Colorado-based radio host Tom Chenault talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about how he became an on-air personality, what inspires him to help others and why he will always find a way to “pay it forward.”
[MAIN TEXT] Tom Chenault climbed the ladder of success only to realize something was missing. “I got to the top of that ladder, looked down and realized I had leaned it against the wrong wall,” he says. “To get where I needed to be, I had to go all the way back down and get back up.”
On the outside, he had it all: a six-figure income plus the power that went along with it. “I was working 110-120 of the 168 hours in a week, but I was drinking like a fish” Chenault explains. “I knew that wasn’t a life. On the inside I was dying. Once I sobered up, I realized I didn’t want to be the guy I always thought I wanted to be.”
Opportunist: You’ve risen to the top of several professions—from corporate airplane salesman for Beech Aircraft Corp. to stockbroker to financial public relations firm owner.
Tom: I actually drank myself through several professions. I came down to Colorado and my brother-in-law hired me to become a stockbroker. I was very good at it because Beech had trained me to ask for the money—and a lot of it—but I was a hand grenade with a pin pull. [Laughs]
I quickly rose to the top of the brokerage business—not because I was very smart but because I was a very good salesman. I knew how to get people to part with their money.
Opportunist: Didn’t you enjoy the brokerage business?
Tom: That was back in the wild and racy days of the penny stock market. We didn’t have any idea what [those companies were about] but we went out and sold them. Many times the companies underneath weren’t as good as the salesmen. I thought, this cannot continue. I’m going to make a lot of money but my clients aren’t. So I tried to level the playing field by starting my own financial public relations company: Chenault & Associates. We worked with good companies that needed sponsorships, and we tried to give investors a fair shot at what they were buying. It worked out really well; however, I was still drinking like a fish. I don’t know if I became a financial PR guy because my morals were high or because I got to drink while the market was open. [Laughs] I was on the road all the time, and my disease of alcoholism might have been making my decisions for me even back then.
Opportunist: And yet you did very well?
Tom: Yes, I did really well in financial PR and had all kinds of income. I got to see the world, hang around the richest of the rich and see how they lived their lives and I also got to see how I wanted to live mine.
Opportunist: What did you learn from the rich?
Tom: I learned money people are no different than those without money. They just drink in more expensive bars. [Laughs]
Opportunist: What was the turning point, where you finally decided to change your life?
Tom: In 1988, I got two DUIs and two disturbing the peace charges in one month. I soon found myself in AA and I got straight. My sponsor told me to stop doing what got me drunk in the first place: the stock business and, obviously, drinking alcohol. So, I basically reinvented my life in 1988.
Opportunist: You are known for positively influencing the lives of others. What motivates you?
Tom: Knowing that there is greatness in every human being. Most of us have forgotten that greatness. Ours is a society of resignation, cynicism and despair. People have just given up and I refuse to accept that. Think back to when you were a little girl and all the dreams you had and what you let go by. Think about that and let it grab you. I haven’t flown for 20 years and I’m getting back in the sky today and I’m going to start flying again.
The lower people are in life the more I want to help them discover who they were. One time I found a homeless person behind a superstore and brought him home with me. Isaac lived with my two children and me in a two-bedroom apartment for five years. Everybody thought I was such a nice guy, but it was really an agenda.
Opportunist: How so?
Tom: That guy was coming back from where I was headed. I loved Isaac with all my heart. My current wife married him. [Laughs] After we got married we didn’t kick him out. He lived with us until he died.
I live for adventures like that. My friends today are just so diverse. I count among my friends the richest people in the world and the poorest people in the world.
Opportunist: How did you end up on the radio?
Tom: It all happened by accident and I am the luckiest guy on Earth. [Laughs] A guy owed me money and couldn’t pay me, so he asked if I’d like a radio show. I didn’t know what I’d talk about but I said sure and he said he could give me an hour on Saturdays. I found a friend of mine to be my co-host. He was the nicest guy—until he got behind the airwaves. He turned into a sexually inappropriate creeper that gave listeners the heebie-jeebies, so pretty soon it was just me for an hour.
