According to John Frisch, there are three ways to succeed in business: Either you inherit an operation, grow one through strategic brilliance, or just work really hard. For Frisch, hard work has been the key to success, which includes his 16-year tenure as president and owner of Higher Information Group.
“I would describe myself as a certainly the best ditch digger … I’ll finish my ditch first,” he says. “And I think that wherever I’ve gone good, bad or otherwise it’s because of perseverance.”
At age 47, Frisch has been defined by his persistence through no less than a half-dozen different ownership ventures. After working on and then supervising dock shipping to largely fund himself through Shippensburg University on route to a degree in rural and urban development, Frisch had an opportunity to work for himself in his 20s. He and a friend ran a company selling point-of-sale systems before, at 31, Frisch bought Harrisburg Copiers, a long-established but struggling equipment supply firm.
“Thirteen employees, they did [1.3 million in sales], they were in financial distress,” he recalls. Whereas now, his company employs more than 100 employees and has rebranded itself as Higher Information Group (HIG), which “manages information from inception to destruction” and offers business equipment, IT services, document storage, shredding services, corporate printing, and web services. And HIG is still growing.
“We just recently purchased York Mail Service,” he says of the pre-sort and bulk mailing operation that also came with 17 employees when the deal closed in April. “They had a nice client base in the York area, but it also adds to the list of services we can provide our clients,” such as direct mail advertising services.
And Frisch’s venture capitalism hasn’t been confined to the office supply sector.
“A year ago a partner and I just opened Greystone Public House,” he says of the former Mount Hill Tavern on Colonial and Linglestown roads. “If you like the way the place looks, I’ll take the compliment. If you like the way the place is run and the food, my business partner is the owner and operator.”
Frisch also has purchased a number of car washes over the years as well as flipping a couple of houses per year after he and his brother put the work in to fix them up.
“Getting to the end of the day and going ‘I made this much money’ is not nearly as important—obviously you keep score that way—but that’s not nearly as important as building something,” he says. “It’s pretty cool when you have 100 employees, most of which are head of household, so conservatively, I think we have 300, maybe 400, lives, and then you throw in the restaurant. We affect well over 500 lives, so you have to take that seriously, which means you have to make sure you are profitable.”
Frisch readily admits his interest in “a lot of different directions” is a bit outside the norm for a traditional business leader, which also accounts for the wide variety of services HIG offers all under one roof.
“I would guess that if I went to Harvard Business School, they’d probably come in and assess my business and go, ‘You do too many things—you need to focus on what you’re good at,’” he says. “And I’m not saying they’re not right. But I’d counter that with, ‘Typically we’re growing double digits every year, always have, so we started off with 13 employees, grew to 85 without an acquisition, probably averaging 12–15 percent per year … so I get that there’s maybe better ways to do it, but we’re doing okay with what we’re doing.”
Nonetheless, Frisch easily admits there have been business ventures that have not worked out as planned, such as when HIG tried to start up its own software development division.
“It was probably a $150,000 mistake,” he says. “And I’m sure we could have been successful at developing software, but at what cost. I think you can be successful for anything if you put your mind to it, but sometimes the penalty for being successful to your other operations isn’t worth it.”
Frisch embraces his learn-as-you-go approach to new ventures.
“I believe I make more mistakes than most people,” he says. “But the key is to be right more than you’re wrong. You have to realize there’s going to be a percentage of the time that you’re wrong. And when you’re wrong, fix it, or stop it and get out of it.”
When he’s not working on a new project, Frisch stays involved in the community by supporting Harrisburg Area Community College and Penn State—including endowments for each—as well as serving on the board for NHS Human Services and an annual multiple sclerosis fundraiser that brings a charity polo match to the Cumberland Valley School district every summer.
Frisch also likes to dabble in a handful of sports, which he picked up from his father while growing up outside of Philadelphia. (After graduating high school, he took a six-week trip to Montana with his dad to fly fish—an influential adventure that he largely describes now as, “just a lot of fun.”)
“I like bird hunting, I like fly fishing, golf, we have company bowling,” he says. “I like doing things, that’s probably the reason I get into as many different business things as I do.”
Frisch credits his passion for starting projects with getting the right people in charge of the six major divisions—and then being smart enough to know when to stay out of their way.
“There’s a lot of things in this organization that I can’t do. I can’t fix your computer, my director of IT can’t fix your computer—he’s an administrator, he runs IT,” he says, explaining his dislike for micromanagement.
“My director of sales currently runs our sales team of 16 or 17 different people. And she’s better at it,” he says. “Once I got her up and going, I was the controller for the company, and then I realized this was way too complex, and so now I have a CPA on staff.”
“The whole thing is to get the process in place, get somebody in there, and all those people do a much better job than I could just because they’re focused on it,” he says. “And you have to surround yourself with different types of people, if everybody was out in left field where I am, we’d never get anything done here.”
“It’s also about believing in people—I’m always a glass is half-full type,” he says. “I’m going to believe in someone until they show me I shouldn’t.”
He credits his trust in people with driving a culture at HIG that causes most of his employees to stay with the company for a long time. “The best thing you can do is to train them so that they’re very marketable, and then pay them so they can’t afford to leave,” he says.
He also credits his interest and trust in people with helping HIG weather the storm of a changing economic landscape, where technology and industry are so volatile.
“I think everything changes,” he says, “but I’ll tell you what doesn’t change: Taking care of your clients. If you always put your clients first, listen to what your clients need, and figure out how to match up what they need, you’re always in fashion.”