Find Your Wings!

Do something you’re good at and the rest will take care of itself.

I’ve been selling things since the 3rd grade, but I got my first “professional” sales job during my senior year in college. I recruited and placed IT professionals from my dorm room at LaSalle University. I was pretty good and had some early success—but if not for my mom and dad, it never would have happened.

Not only did my parents help me pay for college, but it was their recruiting firm—Donato & Associates—that gave me the opportunity. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized just how fortunate I was to have role models like Peggy and Tony Donato.

My mom and dad started Donato & Associates in 1981 when I was 10 years old. I didn’t really understand what my parents did for a living at that age. What I know now is that they had no previous experience starting or running their own business. Up to that point, Dad worked for several mid-sized companies as an accountant while Mom stayed home  for over a decade, raising me and my siblings.

In 1980, Mom returned to the workforce and was learning to be a recruiter for a small personnel agency in King of Prussia, PA. Her passion for helping others combined with her keen ability to “connect the dots” made Mom a natural fit for this role. Within a very short time, she became the top performer in her office. Dad looked at her commission check and didn’t like the math—her boss had taken half, Uncle Sam took his cut, and Mom got what was left. So Dad started thinking “what if?”

I wasn’t part of that discussion, of course, but I can only imagine that there was a lot of anxiety around leaving steady jobs to start their own business. Dad had always wanted to be his own boss, but they couldn’t afford to take big risks. In today’s business world, we can experiment—and failure isn’t necessarily fatal. Forty years ago, you had to go all in. The stakes were high for my parents. My oldest brother has just started his freshman year at a prestigious prep school, interest rates hovered around 18 percent, gas prices were high, and the economy was uncertain. With four kids and no support system, starting a business was a huge leap.

Dad eventually talked my Mom into it, and they gave themselves one year to make it work.

My brothers, sister and I had front row seats as our mom and dad built their business. When we talk about it now, it was obvious they had a clear vision and an agreed-upon set of priorities. Their “North Star” was simple: spend more time together doing something they’re good at and the rest will take care of itself. There weren’t delusions of grandeur around creating a thriving enterprise, nor were there altruistic intentions of making a difference in the world. It was simply about Peggy and Tony growing together while making a better life for our family.

Donato & Associates put food on our table, a nice roof over our heads, funded school tuitions and paid for one week’s vacation in Ocean City, NJ every summer. Meanwhile, Peggy and Tony improved the lives of hundreds of people by reducing their commutes to work, helping them acquire new skills or getting them a nice bump in their paycheck. The business ebbed and flowed for more than 30 years while Mom and Dad achieved a massive ROIT (Return on Invested Time). They were side by side through it all.

Last year Dee and I were strolling through Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square with my parents. We asked Mom, “How did you do it when things seemed so uncertain and the risks were so obvious? Where did you and Dad find the strength and the courage?”

Walking in stride next to her long-time business partner she replied, “Sometimes you just need to jump and find your wings on the way down.” Dad was quick to add, “Preferably holding someone’s hand when you do it.”

Thanks for taking the leap, Mom and Dad. Those wings are still working!