The classic handheld Mattel football game beeped and buzzed in the hands of 9-year-old Julius Davis — until he dropped it. • The toy split open, revealing the circuit board that helped guide the tiny red lights. • But it might as well as have been a crystal ball, because in it Davis saw his future. • "When I saw what was inside of it, to me that was amazing," Davis said of his moment of enlightenment. "I also liked to draw, so I was kind of always into the architectural side of it. Combined with my interest in the electrical side and the circuit boards, my dad was a mason, so when I would go to work with him, he would have blueprints and drawings and floor plans. • "So I always took interest in that." • That early interest has blossomed into a thriving engineering consulting firm for Davis, 44, and a higher profile. Along with partner Jorge Rivera, Davis started VoltAir in 2006. The two quickly grew the company into a local and regional leader, working closely with architects and specializing in aviation business. • With offices in Tampa and Houston, VoltAir scored a major coup when it recently won a $150 million contract for the new Southwest Airlines terminal at Houston Hobby International Airport. • The Tampa native and Chamberlain High graduate also has drawn statewide attention. Gov. Rick Scott recently appointed him to the Enterprise Florida board, and he serves on the Space Florida board with Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. • The married father of two recently shared his business perspectives and hopes for Enterprise Florida with Times staff writer Ernest Hooper.
The appointment to the Enterprise Florida board had to be seen as a real sign of success.
Being on the board of local foundations and other organizations here in the community, such as the YMCA advisory board and the HCC Foundation board, I thought it was an opportunity to get on the state level. It really didn't hit me until we had our first meeting for Enterprise Florida in Tallahassee. When I arrived the day before, I get a call from the governor's aide saying the governor wants to meet with you in his office tomorrow. I said, (pause) "Okay." That's when it really hit me. In my mind, the governor appointed me out of others like an assembly line — a letter comes across his desk and he just signed it. But then I realize I was the one he appointed. I felt like I had reached a certain point of success to be recognized on the state level. But there's always room for improvement.
You're working on getting your master's from the USF Executive MBA program, but it seems like you already have figured out a lot about business.
I read a lot of books … on how businesses fail and one of the main reasons they fail is because the business owner doesn't understand the financial side of the business. That's where I fell in. I am an engineer. I know about engineering but as the business grows, my role as an engineer fades away and it becomes more about being the business owner. That's the main reason I'm getting some knowledge in that area and getting my MBA. The first few years when we started our company, our financial statements were two pages. A year or two ago, it's 13 pages of numbers and spreadsheets to the point where I called my accountant and said, "I just want to know if we have money in the bank." That was scary. It's good to have an accountant, but it's important to understand what the accountant is doing.
How did you overcome not being from Houston?
By not being the quote-unquote local, you have the competition you have to beat with the local firms there and then you have to convince the clients that not being local is not a hindrance to them.
For a whole year, I would fly up there at least once a month — no reason at all — just to walk around the airport in the administration area just so the decisionmakers could see my presence without having any projects. I knew the local issue was going to come up and it did: "If we need you right away, how are you going to address the problem?" My response was, "You've seen me more than the local engineering firms, even the firms that are doing work here, and I haven't been doing work here. So just imagine if I do get some work."
Next thing you know, we end up with a continuing services contract and we've been doing work out there ever since.
What's your advice to someone starting their own business?
No. 1, they have to do their research. They have to do their homework. Patience is something you have to have. You have to have delayed gratification. You have to plan and truly understand what you're about to get into before you get into it.
My business partner and I, when we were working at another firm together, we would go in on our lunch breaks or our coffee breaks and sign up for classes at the USF Small Business (Development Center). They had classes on how to start the business ... and we attended all those classes they had to offer. The key thing was writing that business plan because that forces you to set the roots and foundation for everything you need. It asks questions you really don't have the answers to, and it forces you to go get the answers and make sure you know what you're doing.
How important is passion?
You have to make sure you have the passion to do what you want to do. It can't be money because if you have a passion, the money will come. It's going to be challenging, it's going to be frustrating. You may get discouraged and that's how a lot of businesses (get derailed).
Some people say, "I went out on my own because I wanted to be my own boss." That doesn't work. You have to find something you really have a passion for and then everything else will fall into place. If you have a passion for it, you're not going to let it fail.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.