To hear Kevin Neff tell it, a little more than three years ago he was staring into the abyss, 49 years old, $80 in his bank account, and unsure what to do.
“If not now, when?” Neff likes to say when explaining what happened next.
After reaching out to his vast network of business associates, he landed a small job redesigning a website for a friend. It paid for another month’s expenses, but more importantly, Neff no longer thought he’d committed career suicide leaving the corporate world.
He gained confidence, picked up more clients, attended seminars, and submitted chapters to self-help book authors, such as Brian Tracy, who accepted them. These are the type of motivational business books he used to listen to on tape while driving to sales meetings around the region. In short order, he’d become a sales and marketing expert, because he tried.
Today Neff is the recipient of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce 2014 Impressions in Print Leadership Award. The man who at age 49 thought he had permanently soured on the corporate world, is being recognized at 52 for providing a positive influence on workplace culture, through his KPN Group Firm/KevinMakesSense.com.
So what changed? Neff said he finally realized he was the boss. He could advise clients how he wanted, and stop worrying if he contradicted edicts sent down from a corporate sales office.
It’s as if after spending 20-some years selling somebody else’s products and working up the sales leader boards at various firms, the Kevin Neff salesman finally started tapping into his alter ego, the weight-training, tattoo-sleeved no-fear weekend motorcycle racer.
He stuck to a simple philosophy, “You say what you mean and mean what you say.”
It’s what he learned from his grandparents in Ohio. And it worked. Neff said some clients seem to wonder when the hard sell comes. But there’s no hard sell. Regardless of landing a contract, he wants potential clients to leave meetings with him better off than they were before. More often than not, he gets the contract.
His racing days are mostly over, but dragster Neff remains; his ink peeks out from the cuffs of his button-down shirts and sports jackets. But the old salesman is now the marketing guru, focused on what is right for his client, not beating a quarterly target.
This focus set Neff apart, said Caron Crouse, a member of the judging committee for Hampton Roads Small Business Awards.
“He was able to motivate folks to hear what he had to say and to follow through,” said Crouse, the office managing partner for the Virginia Beach office of Dixon Hughes Goodman. “He uses the technical background to lead with expertise, but he’s able to communicate with all types of audiences.”
His advice is his own life example. For 20 years he toyed with the idea of starting his own firm, but always returned to the money of sales jobs.
“I’d put my toe in the water, but when the water got cold, I got out of the water,” Neff said.