From personal and professional lows to reaching new heights of happy
Joseph (Joe) Piazza exudes the tongue-in-cheek attitude and jovial quick wit that lets you know that, despite the stress and long hours of running a successful business, he’s having fun.
When he tells you “life is good” you know it’s not just a platitude for this 38-year-old entrepreneur who has finally found fulfillment and balance in both his personal and professional trajectory.
But the path wasn’t always easy and it involved more than a few early and life-altering bumps along the way.
When Piazza was 13 years old he became really sick with the flu. Concerned, his parents took him to the hospital, but were sent back home, with medical staff concluding it was probably nothing. It wasn’t.
“I woke up one day at the hospital and didn’t know what was wrong. My entire body was left paralyzed. I didn’t even have the strength to crush a Styrofoam cup.”
The diagnosis was Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a very rare and little-known disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system, and which, over the years has afflicted some very well-known celebrities, like Andy Griffith of ‘Matlock’ fame and William “The Refrigerator” Perry. Joe’s body was pumped full of white blood cells to help him fight the attack from within. The boy who had earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do at the age of 12 suddenly went from being one of the strongest kids in school, to the weakest. After a month at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, he regained some strength and was transferred to the Jewish Rehabilitation Centre in Laval, close to his parents’ place.
“It was a rehab centre for adults, so inevitably the majority of patients were old people with broken hips, amputated limbs, and severe arthritis,” explains Piazza. “I used a wheelchair everywhere. It was six months before I regained some strength in my arms and I could use a walker. I was there for about a year and the staff and patients loved me because I was such an energetic kid.”
Relating to people became Piazza’s coping mechanism. He didn’t let his circumstances get him down or stop him from attempting the next challenge. Despite being an overweight kid who wore leg braces in high-school, he had a very active social life, was voted school president, acted in five school plays, and was involved in charity work. Piazza went sky-diving twice at the age of 17 and when he was 21 he decided to backpack alone through Europe for three months while continuing to wear leg braces. “They were very old technology and would dig into my skin and sometimes bleed, but that didn’t stop me.”
Being sold the dream
When Piazza was 24 he started working for Marcus Evans, a huge conference organizer with 22 offices around the world.
“Every two months we had to sell a new event in a different industry, and the turnover rate was surreal,” he says. “It was a high pressure job, and I was drinking a lot, and smoking a pack a day. I started focusing on making money and less on myself.”
(It was during this time that Joe’s weight reached dangerously unhealthy numbers.)
He lasted over a year there, while 104 people came and went during that time. When the General Manager started his own company organizing conferences and bringing together buyers and sellers in the manufacturing and medical field, he asked Piazza to go with him. He did.
“He promised we would deliver on his promises,” Piazza explains. “But after a year of working for the start-up company and seeing that they were not delivering what they promised clients, I quit.
“While the company tried to dabble in many different industries, I quickly understood that I needed to specialize and focus on doing one thing well.” It would be the beginning of a thought process that would later lead him to his own conclusions and his own success.
“The main thing I learned working at a really big company and a really small one was how not to run a company,” he says chuckling. “If you want to be successful you simply have to deliver what you promise.”
While Piazza was doing well financially, he couldn’t take it emotionally anymore. “I was drowning. I decided to walk away.”
He left on stress leave and found himself unemployed for seven months. “I didn’t have a University degree. I had studied Economics, but was missing 10 credits to graduate (Piazza recently went back and received a Business Development Certificate at McGill.) I decided to start my own business. I went online, found a build-your-own-website resource, paid $40 per month and started to connect the dots. It was December of 2006.
Based on his past work experiences, Piazza knew that there was always a need for a network to be created where buyers and sellers would get together. The only problem he had? No real experience organizing these events and no money to invest. The one thing, however, he did possess was the ability to sell really well. His first job at the age of 15 was working part-time at Globo Shoes. Every single week for an entire year Piazza would win $50 for selling the most Tana leather-care shoe products. He knew he was a born salesman.
“On January 4, I woke up, put on a suit, (even though I was working out of a second bedroom in my condo, because I needed to get into the frame of mind to sell), and made my first cold call for my brand new company.
“I cold-called people in the industry and asked them if they wanted to speak at my show in August – a show that didn’t even exist yet, except in my mind,” he adds chuckling. “I designed a logo and called the company FMA Summits.”
By the third day he had a contract for $17,500 from the Jacksonville Economic Development Agency. “I may have overpromised and exaggerated the presence of a few attending companies that hadn’t been booked yet to get the ball rolling,” Piazza says sheepishly. What Piazza quickly realized, was that he had a knack for selling high-price tag sponsorships, a talent that previous managers had never seen and therefore never utilized.
Two days later, another contract for $17,500 came through. From January 4 to February 1 Piazza made $124,000 in sales. The last company he booked for that first show was the U.S. Department of Energy to the tune of $10,000. Piazza self-financed the entire company from his sales. He never borrowed a dime from the bank, friends or family.
“I remember my uncle telling me that there was no way that people would just send me money over the phone, without meeting me,” he says. “I was proven right, though. My team and I have brought in over $15 million USD over the phone in the past decade without ever meeting the clients in person.”
However, when he booked the clients for his very first show, it dawned on an uneasy Piazza that he didn’t really know how to organize an event.
“I made the mistake of thinking that I wasn’t smart enough to do this on my own,” he says. “I went and partnered with someone I used to work with and gave him 40 percent of my company. It wasn’t a good move. In my life I have made the mistake of thinking I wasn’t smart enough only three times and each time it’s cost me. I will never make that mistake again.”
Piazza rented an office, hired a few friends to find buyers to come to the show. Most of them ended up becoming repeat customers, satisfied with the results.
