Growing up on a farm in the Mississippi River Valley, Hallie Gibbs learned the value of hard work from his farmer father, who lived by the motto “do it right or don’t do it.” But Gibbs’ entrepreneurial spirit didn’t blossom until high school, and the inspiration came in the strangest place — a barber shop.
“During high school, I became a flat-top artist after I went to a barber shop and they did my flat top crooked,” says Gibbs. “I decided I could do it myself. I started cutting hair three nights a week for 50 cents a pop.”
Gibbs would later journey to college on a baseball scholarship, but he found himself forming a barber-shop business at school to pay for his education. Cutting hair for all the athletes on campus left little time for class work. His counselor kindly recommended he go to barber college.
Aside from the need for funds for his college tuition, the young entrepreneur had a high school sweetheart, who would one day become his wife of 60 years. At the time, the pair had been dating for four years and he needed to save up for an engagement ring so they could get married and provide for their future life together.
It was all working out beautifully until Gibbs realized at the ripe old age of 20 that he had maxed out his income – he could only cut 28 flat tops a day. With a first child on the way, Gibbs started a part time job selling insurance at night. He knew he needed to create the opportunity to build something more for his growing family.
Two of his clients at the barber shop were very successful men in town. One was a salesman for IBM and the other was a salesman for SCM (Smith Corona Machines). He inquired with these men about job opportunities.
IBM was not an option because they only hired college graduates. Not to be dismayed, Gibbs took an interview with SCM and was hired. He began working as a sales representative for SCM in 1960 and his entrepreneurial hunger exploded.
“I set out everyday making a plan and working that plan to the fullest. Meeting people in their businesses and providing a solution to help them improve their productivity on a daily basis was like oxygen to me. I had found the opportunity that I needed to be able to provide for my family and to build something great not just for us, but for other people who wanted a place to work and grow,” explains Gibbs.
In 1965, a 25 year old Gibbs moved his thriving family of four, soon to be five, to Jefferson City to start his own business, Modern Business Systems. He and his partner, Paul Pierce, started the business with $6,000; $2,000 of which was borrowed. Times were tough in the beginning. With families to support, and only the confidence in themselves and their experience, they exceeded $249,000 in revenue in the first year.
“Sometimes I look back at those early days and wonder how Paul and I did it,” says Gibbs. “Other times, it seems obvious because I know how we did it: hard work combined with the right product at the right time.”
Gibbs became the epitome of the American Dream. From a kid on a farm, to modest roots in hard work as a barber, to the owner of the largest independent office equipment company in all of North America. Gibbs believes if you know how to work hard, are passionate about people and their personal development, and live every day with a good attitude anything is possible.
“You have to continually learn throughout your life. For me, it was studying what I was interested in and making a difference, not just getting a higher degree.”— Hallie Gibbs
“If I would’ve had a bad attitude the day I came home with that bad flat top, where would I be today?” Gibbs explains. “If I could give a young entrepreneur a motto to live by it would be Attitude by Charles Swindoll.” The author’s famous quote has been a centerpiece on the wall in Gibbs study since beginning his business, and has bestowed similar plaques to his children and grandchildren.
By 1970 the company was flourishing and hit $5 million in revenue. This is when Gibbs and his partner knew it was time to invest in their employees. “The best motivation out there is to have a love of building people,” says Gibbs. “The rest will take care of itself.”
The partners didn’t want Modern Business Systems to be perceived as just a place to collect a paycheck. “We wanted people working towards a career, not just putting in time on a job. We started taking our profits and putting them back into their future.” We used to joke that we were in the people business and copiers were just a sideline.” Says Gibbs
It was an investment that paid off. Gibbs built Modern Business Systems into the largest independent copier dealer in North America with 1,320 employees, 36 locations in nine states, and gross revenue of over $168,000,000. After 30 years of hard work and growth, Gibbs was also awarded the Missourian Award in 1997, which is given for outstanding contributions in business, civic life, or the arts.
While education is important, Gibbs also points to the significance of motivating and training your team, including rewarding them for a job well done. It’s the only way they wholeheartedly invest back into the company to achieve those larger goals.
“My biggest accomplishment is that we built Modern Business Systems by surrounding ourselves with good people,” says Gibbs.
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than the facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company…a church…a home. The remarkable thing is, we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past…we cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude…I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes.”By Charles Swindoll
Gibbs says, “For example, if I would have had a bad attitude the day I came home with that bad flat top, where would I be today?”