For local entrepreneur Kevin O’Neil, home is where his heart — and his business — is.
A Colorado Springs native and CEO of The O’Neil Group, he works passionately to enhance the city’s economy by bringing more companies to Colorado Springs.
He’s purchased five buildings downtown, created a campus to train engineers and offer collaborative research, and is in the process of developing a million-dollar cybersecurity research-and-development operations center in Colorado Springs.
Through his partnerships and diverse personal and professional journeys, he says, “The community became my family.”
The 50-year-old has ventured down a long road to success, launching his first company here in 1982.
Tell us about your early days in business.
I went to Hastings College in Nebraska for one year and opened a flooring store there. I dropped out of college to pursue the flooring business, only to close the business a year later and return to Colorado Springs. I opened a flooring business here and remained in that industry during the ’80s, until I sold the business and went back to school at UCCS. I wanted to get on the path to becoming an attorney and received a degree in communications. Oddly enough, UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak was a professor for a few of my classes.
I decided the flooring business was a tough industry to make money in and attended Denver University for a year and a half. During that experience, I decided it was either my wife and kids or a law degree, and I chose my family.
What has been your secret to success?
I think the secret to success is the philosophy around why do we do things and the partnerships we create.
During the RTC [Resolution Trust Corporation] days of the late ’80s, I realized I could start investing capital credit and had some knowledge of real estate. I bought a lot of real estate — for what was not much — and started companies based around that need.
It’s like anything, if you buy it at the right time, it appreciates. And if you buy enough of it and it appreciates, it’s a vehicle to gain wealth.
It wasn’t so much that I was bright, as I recognized the opportunity. I was willing to move on an opportunity that was exposed, and I think that is so much of life. We’re given only a few opportunities and if you decide to jump, sometimes you fail and hit the ground, and sometimes you don’t.
I think most investors are driven by profit and what’s in it for them. I think it’s important to realize that creating relationships is the way you should view life.
I would rather make less money and have a better quality of life for employees. If you reinvest capital into the business, there is a future. You trade off today for tomorrow.
What was your first big break in business?
Investing in Braxton Technologies was the break that put a lot of things today in context, concerning the space and aerospace company.
Investment in that business has made a lot available today. I think our success [The O’Neil Group] comes from the fact that we haven’t really relied on the local or state economy. We’ve focused on a national strategy where we’re able to locate anywhere. The main driver behind our portfolio is the five national aerospace companies.
Why are you passionate about Colorado Springs?
I think the passion is that the community became my family.
I went through a divorce in 2008. When you’ve lost the one thing you thought you’d never lose, you look for a sense of family. When you realize that money doesn’t make you happy, you realize the community is your family. Most people in Colorado Springs are ethical and friendly. They actually wave and talk to you on the street. I think we go through different periods of our life where if it’s not to gain wealth, it’s to start a legacy. For me, investing downtown became a natural fit and bringing companies to Colorado Springs became something I was capable of doing.
What do you think the biggest challenge is for cyber and aerospace industries in Colorado Springs?
We’re getting a late start as a community. We’ve seen other communities with higher education institutions advance further. We’re just now getting in the game but we have assets that other communities don’t, such as our military bases. We have an opportunity to bring in new cybersecurity centers and have support from the Mayor and City Council. Our community has a cybersecurity need and revenue stream to support it with our five military bases. We have more than 80 companies playing in the cybersecurity world, but we don’t strategically advance each other’s causes like we should. Hopefully we’ll do some of that at Catalyst Campus, bringing those groups and customers together.
What are major challenges you overcame as an entrepreneur?
I think in all industries, there are experts and great companies, where somebody is the best.
As an entrepreneur, when you grow companies and start down a new path — the hardest part is knowing that you’re really not a good or great company; you’re a startup. Even if you have some systems in place and understand business, you will make a lot of mistakes. That efficiency might not come for years to be a good or great company. You might fail. So the roadblocks are to realize that you don’t have the skillsets by yourself. It’s about organizing the team and competing in an industry where people are very sophisticated and have a great presence. How do you justify going into new markets or growing in opportunities? The hardest part is credibility.