CEO Stories: Never Settle – The Story of Tana Greene

Tana Greene
CEO of The Greene Group

In the life of Tana Greene, CEO of The Greene Group, going from an abusive relationship in Virginia to becoming a female entrepreneur success story, in North Carolina, it represents a much longer journey.

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Surviving Abuse

As a ninth grader, dating a well-known high school senior seemed dreamlike. Reality hit when Tana Greene got pregnant. The young couple married, and the father of her child soon changed. She says he beat her before she dropped her baby off at her parents, and that he aimed a shotgun at her head as she prepared for work. After two years, Greene mustered the courage to leave him. She wrote down four goals — finish school, own a home by the age of 25, start a business by 30, and marry a “knight in shining armor.”

Growing Businesses

Greene accomplished them all, ahead of schedule. First came an associate’s degree, then a sales job. She met the man who would become her current husband, and the two of them bought a staffing franchise. They weathered cash shortages, cut-throat competition and bureaucracy to achieve success with The Greene Group’s staffing firms Strataforce and Road Dog, as well as her latest business, the Blue Bloodhound app for linking truckers with motor carriers.

Empowering Women

Her life changed even more profoundly in 2007, when a friend’s daughter asked her to speak about healthy relationships at school. Greene had kept her personal struggles secret from her professional circle. Yet she felt compelled to share her story and empower women to leave abusive relationships. Since then she’s continued to inspire women through public speaking and book writing. For Greene, it’s part of being what she calls a CLO: Chief Leadership Officer.

This Is Capitalism: Tana Greene

RH: This is Capitalism. I’m Ray Hoffman. It’s only about 300 miles from Chesapeake, Virginia to Charlotte, North Carolina, a six-hour drive. But in the life of Tana Greene, going from an abusive relationship in Virginia to considerable entrepreneurial and now inspirational success in North Carolina, it represents a much longer journey.

She’s the CEO of one of the fastest-growing, woman-led businesses in the U.S.: the Greene Group, which has two staffing firms, Strata Force and Road Dog Drivers, and her latest company, Blue Bloodhound, which is a kind of Uber for trucking. Her Blue Bloodhound app links thousands of pre-qualified truck drivers with motor carriers that have shipments to go out. But first, back to her journey, the subtitle of which, Tana Greene would tell you, is “never settle.”
TG: My life started off a little shaky, not like the normal kid that goes to school and on to college. I was the chaplain of my school, back in the day when you could be the chaplain, and honor role, and I’m in the ninth grade. And what does any girl want but the boy. Well, I got the boy. He was Mr. Popular, he was a senior, and he wanted to date me.

The next thing you know, between the summer of my ninth and tenth grade, I was pregnant. And in the South, what do you do? You walk down the aisle with the white dress on and nobody says anything. You go off to set off your life. He had just graduated high school, my father helped him get a job, and we were off to supposedly live in this white picket fence wonderful place.

It wasn’t long into that relationship that the physical abuse started. Looking back on the signs I could’ve seen a lot of the control things happening for what I know now, but I didn’t understand it then. I thought he just loved me so much he didn’t want me to be around this friend or he didn’t want me to hang with that person. And it was…Then it got to the point where he took the phone with him to work and I wasn’t allowed to speak with anybody and no one was allowed in the house when he wasn’t there.

RH: And this is in the era of landline phones.
TG: Yes.

RH: We’re not talking him talking him taking the cell phone to work.
TG: No.

RH: We’re talking about taking the telephone, the Bell Telephone to work.
TG: Yes, right. Unplugging that rotary dial phone and taking it to work. I kept thinking I could fix it, I could make it all better through time and didn’t tell anyone because it was something that I was embarrassed about and didn’t know how to tell anyone until we had the date set up that my parents were gonna babysit. And he was late coming home from work and I had spent all day–now I’m 17–I’d spent all day getting ready to go out with my friends.

And he proceeded to pull up in front of my parents’ house, take the carrier out with the eight-month-old in it, and hit me to where I had blood. And I had to go to the door and ring the doorbell. And my father came to the door and at that point he went looking for him and I’m glad he didn’t find him because I don’t know what he would’ve done. But they got me help at that point. And it was somebody naming it for me to say “it’s domestic violence, this is what you’re in.” I wish I knew his name because I would like to thank him to this day.

He said to me, “you can be a victim or you can decide to do something about it.” So I wrote four goals on a piece of paper and I said “I’m going to own my own home by the time I’m 25, I’m going to own my own business by the time I’m 30, I’m going to finish school, and I’m going to marry a knight in shining armor somewhere in there. I bought my first house at 22, I married my husband that I’m still married to at 26, and opened the doors of my business at 29.

RH: So you were ahead of schedule on every one.
TG: Ahead of schedule, ahead of schedule.

RH: Nothing to cry about there.
TG: That’s right, that’s right. [Laughter.]

