When Colin Eagen was eight years old, his family spent a happy Thanksgiving at his aunt and uncle’s house. After the meal, however, the young boy found his happiness curbed when his uncle, a factory supervisor, wrapped up some leftovers and headed to work at eight in the evening on a holiday.
Colin was so distraught at witnessing his uncle forced to leave so quickly after dinner that, on the drive home with his parents, he announced his stance on the issue. “I remember saying that I never wanted to have a job where I had to come in at a certain time and leave at a certain time, with a limit on how much I was going to make during that time,” he recalls. “I was only eight years old, but I had figured out that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and that I wanted a job without limits, whether that meant great success or great failure.” Now the founder and CEO of E Group, a business dedicated to providing organizations with the tools to recognize and award team members and deepen company culture, Colin is living that childhood dream, learning from the failures and celebrating the successes that come from living life to the fullest: without limits.
At its essence, E Group is the flourishing product of the marriage between an old, product-centered business and a new, technology-oriented, Internet-focused business. Serving large Fortune 100 companies like ExxonMobil, Marriott, the National Honors Society, Hyatt, BAE Systems, and Abbott Laboratories, they impart the tools that allow their managers to recognize people and preserve that human side of business that makes work worthwhile. “We provide a market for organizations to engage their workforce, their members, and their sales channels to communicate and recognize achievements,” Colin explains. The company, which is comprised of twenty-five employees and numerous close contractors, is closing in on its thirtieth birthday, and reached $20 million in sales for the 2012 year, with expectations to grow by 25 percent in 2013. This remarkable growth stems in large part from E Group’s unique and robust technology platform, its defined process for designing value-added programs and packaged approaches for clients, and its solutions-oriented team of sales professionals.
Colin began the company right out of college, originally as a means to save up enough to afford law school. He was first hired in sales as a manufacturer’s representative, selling plaques and trophies to businesses for straight commission. There were no guarantees and no benefits, but also no limits, and within that variability, Colin thrived, earning a six-figure income in his first year after college on commission alone.
Unlike many of his fellow agents, Colin quickly noticed that the customer was craving something more. “I realized the customer wanted products to recognize their employees for a job well done, and I wanted to address that need,” he recalls. “So I expanded, moving from a broker to a distributer, where I would buy products and resell them. I essentially built the infrastructure and created the services around that.” As demand grew, he added a design department, accounting and finance department, customer service department, and eventually an account management department, all of which broadened the spectrum of products and services he could offer the client.
The company, which was named for the first initial of Colin’s last name, has successfully reinvented itself four times in order to keep up with the changing economy. One of the greatest reinventions was moving to the realm of e-commerce, which was built slowly over time by Colin’s decision to reinvest the money he made back into the company. “I never went to any investors for loans,” he says. “We’re buying products from all over the world, so we do use a bank credit line, but I’m very proud to be able to look back on the company’s history and know that all investments were self-sustained.”
As the business grew, taking on more employees and clients while offering more products and service, Colin has continually streamlined the company, keying into the fact that at the heart of his business, clients are simply looking for a way to engage people and increase performance. “When we realized this, we began building the technology to support the clients’ requirements,” he recalls. “We’ve focused on performance management, asking how we can help drive behaviors that will bring results to the organization. As a result, we’re a one-stop shop for all things when you want to engage an audience, whether through communications, or through rewards and awards.”
Colin grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, with his younger brother and two younger sisters. His mother stayed at home with the children, while his father was an entrepreneurial man of many trades and launched a number of small businesses, including a bar and restaurant and a vending machine company, and ultimately ending up in promotional products.
Colin attended Shippensburg University on a wrestling scholarship, but during his freshman year, he was injured to such an extent that he needed two knee surgeries, which ultimately ended his wrestling career. “I was used to spending so much time and energy on working out and practicing, so I had this void to fill,” he recalls. “I got really into school and student government, and eventually I became the President of the student body.” His experience in college led him to believe he wanted to become a lawyer, and since he had both family and friends in the field, he thought it would be a good fit. He applied to law school and was accepted, but decided it would be best to take a year off after graduating to earn some money to pay for his further education.
Shortly after graduating, he began his job as a manufacturer’s representative, where he discovered the demand for employee and client engagement tools. While he began formulating his ideas for E Group, his father invited him to take over his business—a proposal Colin had to decline. “I had another idea about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it,” he recalls. “So I went on a different track, and he not only understood, but also admired that.”
While Colin had worked for the family business every summer during his college years, his father was not surprised by his son’s decision.
Even as a young child, Colin was determined to find his own unique way to make an extra dollar. His motivation as a seven year old, however, was to earn enough money to buy a Go-Kart. “I had a paper route in the hospital, which was considered the ‘bad route’ because it was more involved than just delivering papers,” he comments. “At the age of seven, I would go door-to-door selling newspapers from my wagon at two different hospitals. There were new faces in the hospital every Sunday, so I couldn’t just deliver—I had to make sales.” It was a challenge Colin enjoyed, not only because he made a five-cent commission on the papers he sold and earned more in one day than his friends made in five, but also because he realized his true happiness was in working with people. “I’ve always liked people,” he smiles. “If you asked my hobby, I would say it’s being around people and building relationships with them.”
