Wednesday, June 19, 2024 Jun 19, 2024
78° F Dallas, TX

Breakfast With: Tony Aquila

The chairman and CEO of Solera Holdings has a game plan for everything.

Pulling up the long driveway toward a ranch house on an expanse of land in Roanoke, I’m not sure I’ve found the right place. I’m supposed to meet Tony Aquila at the grandly named Solera Innovation Center, but all I see is an ordinary-looking brick home and a large, industrial-looking garage off to the side. But then I spy a few parking spaces labeled with the name of my intended destination.

I knock at the door of the windowless metal structure, and Mr. Aquila’s assistant, Nikka, ushers me inside. The Innovation Center is a collaborative workspace in the form of a garage. Just inside the door sit two of Aquila’s cars, a Lamborghini Gallardo on a lift above a 1964 Pontiac GTO convertible. On the other side of the room there’s a customized 2004 Harley Davidson Softail. The place is a mashup of today’s trendy open-space office environment and a 1950s-era auto mechanic’s shop, complete with features like floor-to-ceiling dry-erase boards for walls and an old-fashioned Coke machine.

Aquila arrives after I’ve spent a few minutes chit-chatting with Nikka. The Innovation Center has been in use for less than a year. About 10 minutes from the company’s Westlake headquarters, it’s intended as an offsite meeting place, where employees can observe Solera’s products working in a somewhat-real-world environment.

Aquila has parlayed his natural drive to figure out how machines and systems work into a series of businesses, including Solera.

Solera Holdings Inc. provides software for the automobile insurance claims industry, handling repair estimation and valuation and gathering data for underwriters. It boasts annual revenue of nearly $1 billion and EBITDA approaching $400 million. Aquila’s ambition is to take those totals to $2 billion and $800 million by 2020. Those are among the first of a slew of numbers that the CEO unleashes at me soon after we settle down at a conference table near the center of the room.

Nikka has brought us a meal of coffee and oatmeal from Central Market. Aquila takes one perfunctory bite of the fruit that tops the oatmeal and never touches his bowl again. Instead, he puffs away at an e-cigarette, its steamy vapor wafting in my direction, as he launches into a lecture on the principles that set the direction for everything Solera does. He starts with the three H’s: to maintain success, one must remain humble about his achievements, hungry for greater success, and hunting for new opportunities.

“We combine the three H’s with the three J’s, which are Jack, Johnnie, and Jim. They help us a great deal,” he jokes. “I do love my whiskey.”

Aquila has only a 10th-grade education, but has parlayed his natural drive to figure out how machines and systems work into a series of businesses, including Solera, which he founded in 2005. The company claims 51 percent market share worldwide and about 33 percent in the United States. Its products are available in 65 countries, with expansion planned for southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Aquila’s career has led him to embrace his own adaptation of the Pareto principle, the idea that, for most events, 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes. He preaches this approach to the workday.

“Think that 20 percent of your day should yield 80 percent of your output,” he says. “If you think that way, you should be able to do that two times a day, or three times a day, and that’s leverage.”

Aquila jumps up from his chair and heads to one of the dry-erase walls to elaborate. He sketches a pyramid and slices it into three sections. At the top he writes “80/20.” In the center “30/30.”

“You should always believe you can improve something 30 percent either through innovation or waste reduction,” he says. 

Then, at the bottom: “90/10.”

“You have to be 90 percent accountable for all things fair and unfair,” likening his point to a sports coach who makes the whole team run laps when a single player screws up. “Most companies isolate the person and have a private talk with them. Why would you do that when you have the opportunity for everybody to be accountable, for everybody to own it and help, and everybody to learn from it so you don’t repeat it?” he says. 

With his sketches and his fondness for aphorisms, I remark that Aquila reminds me of a head coach. It’s a comparison that seems to please him. “People who like to be undermanaged love to work at Solera,” he says. “I only give people the 20. I expect them to figure out the 80.”

It’s the first time I’ve left one of these breakfasts feeling as though I’ve gotten the full corporate orientation.