Q&A WITH MIKE ZURBRIGEN ’82


The Right Stuff

The Euro-Wall CEO talks about building a successful business, and why doing right is more important than being right.

 

Twenty years ago, Mike Zurbrigen ’82  was an addict living on the street. Today, he is the principal of a multi-million dollar manufacturing company that employs seventy people in North Port, Florida. It sounds like something out of a movie, but to be quite honest, not even a Hollywood screenwriter could invent Mike Zurbrigen. We recently sat down with Mike to talk about his company, his time at Pomfret, his struggle with addiction, and his new lease on life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
 

Can we start with your company?

Sure. Euro-Wall is a manufacturing company. We make architectural-grade doors, which means very high-end quality custom door systems for commercial and institutional applications, and upscale residential homes. I started Euro-Wall with a partner back in 2011. It was his idea to start the business. He had no money, and had never worked in or managed a factory, so I had my doubts. But he saw an opportunity no one else could see, and I found that very attractive. Our average door costs about $22,000, which is very expensive for a door. I don't even have one in my own house. How about that?

Did success come pretty quickly?

We did $480,000 in revenue our first year. We got our first real order in June 2012. It was just us at that point. Then, in September, we hired our first employee. We hired our second employee a month later. Then, by December, we had four people on the payroll, and it just kept growing from there. Last year, I bought out my partner. Now I have seventy employees, and am projecting we’ll do around $12.2 million this year. 

How has Covid impacted your work?

Covid has been a blessing for us. The world dealt us a real humdinger. But we've been able to learn and build from the devastation. We’re a better company today than we were before. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, we saw a 90 percent drop in revenue. Almost overnight, it wiped out our cash reserves — gone before we could even start to plan.

So we pulled everyone together, and said, “Hey, this is our situation. Here are the numbers. We generally receive around $250,000 to $275,000 in cash every week. This week we received $21,000. So if there are any takers, the federal government will give you $600 a week, and Florida is kicking in another $278. With that, you'll be able to make $800, almost $900 a week.” 

About half the staff raised their hand and we were able to reduce payroll from $155,000 down to $44,000. About three weeks later — we were back to normal. So it was a V-shaped curve, but it was very steep and very scary.

Today we're producing 21 percent more product than we were when Covid hit. But here’s the real kicker: We’re doing it with half the people. Imagine that! Half the people. We have a company of givers, not takers. They're interested in what they can do to contribute to the world, not how the world is treating them. 

What was your first job?

I started my entrepreneurial career, coincidentally, selling pizzas at Pomfret. They had mystery meat Tuesdays. And we were too far away from the local pizza shop for them to deliver. So I called up the pizza guy, and he said, “Well, if you order this many, then we'll come out. And if you order this many, I'll give you a pizza for free. And if you order this many, you’ll get another pizza for free.” I would take orders for twenty, thirty, sometimes forty pizzas, and the pizza shop would give me five or ten for free. I’d sell them all, and make a profit. So I spent a good chunk of my Pomfret career making money and eating pizza, and it was awesome. 

Any other Pomfret memories?

One time I organized a ski trip to Stowe. I did everything. I called the bus company and I found the ski lodge and talked to the teachers and figured out how many students were interested. I collected the money, turned everything in, got it all done. But on the Friday before we were supposed to leave, I got Weekend Study Hall. Unfortunately, I had missed some classes, and after three years of going “bahaha” to the system, I finally got caught. 

Walt Hinchman was the dean of students at the time. He had a little office right outside of Hard Auditorium. When I got there, he had the points. And I said, “Mr. Hinchman, uh, this time you got me. I'll be yours all weekend.” I wasn't angry or upset or anything like that. This is the way it was supposed to work. His job was to catch me, and my job was to not get caught. But then he did something unexpected. He said, “Mike, you've done an outstanding job organizing the ski trip. It’s really what being a Pomfret student is all about — taking the initiative and leading.” Right then, he took the points and ripped them up, right in front of me, and I got to go on the trip. Mr. Walt Hinchman is an amazing individual.

