Frederick’s Top 50 CEOs: Danny Farrar, John Fieseler, Theresa Harrison and David Hawkins, Jr.

The Frederick County Office of Economic Development (OED) received 146 nominations for lead executives, founders, entrepreneurs and company owners of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations for Frederick’s Top 50 CEOs. The final list included criteria based on the CEO’s individual responses on the following: Strategic leadership concepts; significant growth under his or her leadership; number of employees; tenure; company’s turnover rate; company’s median salary; number of times CEO was nominated; and the CEO’s involvement in the community.

Get to know four of the top 50 this month:

A combat veteran and former firefighter, Danny Farrar, CEO of SoldierFit, had an idea to offer group exercise classes for one price. In 10 years, Farrar went from running boot camps in a parking lot to four corporate locations to four franchised locations, with five more projected to be open by the end of the year. He is also the founder of Platoon 22, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to help the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day.

John Fieseler, executive director of Visit Frederick, made his start in radio before making the switch to touting tourism in the county. He is also the chairman of Civil War Trails. When it comes to overseeing his staff, John believes in leading by example and working with his team in a collaborative effort.

As the president and founder of one of the fastest growing IT and cybersecurity technology businesses in the DMV area, Theresa Harrison of George Street Service Inc. is a sought after speaker and entrepreneur. She also is a vibrant member of her Sorority Delta Sigma Theta and her local community. She values and believes in nurturing passion in the workplace.

Started from the ground up, David Hawkins, Jr. has had many admiral achievements in and out of Hawkins Landscaping, Inc. His business has been in the Frederick area for 45 years, and in this time he has grown not only as a business, but as a leader in the community. He is the embodiment of an entrepreneur as he enjoys what he does, and he seeks to always be better.

What brought you to Frederick County?

Danny: As much as I hate to admit it today, I came to the county begrudgingly. I moved out of necessity because as a career firefighter I just couldn’t afford a house in Montgomery County. I absolutely fell in love with Frederick. It gave the seeds of dreams fertile land to take root and flourish. It introduced me to my wife, and gave me the family I have always wanted. There is no doubt the move I didn’t want to make ended up being the move that made me.

John: I moved here in 1979 to take a part-time job as a radio announcer on WFMD when the station was still playing music. While working in radio I served on many local committees and boards, including tourism. When the job here opened up and several board members asked if I was interested, I pursued it and was fortunate to be selected.

Theresa: I was born and raised in Baltimore where I attended public school. I graduated from the oldest all-girls public high school, Western High School, a pioneer in women's public education. I'm a graduate of Frostburg State University with a Bachelor of Science and an MBA.  My family lived in Gaithersburg and often visited Frederick. We loved the small town, friendly and safe atmosphere with unbelievable mountain views. After the birth of our second daughter, we decided to move to Frederick, which has been a wonderful place to live and raise our family.

David: Born and raised in Frederick County - my grandsons are the seventh generation.

Please describe your personal values or your strategic leadership ideas for your company.

Danny: For me, it comes down to a straightforward concept: provide more value than is expected. We do this so much that when we started, I was laughed at to my face, and told we couldn’t survive on what we were charging. Initially, I had almost zero overhead. Since then, our rates have gone up slightly, but we are still, on average, one-half to one-third of what our competitors would charge — with triple the value. We get to live our dream every day, so you can bet we are going to show our gratitude for that in our work effort.

John: I like to lead by example and also to gather input from our staff, committees and Board of Directors before embarking on a shared plan for new ways to attract visitors to Frederick County and to serve them once they are here. Much of what we do is in collaboration with our member businesses, other organizations and local government. I feel very fortunate to work in a community that is large enough that there is a lot going on, small enough that we know each other at partner organizations, and everyone is busy enough with their own mission that we don't encounter "turf issues."

Theresa:  I value passion. Passion is first and foremost traceable in every task and at every level of my pursuits. Passion forces me to take ownership, to be vulnerable and become the author of my vision. I don’t give up, and passion pushes me through challenging times while proving to me what I’m truly capable of. My passion pushes my limits and doesn’t let barriers impede my progress. However, the core of my value for passion is really built on the goal of instilling a similar measure of drive and determination in my employees and customers. This is real winning.

David: I pride myself on being an honest Christian man and I like to be fair to everyone.  I tell people what they should hear and not what they want to hear.

