The League of Extraordinary CEOs: Inspired by a Cancer Diagnosis

Interview by Steve Blue

Think differently. Be innovative. Make a difference. Every CEO has said it, or something like it. We’ve opened meetings with these remarks. We’ve peppered speeches with these chants.

Scott Petinga, worldwide chairman and CEO of Akquracy, a data-driven marketing firm, actually built his company on these principles. His strategies help clients increase customer loyalty, boost cross-sell opportunities and build long-term, profitable relationships. It’s a winning proposition, especially in a sluggish economy where customers are finicky about brand loyalties.

The company achieved 200 percent growth in the last three years, global expansion to Singapore, and a portfolio of proven success stories. In this month’s Q&A, we peer into what motivates him, and we are in turn inspired to believe that in the midst of tragedy, there really are silver linings.

Blue: AKQURACY is not only spelled differently, the business runs differently. How do you approach business and risks?

Petinga: Ten years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer, it changed the way I think and act. Life is short and precious, and I wanted to do something that I was passionate about. I thought I had the perfect life until my diagnosis. Now my goal is to make life better for everyone around me. For example, healthcare is 100 percent covered for all of my employees, their spouses and their children up to the age of 26. We pick up long-term disability and match 401k contributions. Employees are vested from day one because they contribute from day one. They should benefit financially for doing so.

Blue: Most people talk about how they would live their lives if today were their last day. You’ve actually been there.

Petinga: When you hear you have cancer, you don’t hear anything else for a long time. In 2007, I took my diagnosis and broke away from the mold to build my own company. I learned in the Marines that “nobody ever drowned in sweat,” and proved it: I grew it to a $1 million dollar company in the first year. Within three years, it was $6 million, and now we are over $10 million with multiple locations. Work should be about doing what you love and being surrounded by people that share the same philosophies and passion about work and its impact on clients as you do.

Blue: How would you describe your company compared to other solutions in the marketplace?

Petinga: Our model is derived from an understanding that the best relationships begin when an agency partner incurs monetary risk in the infancy of the partnership. Within the last 12 months, we won contracts from Bentley, Puma and about a half-dozen other companies as a result of that philosophy.

Blue: You give back, which must make you feel really good. Tell me about the Think Different Foundation.

Petinga: Steve Jobs once said people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. It is the fire that burns inside me. I wanted to use all of my experiences to achieve something better and give something greater. My 102-year-old grandmother tells me at birth you are given your last name, so don’t ever tarnish it. I’ve always wanted to be a name that someone could rely on, not necessarily for myself but for others around me. I created the Think Different Foundation to help spark innovative ideas in underserved areas of housing and healthcare in the United States.

Blue: Successful people think differently. I tell people the key to success is to find out how they think differently and then do that. What is your advice?

Petinga: Keep your eyes open and view the world like a 2 year old. They have no fear and don’t get stuck in “coulda, woulda, shoulda” trap. I encouraged a friend battling cancer to view her diagnosis from a rear view mirror because of that warning, objects are bigger than they appear. There’s a reason why the windshield is bigger than the side mirrors. It’s important to be intentional about looking forward more than we glance back.

Originally featured on the Business Journals website (April 9, 2014).

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