“I had never had a client re-book at an event, neither working at Marcus Evans, nor at the small start-up later on, but since then I have had companies re-book 15,16,17 18, and 19 times, and some of them I initially first booked them while working from my bedroom,” he says proudly.
The revenue from that very first event was $400,000. But while he was working his butt off at the time, his partner wasn’t. “I was frustrated.”
Hitting rock bottom… and back up again
“Then my former employer sued me, citing non-competition laws,” continues Piazza. “I spent $100,000 in legal fees and also found out that we were $300,000 in the hole. I was depressed. I ended my working relationship with my partner. Six months later he ended up selling his share back to me for $1.
While everything seemed to be falling apart, Piazza was also trying to find ways to reduce his costs during his events and increase his profits. It was a steep learning curve discovering how to deal with back-end responsibilities, hotels, group insurance, IT guys, etc., but it allowed him to restructure and reinvent, saving himself hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses in the process.
In 2008 while the economy was collapsing, Piazza’s company suddenly started soaring. “People were looking for smaller and more affordable versions of the high-end trade shows that used to be the norm. I could do that for them,” elaborates Piazza.
“I basically took a wheel that had already been invented and made it run a whole lot better.”
2008 was also the year he moved his offices to the Nordelec building in Pointe St. Charles in the Sud Ouest borough. “I initially rented out 3,500 square feet, and later on added 1,500 square feet, for a total of 5,500 square feet of office space.” He still operates out of that space. While business was going really well, however, his health was falling apart.
“I was 290 lbs and constantly stressed out. I started going to yoga at Studio Breathe in my building at the time,” he explains. “Here I was, 290 lbs and wearing leg braces, and I started to kick box twice a week with well-known boxer Alain Bonamie and I also went to hot yoga 3-4 times a week. Six months into this I had quit smoking, I had cut back on drinking, and I started losing some weight.”
(Joe with boxer Alain Bonamie during one of their training sessions.)
Piazza kicked it up a notch and started eating better. He threw out all his junk food and started reading up on nutrition. He cites Jillian Michaels’ Mastering Your Metabolism as crucial to his new understanding of healthy eating. He noticed that the weight started coming off.
“I also started doing Pilates and started training muscles I didn’t even know I had. I became leaner and stronger.”
(Joe and his dragon boating teammates celebrating a victory)
“Most importantly, however, I also learned gratitude,” Piazza elaborates. “When I was feeling sorry for my lack of balance during yoga I would stop and just thank God for all the other poses I was still able to do. I used to get angry and disappointed with what I couldn’t do, but now I started focusing on what I could do. That changed everything for me. On top of my body cleanse I also started an emotional cleanse at the time. I started reading more, stopped watching TV, and performed a complete house cleanse. I removed a total of 35 garbage bags of stuff from my house and with it removed so much emotional garbage that was weighing me down.
“Road Less Travelled was a book that really changed my life. It helped me cleanse my house, my body, my soul, and just… change. I finally understood that we are the result of every decision we have ever made. It’s about evolving as a human being at this point.”
In his personal life, he has also finally found contentment and happiness with his new partner and her two children from a previous relationship that Piazza enjoys co-parenting in their home on Nuns’ Island.
“My most recent athletic challenge took place last year when I did the 5 -mile Spartan Race, up Mont Tremblant. Boy was I scared… It took me 4.5 hours, but I finished it thanks to the support of my friends Max, Chris and Alicia who supported me and pushed me. And those aren’t just words. They literally pushed me and my butt up the hill,” Piazza says laughing. “My wife had completed it the day before in 1.5 hours and all that matters is that we both finished the race.”
(Celebrating the finish of the Spartan Race!)
A Montreal business success story
From its humble beginnings in 2006, when Joe Piazza founded FMA Summits in his spare bedroom, and then went on later to single-handedly organize his first summit with a modest 15 exhibitors and 126 attendees, the company has since expanded into three divisions (Executive Networking Conferences, Sports Hospitality, and Executive Sales Consulting) which employ 25 full-time staff and generate revenues in the millions.
It’s been a rewarding business trajectory for a man who “believes in the power of the cold call” and understands that it’s ultimately all about making connections.
In essence, the company connects solution providers with building owners and facility managers responsible for the operational intelligence and energy efficiency of commercial, light industrial, institutional, and retail facilities of Fortune 500 companies across North America.
The Summit is designed to bring together companies that offer the best solutions for building automation, renewable energy, and facilities management to attendees looking to evaluate and maximize their best options in achieving operational efficiency for their facilities. The decision was made early for FMA Summits to focus on energy efficiency as its niche because of the sustainable, progressive, and constantly expanding nature of that area of expertise.
FMA Summits has organized and produced over 26 private executive networking summits over the last decade, matched and scheduled over 8,000 qualified one-on-one meetings, connecting the right people, in the right setting, to foster and build relationships that lead to business.
With its experience, reach and business trust developed over the past decade with American and Latin American governments, Fortune 500-1000 companies and other Economic Development Agencies, FMA Summits is ideally positioned to connect the right business people with the right investors.
Today, FMA Summits organizes – on average – a total of two events per year that routinely bring together some of the most successful companies in North America and allows them to use its platforms, i.e. its Summits, in order to network, meet with vendors, educate their management and staff on current trends and new innovative products, and grow their business. Among FMA’s extensive network are companies that invest billions of dollars in new facilities offices and site development and rely on FMA to bring them in contact with the right investors and credible people in the industry.
“The most rewarding thing of my business is that we’re able to help connect people that otherwise wouldn’t be able to connect, and those opportunities foster relationships that lead to even more business. We’re like the Love Boat of the industry,” he says chuckling. “We connect the right people and everyone gets lucky in the end.”