El Segundo – Drew Boyles The Charger part 2
Second of three parts
by Mark McDermott
The pony-tailed man behind the wheel of the beaten up Isuzu Trooper who drove down Grand Avenue in El Segundo one January day in 1995 didn’t seem a likely prospect to one day be mayor or millionaire. Nor did his biography up to this point, point in either direction.
Drew Boyles was 25, and he was pretty beaten up, too. He’d endured a tough childhood in Evanston, Illinois. His father had disappeared when he was four and his stepfather was a strict Southern Baptist with a violent bent towards his stepson that culminated in an ugly altercation and the end Boyle’s mother’s marriage when Drew was 14. He blew out both knees playing soccer at 15 and, robbed of sports, entered a period of juvenile delinquency. He got his girlfriend pregnant by 17. He subsequently joined the Navy, married his girlfriend, and became an electrical technician. He excelled, earning an undergraduate degree through a joint Navy-Southern Illinois University program and leading crews at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego, where he had a second son and fell in love with surfing. He got out of the Navy at 21 to become a manager of a bowling alley, but somehow that fell apart, as well as his marriage — at 23, he discovered his wife cheating with his best friend, and on the morning of his 24th birthday, the Northridge earthquake destroyed his bowling alley in Granada Hills and his home in Mission Hills.
But if Boyles’ life seemed like some kind of hard-luck country song, it also made him almost bizarrely resilient.
“Because it’s about getting back up,” Boyles said. “If you are not falling, you are not trying hard enough. Pain, injury, setbacks — all that is critical to learning.”
Boyles, at this point a single father with two young boys, Patrick and Ryan, saw growth opportunity with the newly emerging coffee chain, Starbucks. Within a year, he was managing its busiest store in the nation, in Santa Monica.
A Starbucks colleague who lived in Manhattan Beach told him he should check out El Segundo; as an avid surfer and a guy with young kids, she told him the town would be perfect. So Boyles took a drive to check it out. He saw a for rent sign on the corner of Grand and Center Street, called the number, and soon had rented a little, two-bedroom apartment from “Mike the Tailor,” whose shop was a few blocks away. It cost $750 a month.
“That’s how I kind of stumbled on El Segundo, and I’ve been here ever since,” Boyles said.
The year after arriving in town, Boyles enrolled in the USC Marshall School of Business MBA program. For the next three years, he worked full time at Starbucks while working his way through school and raising his boys.
“I can guarantee I was the only guy at that school with a ponytail,” Boyles said. “And the only guy in my program who was a single parent.”
During those years, Boyles had a major realization: El Segundo was home. The little town looked after him and his kids, with neighbors and new acquaintances going out of their way to make sure the young dad and his boys were doing okay.
“It took me, honestly, a couple of years to appreciate how great El Segundo was, because I was head down, trying to keep up, take care of the kids and stay above water,” Boyles said. “The thing that made it so special was that the town helped raise my kids — it takes a village, and this village certainly did. I was so busy and there were so many people who were so non-judgemental and friendly and helpful and were there for me and my kids. They really made me feel it was an extended family. I can’t imagine ever leaving.”
As if the challenges of school, work, and parenting two young boys were not enough, Boyles was gobsmacked by news from an ex-girlfriend: he would be having another infant son, Dylan. Recalling how his own father had abandoned him when he was young, Boyles vowed to make it work.
“It’s life,” he said. “You have to take responsibility. There comes a time to man up.”
Love on high
There was a missing piece in the puzzle of Boyles’ life. He’d been pretty badly burned by the end of his marriage and had plenty on his plate. He was in no hurry to be in a relationship. But one day, he found himself on an Alaska Airlines flight heading north to Starbucks headquarters in Seattle and unable to keep his eyes off a beautiful blonde flight attendant.
Lee Bartlett noticed the guy sitting at the back of the plane, near the galley where the stewardesses tend to linger. She thought he was attractive but wanted nothing to do with him.
“I met Drew at about 33,000 feet above San Francisco,” she recalled. “Or maybe it was Portland by the time the beverage cart reached his aisle,” she said. “[But] I had ended a relationship with a dishonest man and wanted nothing to do with the opposite sex.”
