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This Founder Left an Abusive Marriage at 18. Then She Launched Two Multimillion-Dollar Companies

When she fled with her son, she left with nothing but dreams. One was to start her own business.

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BY Burt Helm - 18 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

On the morning of her first day of work, Tana Greene, then 16 years old, woke up, made breakfast for herself and her husband, fed her baby, showered and put curlers in her hair, did her makeup, and walked into the hallway of their home.

There, her husband, Larry, stood aiming a shotgun at her face.

"Go ahead," she remembers him saying. "Walk out the door."

Greene crumpled to the floor, and raised her hands protectively above her head. She saw rage in his eyes, but oddly, he was also laughing.

"I think his idea was 'If I give her enough fear, she's going to behave at work,' " Greene says. "After about 30 minutes of that, he let me go."

As she recalls the ordeal, which happened in 1975, Greene, dressed in a white cashmere knee-length vest, black leather pants, and stiletto boots, is poised and smiling, and her eyes are sparkling. She is youthful for both her age, 58, and for what she has endured. It's hard to believe she was ever that cowering teenager--"a shadow," as an old friend of her ex-husband remembers her.

Even Tana Greene doesn't recognize much about that girl anymore. She is now a serial entrepreneur: She's the co-founder and CEO of two North Carolina-based national staffing companies that, together, are on target to hit $80 million in revenue this year. Greene's success has brought her a lifestyle that she couldn't have imagined in her younger years. She and her second husband, Mike Greene, live in a palatial, country club home on Lake Norman, just north of Charlotte. She and Mike hobnob with the local moneyed set. Most recently, she founded Blue Bloodhound, a startup that has raised roughly $9 million in venture funding from investors including Oscar Salazar, the former CTO of Uber; Curtis Arledge, the former CEO of BNY Mellon's investment management and markets group; and John McCabe, the retired head of global operations at PayPal. The company aims to transform how hiring works in one of the most heavily regulated, conservative, and good ol' boy industries in the United States--trucking.

Greene's willingness to wade into this notoriously tough, male-dominated industry is testament to just how far she's come from her teenage self. And powering nearly every step she's taken away from the terrifying lost years of her youth has been a dream--to build something no one can ever take away.

Blue Bloodhound's staff is assembled in the company's headquarters, in Hickory, to discuss the results of their StrengthsFinder assessment, a Gallup personal-strengths test that Greene is a fan of. Hiring, assembling a cohesive team, listening deeply to people, convincing them to believe in her vision and their own, and pushing them to the ends she has imagined have all evolved as Greene's most important, and profitable, strengths.

"Tana is one of those people who is an incredibly good listener, is genuinely curious about learning from others, and uses the input she gets to inform her own experience and improve," says Peter Bloom, a retired partner in an international growth equity fund and an investor in Blue Bloodhound. "Those are the people you want to bet on."

"She's the glue of our company," says Mike, her husband of 32 years and business partner for almost as long. "She knows how to make the organization a place where people feel like they are part of something, and contributing to something."

Standing before her Blue Bloodhound team, Tana asks, "Does anybody know what a unicorn is in business?" When no one answers, she tells them, "It's a privately held billion-dollar company, which is what we will be in five years."

Even when Greene was a little girl (then named Tana Bateman), she got a rush from an audience. She was outgoing and did well in school in her hometown of Chesapeake, Virginia. At 12, she was chosen by the school principal to read the morning devotional over the loudspeaker. By 13, she was the student chaplain and a member of the principal's committee. Leadership appealed to her.

Then, in her freshman year, Tana started dating Larry, a senior. (Inc. is not publishing his last name for privacy reasons.) She says he was possessive from the start, but she went along with his demands that she drop her friends and ride back and forth to school with him instead of taking the bus. "He was Mr. Cool," she says.

By the summer of her sophomore year, Tana was pregnant with Larry's baby. Her devout Presbyterian parents organized a big church wedding and provided Larry and Tana with a small home to live in. Her dad helped Larry find work roofing. Five days after Tana's 16th birthday, she gave birth to a son, Larry Jr.