RH: But to really explain your journey I need to go back to the one story that I know about where you were starting your first day of work at a drugstore, right?
TG: Yes, at a drugstore. A friend of the family had given me a job because my husband had had an accident and broken his leg on a motorcycle. I had to go get the job because we had to survive. And I got this job and I was so excited about it, you know, it’s your first job, you can’t wait to go. I’m getting all dressed, I’ve got curlers in my hair, I’ve done all the things I’m supposed to do. I’ve made breakfast, lunch, I’ve set everything up, I’ve got my son ready so that my husband didn’t have to do a whole lot.

And I come out of the bathroom and he’s got a shotgun at my head. It was more a scare tactic–“you will behave while you’re at work, and who do you think you are? Why do you have that make up on? Why did you do your hair?” It was all those jealousy things around control. I was there for about 30 minutes until he…And he was laughing the whole time, he thought this was funny. It was his way to teach me a lesson.

RH: What a rotten guy, wow.
TG: Yeah. Made me who I am.

RH: That’s the other side of the story.
TG: That’s it, that’s right.

RH: The fact is that you did meet all of those goals after all of that.
TG: Yes, right.

RH: You were described as a shadow by one of your friends during that period.
TG: Yes, yes.

RH: Yet it took you two years to leave the guy.
TG: It did because I had to have enough self-esteem to go. And that’s the one thing you lose during that time is your self-esteem because you’re constantly being put down. You’re being told you’re not worthy, no one will ever have you, you’re not worth anything. So yeah, to get enough confidence to come out of that was very hard. Most women go back four times before they actually leave in those situations because we’re gonna make everything perfect, it’s what we do.

RH: But you did make things pretty perfect in your life.
TG: Yes.

RH:  And I’m wondering now, something in a philosophical sense, as you look back how vital a role has capitalism, entrepreneurial capitalism, risk capital, how vital a role has that played in your career and your success?
TG: In just allowing opportunity. If we didn’t have it, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity. Somebody that had quit school, had a baby, didn’t have a formal education, how are they to be anything if they didn’t have a ladder they could build themselves to get where they wanted to go? And that’s what it affords us all to do everyday. We can decide what we want and we can do anything we want.

RH: And it wasn’t long before you were selling…even though you had an associate’s degree in secretarial work.
TG: Yes.

RH: Not in sales.
TG: No. Shorthand. [Laughter.]

RH: You had a degree in shorthand, a valuable skill.
TG: Yes.

RH: But that didn’t prepare you for selling.
TG: No.

RH: What clicked? What got you out there?
TG: I think it was pure passion. The director of the college that I had gone to called me up and said, “I want you to come talk to me, I have a job opportunity for you. It’s admissions at this secretarial school.” And she said you’re the perfect one to help people figure out their lives because you figured yours out through this. I said, “well it’s commission only, I can’t do that.” I was making 82 hundred dollars a year as a single parent. And she said “I will give you $1,000 a month draw and prove to you that this is the best thing you ever did.” In six months I made $30,000. That’s when I bought my first house at 22, because of the commissions.

But I really realized that when you’re passionate about something, you can sell anything to anybody if it’s true passion and purpose. And I think that’s where that came from. It made me a better person and I wanted to offer that to somebody else. And that’s the same thing I’m doing with Blue Bloodhound, it’s the same thing I’ve done with Strata Force, and with Road Dog.

RH: You met a fellow about this time, who turned out to be the right guy.
TG: Yes, yes.

RH: You buy a franchise for a staffing company and there you started learning just how tough business really is.
TG: Yes, it was very tough. Life lessons were you don’t borrow, you use your cash. Well, we literally sold everything we owned and moved back to the townhouse I owned and we literally funded that business whole-heartedly ourselves for two years. We had a big contract and that’s when we learned about cash flow and we learned very quickly that what we should have done was go out and get loans for the business and learn collateral against that.

So now we’ve spent all our money, we don’t have collateral, and we need a loan. Banks don’t like that. So we learned a hard lesson there and we got through that. That is what business and life gives you everyday.

RH: Tell me about your first contract.
TG: Oh that was tough. It was 375 people, 24/7, doing ship watch and labor on board a ship [laughter] at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. So that was a tough lesson, just learning about workers comp, learning about all of the financial things that go wrong in business. And those were our employees so it was everything to do with EEOC, everything that comes with that.

RH: So suddenly you go from two employees, you and your husband, right?
TG: Yes, yes.

RH: To 377?
TG: Yes, yes.

RH: What was the worst thing about going from 2 to 377?
TG: I don’t know that I stopped long enough to think about what it was like, to be honest with you. [Laughter.] I think it was just get through it and learn the lessons. The whole thing is turning quickly.

RH: You had a franchise agreement.
TG: Yes.

RH: And then you severed the franchise agreement, or let it lapse, and you continued on the same business under your own name, which is sort of like Sam Walton leaving Ben Franklin Stores to start his store in Bentonville.

TG: Yes. That’s exactly what it was. We literally took the sign down at midnight and put our sign up. We were fortunate enough we bought the first franchise they had ever sold — it was Remedy at the time–they went public and then since sold. The universe was shining on us because we got the attorney that had been with Snelling for 30 years. He negotiated our contract. We didn’t have a non-compete. The whole idea was we would build the franchise to sell back to them.

