When Nick Favret first met Fulton Breen at a business conference in 2014, Favret was 35 years old—still young, but on the precipice of making big decisions. Breen, the CEO and founder of a data analytics software company in Morrisville, asked Favret a few simple questions.
“He said, ‘Nick, what do you get pumped to do?’ ” remembers Favret.
Favret ticks off the rules of thumb he’s learned from Breen in the years since that day: Get your values and the rest follows. Culture trumps strategy. Never be bored.
“Fulton is a leading example of a successful business person who understands the components that got him there,” says Favret, 38, who works at Bayer CropScience.
Helping younger people figure out life is somewhat of a hobby for Breen.
A man without a plan
But before Breen, now 59, mentored young business professionals, and launched a software company, he was a high school student in Decatur, Georgia with no plans for college.
Still, everyone kept asking him where he was going, so he said Clemson.
He got in, but there was no money for college so Breen worked three jobs to pay for his first semester. After that, he figured he’d wing it.
He signed up for Entomology 101 for what other students promised would be “an easy A.”
A ‘call to action’
It was the first day of class, and the professor, Thomas Skelton, asked: Does anyone know what a systemic pesticide is?
One of Breen’s summer jobs had been at a botany company, so he raised his hand.
Skelton, impressed with his answer, pulled him over after class.
“He simply asked questions about where I was from, what I was majoring in and he said, ‘I want you to major in Entomology. There was a call to action, and I took it.
“It was exactly what I needed in my life,” continues Breen. “At that young age, the import of a very influential dynamic, enthusiastic, high energy adult male is huge for younger males.”
Skelton helped Breen find enough funding in grants and scholarships to graduate and then steered him toward a job sales at Union Carbide. His career later took him overseas, working on pesticide issues in different countries, which was challenging.
The first thing I’d do is get all the managers in a room with a consultant, and I’d say, ‘Look guys, it’s going to take me a year to learn your language and your culture. We need to come to an agreement on our operating principles because we’re going to inevitably bump heads.
“That simple exercise did so much to derail what otherwise could have been problem areas,” Breen says.
When work brought him back to the U.S. in 1991, Breen took a class that changed how he thought about money.
“Money was what drove me,” says Breen. “I’d move anywhere, take any job. Totally unhealthy.”
The class taught him about trade-offs, he says, by asking simple questions.
“Would you walk across a tight rope at the World Trade Center to get $2 million? No. Would you do it for your son? Yes.”
“I became consumed with that process,” says Breen. “I stayed up late into the night going through yellow legal pads looking at trade-offs. I ended up with my five guiding principles and they’ve never changed.
“Guess what never made the list?” continues Breen. “Money. It was the most unbelievable thing. There was a structure of understanding, a way to approach problems that helped weed out these bad directions you naturally want to take when you’re young.”
Shaping his company’s values
By the time he started XSInc. in 1998, he wanted to apply what he’d learned.
XSInc. works with agriculture dealers and manufacturers nationwide, analyzing data on everything from seed to chemicals for market share, price indices and more. “It’s like the AC Nielsen for food and agriculture,” says Breen. “We were the first to do it.”
As his workforce grew, Breen noticed a common denominator.
“We were hiring all of these young people, and they made decisions about their career somewhat haphazardly; they’d default to money.”
Breen invited employees to come talk to him.
Matt Bell, now 39, took him up on his offer: “I’ve sought his advice on everything from buying my first home and managing my finances to identifying and pursuing a career path,” says Bell, who now works as a senior systems analyst at Fidelity Investments.
“Fulton is easily approachable and strives to help others succeed through coaching, mentoring and sharing whatever knowledge he has.”
Applying the same ethics to the company mission, Breen initiated ethical discussions and debates online. Posts were anonymous.
“Who did we want to be in our eyes and the eyes of our customers?” Breen asked employees. The debate led to six core values, etched in glass on the XSInc building at Perimeter Park: Dream Big, Work Hard, Play Fair, Have Fun, Speak Out, Stay Sharp.
In the 2009, XSInc. won the North Carolina “Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award.”
Everyone’s a CEO
Breen says personal strategy and corporate strategy are really one and the same.
“With companies, you look at competitive advantage, mission and values. Those three things are the hallmarks of any well run company,” he says.
“The structure used to run a company is really no different than the structure used to run a life. You’re the CEO of your life. You have the same stewardship responsibilities of a CEO running a company.”
The answers, he says, are found in simple questions.
“Speaking in Christian terms, what are my gifts from God, what is God’s purpose in my life, and how am I going to conduct myself as I achieve this the best I can?”
Know someone who would make a good Tar Heel of the Week? Nominate them at firstname.lastname@example.org
Born: August 1957
Family: Wife Penny, two grown sons and a grandson on the way.
Degrees: Clemson (1979 and Economic Zoology); Duke University (MBA, 1997)
Company: CEO and founder of XSInc., Morrisville
A business in the works: Novarete, software that helps companies develop a values-driven culture.
Favorite weekend spot: Lake Gaston
Unusual hobby: Growing truffles