By Megan Maxwell
One of the common threads that weave every generation, race and gender together is the desire to “be somebody.” Everyone wants to “make it.” We desire to be admirable, worth knowing, and to succeed. The majority of us live our lives believing the lie that we will be happy when… “when”, as if the life we want is not the one we are currently living.
“I will be confident when I lose weight.”
“I will be happy when I find a spouse.”
“I won’t be stressed when I make more money.”
We love watching successful people, don’t we? They are inspiring. We read books and listen to podcasts about how to become successful. We scroll through our favorite social media pages and flip through our favorite TV shows to see edited highlight reels of other lives while we miss the beauty of our own. We compare ourselves to others that we believe are “successful” and we strive to be them rather than the best version of ourselves.
Instead of watching from the sidelines, we have decided to ask the successful Steve Maxwell about the unseen grind behind his success. We are all trying to fill a void and reach a joy that we often times believe already belongs to someone else. We want the end result but are not always aware of the process it takes to get there. What if we could be happy in the season of life we are in? What if the struggle of our current situation has a purpose? What if success has absolutely nothing to do with our statuses or paychecks? How would our lives be different if we changed our definition of success?
Those that are familiar with Steve Maxwell recognize him as a prototype of self-made success. Multitudes of people know that he has done well in business, but few know what he has had to risk along the way. Some are proud of his achievements and champion him onward. Others automatically assume what he has was handed down to him. However, almost everyone is curious to know his secret to success. The ones who truly know him and have been there for his journey know that his secret for success is not a secret at all.
We asked Steve what his first impression of success was and without hesitation he said, “Hank Varnum.” Hank was a family friend of the Maxwell family when Steve was growing up. Hank started a little company in his garage called Central Maintenance and Welding and over the years it grew to employ hundreds of people. Hank was known for his giving heart. He helped support countless church ministries and build up the local little league. Seeing firsthand the purpose behind Hank’s hard work and how his success was able to bless an entire community was eye opening to Steve. “Hank showed me at a young age that you can be successful and share it too,” Steve said. “Looking back now, being successful is not about how much you make, it’s about how hard you chase after your purpose and how much you give back along the way.”
Steve spent most of his childhood living in a public park. In exchange for living there, his family was responsible for keeping the grounds clean. “My first job was cleaning public bathrooms. Talk about a humbling experience,” Steve joked.
One Christmas, Steve and his brother were given a mini bike. There were roughly 700 acres in the park, which felt like the whole world to young Steve. “I put about 100,000 thousand miles on that thing. I still have callouses on my thumbs from riding it,” he said as he rubbed the inside of his thumbs. It is said that who we pretend to be as children is usually who we are destined to be as adults. “I would ride from one end of the park to the other pretending someone was in distress and I would rush to help them. Once I finished rescuing one person, I would get another call and have to go help somewhere else.” From the time he was a boy, Steve dreamed of helping others.
That same spirit of wide-open mini bike freedom is what made Steve decide to join the Navy. He did not have the money to go to college but he did have the desire to get out of his town and help others. The Navy made that possible for him. “I went into the Navy to see the world and they sent me to Beesville, Texas,” Steve laughed. Little did he know at the time that this dusty little town is exactly where he needed to be. Steve married his high school sweetheart Beverly “Bev” Purvis and they loaded everything they owned in a U-haul to move to Texas with only $500.00 to their name. Their neighbors, John and Nancy Durham, were also newlyweds and the couples quickly became friends. John and Steve grew to be like brothers. There were several times that Steve and Bev had to help John and Nancy with bills or groceries and vise versa. Neither of the families had much to give, but they never hesitated to give what they had. Steve and John would often work out together with rusted weights in a leaning shed behind their houses. They would constantly dream and let their minds wander to dreams of having a business together one day. At the tender age of 23 years old, they did not know when or how, but Lord willing, they knew they would see this dream become reality.
When asked what he considers success to be, Steve smiled and said, “It is all a matter of what your definition of success is. I count my first failure as my greatest success.” When Steve left the Navy he was given the opportunity to take a huge risk and start his own business with A.L. Williams. In the beginning it went well, but after a while he ended up losing everything. He lost his business. He lost his home and had to move in with friends. He had to send his wife Beverly and their baby Mallory back home to move in with his in-laws while he tried to find a way to pick up the pieces and support his family again. For about 7 months he worked a midnight shift in an oil refinery in Louisiana with a prison crew. He was tired, he was broken, he felt like a failure, but deep in his exhausted heart he still had a dream. “It was then that my relationship with God became real,” Steve said. “My ego was completely stripped away and I knew I could do nothing without Him.”
There were days that Steve did not know how he was going to pay for a tank of gas or make his next car payment but at the last minute the money or an opportunity to work would pop up. This is when he decided to begin journaling his prayers and the ways they were always answered. “God gets really close to you when you’re really down. He wants to help. He wants to provide for you…every time He would pull through, it was like a little voice saying ‘That’s me. I won’t let you fall.’” Steve counts that failure as his greatest success because through that pain he learned to trust in something greater than himself. He still journals every morning and is able to look back and see God answering his prayers on the pages. “Sometimes he has to bust you down so you can learn to trust Him with the small things, before He can trust you with bigger things,” Steve said.
To truly understand success we must truly understand failure as well. “God closes more doors than He opens and looking back now, I thank God for each closed door,” he said. Steve changed his perception of failure from being rejection and disappointment to protection and redirection. Failures teach valuable lessons and reroute our paths to lead us where we need to go. When you look at failure through that lens, there is no such thing as failure at all. Therefore, there is no need to fear it.
