CEO Warrior Training is, Um, Different

Mike Agugliaro’s approach to training is a curious blend of personal development techniques typically found in a Tony Robbins course along with practical turnkey programs that helped Agugliaro build his own $30 million home services business.  And did we mention the hot coals?

Mike Agugliaro might just want to punch you in the face.  Well, possibly more in some ways, but somewhat less in others.  Contractor Talbot Watkins, the 2016 CEO Warrior of the Year explains: “It’s a punch in the face,” Watkins says when asked to describe the CEO Warrior program,  Agugliaro’s business mentoring and coaching service for home service contractors, “because you realize that your level of thinking is holding you down and holding your people down.”

Watkins runs Winstar Home Service, a Baltimore-area residential electrical, plumbing, heating and air-conditioning service business that he started with a single van and tool bag in 2001.

Like a lot of contractors, Watkins reached a certain level of success on his own hard-working terms.  Eventually, the business had more than 100 employees.  But growing past that next hire or that next service challenge? That had Watkins stumped.

Eventually, Watkins heard about Agugliaro and his unusual approach to teaching contractors how to succeed.  Agugliaro’s a hard guy to miss with full-sleeve tattoos on each arm, and his picture showing him holding a helmet like the type worn in that movie “300” where a band of vastly outnumbered warriors from Sparta hold off the Persian army.

So Watkins attended a our-day Warrior Fast Track Academy in 2015 and, afterward, joined the Warrior Circle and, good Lord, Agugliaro may not want to actually punch you in the face, but that’s nothing compared to what he really does want his students to do.

He wants them to walk on red-hot coals, walk across shards of broken glass, stick an arrow into the small of their necks right where the skin feels paper thin and then break the arrow by walking toward the guy with the other end stuck to his own windpipe.

Still with us? All right then, because after they’re done with breaking the arrow, they pick up a piece of rebar and bend that thing with their necks, too.  Later, Agugliaro wants them to hold a concrete paver atop their heads and see who can do it the longest.  Then he wants them to pick up pugil sticks and see who can knock another contractor to the ground first.  (And just because the sticks are padded doesn’t mean they don’t pack a wallop.)

You OK with that? Well, here’s one I didn’t hear about until I attended.  He keeps the room of 40 or so contractors gathered to attend the academy at 62 F.  Why? Because Agugliaro says that’s the optimal temperature at which we learn, that’s why.  And did I mention that this was in February … in New Jersey?

Here’s another difference: The day starts at 7:30 a.m.  and around 5 p.m., after a catered dinner, I’m thinking I’m heading back to my hotel like every other “normal” contractor training seminar I’ve observed since first reporting on this industry in 1990.

No way.  I didn’t get out of there until about 10 p.m.  — about an hour earlier than the night before.

About the tamest thing I witnessed in my two-day trip to the four-day academy was a chance to write down whatever limiting beliefs were holding me back and then stuff it into a paper shredder.

Of course, did I even do that? Naw, that’s way too personal.  I’d rather keep that stuff bottled up inside me.  But you know who wasn’t afraid to do that? Talbot Watkins who grew his business revenue by 25 percent in 2016 while increasing his gross profit dollars by 36 percent and net profit by 20 percent.

That’s because for all his unconventional methods, Agugliaro also provides academy attendees with a hefty 350-page manual chock full of the exact same practical templates, worksheets, procedures and step-by-step strategies Agugliaro used to build a successful home services business.
“I’ve been to plenty of other seminars, and there’s always that ‘rah-rah’ motivation,” Watkins adds.  “You get plenty of that here, too, but it’s not just motivation, it’s about the application.”

The trick is that Mike thinks contractors can’t benefit from one without the other.  They can’t go back to the office, for example, and run a spiff program without breaking a few boards as long as it helps them break bad habits.

“Around here we say it’s not ‘knowledge equals power,’ but ‘applied knowledge equals power,” Agugliaro explains.  “At the same time, I can’t teach you a new skillset until you change your mindset.”

Why This Approach

Agugliaro’s on to something with his integrated approach to the traditional outside-in learning for what he typically refers to as skillsets (i.e., “Here’s how to sell more service agreements.”) with his inside-out learning of what he calls mindsets (i.e., “Here’s how to feel more successful.”)

“Everyone’s always looking for the silver bullet,” Agugliaro says.  “But the silver bullet isn’t one thing; it’s a thousand little pieces, incremental little changes that make the one big difference.  Start by challenging your own beliefs, your own mindset.  Then, it just changes the whole game.”
Although his method of training may be different, he’s no different from any of the other contractors we met on our trip to the academy, which takes place inside the East Brunswick headquarters of his business, Gold Medal Service.

Over the past 11 years, Agugliaro and his partner Rob Zadotti have taken Gold Medal Service from less than $1 million a year in revenue to more than $30 million a year.  

Of course, everything about the 15,000-square-foot building that employs 190 people and runs 145 bright yellow trucks to help more than 125,000 customers looks top-notch now.  (There’s also a recently purchased 10,000-square-foot building nearby, too.) But it wasn’t always this smooth.

