Yes, Chris Bird started out with a lemonade stand.
Even then, he was entrepreneurially looking for that edge, so he set it up near a tennis court that didn’t have refreshments nearby. “Whatever they wanted,” he says, “I had it right there.”
Growing up, he always had something going on, parlaying business ideas into money so he could realize his ultimate goal: to be an astronaut.
It was not to be. His eyesight kept him from slipping the surly bonds of earth, and suddenly, after putting so much effort into it, he had to start over. He was a stockbroker for a couple of years, but ended up getting tricked by his father to get into the door business. “I had a computer consulting business,” he says, “and my father said, ‘Just come get us computerized and then you can go.’ I got it computerized and then they had me doing hardware schedules and door schedules and going out and learning how to weld and everything else. I was never able to leave.”
But Bird took to the trade, attending the Savannah College of Art and Design with post grad studies at the University of Arizona in the early 1990s and getting certified as an architectural hardware consultant.
After his father retired, Bird went on his own, doing consulting and then starting Spec Tech, a specifications business in architectural doors and hardware. One of the people he’d worked with was John Dillard, whose father famously installed the gates at Graceland. “He did overhead doors, I did swinging doors,” Bird says. “He knew I was looking to acquire a swinging door business and one day at Rotary, he said, ‘Well, Chris, why don’t you just buy me out?’”
So, in 2002, he acquired the company with 12 employees and started to grow it. It included automatic gates and expanded into electronic security, which would be spun off as Dillard Security Services.
Bird’s company now has 60-plus employees and has from $10 million to $12 million in revenues, up from about $2 million at the start. Dillard is, he says, in acquisition mode. It bought a glass company and hopes to bring on an electrical company and other door companies.
He says that, “In the commercial playground we work in, if it’s a door, we do it. If a swinging door, a sliding door, an automatic door, coiling door, a sectional overhead door, we do it. We do hangar doors. Any kind of industrial commercial door, we do it. Add to that automatic gates and everything that goes with that.”
Inside Memphis Business: What’s the best advice you’ve gotten?
Chris Bird: I go back to my grandfather teaching me the value of hard work. It’s sort of been my mantra going ahead. I’d rather be paid to get educated than pay to get educated. Hard work pays you to get educated. I’ve always been able to learn something. It hasn’t always been pleasant, but I’ve always taken away something very valuable.
IMB: What advice would you give a budding entrepreneur?
CB: Work for somebody else first and do as much as you can, work in as many different areas as you can, learn as much as you can from the people you work for, and get paid to be educated. School is great, and I think everybody needs a good basic education. I believe in higher education as well, but the value of hard work and everything you can learn while you’re working for someone else is, to me, just a pre-requisite for being your own boss.
IMB: Is there a mistake you made that taught you a valuable lesson?
CB: Wanting to be an astronaut and doing all the right moves to get to that point, and then realizing that everything you’d worked so hard for was gone and there was absolutely nothing you could do about it, was a very valuable lesson about always having a back-up plan.
IMB: How do you find your employees?
CB: We’re about developing employees as opposed to finding them. I realized early on you’re never going to find people that fit perfectly. We look for people with good character, good work ethic, and good attitude. Then we train them to be what we want them to be. It’s harder and harder today to find people with a good work ethic. We’re reaching out to trade schools, even high schools, to bring kids in, train them, interns, and then send them to professional training to get them where we want them to be. Finding those guys that are ready to go to work is next to impossible.
IMB: Dillard was famous for doing Graceland’s gates. How did that happen?
CB: When Elvis bought Graceland, there were no gates. Elvis’ father Vernon called John Dillard Sr. and said he wanted some gates up there. John contracted with a metal worker to make the gate, and then John and some helpers installed it. He actually built the first gate operator. Automatic gates were not a real thing back then, so he took a motor off a door and turned it sideways and made an automatic gate. Anytime something would go wrong with the gate or Vernon wanted something else, he’d call over here and ask for John and he’d go fix it. One time John was at Graceland, and the phone rang. Nobody answered it, so John picked it up and it was Elvis. Elvis said, “Thank you, Mr. Dillard. I really appreciate it. Can you get my dad?” The gates are still there. They’ve changed the operators out a couple of times and they’re a little more modern now. They get a lot more use than they used to.