Martin Dunphy was 18 when he was told he had the chance to come to America. He was a young, Irish soccer star who somehow caught the eye of Gordon Bradley, the famous English soccer player turned coach for George Mason University. The land of opportunity was extending its hand and Dunphy aimed to take it.
When Dunphy landed in the U.S., he had $400 and a sudden realization that he had made it here to do more than play soccer.
“I saw what could be done – if you get your head down and work hard,” he said remembering his days in college.
And it was this practice of hard work that has placed Dunphy where he is today. The 1992 MBA graduate from GMU, has started six different companies spanning from the U.S., China, Taiwan, and London. He said he learned early on, while he was pursuing his bachelor’s degree, that he should be working for himself.
His first startup business was a soccer coaching business. The idea was to save enough money for when he left school to start pursuing his own businesses. Apparently it was just enough.
“I wanted to be doing something for myself,” he said, “even if it wasn’t big.”
But they’ve been big. His first success in the business world came early when he landed his first job as the sales and marketing director for HRE Inc. and increased the revenue from $5 million to $22 million in two years. After that, he moved to China to begin a telecommunications business and then on to Taiwan.
He said he learned a lot about perseverance while working in China, mainly because of all of the tough regulations placed on businesses. But being able to work through all the red tape only made him a smarter businessman.
Soon after, Dunphy moved to London to begin his investment company, Marlin Financial Group, which started in his living room. A decade later, Marlin Financial Group is recognized as one of the industry leaders and the fifth fastest growing company in the UK.
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The company recently hired a new CEO as part of Dunphy’s plan to market and sell the company. The company has 110 employees, turns out approximately $80 million a year in revenue, and is currently worth $300 million. Quite a turnaround from $400 and a plane ticket.
“The focus is to be the best in what we work on,” he said. “We’ve got the passion. We’ve got the beliefs. We have the know-how. We were going to build a business that was going to be around for a long time.”
Dunphy acknowledged that the first six years of the financial company was slow going in terms of growth, but added that there was a purpose behind the pace.
“The last four years, we realized we had the right system,” he said. “We had a six-year track record. It became much easier and people are lining up to invest with us now.”
A slow pace isn’t something Dunphy is used to. Growing up in the fast paced soccer world, his education continued at a rapid speed as well. Once graduating with his bachelor’s degree from GMU, he quickly began his pursuit of his MBA – made possible with another athletic scholarship which placed him as an assistant coach to Bradley.
“I was 24,” he said. “I was dealing with 35 to 45 year olds. I grew up and became more mature. Soon they began to listen.”
There were two ways he learned his business skills in college – through the instructors and from other students, whom he said challenged him. He said his MBA laid the foundation for his business initiatives and said he would be a lot worse off without it.
“It was a foundation of best practice,” he said. “It’s the frame work and you have to fill in the spots with experience. It’s useful for people who need a good grounding in business skills. There are skills you are learning along the way that aren’t completely transparent at that time.”
Those skills have come into play when he’s needed them most when making decisions on personnel, expansions, and starting another business, whether it be his current venture, manufacturing cast iron stoves in his homeland or in his future plans to start up an American investment company closer to his family residence in Virginia.
Dunphy is the first to say that personal investment is where it all begins, above investments in new ventures, other businesses, or even employees.
“There’s an old adage that for every dollar you invest in yourself, you get 10 back,” he said. “But people don’t see it that way – they see it as an expense.”
Dunphy recalled a time when he was told that he wouldn’t be successful with his London-based business. Hearing those words didn’t force a personal inventory of what he was incapable of doing, but it created an even more competitive attitude in him.
“Seven years later I took him to lunch,” he said. “I told him, ‘thank you.’”
Dunphy doesn’t start businesses for money; he does it for the thrill of entrepreneurship. He said there are multiple reasons why he loves the thought of starting a new business.
“There is nothing there,” he said. “So you take nothing and turn it into something. You take people from where they are and they end up better than where they were. You’re competing against other companies and beating them. But you don’t do it for the money. People who do it for the money are soulless.
“We wake up every Monday morning and we’re at war. We’re in battle. And we’re going to win. That’s not work when it’s like that. You can see I get excited about it.”
It’s this attitude he expects from those who work for him and it’s a mentality he said takes months to have indoctrinated into them. Those who don’t have that attitude aren’t asked to leave, but they eventually realize they can’t keep up and eventually make their exit.
“We have a 3.2% turnover rate and the average is 40%,” he said. “It’s not about a job. It’s about recognition.”
Dunphy, who was inducted into the George Mason University Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006, still references soccer when talking about business in order to motivate his employees and co-workers.
“We’re always talking about playing in the Premiership,” he said. “The big boys. We don’t always win, but we bleed together.”
Follow Dustin Bass on Twitter @dbass_cmn.