The Ride of My Life: The Bull That Put Everything into Perspective

Bull riding.  It’s easy to see in the mind’s eye and a fitting metaphor for riding out personal and business challenges.  This is a story about figurative and literal bull riding that starts with a classic corporate journey and ends with a real-life war hero.

Let’s start at the beginning.

In October 2016, I was asked to become AIA Corporation’s CEO, which was one of the great thrills of my professional life.  It was the chance to work with 300 independent business owners who rely on AIA as a vital partner for their businesses and their personal success.  It was also a chance to bring to bear the experiences and skills acquired over a couple of decades of long days, late nights, tough decisions, team victories, and hard lessons.

AIA is one of the leading service providers to promotional and business products distributors in the U.S.  We’ve been in business for more than 30 years and, as with most long-standing, successful businesses, the status quo reigned supreme.   There had been little investigation into the strategy, direction, technology, teams, and tools needed to keep AIA relevant and vibrant in a quickly changing market.  It didn’t take long to realize there was an urgent need to examine all aspects of the business and quickly implement changes that would put AIA back on track.

We listened, we talked. We analyzed and learned and then we acted. Tough conversations were had, difficult decisions were made. It wasn’t easy and no one expected it to be.

We hired a new leadership team, looking for the best in the business with deep knowledge in their areas of expertise. Investments were made in best-of-breed technology, marketing resources and infrastructure. And we prioritized data collection and process analysis to make smarter and more effective decisions to benefit the company, our distributors and suppliers.

Change is hard and our decisions didn’t please everyone. It’s a given there will always be some people who prefer to keep things the way they were, but complacency is dangerous, particularly with Amazon and other worthy digital competitors breathing down your neck.

We were feeling good about the changes and then we met  Dan Nevins. Dan is a retired Staff Sergeant who lost both legs below the knee after an improvised explosive device detonated beneath his vehicle during combat in Iraq in 2004. Dan came to speak to the AIA business owners, suppliers, and team members who attended the 2018 AIA National Meeting in Nashville.

We were looking for an inspirational speaker, someone who could talk about change and transformation, but we got a life lesson and a whole new perspective.  We were riveted by Dan’s story and it didn’t take long to realize that making business changes is “small potatoes” in the grand scheme compared to having to transform every aspect of who you are and how your life works.

You want to talk about overcoming challenges, defeat and fear of change? Talk to Dan, go hear him speak––he’s been through it all.


Interestingly, Dan turned to yoga to cope and heal his emotional wounds. Needless to say, as a double amputee, his foray into yoga was frustrating. In fact, he used a few colorful words to describe his initial experience. But he didn’t give up.

Dan’s instructor kept repeating the mantra “root down to rise up.” Root down to rise up. When you are connected to something deeper, when you put all your energy into a foundation, a belief, a practice, you take root.  Only when firmly rooted can you rise up.

I’ve taken a few yoga classes and heard that phrase “root down to rise up” several times, but I didn’t truly understand it, until Dan made it clear.  Thank you, Dan Nevins!

So where does the bull come in?  

The AIA Community was so moved by Dan they wanted to make a contribution to the Warrior Spirit Retreat, the charity Dan operates in support of wounded veterans.  Given we were in Nashville, someone challenged me to raise money for Dan by riding a mechanical bull at one of the local honky tonks.  Challenge accepted. I could “root down and rise up” on a mechanical bull for a good cause!

While no records were set, we can happily report that I held on just long enough for the AIA Community to donate a very generous $10,000 to Dan’s charity.  

My ride on the mechanical bull was brief, but it sure felt like the metaphorical bull ride as AIA’s CEO.  Both have had wild twists and turns. Both have needed the fortitude to “root down and rise up”. And both have made me appreciate the “bigger picture” where results matter, but keeping the human element of everything we do front and center matters more.

As CEO of AIA Corporation, Matt Gresge helps propel idea people by providing industry leading financial, technical, sales, marketing and purchasing solutions to entrepreneurs in the distribution business.