Since you founded or started with your company, what innovative new ideas or concepts did you implement? What has your sales growth been like and is there a turnaround story?

Danny: When we started the company, I had an epiphany. If big box gyms can charge a low monthly rate, maintain incredibly high overhead, and the bulk of people take their group classes, then why can’t a company exist that charges a low monthly rate and also focus primarily on group exercise? At that point and time, and still to this day, most group exercise classes cost, at the minimum, $150 per month. This includes no perks and many restrictions. We went the opposite route, creating a work-out program that allows for large class sizes and is scalable to the individual. The result? Rapid growth! We went from just one subleased location in 2011 with 13 members and 30 classes per month, to eight gyms, 4,000 members, and over 600 classes per month. We have made the coveted Inc. 5,000 List in back to back years as one of the fastest-growing companies in America!

John: The biggest positive change to our organization was the establishment of a dedicated revenue source through the Frederick County hotel rental tax in 2004. The organization demonstrated that increased marketing of Frederick County as a visitor destination does achieve measurable results and that paved the way for approval. Having predictable funding has enabled more long-range media planning, destination development initiatives and better service to visitors. In the first 16 years since embarking on our long-range strategies, Frederick County saw an incremental increase of more than $1 billion of greater visitor spending than would have come in if we had remained at the same share of spending in the state ($4 billion instead of $3 billion).

Theresa:  We do not have a formal performance appraisal process.  Instead, we emphasize ongoing, quality conversations between managers and their teams. We talk to our employees more often about performance, which helps with employee engagement, development, and fairer pay, because we have a better understanding of how our team is doing. There is more collaboration through teamwork. In order to attract and keep talent, we talk to employees about their development more often. We’ve learned that millennials, in particular, crave learning and career growth. We also give more frequent feedback, which supports the ability to develop people faster. 

David: My company has been growing for 45 years and keeps growing.  I take classes and attend seminars to update myself and my staff on the latest new products.  I am active with several associations throughout Frederick County which provides information for me to help with my business.

Who is the leader you most admire and why?

Danny: Jocko Willink. He was the commander for the Navy SEALs in Ramadi. He preaches a philosophy of “extreme ownership” and that “discipline equals freedom,” both of which I ascribe. What he means by “Discipline equals freedom” is that being disciplined allows you to accomplish all the goals you have in life. It forces you to watch what you eat, save for that house, work-out, or do the part of the job you hate. All of those things, while not fun at the time, are the building blocks that ensure you accomplish your mission. In short, discipline gives you the freedom to live your life on your terms. Whenever I don’t want to do something, I repeat that phrase and get it done. His example has worked wonders in my life.

Theresa: Ann Ryan, director of family services for the Housing Authority of Frederick, is a leader whom I admire. Ann works with a limited staff and a small budget to address the many needs of low-income housing residents. She demonstrates passion and dedication with working to engage Frederick’s low and moderate income residents through many initiatives focused on providing a healthy foundation for economic self-sufficiency. I work with Ann through a partnership with Frederick County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta to help respond to the needs assessment of the youths in her communities.

David: My father is the man I most admired.  He taught me that your character is what is important.  He taught me basic rules of doing a good job and being an honest man.  He would say 'A Good Mind' and 'A Good Back', and I will teach you to use both.  I instilled that into my children as well.

What do you love to do for fun in Frederick County? On any given weekend, where could you be found?

Danny: We are honestly are either working, doing something with Platoon 22, or spending whatever free time we have with our family. We love to eat seafood, so you can always find us at Avery’s Maryland Grille, May’s Restaurant, or The Shuckin Shack.

John: There are so many great things that I enjoy doing in Frederick County that I couldn't narrow it down. It would depend on the weekend, the season, what special events are underway, how thirsty I am, etc.  Not being able to easily answer this question is a good problem to have!

Theresa:  There is so much to do in Frederick. I enjoy eating at one of our many good restaurants; shopping on Market and Patrick streets; doing community service of some type; going for a walk at any number of beautiful routes throughout our county; or attending a community event, show. There’s always something to do.

David: I have many interests and hobbies which include, but are not limited to, NASCAR, gardening, car clubs, baseball, football, and flying.  When I retire, I want to farm full time. I am involved with my church, and have served as Youth Group Leader, sat on the Church Council, and done the maintenance of the property and facility.  I am a member of the Men’s Group, drives the church bus, and enjoys partaking in the various seminars offered at the Church.