The art of hanging in there: An interview with FUTEK’s CEO Javad Mokhbery

32 years ago, an Iranian-born engineer, who had built a career as a whiz-kid problem solver for tech giants like Rockwell International, decided that he was going to start his own business. Javad Mokhbery's vision for what was until 1992 known as Future Technology, was as bold as its name, "I didn't want to create the kind of company that already existed. I anticipated coming opportunities in this technical arena and wanted to contribute to those advancements, while achieving full customer satisfaction," he says.


The art of hanging in there
An interview with FUTEK’s CEO Javad Mokhbery

The success story that is FUTEK has very much been shaped by Javad's methodical yet forward-thinking approach to management and business, which, in turn, has been shaped by his worldview. Like FUTEK, which always strives to continuously evolve and improve, its founder aims to make good use of life lessons in order to become a better leader. Anyone who has met Javad knows that a conversation with him is likely to go a lot deeper than the business-as-usual platitudes. You will be treated to an array of thought-provoking philosophical nuggets as well as doses of no-frills pragmatism and self-effacing humor. You are likely to walk away inspired.

In a year of unprecedented challenges, it seems fitting to celebrate three decades of growth and innovation by taking a look at what it took to get there. We sat down to discuss Javad's life-long practice of accomplishing goals by overcoming obstacles, or, as he calls it, "the art of hanging in there."

Javad in the late 1990s, during the early days of FUTEK.

If you could go back in time to when you started FUTEK, what advice would you give yourself?

Practice the art of listening. Communicate. Hang in there as long as it takes. Be prepared for ups and downs at any moment. Recognize that the only surprise is a day without surprises. Life is a package deal. Deal with it.

Let's break down each of these statements, starting with listening. What do you mean by that?

I consider myself not just FUTEK's CEO but also CLO, Chief Listening Officer. Listening is what helps an entrepreneur and a business grow. Listening is not hearing. A lot of the time when someone is talking to us we have already made up our minds about what they are saying. When you really listen, you actively try to achieve a better understanding of a situation, especially someone else's situation. Back in Detroit in 1982, I was working on automotive inspection, specifically a verification tool called V-Belt Sensor that had been very nicely designed in the 1960s. It was designed for and required two hand operation, but as cars were becoming more compact, it became very challenging to utilize the tool properly. And, as I was listening to the engineer who was working with the device, I realized it wasn't just a problem with measurement, it was also functionality, as it was difficult to use with one hand. So when I came back, I had designed a device, which was a one-hand operation with a click-on and click-off function. And when I took it to him to demonstrate it, you should have seen his face, he was like a kid with a piece of candy. And that's when I knew that that would be my mission, to make sure that I thoroughly understood the customer's need before I tried to provide a solution. It's more than creating a solution that fits the application, it's about fulfilling a need, whether or not that need has been identified yet.

Has learning how to listen to your customers also influenced how you communicate with your team?

Yes. As an entrepreneur you always think you have the best solution, that you know the answer. That's why entrepreneurs are successful, because they have confidence in their own decisions. I have had to train myself to allow others to be heard and let them make decisions, because sometimes their ideas could be better than mine. I still have a hard time with that. And if I could go back I would do it much more. I would be far more patient and I would listen more to partners and team members.

Javad and his late brother, FUTEK partner and CFO Mohammad Mokhberi.

Let's talk about what you call "hanging in there," what exactly does that mean to you?