Agugliaro and Zadotti started out in 1994 with an electrical contracting business after they’d both been working for others for about the previous 6 years.  And just like most contractors starting out, they both worked long hours and had little time for anything else.

After his son was born in 2004, however, Agugliaro realized that there was considerably more to life than work.  And then, around this same time, Zadotti decided enough was enough and announced that he was through.

“If Rob was through, then I was through,” Agugliaro says.  “I didn’t want to be in hell all by myself.”

After considerable soul-searching, both men knew they needed help.  Not exactly sure where to look, they worked with several well-known industry consultants and also joined at least one group dedicated to improving the business life of the contractors.

But from Agugliaro’s perspective that was part of the problem — he wasn’t just looking to improve his business life, he wanted to improve his life, period.

“We needed to get out of our minds,” Agugliaro explains.  “We needed the type of training that could get us past ourselves.”

So Agugliaro also began looking well outside the bounds of the PHCP industry for help, and in particular gravitated toward personal development instructors such as Brian Tracy and Tony Robbins, as well as Dan Kennedy and Joe Polish.

“Name a well-known instructor who has impacted the planet, and I went and trained with them,” Agugliaro adds.  He and Zadotti also attended the Disney Institute, a professional development division set up by The Walt Disney Co.  to showcase “the business behind the magic.” They also hung out at Zappos, the online show retailer.

Agugliaro figures that he and Zadotti spent upwards of $800,000 on education to improve their lots in life.

“Small businesses don't fail because of the economy,” Zadotti says.  “They're small enough to adjust for the economy.  Small businesses fail because the owner loses track of what his mission is.  He just becomes disenchanted, and it just fades away.”

In just a couple of years, they both felt they’d found that mission.  Business was up and Gold Medal started to become a full-service contracting firm adding plumbing and HVAC, and, later, water-proofing, one-day bathroom remodeling, indoor air quality, and water filtration.

And once they both started enjoying running their business again, they both thought about another mission — sharing all the knowledge they’d gained along the  way with other contractors.

“A lot of business owners are suffering,” Agugliaro explains, “because they want more, but they’re stuck.  And they can’t figure it out on their own.”

Warrior Fast Track Academy

In 2013, they started ServiceKey, a precursor to what has since evolved into the CEO Warrior program.  Over the years the program has developed a number of individual programs designed to build off each other, but it’s best to start with the our-day Warrior Fast Track Academy.
The Academy, held five times a year and limited to around 40-50 contractors at a time, is the cornerstone of the overall training philosophy.
Before contractors attend the Academy, they’ve probably signed up for Agugliaro’s e-newsletter, downloaded a book or a podcast or seen him speak at a number of different conferences, such as the WWETT Show or ACCA’s IE3 Show.

 However, it all leads to the Academy and Agugliaro’s curious blend of straight-forward, practical advice on how to be a profitable contractor with his own take on personal development exercises that offer a new way of being a contractor.

“A lot of contractor training is nothing but putting systems in place,” Agugliaro told us.  “ ‘Do marketing like this.’ ‘Do sales like this.’ Do everything this way and you’ll be a success.  That’s important and we offer that, too.  But what was missing from all this was giving contractors a new mindset.”

Agugliaro added that a lot of contractors come to the training with their minds already sabotaged.  Maybe, and who knows why exactly, they don’t think they deserve more money, that they don’t believe they can be a success.

“They say they want it, but something’s holding them back,” Agugliaro adds.

Mind-body connection

As a result, a lot of a day’s training at the Academy can be spent writing down what the attendees want, identifying their “prime time” — that point in the day when they’re in peak condition to get their most important to-dos done — and publicly proclaiming what their big decisions will be or what were the biggest things they learned the day before.

Some of the personal development techniques, however, require a lot more — a lot more presence of mind to experience a lesson for lasting value.

For example, toward the end of the first day, everyone wrote down whatever they felt was holding them back — and did it on wooden boards and held them close to their chests while Agugliaro talked them through a visualization of what it would be like 5 years, 10 years and even 20 years in the future if they didn’t give up on those limits.  At the end of the visualization, Agugliaro, who began studying martial arts as a teenager and certainly instills that sense of discipline into the CEO Warrior program, had everyone smash through the boards with a karate chop.

At the end of a long second day — and after many written exercises that focused on the identity of a business leader, Agugliaro led the group through a long, involved and intense visualization punctuated by loud shouts of “WARRIOR” as they stood up and embodied this vision of a successful self.

Now here’s the rub: just describing these exercises in words on a printed page is never going to do the training justice.  That’s because much of the instruction needs to be experienced first-hand.  It’s not enough for me to tell you about writing down limiting beliefs.  Those words have to be your own words written by your own hand.  You have to hold that board yourself and feel its weight against your chest.  You have to feel your hand smash through the board and hear the crack that it makes.  You have to hear Agugliaro’s words for yourself.

That’s the whole point.  The mindset changes that Agugliaro’s so keen on making, have to be experienced with your own senses and in your own personal way.

“Mike shows them what's possible and then he takes them back to the past whether it's their youth or just a couple of years ago when their minds were different,” Zadotti says.  “And then he brings them back to the present, erases all this negative stuff that they've picked up along the way, and gets them charged up.  They just run out of here, and they start making things happen now that they have the information they need to correctly do a skillset,” Zadotti adds.