After those 7 months, Steve moved back to Florida and worked in a packing shed for potatoes. He was determined to get back on his feet. Cleaning toilets, working the midnight shift, and packing potatoes do not necessarily scream “success”; however, Steve viewed that season as an opportunity to better himself in preparation to handle his dream one day. Steve said, “If your job is to clean toilets, your toilet better be the cleanest in the world. If you can not clean a toilet well and with a good attitude, how do you expect to run a business or do anything else well?”
About a decade after his fall, with all the jobs, lessons and friendships that became a part of him along the way, Steve Maxwell sat as the Vice President of Ben Hill Griffin’s produce packinghouse. In a sense, he was successful. He had fought his way back and found his footing, but he still knew that he had a calling to reach his full potential. “Most people get punched in the mouth by life and they lose hope in their dreams. They settle,” Steve said. At this time he was 40 years old. He had three children to educate, a newly built home to pay for, and a comfortable job. It was not the ideal time to risk everything all over again. He could have had a simple and happy life there, but he knew that he was being called to do more. “If I had to mark the greatest act of faith in my life, it would be when I left the best job I ever had at Ben Hill Griffin,” Steve said. He had already gone after the dream of having a business once and it failed miserably. There he was, 10 years later, finally in a good place and God was asking him to trust Him and walk away from it all. “It was the loneliest call I have ever had to make,” he exhaled. “Even Bev was not thrilled about it, and honestly I didn’t blame her… But at the end of the day it was about being obedient to the call. I knew the same God that helped me at my lowest is the same God that was with me in that moment. He had already taught me how to trust Him with the small things, so He could trust me with bigger things…and so I leapt.”
Steve started working for Highland in 2003 to learn the ropes of the business in hopes of buying it one day. In 2005 the offer was made to Steve, but he needed help with money. He made a phone call to his old buddy John Durham who Steve would never have met if his parents could have afforded college. John was the one who took him in when he lost it all. While Steve was on his journey for those two decades, John was on his own similar path. Without having an idea of how well John had done for himself, Steve made a five-minute business pitch to Durham who replied, “Okay, I’m in.” A few hours later John flew in, the papers were signed, and a 20-year-old dream had come to life.
Steve and John, two dreamers with nothing but high school diplomas, hard work ethics, and life experience were now partners in business. The name of the company was Highland. Its first office was in a broken down, rat, termite, and snake infested gas station. It was just a distribution center for plastic produce containers, but unlike most Steve, being the visionary that he is, saw this as an opportunity. He was able to take a little company and grow it into a private corporation. Now, not only does Highland distribute the plastic containers to farmers but it also extrudes the plastic from recycled and raw materials, manufactures the containers, and creates the labels to go on them. By taking Highland from a distributor to a manufacturer, the small company grew in worth from 4 million to 150 million in 10 years!
We asked Steve what he would say to his younger self if he had the chance. With tear filled eyes he responded, “I would just encourage him. I would say don’t quit dreaming. You’ve got what it takes. You’ve got God and you’ve got your purpose. There is nothing that will keep you from reaching your destiny. God will move this and He will move that, you’ve just got to do all you can do and God will do what you can’t. It’s all about finding your purpose, and when you do that He will move the mountains for you. You just have to take it one step at a time.”
Steve and John were placed in a position where Highland had the potential to grow but they could not take it to the next level alone. Steve had to make the decision to either hang on to the company, his baby, his dream come true or let it go so it could become something more. He swallowed his pride and recently sold the company. “When you are not growing you are dying,” Steve said. “It would have been the most selfish thing I could have ever done to hang on.”
Most of corporate America views money and possessions as a source of joy, power, or success. With that viewpoint, being generous and letting go can be difficult. Steve holds the same intimate relationship with God today that he did at his lowest point and he knows his identity is in Him and nothing else. His possessions and status do not determine his worth. He finds this peace by viewing everything in his life as a gift. “It is impossible to be greedy when nothing really belongs to me. My family, my businesses, my health, my money… it is all a gift from Him.”
Since the sale, Steve has been able to start up several new businesses and Epic Affect, this non-profit foundation. He has lost it all before and is well aware that he could lose it all again, but he finds comfort in living a life with open hands. “You can’t out give God,” Steve says. Steve and Beverly were generous when they were broke and they are generous now. Hoarding money, time, talents and possessions is just a lack of faith in the Steve’s opinion. They feel that when one does so, they are putting their security in materialistic things instead of trusting that God has it covered. Steve believes that one day his life will be accounted for and he will be asked what he did with what he was given. He wants his answer to promptly be, “I gave it all away.”
Steve Maxwell has failed and succeeded in all aspects of his life… relationally, financially, morally and spiritually. However, his achievements and accolades are not what define his success. “This is my definition of success. It is a mindset. It is a walk. It is walking with the Lord, screwing up, getting back up, screwing up, getting back up… but by doing that, you let God use life to refine you until one day you reach your full potential.” Success is not the final destination. Success is how we handle each painful, frustrating, and confusing step along the way. Success is choosing to be positive in a negative situation. Do we see an obstacle or an opportunity? Is this going to make us bitter or better? Are we willing to be the best we can be where we are right now? Just as Steve concluded, “Success is finding your specific purpose, pursuing that purpose, and seeing it come to fruition. Whatever it is. It doesn’t involve money, it is getting a call in your life, and pursuing that call with nothing but a dream.”