Meet Mark E. Watson III, an entrepreneur who has been investing in innovative companies for more than three decades. In the 1990’s, he founded Aquila Capital Partners to back talented founders in creating transformational companies. Among those early investments was Argo Group (NYSE: ARGO), in the specialty underwriting sector. When he became CEO of Argo in 2000, it was a regional, $300 million underwriter nearing insolvency.
Fast-forward twenty years—and after one hell of a journey—Argo is now a thriving public company, with ten times more revenue, clients in 60 countries, and thousands of new jobs created. Today, Mark is fully dedicated to Aquila. They take a collaborative approach to investing in promising entrepreneurs building companies that will shape the world for generations to come.
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Table of Contents
Let’s start with a brief introduction first. Introduce yourself to our readers.
Mark E. Watson III: I am an American investor, competitive athlete, business leader, and philanthropist with over 25+ years of executive experience leading companies to continued success. I’ve always been an entrepreneur. Growing up, I was the boy with the paper route and the one who’d buy candy at the drugstore and then sell it to his friends at boy scout camp for a profit. At age 11, I bought my first stock in Walt Disney for just a few hundred dollars, which became the genesis of my passion for investing.
For over 25 years, I’ve been an entrepreneur, investor, and advisor. I’ve run two public companies—saving one from insolvency and turning it into a market leader with $10 billion in assets—I’ve acquired dozens of companies, both public and private, hired thousands of people, and navigated through major world crises.
Our audience is interested to know about how you got started in the first place. Did you always want to become a CEO or was it something you were led to? Our readers would love to know your story!
Mark E. Watson III: I always knew I wanted to build and run a public company, so I guess you could say I always knew I would be a CEO or hold a similar role. Having grown up with entrepreneurs and other business leaders as parents, grandparents, and mentors, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t run my own business one day. I’ve always had the mindset of a business leader and perhaps, to a lesser extent, business owner.
“Selfmade” is a myth. We all received help, no doubt you love to show appreciation to those who supported you when the going got tough, who has been your most important professional inspiration?
Mark E. Watson III: Being self-made is definitely a myth. Being a leader is learned behavior. I was fortunate enough to learn about being a leader from my parents, grandparents, mentors, and my friends’ parents.
How did your journey lead you to become a CEO? What difficulties did you face along the way and what did you learn from them?
Mark E. Watson III: Being a leader, or for that matter, being good at anything requires a fair amount of apprenticeship or, as we Texans like to say, “time in the saddle”. It’s hard to know when to spend your time learning, when to spend your time doing, and when to step up and let it be your turn. No matter what you’re leading, whether you’re making products, leading a small business, or starting a global enterprise, you still have to figure out the differentiation between these things.
Tell us about your company. What does your business do and what are your responsibilities as a CEO?
Mark E. Watson III: Every CEO’s responsibilities range depending on what type of business they are leading. In my role at Aquila, I help fellow entrepreneurs build their businesses through my investment firm and provide them with both financial and intellectual capital. For entrepreneurs who have taken their company from 0 to 1, Aquila can help them take it from 1 to 10.
What does CEO stand for? Beyond the dictionary definition, how would you define it?
Mark E. Watson III:I jokingly say another way to describe a CEO is “Chief Bottle Washer”. You have to be accountable for everything that is going on in your company, and to some extent, you have to know how to do everything. It truly is the job that requires you to be the jack of all trades and master of all trades or at least show some level of demonstrable knowledge.
It’s pretty hard to know what your team is doing if you don’t have some level of fundamental understanding of each of their roles (which goes back to what I said earlier about spending “time in the saddle”).
When you first became a CEO, how was it different from what you expected? What surprised you?
Mark E. Watson III: Not withstanding the fact that I thought being CEO would be much more about execution than about vision and strategy, I was still surprised at how much time I needed to spend managing people and processes instead of leading. What also surprised me was how vision matters so much more than anything, so I was always trying to figure out how to spend more of my time looking and leading. If you don’t have an idea of where you’re going and why, it becomes very difficult to execute.
So many business leaders today, particularly those who ascend the corporate escalator, are good at articulating the how but not the why. The why is what drives you and inspires your employees to work for the mission and vision of your company. You need to know it to be successful.
There are many schools of thought as to what a CEO’s core roles and responsibilities are. Based on your experience, what are the main things a CEO should focus on? Explain and please share examples or stories to illustrate your vision.
Mark E. Watson III: Knowing where you are going and why you are going there matters more than anything. A CEO needs to spend most of their time on their vision and strategy and make sure they put into place a very good team to execute. Everything maps back to this.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts?
Mark E. Watson III: One of the toughest decisions I had to make was selling the original business the company was founded on. We’d built our brand, but the world had moved on, and we needed to move on with it. We ultimately landed in a better direction for the company, but it was still tough to sell the thing the company was founded on.
How would you define success? Does it mean generating a certain amount of wealth, gaining a certain level of popularity, or helping a certain number of people?
Mark E. Watson III: I define success as achieving your goals and aspirations and making the world a better place along the way.
Some leadership skills are innate while others can be learned. What leadership skills do you possess innately and what skills have you cultivated over the years as a CEO?
Mark E. Watson III: I think I have an innate ability to learn and adapt to the times, as well as think critically about different possibilities and outcomes. Over the years, I have cultivated the ability to predict what might happen and prepare my organization accordingly.
How did your role as a CEO help your business overcome challenges caused by the pandemic? Explain with practical examples.
Mark E. Watson III: My role as CEO taught me about being resilient and building resilient organizations. This ties to the concept of risk management. I knew that whatever company I was a part of needed to adapt with the times, and also be prepared for unexpected events, or “tail risks”.
When events like the Great Recession, a global pandemic, or other impending economic crises begin to affect your organization, you need to be prepared and able to lead your team effectively and weather the storms. The pandemic caused a huge amount of digital acceleration and ultimately changed the way we work forever. We learned how much we can do remotely, and we have adapted to digital tools to support the new normal. Those who remained flexible were able to adapt: those who didn’t were left behind.
Do you have any advice for aspiring CEOs and future leaders? What advice would you give a CEO that is just starting out on their journey?
Mark E. Watson III: Be thoughtful, look ahead, plan ahead, plan for the worst, have tenacity, persevere and build a resilient organization.
Thank you for sharing some of your knowledge with our readers! They would also like to know, what is one skill that you’ve always wanted to acquire but never really could?
Mark E. Watson III: I struggle to accept mediocrity or “good enough” and am always in search of excellence when “good enough” will do—this is the curse of being a perfectionist.
Before we finish things off, we have one final question for you. If you wrote a book about your life today, what would the title be?
Mark E. Watson III: If I wrote a book today, it would be about the pursuit of happiness within a business context. I would write about building businesses, taking ideas and turning them into reality, and all the other things that go along with it.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Mark E. Watson III for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Mark E. Watson III or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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