After eighteen months, Colin had saved up enough to buy a small Go-Kart, just large enough for him and his brother to squeeze onto together. His mother would drive the two boys to a parking lot, where they would ride around for hours. Eventually, she decided to leave them there while she went home to do her errands, telling them she’d be back in an hour and under no circumstances could they go in the road. Naturally, as soon as she was out of sight, they drove to the baseball field and to friends’ houses, puttering down the main road. “Eventually, the police saw us, so they chased after us,” he laughs. “We tried to lose them because we knew our mother would take away the Go-Kart if she found out we’d been in the street, but they cornered us, put our Go-Kart in their car, and took us home.”
Despite his run-in with the cops, Colin continued to learn from the various jobs he worked through his youth. He sold Cokes in the stands at Penn State games, thinking up clever themes to match the games and dressing as such to set himself apart from his competition. He also hired his younger brother and sisters to sell Cokes for him at various concession stands during halftime so customers didn’t have to wait in line. Colin also worked for K Mart in its Lawn and Garden Center, loving the fact that he didn’t have to wear a tie. “I tried to make it fun for the customers,” he remembers. “I had a uniform, and my mom embroidered ‘The K Mart Kid’ on the back. That’s what people knew me as. None of the jobs I’ve ever had have felt like work to me because I approach them with passion.”
In high school, Colin worked as a waiter and found he had a deep fondness for commission. “There was a direct connection between the effort I put in and the amount of tips I took home at night,” he said. “So when I graduated, I knew I wanted to work strictly in commission. That way, there was no limit to what I could make. It was all on me. It was a challenge, and it was fun.”
Despite his success in life, Colin has met failure as well, though not through E Group itself. The lowest point he faced occurred when he invested in companies he knew too little about because he was too busy with his own business to truly investigate them. “I honestly didn’t take a day off until I was 28, and that takes a toll,” he remarks. “I was flattered that people were asking me to invest, and I thought investing would further help my business, but I ended up losing money. I was very naïve about the risks associated with those businesses, but it taught me important lessons about investing, about decision making, about myself, and about people. Because the problem in those situations wasn’t the businesses, it was the people. It also led me to deeply appreciate the kind of sustainable, profitable business that I had in E Group.”
Despite the mistakes made along the way, E Group is thriving today, and Colin has proven himself a visionary with a true skill for leadership. Of all his accomplishments with the company, however, he feels most proud that some of the first employees he ever hired are still with the company today, after a quarter century. “I believe in leading by example,” he says. “Say what you do, and do what you say. Above all else, however, trust must be a foundational factor in any relationship, whether it be professional or personal. Once you have that trust in your relationships, a lot of things are possible, so a key component of leadership is building and maintaining trust.”
While cultivating the integrity and positive reputation of his company, Colin has also kept his family a top priority—something he began to build well over twenty years ago. It started when Colin, a young entrepreneur, was four years out of college and arrived at a party, where he met a striking woman named Stacy. “We talked for most of the night, and by the time I left, I knew I had met the woman of my dreams,” he remembers. “When you know, you know. The only problem was, I was in a relationship with someone else at the time.”
That relationship wasn’t progressing, and though Colin didn’t have any reason to believe Stacy would even consider dating him, he knew he would forever regret it if he didn’t take a risk, follow his heart, and try.
Colin did, in fact, take that leap, and today, he and Stacy are happily married with two daughters in college. “I have two major quotes that I try to live by, both in my personal life and in business,” he explains. “The first is that 80 percent of life is about just showing up, and the rest of it is what you do once you get there. The second concept, and perhaps the most important, is to live with no regrets. I didn’t want to spend my life wondering if Stacy would have gone out on a date with me. I never want to look back on a situation and regret that I didn’t do something. Those are usually tough times with tough decisions, but I try to make the choice that I know I won’t look back on and wish I had done something different.”
While E Group was already in business at the time they met, Stacy has played a vital role in keeping the company on track and moving full speed ahead through the years. “If I’m contemplating a problem, she starts at the end and works backwards to the beginning, asking how we want it to turn out, and how we can get there,” he says. “She has a remarkable calmness and a keen ability to see other people’s perspectives. She’s very strategic.” When the two are not focused on the company, they are enjoying their close-knit, supportive family. And while the Eagens have supported countless charities with donations of both time and money, they focus primarily on giving back to the private schools their daughters have attended, all of which rely heavily on donations.
Although Colin’s career is marked with years of success, in many ways, his journey is still young. His father has always been one of his greatest mentors, so when he lost his recent battle to cancer, Colin began looking on the world with new eyes.
“At his funeral, there was standing room only,” he says. “My father built so many strong relationships through his life, and everyone came up to me and told me things he had done for them. They were all just nice things that he had done that he never told us about. And that made me realize that, really, it’s all about helping people. He had no regrets, even when his business went through rough times. In life and in business, it’s all about the people. Relationships the true building blocks of success—that’s why we’ve had some of our clients since our inception over two decades ago, and that’s why some of the people I’ve shared professional relationships, even people from all over the world, feel comfortable coming to me with personal concerns as well. If you earn people’s trust and are able to keep it, you’ll be able to look back on your life and see a job well done.”
In further advising young people entering the working world today, Colin stresses passion as the common thread found in every successful person. “They believe in what they’re doing, and they’re connected to it at every level,” he says. “That kind of engagement is contagious in an organization, and in life. When you have that passion, it’s not about earning enough money to retire. It’s about the people and energy and good you’re a part of.” Indeed, living life without limits means embracing success and failure as two sides of the same coin, and that coin is passion. And as Colin has found, it’s the only coin that truly allows one to look for the best in others and give the best one has.