The feeling seemed mutual. The last thing Boyles wanted to do was hit on a flight attendant.
“So he basically read his magazine and ignored me except for the occasional laugh or comment,” Lee said.
At the urging of his Starbuck’s colleague, he finally struck up the nerve to ask her to show him and a friend around Seattle. She wasn’t sure if it was a date, but gave him a list of sites not to miss, as well as her phone number. They weren’t able to meet up that weekend, but he called and asked her out on a real date a few days later. She agreed.
“The day came, and no phone call,” Lee said. “What was I thinking anyway? Some guy from LA? Boy, those LA guys are the biggest jerks. Self-centered, egotistical… and rude. I stayed home with a glass of wine and listened to sappy music and was glad I was safe and alone!”
He’d lost her phone number. Three weeks later, back in El Segundo, he poured over his phone bill and found her number. He called and left a message, explaining, and nearly begging her to call him. Something about the straightforwardness in his voice struck her. As fate would have it, she had a layover in LA the next night. She called back and said she would meet him.
“Boy was I regretting that decision once I got there,” she said. “Up at 4 a.m., a long day, and then a date? Ugh. I was hoping he would cancel. I decided I would undress, wash off my makeup, get into jammies and hope he cancelled. He called back saying, ‘I’m on my way!’”
One drink, one hour, she told him. He arriving grinning boyishly and they went for a drink in the hotel lobby restaurant. “I was fully prepared to be bored and leave right on the dot of the hour,” Lee said.
But as they talked, she was impressed with his honesty. He laid out his whole life, including the part that wasn’t generally fodder for first dates.
“He divulged that he was a single father with three boys and full custody. ‘Oh no…. run Lee run,’” she recalled thinking. “Who tells a first date that? He told me about his divorce from his high school sweetheart and mistakes he had made. I had never been on a date with someone so truthful and loving.”
His truthfulness also eliminated Boyles from romantic contention.
“I thought, ‘Kids….divorced…parents divorced….darn, too bad,’” she said. “He was pretty cute, but I am not dating someone with all that baggage.”
If there is a single quality that has defined Boyles’ life, it’s perseverance, Lee went back to Seattle. He kept calling.
“He would not give up,” she said.
Soon he showed back up in Seattle, on work, and his persistence paid off. He and Lee began dating. Somehow she even found herself in El Segundo, hanging out with Drew and his boys. For her, it was like entering some small-town dream of a world.
“I tried skateboarding with them,” she said. “We went to dinners. The boys fell asleep at the table almost every time, and we carried them home.”
Still, she kept her distance, literally. She stayed in Seattle.
“We dated for six and a half years because I was so afraid of all the stuff that he brought to the table,” she said.
He never gave up. They’d meet at various places all over the country, as his career took a different turn and he traveled almost as frequently as she did. And he persisted in one strong wish: that she come to El Segundo.
His steadfastness, and an unexpected skill he’d picked up in childhood, finally won her over.
“One day I decided that Drew was loyal, kind, patient, tenacious, hard-working, funny, loving, and didn’t take no for an answer,” she said. “He was also a very good dancer and divulged that in high school he was the only white guy on an all-black breakdancing crew, and his nickname was Wonderbread. That might have been what finally made me say yes.”
It may have taken more than six years to seal the deal, but Boyles had found his partner.
“Lee brought love, support, and structure to my life,” he said. “And as cliché as it sounds, she made me a better man.”
So, with a cadre of little boys still tucked into his beloved little two-bedroom apartment on Grand, Drew and Lee became the Boyles family and settled into El Segundo for the long haul.
Lessons in crash landing
Boyles obtained his MBA in 1999 and in early 2000 landed a job in management consulting with Arthur Andersen, one of the “Big Five” accounting firms. He had major clients, including Taco Bell, Office Depot, West Marine, and Franklin Covey.
“It was big systems and performance improvement projects, very strategic and operational stuff, really fun, a lot of traveling,” he said. “I was on a path, ‘I’m going to be a partner at a Big Five firm.’ It was the oldest firm out there, great reputation, and I’m going to be a partner just like my boss.”
