Radio Systems CFO rises to top by lifting team up

11/8/2017

Twenty-three years ago Chris Chandler was offered a position at a three-year-old company called Radio Systems Corporation. Owner Randy Boyd offered him the job.

Chandler turned it down.

Little did he know, he would spend the next decade gaining experience that would prepare him to become the Chief Financial Executive at the same company in 2004.

"I ran into Randy, and he said, 'Hey we're going to be a $100 million company. I'm looking for a controller,' "Chandler said. "And I go, 'Hold that thought.' "

A few weeks later, Chandler was part of the Radio Systems team. A few months later, he was CFO.

Boyd said it was Chandler's innovative way of thinking that impressed him - and kept him impressed for a decade.

"He was exceptionally smart, exceptionally innovative," Boyd said. "For someone in accounting or a financial background, you often find them to be reserved, but he was outgoing."

Becoming a $400 million company

The $100 million company Chandler joined in 2004 will be a $400 million company this year. Fifty percent of the company's growth is attributed to new product development and the other 50 percent to acquisitions, CEO Willie Wallace said.

Chandler's role in the growth started with building and developing the right team of people.

"One thing you have to realize is as a company grows, you can't know it all," Chander said. "So you've got to have key people, and you have to make sure those people follow that same philosophy - that they hire people smarter than them."

From Wallace's perspective, Chandler's leadership is what drives him. Wallace considers Chandler a business partner who goes beyond financial duties.

"I'll go to him on any type of business questions from marketing to new product development," Wallace said. "He coaches and leads throughout the entire organization and with the senior staff. With the technical aspect of finance, a lot of people can get lost. I'll be sitting with him and bankers or investors, and as soon as we walk out I have seven of eight questions, and he'll spend the time to explain to me."

Wallace says that kind of leadership is "wrapped into who he is." On multiple occasions, Chandler has spent money and resources to send employees through certain courses and certain schools to make them an expert in their area.

Buying the competition

In 2006, Radio Systems had an opportunity to buy its largest competitor Invisible Fence Technologies, Inc. At $160 million, it was the company's largest acquisition. Its new ERP system Oracle was set to launch within the same month.

"So we're borrowing $163 million dollars, and I'm up in New York with Randy talking to the bankers, got the deal closed and I get a call from the IT folks in Knoxville. 'We can't bill,' " Chandler said. "This went on for over a week."

To hear Chandler tell it, it could have been bad. Looking back, though, it was just a hiccup.

"Chris and his team handled it flawlessly," Boyd said.

A financial crisis and a Bubba Gump strategy

If the giant acquisition and billing issue was a hiccup, then you could say Radio Systems stopped breathing for a while in 2008.

"On October 15 we were having a record year here," Chandler said. "The next week orders stopped. We did not get orders from PetSmart, Petco or Tractor Supply."

The plan? Pull a Bubba Gump.

"We pulled all of our middle managers in on a Saturday in December 2008, and said 'Guys we're in a fight for our life here,' " Chandler said. "It was called the Bubba Gump Strategy. We wanted to be the one ship after the storm that was still surviving."

The senior staff mobilized the company to take a positive attitude and weather the storm to come out of it strong.

"What that allowed us to do, a lot of those acquisitions in 2010, there were a lot of people that were nervous after the financial crisis, and we were able to buy a lot of those acquisitions at a very nice multiple," Chandler said.

Through the challenges the company faced, Boyd's description of Chandler as "optimistic and aggressive in a safe way" became more and more accurate.

"He always makes sure everything is done by the book and correctly, but he's also very pro-growth and looking for ways to help the company expand and grow," Boyd said.

A turtle on a fence post

As for being named FEI's large company Financial Executive of the Year, Chandler compares himself to a turtle on a fence post.

"You've got to assume there's no way he got there by himself," he said. "Same way. Without my team I would not be where I'm at today. ... They all know their job so much better than I do, so I just need to get out of their way and let them do their job and be there to coach them when I can help."

Source:  Knoxville News Sentinel

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

 

Back to News Listing