What did you take away from that experience?

You know, I talked to a young law student just yesterday. He’s a semester from graduating, and he doesn't realize that he's going into a profession where it's all about being right. There's no happiness in being right. There's no love in being right. We need to be right to be able to predict outcomes, to do our jobs. But in life, there's no being right. There's only doing right. 

I believe my job on this planet is to exceed the expectations of everyone I come into contact with. Especially those people I don't like, the people I don't want to be with, the people who disagree with me, that feel completely different from me, the people whose opinions and viewpoints I regard as less than. Those are the people who I need to sacrifice the most for — and that's the hardest. 

And so, when I think about what makes a good leader, for example, I think of somebody who sacrifices, who shares freely of themselves, who is transparent about their mistakes and their vulnerabilities, who gives without any expectation of receiving, and who demonstrates through action the gratitude that they have for the things in their life. 

You weren’t always this way, though, were you? 

There was a time in my life when I was living on the street as an IV drug user and cocaine crack smoker. I was in and out of treatment centers, and psych wards, and jails. I was embarrassed of who I was and what I was, and I never felt that I could ever face any of you. Pretending you're one thing on the outside, but being something else on the inside is no way to live.

So I made a deal seventeen years ago. I got on my knees and I asked God for help. And I said, no matter how long I live, no matter what I do, I will spend the rest of my life helping others. If it means that if I never have a wife, or a job, or money, or a house, and I have to live on the street helping others, I'll do it. Just please take this pain away. So that was the deal I made. And I'll never be finished paying off that debt.

Are you still making payments, all these years later?

A while back, I got a call from a person. We'll say his name is Tom. Tom told me he was using again and that he needed me right away. “I'm dying,” is what he actually said.

So I made the trip from Florida up to Minnesota, where he lives, asking God for help the whole way, so that I could be of love and service to this man. I pull up to his house and knock on the door, but there's nobody there. I look inside and I see that all the furniture has been burned inside the house, and it reminds me of a house I used to live in. So I knock on the door again. Still nothing. 

Then I walk around back and there's a little separate garage there, and I notice that there’s a sound coming from the garage, but there's a bunch of stuff blocking me from opening the door. Finally I get the door open and I see the mess. Then I see the person. And I realize this guy has driven everybody out of his life, just like I had. That all the people — the treatment people and the social workers and the family and the friends and the buddies and the acquaintances — they had all tried, but he had made it impossible for them to help.

This man was so out of it. I found out later that he had smoked an eight ball of meth before I got there. I mean, that's enough for ten people for a week. He was climbing the walls. And he was yelling, loud. So I took him and I said, “Let's go get you something to eat — do you have any food?” He had no food. So I said, “I'm here for you. I'm not going to leave you. You can count on me. You can call me about anything, anytime.” We drove to the grocery store and I spent as much money as I could buying food for him. Then I had to leave him.

I cried the whole way back to the hotel, because I realized the person I was looking at was me. But for the grace of God, would I be here today? Would I have this wonderful life, this wonderful family? Without the love and service of others. And that’s when I decided I would invite him to come live with me in Florida.

How is he doing now?

It’s been about two months at this point. We're actually bringing Tom back to Minnesota on Wednesday. He's made a lot of progress. That doesn't mean it can't be undone in one minute, but he's made a lot of progress. He's beginning to understand that drugs and alcohol are not his problem. That they're a symptom of a much bigger problem. The problem is selfishness and self-centeredness, and it's the root of all his troubles, like it’s the root of all my troubles.

That's what makes me tick. That is what gives me life every single day. That is what defines my purpose. I get to love you and I get to be loved back. I get to sacrifice for you. And, as a result, there's a place for me. I am no longer unwelcome in my own life. So who has it better than me? 

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