Pat Swisher was a brash young franchise titan until a stretch in federal prison changed the way he thought about business.
Pat Swisher used to carry himself with a cocky self-assurance. He figured it was his due for being a successful, self-made man. Then he went to jail.
“I’ll never forget walking into the dorm,” he says. The first person he met was a huge, heavily muscled inmate with gold teeth. Swisher is a former college football player, but he’s not an intimidating man—about 5-foot-9, with a carefully combed coif of reddish-gold hair. As the inmate approached, Swisher remembers thinking, This guy’s going to beat the hell out of me.
Instead, “he put his arm around me and said, ‘I got you, man. If anybody messes with you, tell ’em to come see me.’” Swisher chokes up at the memory. “It turned out that this was the most genuine, sweetest man I ever met. To this day, I love that man. He didn’t have a dime. All he wanted to do was get out so he could see his son play basketball. Excuse me.” Swisher reaches for a tissue.“So, yeah,” he says, composing himself. “That’s how you learn who you’re dealing with.
”That moment altered the way Swisher, 62, conducts business. A lifelong entrepreneur, he started Swisher Hygiene in 1983 in Charlotte, N.C., a pioneer in franchised hygiene services for commercial restrooms, mainly in restaurants and gas stations. By the early 2000s, he had shepherded the company into operations in 23 countries, serving more than 100,000 clients and with annual revenue of $22 million from his 140 units. He had a virtual lock on the market, deep-cleaning with proprietary chemicals and treatments to protect surfaces from bacteria, viruses, and odor that soap-and-water cleaning and standard disinfectants couldn’t kill. He was living large. “Big ego, pursuing a fast life and my own plans—you know what I’m talking about,” he says.
THEN CAME THE FALL. In the mid-1990s, Swisher Hygiene ran afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission over alleged accounting fraud (by a firm the company was using to audit its books). Without admitting guilt, Swisher Hygiene paid nearly $400,000 in fines and penalties. Unfortunately, that investigation led indirectly to the IRS probing Swisher personally. Prosecutors accused him of failing to report nearly $2 million from his stock sales and of using an off shore trust to hide them, which Swisher denies. (The account had been established on accountants’ advice to protect his children’s assets if he became a lawsuit target, Swisher says.) In a bind, Swisher believed he had no choice but to plead guilty to tax evasion and lying about his assets and liabilities on a 2000 home mortgage application. In February 2002, a federal judge sentenced him to two and a half years in prison.
“It was tough. It ripped my family apart. It was the worst thing I’ve ever been through in my life,” he says. “But here I am. I didn’t die. If you can survive that, you can pretty much survive anything.”
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