That path, unfortunately, dropped right off a cliff. In 2001, Enron, a major client of Arther Andersen’s collapsed into bankruptcy, and the truth of its many financial illegalities became public. In June 2002, Arther Andersen LLP was convicted of obstructing justice after it was discovered the firm had destroyed documents that were evidence of Enron’s misdeeds.
“I never stepped foot in Houston, never worked with Enron,” Boyles said. “I loved the work we did, but it was a bummer. I’ve got this great MBA and this great job and here is this firm imploding all around me.”
He survived the first rounds of layoffs and kept working with Lowe’s Home Improvement. But at the firm’s office in downtown LA, things were getting surreal.
“No one is believing this firm is going to implode, no one — this firm has been around 80 years and isn’t going anywhere,” Boyles said. “Sure enough, fast forward, and there I am turning in my laptop, and there’s like five cubicles left on one of the floors. Everything else is gone, just a skeleton crew accepting laptops and badges. It was just super bizarre.”
And that’s when Boyles decided to go into what would become the biggest failure of his business life, the dry cleaning business.
He and two partners, a Harvard business grad and a Madison Avenue marketing expert, raised several million dollars with the ambitious goal of reinventing and consolidating the industry. The idea was to make dry cleaning more high-tech and offer a richer customer experience, starting with a store in Culver City.
“We had this really cutting edge environment that I designed and built,” Boyles said. “We had barcode technology… Every time walking into the dry cleaners, it was like a spa experience. But we made a couple of mistakes.”
The biggest problem was none of them knew dry cleaning. This became brutally clear as each month passed.
“I think I was a little bit cocky, a relatively newly minted MBA guy,” Boyles said. “I remember this old school guy who’d been in the dry cleaning business 30 years who’d sold us all our equipment one day was like, ‘You know, this is all good stuff. Your branding is amazing, and you’ve got this cool technology and software and all that. But do you guys know how to clean clothes?’”
Boyles found out the answer to that question the hard way. His foreman came to him one day in a panic. They had a Roberto Cavalli-designed dress belonging to actress Portia del Rossi, who was TV host Ellen DeGeneres’ girlfriend at the time and nationally famous, but they couldn’t get the stain out. Boyles decided to do it himself.
“I went to dry cleaning school in Maryland for like three weeks and here I am, I’m going to get this stain out,” he said. “I put a hole in her dress. I had to call her and Ellen on the phone and compensate them. Oh my gosh, it was kind of a disaster, an example of you don’t know what you don’t know.”
A much-needed second round of investing failed to materialize and Boyles was fired by his partners. It was 2003, Lee had just moved to El Segundo, and they were about to have a baby.
“So I’m unemployed for the first time,” Boyles said. “We are living in this tiny two-bedroom apartment with two teenage boys and I have a baby on the way. I’m getting married, because, by the way, I always do things in reverse order. I’m a slow learner in that department.”
The safe path was to go back into consulting, but Boyles had caught the entrepreneurial bug. One day he was reading business news on his laptop and a small business article popped up. It was about entrepreneur Brian Scudamore, the founder of 1-800-Got-Junk, and his philosophy, “Willing to fail.”
“It’s all about him dropping out of high school, seeing a beat-up truck in a McDonald’s drive-thru with ‘Hauling’ spray-painted on it, and thinking, ‘Man, I could do better than that,’” Boyles said. “So he starts his own business, and now he’s selling franchises in it.”
Boyles saw some parallels to the dry cleaning business, which was a fragmented market, with no national brand, not a great sense of professionalism, and the largest operator occupying only a 2 percent market share. Soon he was meeting with Scudamore, who convinced him the time was right. He had a few obstacles, such as raising money to get started, but by far the biggest was breaking the news to his soon-to-be-wife, Lee.
“Hey honey,” he told her. “I know you are pregnant and all of that, but I’m going into the junk business.”
“You are crazy,” she replied.
Which of course, to Boyles, was a green light.
Part III: Junkyard millionaire, wave pools, and a surf quest.