Opportunist: How did you carry the show?
Tom: I found people to come on the air with me. Whenever someone writes a book their agent tells them to go sell it and get on the radio, so the next thing you know I’m interviewing people like Art Linkletter, Maria Bartiromo and Robert Kiyosaki. In fact UPS just pulled up this morning and dropped off four more books for me to do author interviews. [Laughs]
Opportunist: Tell us about “The Tom Chenault Show.”
Tom: It’s geared toward personal development in home-based business and it’s the largest radio show of its kind in the world.
Opportunist: How did you become involved in home-based business?
Tom: When I woke up finally in 1988, I had two small children and about fainted because I had almost missed their childhood. I made a deal with myself to never go to a job again and I learned how to earn a living from home. I dedicated my life to that. That’s what I do. I even coined a word about it, called contact mapping.
Opportunist: Tell us more.
Tom: Ninety percent of people out there in every area of life are really one-dimensional. Your agenda is who you are. Think about it. To contact-map a human being means that you find out what it is that pops their eyes open at 2 o’clock in the morning and you help them achieve that. It’s usually time, health or money.
My job with everybody I meet, including you, is to find out what makes you tick so that I can serve you.
A lot of people, no matter how hard they try, cannot stay sober. My job is to make every human being I come into interaction with feel better having met me than they did before they walked through the door. Ninety percent of the time nothing happened other than I made them feel better about themselves.
Opportunist: That’s true, Tom. I feel better already.
Tom: At 61 years old I have learned that people only really care about how much you care. We all put on great clothes and play the part, but people care about your heart and how much you can relate to them.
Opportunist: What is your favorite interview of all time?
Tom: I can tell you that Art Linkletter was awesome. I interviewed him with Mark Victor Hansen, the guy from the Chicken Soup For The Soul [book series]. Art was 94 years old at the time, and he and Mark Victor Hansen had just come out with a new book called How to Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life. Those two guys were all about giving back. They exemplify what I want to be when I grow up.
Opportunist: Which interview did you find most challenging?
Tom: Jordan Belfort, a penny stock guy who owned Stratton Oakmont. He was just a despicable human being. He wrote a book bragging about getting caught and going to prison [for securities fraud and money laundering]. He came out of jail and was just as cocky as he was when he was doing all that stupid stuff. I busted him on the air. I didn’t like how he made it with so many people getting their pockets picked. He was the closest I got to interviewing a Bernie Madoff. I thought there would be a lot more contrition on his part, but he was right back out there monetizing everybody one more time and that just bugged me to death. That was a difficult interview.
Opportunist: Don’t you co-host “Business for Breakfast” with Kiki Wallace?
Tom: Isn’t that a great radio show? I don’t know if you’re familiar with “Imus in the Morning,” but Don Imus, like me, is in recovery. He interviews wonderful politicians every day and his show is sort of like a news magazine with stock quotes at the bottom. Kiki Wallace and I also did a news magazine every day, but we took it one step further. We had people from all over the world come on and commentate on the stock market like it was a football game. It was the best job in the world! I’m pretty shallow. [Laughs] I am wide but not deep. Kiki, on the other hand, is wide and also really deep. He provides great content because he knows so much about so many things, whereas I know a little about a lot of things. Woody Vincent, another guy who lived for charting stocks, was fantastic too. We were the perfect trio. I’m just the colorful guy who makes sure it’s interesting and that it moves. Kiki and Woody do all the heavy lifting.
Opportunist: What happened to the show?
Tom: Every time they get a new sales manager with another whiz-bang idea they fire us. Then, about six months later, they beg us to come back on.
Opportunist: And you go back?
Tom: Sure. When they call us back we will do it again. Meanwhile, it’s a good hiatus for us. We keep going on with our lives. It’s not what we rely on to feed our family.
Opportunist: We understand you are an advocate of network marketing.
Tom: Yes. Network marketing is the last place where you can really achieve the great American Dream. People can get involved with less than $1,000 and build a business. And it’s a level playing field.
Opportunist: How did you get involved?
