With enough meetings, committees and speaking engagements in a week to weigh down anyone’s monthly calendar, catching up with local politicians can undoubtedly be challenging at times.
However, with a recent appointment, there was one local state leader worth chasing down. Coming from a business background where he worked his way all the way up to the top, both literally and figuratively, State Senator Chuck Weaver has risen through the professional and political ranks while still making time to mentor emerging entrepreneurs that were once in his shoes.
Last week, PEN caught up with Mr. Weaver by email and even snuck in a quick handshake and head shot between speaking engagements.
PEN: First off … Chuck, Mr. Weaver, Councilman Weaver, Senator Weaver … what should we call you nowadays?
CW: “Chuck” works just fine.
PEN: Ok Chuck, can you talk a little bit about your own business career path?
CW: I was always a “saver.” I had saved enough money to buy my first angus heifer when I was 14. I worked a deal with my family where I could keep cattle on the farm and pay them 50 percent of my sales. I watched my dad and mom live hand-to-mouth for the first seven years of my life. The small herd I grew from that heifer paid for law school ten years later.
They would try and fail at a lot of businesses but they never gave up. I have tried to copy their entrepreneurial spirit. If there is one piece of advice, it is to learn from failures. At the end of each year, I will review my projects and write down failures in order that I can analyze them and learn from them. If you find a winner, double down. If you are dealing with a loser, fail fast and fail forward.
PEN: Congratulations on the recent appointment to the 37th District state Senate seat. What do you attribute your overall success to?
CW: The 37th Senate District is fiscally conservative. I believe my conservative city council voting record gave me credibility. During the four months before the appointment, I made over 135 visits rotating through the 10 counties in the district.
I made a lot of new friends and listened to their concerns and ideas. I consistently shared the following message: 1) Dollars are better spent by citizens than governments; 2) Government needs to get out of the way so we can have job growth in Illinois; 3) My background is diverse and places me in a unique position to represent those living in my district.
Specifically, my farm background, my business background, and my service in an urban environment set me apart from others seeking the position. I am thankful that I was selected. It is an honor and I will work to represent the interests of my district.
PEN: What will be your main focus while serving in office?
CW: Three things. Jobs, Jobs, and Jobs
PEN: How has your career in business helped you prepare for your new role?
CW: Business provides the economic engine that allows us to prosper while government provides structure and order. It is important that we remember the differences between the role of government and the role of the private sector, and we do not let government unnecessarily burden the private sector.
Through my background in business, I have had multiple experiences where I have backed away from projects because of unnecessary burdens caused by government. It is so easy for the folks to sit in the ivory tower in Washington or Springfield and to over-regulate, but those on the front lines understand the burdens caused by regulation. Those burdens cost jobs. I hope to have a positive impact on job growth because of my background in business and my desire to cut through red tape.
PEN: You have taken it upon yourself to be a mentor to many people, businesses, and organizations. Was there someone who helped you early on or provided you with guidance?
CW: I have asked for guidance from more people than I can list. When I hear speakers, I take notes and file them according to topics. When I read books, I summarize them and capture their primary premise. Most importantly, I work to build a strong network of people I can call when I run into something I don’t understand. It is good to have the right answer, it is better to ask the right question of the right person.
Start by thinking of an area in your life that needs improvement, then seek out a person you respect who can advise in that area. I could tell story after story of people that have given me great advice. I will just name a few to give your readers ideas for the qualities you should look for in a mentor.
One of the great leaders in our area was Lew Burger. I knew him when I was in my twenties. He was a horse lover and I told him that any time he wanted to ride he could just call and I would have a horse saddled for him. The only thing I wanted in return was to have a horse saddled for me so I could ride with him. I learned a lot from him on those rides. Not only about his own experiences, but also about things he had learned from his boss R.G. LeTourneau.
Also, I have been fortunate to meet Norm Brinker, one of the great businessmen of our time. When I run into a problem I will ask myself, “What would Norm Brinker do right now?” Sometimes I refer to Jack Welch or my friend Dick Bladow, who I believe along with Ed Rapp, to be one of the most self-disciplined people I have met. I also have a group of peers that I meet with monthly in what we call our “forum.” I work to get into a room with the smartest people I can find.
PEN: Are you planning on continuing your successful efforts with Leaders Change Peoria, and what does that future look like?
CW: The “Leaders Change Peoria” board has agreed to change its name to “Leaders Change Illinois” so we can serve the 37th Senate District. When I meet people across my 10 county district, I offer funding from “Leaders Change Illinois,” and I ask for individuals to sign up to be volunteers for the “Leaders Change Illinois” project.
The original funding was from my city council salary. Laurie and I are going to increase our annual funding based on the number of applicants we expect to receive. We will continue to focus on projects that help neighborhoods, support strategic planning for not-for-profits, and most importantly, help adults mentor low-income kids. We have decided to add to our current three areas of funding to an annual leadership event for people I meet in the 37th District. It will be tied to the Global Leadership Summit hosted at Northwoods Church in August.
PEN: What has been the impact of Leaders Change Peoria/Leaders Change Illinois over the years it has been active?
CW: We have now launched 45 new ideas. We have had the opportunity to coach those 45 leaders and also train our LCI Board and Project Champions to coach startups and challenge the ideas and leadership styles of our recipients. It has been one of the most exciting things I have been part of.
I have two specific examples. One is the “Sculpture Walk Vision Casting Event” that we funded with $1,000, and actively engaged with the steering committee. The result was $140,000 of private funding for something that has had a huge impact on our downtown.
Another example is a classroom management training program we initiated with Hedy Elliot and Beth Derry. There are so many great leaders in this community. It is fun to have a small part of helping them bring their ideas to fruition. I could list 25 or 30 other ideas and young leaders that are still impacting our community.
PEN: You have also been involved with the Central Illinois Angels investment organization. Are there certain characteristics or qualities you look for in those applying for a small grant and venture capital?
CW: It is never about how great an idea a person has; it is always about the leadership skills, flexibility, and drive of the idea person. Also, in both cases our financial support is less important than our mentoring support.
The idea person needs to think about the parallel paths they must walk to develop the different aspects of their idea. Things such as Finance, Sales, Operations, HR, IP, the list goes on.
PEN: Private capital and investment has proven to aid and assist with entrepreneurial efforts. As an elected public official previously at a municipal level and now at a state level, what can be done to further help with economic development in each?
CW: I believe the government is terrible at investing in entrepreneurial efforts. Too often taxpayer dollars support the wrong idea at the cost of the right idea. Even more often the dollars are targeted at advancing the politician not the innovator.
I will keep preaching that dollars in the private sector will always more effectively and more efficiently create jobs and solve problems than those same dollars in the public sector.
PEN: Lastly, as we begin a new year, what can we look forward to here in Central Illinois in terms of efforts to support entrepreneurs, innovation, and small businesses?
CW: Our community has worked hard to develop a complete continuum of financing and mentorship for those starting with the initial stages of a new idea up through and including what is needed to run a successful business. With regard to my personal efforts, I have changed my investment model to one where I only invest if I can also provide mentorship to help the entrepreneur increase their return on investment and improve their likelihood of success.
PEN: Thanks, Chuck! This has definitely been an informative and worthwhile catch-up session. We are very appreciative of your time and wish you luck on your efforts making our part of the state better for businesses of all sizes.