Her new husband, Tana says, was a drinker and prone to paranoia. He was convinced Tana might cheat on him, so he unplugged the phone every morning and took it with him to work, she says. He'd stop home at lunch and search the house for men. He'd lock her in a closet for the night when his friends came to visit. Mike Knox, one of Larry's high school friends, says, "He was like a stick of dynamite. It got to the point that I wouldn't even go around Larry because of what he was doing to her."

Tana tried standing up for herself, but that ended the night she says Larry grabbed her around the neck and slammed her head against the wall. Then came the shotgun incident. The final straw was the night they got into an argument on the way to drop off Larry Jr. with her parents. She says Larry hit her across the face, dumped her in her parents' driveway with the baby, her face covered in blood, and sped off. (In a taped interview with Inc., Larry acknowledged hitting Tana during their marriage, but declined to recall specifics: "I've done enough and I've paid enough of a price." He denied grabbing her by the throat. When asked to confirm other incidents, he hung up, and later texted a reporter: "Told you they were lies so file it under fiction.")

With the encouragement of her family, she filed for separation. The couple were divorced on January 4, 1977, a month shy of Tana's 18th birthday.

In the aftermath, she says, she felt humiliated and angry, but not hopeless. She sat down and wrote out her goals on a piece of paper: Finish school. Buy my own house by age 25. Get married.

Own my own business by age 30.

"I wanted something more for myself," she says. "And I saw that the only way I could truly rise up the ladder was to build one of my own."

As a teenager in an abusive marriage, Tana Greene was a "shadow." Today, she's a successful serial entrepreneur and CEO.

Over the next few years, Tana got her associate's degree in secretarial work at Commonwealth College, a community college in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and landed a job working for an executive at a regional motel chain, and then at that company's ad agency. The admissions director at Commonwealth, with whom she'd kept in touch, noticed her rapid career progress and asked her if she wanted to recruit for the school. Tana realized she had an innate talent for sales--for meeting people where they were and showing them what the future could look like.

The prospective Commonwealth students she met with weren't young people with stable families and shiny futures. They were strugglers and strivers. "I could speak so clearly to them. I could uncover what people's pain was," she says. So often, their pain was familiar. "The pain was hurt pride--the feeling that 'I don't have anything to offer because I don't have a skill.' To me, the work was all about raising somebody's self-esteem." She was very good at it. In her first year, she made more than $30,000 in commissions. When she was 22, she put a down payment on a townhouse in Virginia Beach, three years ahead of schedule.

A year later, she met Mike Greene. He was 31, never married, and traveled from city to city for his job as a safety and health adviser to nuclear power plants. She thought he was charming and ambitious, like her. They decided to try a long-distance relationship. She was making good money, Larry Jr. was 7, and she had found a good man. The future she had envisioned for herself was taking shape.

Tana and Larry Jr. soon moved to California with Mike, whom she married in 1985. All that was left on her list of life goals was to own her own business. So together, Tana and Mike decided to buy a franchise of a California-based clerical staffing company, Remedy, and bring the concept back to Virginia Beach. The job would leverage Tana's recruiting skills, and the franchiser could help them with skills that were less familiar, such as marketing and contract bidding. They'd move into Tana's townhouse to save money.

Those first years were a struggle, especially winning new business. Turning a profit felt nearly impossible. The Greenes went two years without drawing a salary. After they won their first big piece of business--a contract to staff 375 laborers, fire-watch personnel, pipe fitters, and welders at a Norfolk shipyard--they realized they didn't have enough cash to make the hires. They believed that bootstrapping their business was the way to go--"We'd been raised to think you don't borrow a dime from anybody," Tana says--but they had spent all their savings. They had to get a loan secured against receivables to pay the new staff. The interest payments plus the franchise fee wiped out any margin they'd included in their aggressive bid. She and Mike learned one hard business lesson after another.

