In khakis and sport shirt, Tecumseh “Tee” Hooper Jr.’s attire matches his demeanor — quiet, unassuming, and laid back. But in that same under-the-radar way, Hooper has left his mark on more than a half-dozen businesses, an impressive array of community organizations, and the state Department of Transportation. And he did it all without ever raising his voice.
After leaving the military, you went to work with your father, who owned WQOK, a Greenville rock ’n’ roll station. Was it your plan to go into the family business?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I really did not want to grow up to work with my father. I went to graduate school and then the Army, and I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. And he wanted me there, so that kind of helped me make my decision. I had some opportunities, but I just wasn’t sure.
My father had worked in sales and administration at the radio station but bought it from the owner in the early ’70s. But we had an AM station, and this was during the time period when FM started to become more prominent. We competed against a couple of large FM stations and tried to buy an FM station, but that deal fell through. I didn’t feel we could be competitive without FM.
After leaving the station and over the past 37 years, you have launched or led six different ventures across a spectrum of industries. Was your business career planned, or are you more of an accidental entrepreneur?
I really didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur. I got lucky early when I got involved with Jack Sterling, who was 10 years old than me, but he had gone to The Citadel. He said he was going to start a venture capital company and wanted to know if I was interested in coming in with him. His partners were very wealthy, which was really fortunate for me to get involved in a company with some big hitters investing in this venture capital fund. Good stroke of luck for me.
You didn’t have much business experience at the time you became a venture capitalist. What prepared you for that role?
I really probably wasn’t prepared. … I kind of learned on the job — on-the-job training — and Jack Sterling did have a financial background, so I learned pretty quickly. For me, what was most important — as much as the financial — was instincts about people. Trying to understand who they are and can they do what they say they are going to do. The financial part is very important, but if you have the financial part without the right skill set or the right team in place, it’s not going to work. And that ended up being my philosophy when I did get into businesses of my own. It’s all about people.
Have your instincts about people always been good?
Fortunately, somewhere along the way I realized that people made the difference. [I have been] real serious about how to hire people. The cost of a hiring mistake is so much more than the cost of putting the time into making sure you get the right person. That’s what hurts a lot of entrepreneurs.
Somewhere early on, I was talking with someone about a candidate and he said, “I respect him, but I don’t like him.” And I thought, “Well, wouldn’t you want to have someone that you respect and you like?” That became a key piece of the team fit. There are three legs of the stool in hiring. One is “can do,” one is “will do,” the third is “team fit.” They might have the ability to the job; are they motivated to do the job? The only way you’re going to find that out is to look to the past. You’ve got to talk to people they worked with, worked for, work under, and find out if they were really motivated. And from other people you have to find out if they were a good team fit.
Do you think most people take the time to do that?
No. It takes time and, in some ways, [you have to] get around the typical HR reference. You can, but you have to take the time. And it’s worth doing, because people want to work at a place where they get along with other people. I just think the most important part of having a business is getting the right people onboard. When I’ve done that well, it’s really worked great. And when I didn’t do that well, I’ve had some failures.
What has been your biggest asset in running successful businesses?
I was a good problem solver. And I believe that most problems can be solved, but you can’t do it alone. You have to agree on what the problem really is, because sometimes you end up solving something that is not the problem.
I am not a reactionary guy. I can sometimes overanalyze. It was good to have people around me to provide a counterbalance.
Were you always an optimist, or did that develop over time?
At Modern Office Machines, we had a consultant come in and do training on problem-solving. We learned a step-by-step process, but instinctively I had operated that way anyway. I don’t panic, I don’t get overexcited, and I never really feel that there’s a problem that can’t be solved.
I got that from my mother. She was a real optimist. She built a lot of confidence in me. If I became concerned about something, she would say, “Just work on it, you’ll figure it out.”
‘It was very, very difficult for me’
Tee Hooper has answered the call of both parties to serve in state government. And in 2003, Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, called on him to lead the state Department of Transportation.
It seemed an easy decision. As his friend, David Wilkins, said at the time, “You gotta do that. People would die to get that job.” Thinking the DOT was, as legislative contacts told him, “the best agency in the state,” Hooper took the job.
“When I got there, there were a lot of good people, but it was a very poorly run organization,” Hooper recalls. A key problem was patronage: The agency did not tackle projects based on prioritization or needs, but rather reflexively responded to the requests of powerful legislators who wanted to get things done in their districts.
Hooper determined that the problem could not be corrected with the current leadership in place and proposed that the Executive Director Betty Mabry step down. “I got butchered,” Hooper says, when he presented his findings and proposals to the DOT Commission. His confidential report was leaked to newspapers and legislators, including the powerful senator from Greer, J. Verne Smith. Smith then declared from the floor of the State Senate: “Tee Hooper is the worst thing to happen to South Carolina in 50 years!”
“It was very, very difficult for me,” says Hooper. “But I was asked to be the chairman, and I was not just going to sit there and let things go.”
Hooper fought back with the power of the press and met with editorial staff at papers in Greenville, Charleston, and Columbia. The papers started to call for a legislative audit, which eventually was undertaken and supported all of Hooper’s conclusions, as well as exposing other issues, including millions of dollars of waste, mismanaged contracts, and legal violations.
When Gov. Sanford made a surprise visit to the DOT in 2009 to award the Order of the Palmetto to Hooper, he praised him for his integrity and “a life incredibly well lived.” Hooper, in his fashion, praised agency employees who “stepped up” and made the legislative reforms possible.
Since its inception in 1971, 89 South Carolinians have been recognized with this honor.