One Man’s Idea of People-Centric Capitalism Forged the Key to His Companies Success
What is capitalism? Opportunity, says Stephen Canton.
The sun is beginning to set over the ocean in Palm Beach. A breeze sways the palm trees. Stephen Canton, dressed sharply in a linen shirt and shorts, sits in his home’s cabana overlooking the sea. He removes his sunglasses and takes a sip from his titos and tonic.
“It’s not a bad view, is it?” he says with a smile.
Canton, a self-made titan of industry, has come a long way from his days as a student bounced out of college and working in the stockroom of an office supply company.
Back then, 21 year- old Canton did not take that job in the stockroom lightly. He completed any task, however small, he says, with diligence and pride, and it wasn’t long before the higher-ups took notice. He was offered a sales territory and jumped at the opportunity.
“All the while I was in the stock room,” he says. “I was observing the sales team. I took notice of who succeeded and who didn’t. I quickly saw that it wasn’t about the product as much as it was about who you hired to sell that product.”
Canton, an ambitious kid, selling dictation machines out of the back of his old Volkswagen Beetle, flew to the top of the sales team fast. His irresistible charm and sweet southern drawl proved valuable in sales, and when added to his quickly growing business acumen, he became a force to be reckoned with.
But it wasn’t just monetary success that drove Canton. “I didn’t want to be the top sales guy,” he says. “I wanted to be the guy who mentored the guy who became the top sales guy. I wanted to teach and to lead.”
“Heck what I really wanted to be, even as a child,” he says with a laugh, “was president.”
The seventh of eight children, Canton, while still at home, had watched his father, a once-prominent surgeon who was left paralyzed after a stroke, become confined to a hospital bed. Canton soon understood that the ability to work meant the ability to provide. And he was determined to work. And hard. Work meant that he could provide for himself and his family.
Canton’s ambition, along with his childhood dream to be president, make sense, as he felt then and still feels called to leadership.
In the years following his first sales position, Canton would take a risk on a job with phone company TDX in Manhattan. “They were about to close their New York office,” he says, “but said if I could turn it around, they would give me a shot.”
Turning the traditional hiring procedures upside down, Canton hired fresh college grads with no experience instead of seasoned salespeople.
“I had great evaluation strength,” he says. “I could see who had it in them to be a real salesperson. I knew how to groom them, how to train them to be a closer. I got excitement out of helping others to succeed, out of getting them to the goal line.”
That vision and determination to invest in people proved successful. Before long, Canton had 1000 sales people knocking on doors in the streets of New York City. His inexperienced sales team was bringing in $100 million in long-distance sales each month.
“Your competitor might have a lot of money and advertising,” he says, “but if you have a team that has their heart in it, and theirs does not, you are way ahead.”
In fact, throughout his career Canton brought along the same innovative formula for hiring smart, ambitious, hard-working people and training them up in such a way that they led their company to the moon.
And to the moon Canton, himself went, earning his first $10 million by age 36.
It wasn’t surprising, then, that after many years in top leadership positions at corporate giants, that Canton would want to strike out on his own.
He launched the McLean, Virginia-based iCore Networks in 2003 with $7 million of his own cash. Privately held iCore sold cloud-based phone and internet services to businesses, enabling those companies to have a mobile workforce long before working from home was the norm.
“Tech keeps building on itself,” he says, “and I started that first cloud-based service for workforce mobility with my own money—$7 million- not hundreds of millions. People said we couldn’t take on the big guys. Well, we did. And we succeeded.”
By 2014 iCore was competing with the major phone companies like Verizon and AT&T, had sales of $50 million, and counted 220 employees. Publicly held New Jersey-based Vonage bought iCore for $92 million in cash in 2015.
“I’ve never been intimidated by big money,” says Canton. “I’ve never been afraid to take on the many with the few. It invigorates my fighting spirit. The struggle to succeed calls me. We play hard, we play fast, and we play clean. It’s all above the table. And most of the time, we win.”
That fighting spirit is to Canton what capitalism is all about. Capitalism is about opportunity, he says. We all have the opportunity to work hard, to take risks, and succeed, he explains.
“Not every risk will work,” he says. “But some will. And we have the choice to decide how and where we want to invest our time and resources. Capitalism IS opportunity.”
Opportunity is a buzzword behind much of what drives Canton. He talks of how as a teen in the Washington, D.C. public school system, he struggled. Classroom learning proved difficult. He gained more, he says, out of real-world experience. With faltering grades, Canton couldn’t get into the “right” colleges. So he created his own possibilities by working hard and thinking innovatively.
Later he created possibilities for others by giving those who might be considered higher-risk, those without fancy educations or prestigious pedigrees, jobs in his fledgling companies. He trained these new hires, instilled a strong work ethic in them, and finally, watched them soar.
“A lot of people who worked for me say that they never worked harder in their life,” he says, “but that what they learned working with me made them who they are today. And today, they are in top management or running their own companies. That’s capitalism.”
“Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day,” adds Canton. “Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”
That’s not to say that Canton does not believe in the value of charity and of giving back to the community.
Philanthropy is but another avenue for Canton to advance opportunities for those who find it hard to come by. He has quietly been giving on both a corporate and personal level to national and local causes for decades.
As CEO at iCore, Canton spearheaded funding the United Negro College Fund, supporting historically black colleges and universities. He worked diligently to encourage business owners in Virginia to support the UNCF and minority education. And was honored to co-chair the annual UNCF masquerade ball for two years running.
Canton was also behind helping raise $150 million for Catholic Charities, the fifth largest charity in the United States, in addition to personally donating as much as $150,000 at a time to other charitable causes.
In the future, he hopes to do more to help victims of violent crime in his home state of Florida.
“I’m fed up with the violence,” he says. “I want to help others fight for a better life. My whole life has been about the little guy against the big guy.”
With the sale of iCore to Vonage, Canton could easily sit back and enjoy the white sand beaches and ocean breezes at home in Palm Beach. Not Canton. Currently the Senior Partner of Anacostia Ventures, a venture capital company based in South Florida, he loves supporting start-ups and training CEO’s to be effective and profitable leaders.
“It allows me to do what I want in life,” he says. “It allows me to leave a mark.”
Canton strives not just to leave a mark on business but on the world at large- to help, in whatever ways he can, create a better one and more opportunities for all.
“As a nation, I see that we are divided,” he says. “Someone has to bring solutions to the table that can heal the divide.”
At the core of it, Canton is a solutions-based leader. He has a demonstrated track record of turning companies around, taking companies public, and investing in the right emerging technology.
A champion of both business and the underdog, he has served both well.
Today, as he overlooks the ocean, as it sparkles in the sunset, he marvels at the beautiful South Florida weather.
“Hard work pays off, doesn’t it?” he says with a grin. Behind the smiling eyes, you can see traces of that ambitious young man he was and in many ways still is, selling office supplies out of the back of his Volkswagen, eager to bring a paycheck home and help out the family.
Eager to make a difference.
“Opportunity is everywhere,” he says. “You won’t always find it. But you can make it.”