The couple scrimped and scraped, slowly putting the company on firmer ground. When Remedy's Charlotte franchise was put up for sale, they bought it and sold the one in Virginia Beach, glad to leave the area behind. When their franchise agreement expired in 2002, they ditched Remedy and renamed themselves Strataforce.

Meanwhile, Tana was proving skilled at hiring and managing staff. She was intuitive, attuned to people's motivations, and able to inspire them about the future. Soon, Strataforce was generating about $10 million in sales and turning a tidy profit. Larry Jr. was grown up, and Tana and Mike had their own young daughter, Kelly.

Still, something was missing. At Strataforce, she felt like she was playing a part. Even though she was president and owned 51 percent of the company, for years Mike had been the outward face of the company, the de facto leader. He made the sales calls and met with clients. Tana focused inwardly on operations and motivating people one-on-one.

"I just didn't have the self-esteem," says Tana. "I worried I wasn't going to sound educated. I didn't want to tell anybody that I didn't go to a good school. I feared people would think less of me or decide I was incapable--like, 'Oh, she doesn't have the pedigree for this.' "

Even though she had accomplished every one of the goals she'd written down at age 17, true happiness eluded her.

The Greenes hired an executive coach, Brenda Anderson, to help them. Anderson encouraged Tana to embrace her leadership role, but Tana remained hesitant and awkward. "She was like a little girl putting on her mom's high heels and trying to walk in them," Anderson says.

Then, in 2007, a friend asked her a favor: Would she tell her life story--about Larry, about her escape--to a group of high school students? At that point, she had shared the story only with close friends. Most of the time, she was embarrassed to admit that she'd never gone beyond two-year secretarial school, much less that she'd been a 16-year-old mom. But she agreed to do it.

When she started speaking to the students, Greene says, it was as if somebody else had taken over her voice. After her talk, she felt empowered. "It was overwhelming joy," she says. And it led to a story about her in a local magazine.

"A woman in a shop stopped me and said, 'I read your article, and I gave it to my girlfriend who's been in an abusive relationship for 20 years--and she finally got out.' "

It was a revelation. By telling her story, by owning every single ugly and inspiring part of it--the beatings, the escape, the eventual business success and seeming fairy-tale ending--Greene had helped another woman save herself. She realized her business was more than a way to create something that no one could take from her. It was a way to give to others.

"I was like, 'Wait a minute. Everything I want to do--creating a world of difference in people's lives--I can do better with my platform than I can without,' " she says. "I was more fulfilled. I felt like I was making a difference, and making a difference made me feel more proud, and that gave me an extra step of excitement." (She eventually decided to join the board of the local women's shelter, and to help raise money as part of its $10 million campaign to build a new center.)

A gutsier Tana Greene started showing up for work. That same year, the company made a bid on a huge deal--a $9 million contract staffing custodial and warehouse work for Coty, the beauty products manufacturer. Tana and Mike decided that she would preside over the sales presentation. Before the meeting, Mike briefed the sales staff.

"I said, 'When Tana starts talking, everybody else needs to shut up and let her go. She is going to close this business. Don't step on her toes. Just be quiet and let her go,' " he recalls. "Nobody can close like this woman."

Before the pitch, says Tana, "I remember having the positive commercial going on in my head. What the outcome was going to be, signing the contract, I saw it all coming to fruition." She nailed the pitch, and Strataforce won its biggest contract ever. Tana was the sales team's closer from then on.

"She's a natural people person," says Mike, "and has a rare talent to inspire others. But it took years before those leadership skills started showing themselves."

Huddling with Anderson, the couple set their sights on what they wanted next. Tana said, "I want to be a $100 million company in multiple states." The problem was that the 2008 recession was rocking Strataforce. As other business faded away, the Coty contract became 75 percent of the company's revenue. If Strataforce lost it--contracts came and went every few years--it would be left in the lurch. Rather than cut costs and retreat, the newly confident Tana encouraged Mike to double down, by opening offices in other states and winning contracts across the country. They hired a chief operating officer from a much larger company and opened two new offices on the West Coast, one in Rancho Cucamonga, near Los Angeles, and another in Sacramento.