Master Coaches

Of course, the Academy is more than just one long visualization exercise and acting like Bruce Lee.  There isn’t that 350-page manual for nothing.  And if we had just attended on the third day when it was nothing but 12 hours of various sales and marketing programs, we would have left wondering what all this “warrior” training was all about.

By the afternoon of the third day, Agugliaro also introduces his “Master Coaches,” Gold Medal employees who have helped grow the business and are ready to help Academy attendees do the same.

There’s Zadotti, of course, who helps with general business, pricing, bonus plans, human resources, organizational structure, software and financing.

The other Master Coaches include the following:

Mike Disney, director of sales, who helps with lead generation, outbound selling and follow-up programs.

Joe Todaro, director of operations, who helps with day-to-day operations, warranty and technical support, hiring and onboarding, sales and technical training and vendor relations.

Jim Tarnofsky, director of administration and in-house counsel, who helps with contracts, negotiations, purchasing, collections, benefits, uniforms and fleet operations.

Warrior Circle

At the end of the four days, the attendees have one of two choices to make:

They can go it alone, more or less, although they still have a chance to phone in questions and obtain a certain degree of help from the Master Coaches.

Or they could join the Warrior Circle.

Right now, there are about 125 members in the Circle from the U.S., Canada, Australia and Bermuda.

In general, the basics of the Circle include weekly teleconference calls every Wednesday; a private Facebook group; a vendor program for special deals on printing to web development.  Also, the Circle members get further access to the Master Coaches.

There’s not much Agugliaro and the rest of Gold Medal won’t do to help make the Circle members more successful.

“If we have a company in the Circle and one of their service managers just wants to learn how to be a better service manager,” Agugliaro adds, “then we’re ready to have him spend a couple of days here sitting with my service manager.  If someone wants to spend a day driving around with one of our super techs, we’ll help with that, too.”

By and large, the Circle is designed to keep everyone on track and accountable for annual plans they’ve made.

“If you’re not on track, the Circle will keep you on track,” says Steve Addario, owner of Addario’s Plumbing & Heating in Woburn, Massachusetts, and who’s been a member for the past hree years.

Twice a year, the Circle gets together in New Jersey for a hree- or our-day meeting.

Agugliaro talks a lot about the “power of proximity,” and this is where that concept manifests itself.

“As one member grows and shares the experience, someone else grows and shares that,” Agugliaro explains.  “Two more grow from those two and everyone else just keeps getting pulled up and as the mindsets get pulled up, we think the whole Circle gets pulled up.”

Much of the Circle meetings sound rather straight-forward with members going over budgets, marketing plans and whatever they each might have to do to get back on track.  Attendees also discuss their business processes, share best practices and learn more about the successful sales tactics Gold Medal incorporates.

There are also decision-making exercises designed to help Circle members become more decisive leaders and marketing advice on how to help employees make more powerful emotional connections to the products and services they sell to take their business to the next level.

Afterward, there’s plenty of room for some more “challenging” mental exercises, such as writing their own eulogies.  This endeavor helps members set their priorities and enforce the need to pay attention right now and be proactive.

And then, there’s the fire walking and pugil stick fighting that we’ve mentioned before.

“It’s all about facing fear and finding out you’re safe after all,” Agugliaro explains.  “Then all of a sudden, you’re not so afraid of other things.”
Finally, any Circle member can come back free of charge to another Warrior Fast Track Academy and bring new members of the crew.  Some have even brought wives, significant others and sons and daughters to the experience.

“It’s like reading a good book,” Addario says.  “Maybe you don’t get it all on the first or second reads, but you do on the third.”

Off the hamster wheel

Taken all together, Agugliaro’s CEO Warrior program is an invitation to get off the hamster wheel.  

“Contractors need to stop thinking of themselves as business owners,” Agugliaro explains.  “They need to think of themselves as investors and as leaders and, yes, as CEO Warriors.”

I’m not positive who I can attribute this quote to because when I asked Addario what the craziest thing he’s done during his trips to East Brunswick was, someone standing near us said, “The craziest thing we do is find ourselves.”

Which makes perfect sense when Talbot Watkins adds that the program has not only made him a better business leader, but a better husband, father and friend.  Others I met didn’t hesitate to tell me about someone who lost a hundred pounds or saved a marriage or quit chewing tobacco.  We even heard about a father and son who hadn’t talked in years finally talking again.

“We’re changing the way contractors think, behave and act,” Agugliaro adds.  “We have a success rate of people doubling and tripling the size of their businesses.  But I would say that’s become a relatively easy aspect for the training now.  The other stories of losing weight and saving marriages — those stories are endless.”

Agugliaro and Zadotti continue to invest at least $100,000 a year on their own education to gain more insight and add more features to the training.

“I do take a couple of things personally: If they're not successful.  If their life doesn't change,” Agugliaro adds.  “Did I let somebody down? Because I'm rooting for them so much.  I'm just rooting for them to win so they can serve their family so much.” 

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