about a half-dozen people; however, the economic downturn brought mall traffic to a standstill and Lager and his partners decided to close down the business. They admirably did not file for bankruptcy. Instead, he and his partners are still making payments on the loan they took out to start the franchise.

Lager grew up on a farm and has longed to get back into agriculture. Last year, he took advantage of an opportunity to join an existing cow-calf operation run by a neighbor. Cow-calf operations use a predominantly female herd of cows to produce calves for the beef industry. Lager also does some cattle backgrounding--raising weaned calves typically in a pasture. The cow-calf operation has a herd of almost thirty while Lager has about 250 that he is backgrounding.

In addition to those businesses, Lager is an employee of Cerner Corporation. Cerner employs over ten thousand people in the healthcare technology industry. Their business is built around technological innovation in healthcare systems. As Lager put it: "They build software for hospitals and doctors." Because Lager's degree is in computer management systems, his technical skill set makes him a perfect fit for Cerner. He began working their in 2009.

Lager works on a team that is building health information networks. The problem that this team is working on is: how do you share healthcare data in a way that is secure, but that ultimately allows consumers to control their own information? The team is trying to figure out how to deliver your doctor's notes, x-rays, and other medical information to your computer or even your cell phone. The difficulty of the problem is two fold: first their's the integration of the many heterogeneous healthcare systems in use today and, second, security--they have to be sure that the person receiving the data has a right to see it. Lager is confident that private businesses like Cerner are part of the solution. As he told me in the interview:
I'm proud of the work I do at Cerner. You talk about fundamentally thinking about healthcare differently and understanding that the private sector does have solutions that can help us fix these problems. I can tell you this: I am more reassured than ever that if we get government out of the way, the private sector can address these problems.
Simply put, Brad Lager is an engineer at Cerner. It's just politics as usual for Lager's opponent, Peter Kinder, to accuse him of being a lobbyist. The fact of the matter is that Brad Lager has built more businesses in his 37 years than most people build in a lifetime.

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