Such daring moves, combined with some new ideas and a little luck, propelled the business forward. The new COO, Todd Warner, proposed they get into truck driver staffing, a business he knew from his old company. But unlike other temp work, the trucking business was trickier: The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration required all carriers and driver staffing companies to maintain records including 10 years of employment history and recent drug test results for each driver hired. The workers' comp costs would be higher, too, because of the added hazards of operating tractor trailers. But the competitive field was less populated and the margins were better. The concept piggybacked nicely with their existing work placing temporary warehouse staff; they could provide staff on both sides of the loading dock. Two weeks after Mike and Tana hired Warner, they decided to go for it. They launched Road Dog Drivers in 2009.

Coty, as feared, canceled its contract in 2010, and Strataforce lost money that year. But the decision to expand paid off: Road Dog's business grew fast enough to make up for the drop-off. In two years, Tana and Mike recovered and then some.

Meanwhile, Tana was looking for ways to boost the performance of her staff and the temps she hired. She got involved in crafting the company's core values, and having employees do the StrengthsFinder assessment.

Both Mike and Warner were skeptical. "I'd heard all the talk about mission, vision, and value statements, and I thought it was kind of hokey," says Mike. "Todd would say, 'There she goes with that witchcraft.' " But Tana persisted. They formed committees around different functions of the business, and got staff to suggest how to improve them.

She hammered on values and vision, brainstorming with Mike and Warner and delving into her own life experience. "They're just words if you can't connect the dots to your own story," she says. They settled on four values that felt truest to her: Never settle; if you say it, you'd better mean it and you'd better do it; dare to be different; and see the awesomeness in others. Tana asked her colleagues to discuss how those values played into their own lives, and to tell their stories too.

"It became a regular touchy-feely process, beginning from the job interview itself," says Mike. But soon enough, his skepticism eroded as he began to see the results. "It made a discernible difference in the quality of people we hired and the percentage of people we retained," he says. "People started making decisions on their own."

By 2015, the combined companies had annual revenue of $49.9 million, more than double their 2012 sales. In 2016, sales increased again, to $65 million. Strataforce and Road Dog together have 81 full-time employees, with 11 offices placing drivers in 14 states and 10,000 temporary workers.

As Mike approached his 65th birthday, he says, he started to think about retirement. Not Tana. Her ambitions had only increased. The couple had built a national business, and she was looking for the next thing. What if, she asked, she started a company that transformed an entire industry?

The Road Dog business had sparked some ideas. Despite the trucking industry's onerous compliance requirements, carriers still hire lots of drivers as W-2 employees. The carriers feel the need to hire and "hold" drivers to ensure that as demand ebbs and flows, there is always a qualified, FMCSA-compliant person available to go wherever.

Drivers, on the other side of the deal, are paid only for the hours they drive, so many sign on with multiple carriers. Still, no matter how many carriers they work for, they are left with little control over their workload or pay. They're employed, but often find themselves underutilized with no set schedule and having to rely on whatever is offered to them. Driver turnover at the carriers, as a result, is stratospheric. Trucking is a classic example of an inefficient marketplace.

Todd Warner had spitballed an idea: What if the business worked another way? What if there were a platform where drivers could set up their own FMCSA-compliant driver file and any motor carrier could hire any approved driver for any run? Tana imagined starting a business to usher in such a model. It would build an app that let drivers upload their safety information. When they had availability for a trip, they could log on and find jobs that matched where and when they wanted to drive--rather than waiting for the carriers to call them. Motor carriers would be assured that if drivers were on the platform, they were in compliance with FMCSA--no re-verification required.

I felt like I was making a difference, and making a difference made me feel more proud, and that gave me an extra step of excitement.