Tom: If somebody told me 24 years ago that I’d either be a Martian or in network marketing I would’ve asked “How’s the weather on Mars?” [Laughs] I needed a job and went everywhere begging for work. I finally found a network marketing company and went after it with everything I had. God’s plan for me was 1,000 times better than mine. That job not only let me make a lot of money but, more importantly, it allowed me to help so many people.
Opportunist: Some people equate network marketing with home parties and selling products to friends and neighbors.
Tom: It’s exactly the opposite of that. Robert Kiyosaki of Rich Dad Poor Dad says you need to choose the person you partner with in networking marketing more carefully than your company or your compensation plan or your product. It shouldn’t be a next-door-neighbor who happened to sign up. People who do that are going broke enthusiastically and taking other people with them.
There is no competition at the top because it is such an efficient business model. If you go about it efficiently and find, inspire and interview four people who say they want to make $10,000 a month and you jump in and make those people $10,000 a month, you’re going to make $40,000. Your entire success is predicated on the success of other people. Corporate America hates network marketing because they suck at it and it’s very difficult for them to learn how to make people feel great about themselves and inspire them that way. Second, they don’t want you doing multilevel marketing because when you start making money you’re going to quit that job you hate.
Network marketing has given me time freedom, health freedom and monetary freedom. It’s unbelievable. How many people do you think make a million dollars a year in networking marketing? Tens of thousands. It’s over the top. This blows my mind. Publicly traded network marketing companies are letting people buy a little bit of their own destiny. Donald Trump even had a network marketing company.
Opportunist: You were named one of the Top 25 networking marketers in the world.
Tom: Yes. I went to cover the awards and ended up being one of the people who won. When you consider there are 60 million people involved in network marketing, I didn’t think I deserved it.
Opportunist: Tell us about your typical day.
Tom: I get up at 5 o’clock and do my meditation, followed by a motivational call. Then I go and have a cup of coffee with all my friends from my 12-step program. I also go to an AA meeting every morning and work out between 8 and 9 a.m. So, by the time 9 o’clock comes and everybody’s getting to work I have already gotten everything on my have done list and I am emotionally, spiritually and physically fit for the day.
Opportunist: So, you take care of Tom first?
Tom: I finally realized it’s important to pay myself first so that I can give away what I have versus giving away what I don’t have. I spent years chasing my tail and going to work first but I wasn’t taking care of me. No one gets to me until 9 o'clock in the morning now and I’m a better husband, friend, businessman and steward of the world. I love it. I love life with all my heart. I am happily married for 13 years to my wonderful wife Denice and have 3 wonderful children.
Opportunist: What do you enjoy most about being on the radio?
Tom: What I enjoy and love the most is that radio is right now and I can make a difference. If I am mad about something I can talk about it with velocity and power. I’m not a political or religious guy—I stand on the side of right and wrong—but I’ve got a voice and I get to vent. Because of the First Amendment in this great country, you can say whatever you want. People call up and write letters and get mad and disagree with me, but that’s what makes great radio.
Opportunist: Who inspired you to get where you are today?
Tom: My mom. She was the most powerful, most positive person you would ever want to meet. All she did was try to make another person’s life better. She overcame obstacles in her life—from her dad drowning when she was a child—but you would’ve thought she was Shirley Temple, not Virginia Chenault. I interviewed her every week for six months while she was dying. She was a character at a level you wouldn’t believe. Even when she was 80 years old, you would go to her house and her hair and dress were perfect and her nails were done. I’d ask, “What are you doing today Mom?” and she’d always say, “I don’t know, but somebody may come by.” That’s how I live my life.
I want to continue to pay it forward, and I want to continue my quest to help small companies get funded. I think the current administration is trying a little bit, but we need to make it fashionable again for entrepreneurs to raise money to fund their dreams. There is so much bureaucracy that small businesses cannot afford to stay in business or attract capital. Small companies are subject to the same laws as bigger businesses. Something is wrong with that picture. We have to expose the public to those companies because they are the very core of the American Dream. I want to get more involved as time goes by and maybe start a fund or something like that.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.