When I talk about hanging in there, it's not just holding on for dear life. It's an active pursuit of solutions. Like Tarzan, you're jumping from tree branch to tree branch, finding the next move that will take you forward. When we started FUTEK, I had to completely adjust my lifestyle. I had been working for Rockwell International on the Discovery space shuttle, right after the Challenger explosion, and was very well compensated. We had no outside investment and very little savings, which meant that we had some very hard times for the first five to seven years. We had to cut down on expenses in every possible area. I was going to buy a new car, and I wanted a Mercedes Benz, but no, I had to realize that I couldn't afford that, so I bought a Toyota Corolla. I was a very social person, but I had to stop going out. One of the first projects I had was computer programming, but I couldn't afford to buy a desk, so I was practically sitting on the floor for a few months. There were times when I didn't know if I would have money for my mortgage. At one point, I had filled out an application to work nights at the grocery store, because no matter what, I was not going to give up FUTEK. And I always found a way. I would find one solution to make sure I still had one more week, and the next day, I would find another solution to buy myself more time.

It wasn't until 1996 - 1997 that we had created the kind of customer base that would provide reliable revenue. Up until then we didn't pay ourselves, and we pretty much only had our own family members on staff. But by that time, we had established a very good reputation and our customer base really believed in us, which helped to get the word out, and that helped us grow further. When I took a business course back in Detroit, I learned that out of 100 entrepreneurs at least 90 drop out in the first year. But if you manage to stay in business for seven years, you will last. And that's how it was for us. It took seven years.

Another thing that you would tell your younger self is that life is a package deal. Can you explain?

Life is not always what you want, but what you get as a package. It's a compromise. Part of your experience are things you choose, and part of it are things you don't choose. You know, when mother nature gives you something, she always takes something away. So, understanding that is very important. I don't believe in complaining. Accept the situation rather than letting your energy get sapped by complaining. I recognized that I couldn't have the things that I wanted in Iran, so I came to the U.S. and with that I have to accept many different kinds of packages, every year there's a new one. Nothing is ever going to be 100% of what you want. You can't expect that. I've learned a lot from Covid-19. How one simple virus can completely change what we think of as normal and bring so much tragedy throughout the world. But I don't dwell on that. We're lucky that we are alive. We have survived. We have to accept the package and deal with it.

FUTEK is known for its excellent talent retention. Here's Javad talking to Maitte Galvis, who has been a core member of the team since 1995.

And that seems to closely tie in with your belief in being prepared for surprises.

That is right. The word "if" is not in my dictionary. When I come up with a plan, I don't talk about "if," I talk about "when." I have never experienced the mindset of "Let's see what happens," because it's just not how my system works. Having a Bayesian mindset has trained and prepared me to respond rather than to react when I face an unknown situation. When you respond you're aware of all the consequences, you're mitigating, because you have already assessed the risk and know how to treat or manage it. When you react without preparation, you lose control of an unprecedented situation.

Covid is the perfect example. It could have had a terrible impact on us. On the evening of March 19, when California's governor issued a stay-at-home-order, I got on the phone immediately to work out permission for us to stay open as an essential business. By 1:30 in the morning, I was able to send an email to tell the FUTEK team that we were going to stay in production. And, because we had a lot of backup stock and a crisis management plan in place, we were able to keep our supply chain running. It's not just our employees, but also a lot of our customers, who are grateful for that. Had we not had that Bayesian mindset, we would not have been able to handle it correctly and it would have affected us significantly. But, we stayed open, and, because we took the situation seriously and took a lot of precautions, we stayed safe.

So a spring that could have been a disaster, wasn't, because your experiences had trained you to make the right choices.

Yes. And it also allowed me to think outside of the box and not follow the textbook. There were people who wanted us to close, which I can understand, but it would have been the wrong choice for us. It's important to think critically and question the norm. Right now, I'm thinking a lot about what is next for FUTEK, which means that I'm trying to discover and identify hidden values and doing a lot of questioning. What do we know about our team and unique capabilities? About market opportunities? About the future? And about unknowns? What do we need to know? What are we learning and how are we communicating throughout all our channels? What actions are we taking to answer these questions? FUTEK's platform is like an iceberg, so far, we have only seen the tip of what is there. And with that comes added responsibilities. For over 30 years, we have driven our vehicle effectively and efficiently. Now we are trusted and prepared to fly the vehicle into the future.