Mike told Tana she would need to run this company herself. He wanted to retire. Tana dove in, despite the fact that this time, she wouldn't be selling just to clients. She'd need to persuade angel investors to write her checks for several million dollars to get a startup going. She wasn't a Silicon Valley wunderkind. She was a middle-aged woman with no experience running a tech company.

At a party in the winter of 2014, Greene met Jeffrey Leck, co-founder of a boutique private equity fund.

"She says, 'You have to come in--I have this great business plan and I need someone to back it,' " recalls Leck as he shakes his head and rolls his eyes, making clear his reaction was "Sure, lady."

Leck agreed to meet with her, but to fend her off, he showed her a PowerPoint deck describing the kinds of investments his fund looked for: minimum $2 million in existing cash flow and typically around $10 million in revenue. In other words: not you. "I thought I had nailed the coffin shut pretty strongly after about 30 minutes," Leck says.

As Leck spoke, Greene smiled, waiting patiently. When he finished, she showed a PowerPoint deck of her own. "I understand what you're looking for, but this is really a very different opportunity," she told him. She outlined what she saw: The inefficiency in the $726 billion trucking industry is the current hiring system. If motor carriers could hire approved drivers quickly and easily, and drivers could take jobs at their convenience, it would unlock millions of hours of untapped productivity. She aimed to build the platform that would make the market. With her work at Road Dog, she was uniquely positioned to do so.

"She's proved she can grow a company," says Leck. "It's a product that everybody in the industry should use. Put those things together, how can I not invest?"

Leck and his business partner John Kirtley became Greene's co-founders, each putting in $1 million of his own money. They called the company Blue Bloodhound. Greene started hiring a staff and seeking investors for a Series A.

"It's funny. I didn't call her to invest. I called her to do due diligence for my friend," says Peter Bloom. "After 30 minutes, I said, 'Can I invest?' She articulated the mission so clearly." Anyone can hire tech expertise, Bloom thought, but it's hard to find someone with Greene's experience in the truck staffing world and her guts, leadership, and vision.

Greene will need to deploy all of those qualities as she builds the company, because she and her co-founders face stiff industry headwinds. Early on, she signed about 25,000 drivers to Blue Bloodhound, an important step. To build critical mass, Greene hired staff to cold-call trucking companies to see if they had available jobs and then phone truckers to get them on the job. But carriers who hire drivers through Blue Bloodhound are still legally responsible for what happens on the road and have been skittish about leaning on the platform.

This spring, Greene decided she had to jump-start the business. In March, she hired a new vice president of technology to overhaul the platform. In May, she laid off seven of the company's 30 employees, including the head of marketing and the customer service staff. To win the confidence of the motor carriers, Greene asked the FMCSA to develop a special certification for Blue Bloodhound. She is also seeking the imprimatur of industry influencers and planning to acquire professional liability insurance.

She's not giving up on Blue Bloodhound--far from it. She's just going slow, not recruiting new drivers while the company reworks an app to fit the needs of motor carriers, drivers, and regulators. She compares it to her earliest days in the staffing business, when she and Mike had to figure out the nuts and bolts of cash flow after the shipyard contract.

Meanwhile, Greene's original businesses continue to grow. This year, Road Dog plans to open three new offices, in Houston, near San Francisco, and in Washington State. She's rolling the Strataforce and Road Dog businesses together and naming it Road Dog Crew, selling truck staff on one side of the loading dock and warehouse workers on the other. Todd Warner runs daily ops for Strataforce/Road Dog while Greene focuses on the startup. But even with these successes as bedrock, the challenges she's facing with Blue Bloodhound "humble you beyond belief," she says. "It makes you question everything about your being and your strength. It resets you to zero.

"But I wouldn't have gotten to the place I am, I wouldn't be able to tolerate what I'm tolerating now, if I hadn't gotten self-assurance from all those past struggles," says Greene. "It's almost like all those things that have happened in my life have brought me to this place."

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