Well they brought in a new CEO, they’d gone public, and that CEO didn’t see it that way. So they literally stole away my No. 1 person, moved them to another city for a year. She had a non-compete and they were going to put her back in to compete with me. So what they wanted to do was steal the business. So when we saw that happening we said we’re going to take this independent, away from the franchise, at that point.

Then 9/11 hit. Half of our business gone overnight because it was all manufacturing. The first thing they did was cut the temporaries. So we went from doing $15 million down to $8 million and having to transition away from a franchise. I can tell you that I kept the wine business in business through that time [laughter] because of all the decisions you’re having to make to survive.

RH: Well the company, which she and her husband named Strata Force, not only survived but before long made the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing small companies in the U.S. But even as late as 2007, something was missing in Tana Greene.

You’d built companies, you already had your business, Strata Force, in place, it was growing pretty well by this point and somebody asked you to make a speech.

TG: Yes, yes. It’s amazing how we want this outer shell of ourselves to look a certain way to other people. We want people to think we’re happy and we’re perfect and everything is great in our lives. And I think at that point I was afraid that if people knew my background–that I’d had a child at 16, that I had quit school, all these things–they would think different of me.

And at this point, I’m living in a pretty prestigious neighborhood and I’m in business and I’m on the Chamber’s board. I had a certain image that I thought I had to keep up. And then this friend’s daughter says “would you come speak to my school about healthy relationships,” because she knew what I had been through. And I said “yes” and then I started panicking. And I thought, “what are you doing? Have you lost your mind? You can’t go say these things in public.”

But I had this need to get it out. I had this need to share with others because it just was really…. I kept saying “some day when I sell my business I’m going to go serve at the domestic violence shelter, some day when I finish this, I’m gonna go do this.”

RH: Yeah, but not now.
TG: But not now. So I went and I spoke and I have to tell you that it turned my life completely around because I really realized at that point that that’s where joy comes from. When you’re truly giving back to others is joy. There’s happiness in many formats, they come in landing that big deal–I landed a $10 million dollar deal last week–oh, it’s great, but it soon passes. It doesn’t last. Then I thought “oh, I need a hobby, I’m gonna go find a hobby.” So I started oil painting. But I painted so big that they wouldn’t fit in my SUV. I didn’t paint little ones; they’re giant. A little Type A. But you hang it on the wall.

RH: CEO painting.
TG: Yes, yes, hang it on the wall, it’s done. But what I got from this was the joy of knowing I was helping others. And then an article was written in a local magazine where they interviewed me. I was in a shopping mall one day and this woman comes up to me and she goes, “I know you!” And I’m thinking, “oh gosh, I don’t know her name, I don’t know who she is.” And she said, “your article, I gave it to my friend who’s been in an abusive relationship for 20 years and she finally left her husband.” And that’s when I realized the difference I was making and didn’t even know it.

RH: And by opening up about that, you were able also to grow in your business relationship.

TG: Yes!

RH: And not be subservient to your husband.
TG: Yes, yes, yeah. It’s amazing how all that happened. When you become authentic, you become authentic in every way. And then I wanted to impart that into the business so that’s when I started building our mission and our vision and our values and our purpose and I started infiltrating everybody with you can be and do anything you want to be. And my whole thing is if I can develop great leaders under me, I’ve done even more for society. That’s important to me.

RH: And because you changed, the culture of your company changed.
TG: Yes.

RH: And I assume the nature of your work force changed for the better.
TG: Yes, yes it did. It was amazing. My husband and my COO, both males, called it my witchcraft. They would say “there she goes with that witchcraft again.” And I would go, “oh, here we go.” But you know what, soon the results started showing because we got better productivity, we got less turnover, and I have people that send me messages all the time that used to work for me and said “you don’t know how much you impacted my life while I was there.”

That’s the kind of thing you want to hear. You want to know you’ve created something in somebody else’s life.

RH: So that was the point at which you became a CEO and not a COO.
TG: Yes, yes, correct. I like to say CLO–Chief Leadership Officer.

RH: And you’ve led by example.
TG: I’m trying. [laughter]

RH: Take me out five years, you’re going to be doing what?
TG: I’m going to be inspiring people just like I am right now, a lot more of it.

RH: And with a billion-dollar company in Blue Bloodhound in five years?
TG: Yes, yes, in five years. That’s my goal. I haven’t missed a goal yet. [Laughter.]

RH: You’ve been ahead of schedule on all your goals.
TG: Yeah so we’ll make it four and a-half.

RH: You want to bet against Tana Greene?

This is Capitalism. I’m Ray Hoffman.

About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.

About Ray Hoffman: Ray Hoffman, a veteran business journalist, is highly-regarded for his news and analysis features and insightful CEO interviews. Representing BusinessWeek on air for twenty-one years, Mr. Hoffman was the morning business news voice on the ABC Radio Networks from 1995 to 2006. Mr. Hoffman also represented The Wall Street Journal, on air, for eleven years. His daily WCBS CEO Radio feature was recognized by the New York Press Club as best radio business news report in both 2012 and 2015. In this podcast, Mr. Hoffman invites some of America’s most dynamic CEOs to share their stories as business builders and perspectives on free enterprise.