By Meredith Rieder - Assistant Sports Information Director
Many fascinating men have come through the Duke lacrosse program over the years and recently I, an assistant sports information director for the Blue Devils, earned the opportunity to chat with one from the very long list. The idea, sparked by the Duke lacrosse coaching staff, was to catch up with various former players to talk about the past, present and even perhaps the future.
Tom Davin was first on the docket. A native of the greater Philadelphia area, Davin was a four-year letterwinner and 1979 team captain at Duke. Since graduating and leaving Durham, he has gone on to do everything from serving as a Captain in the United States Marine Corps to graduating from Harvard Business School, and becoming a CEO of various national companies.
After ‘Googling’ Davin, I started to feel a nervous excitement for the impending conversation. I thought we’d be on the phone for about 10 minutes – because after all he does have a business to run. But lo and behold a quick “What are you up to now?” conversation blossomed into a 20-minute talk. Well – a more I sit on the edge of my seat and listen and he talks. Needless to say when we finally said our goodbyes, I was ready to get on a plane to Northern California and meet him in person. You’ll find out why below.
What He’s Up to Now: Davin and 5.11 Tactical
The CEO of the Panda Restaurant Group from 2004-2009, Davin’s current role is as the CEO of 5.11 Tactical. Unsure as to what this company was, that was my first question. And within seconds, I was on the edge of my seat.
In short 5.11 Tactical provides all of the apparel for the Federal Bureau of Investigators, fire fighters, police forces, military groups, etc. all over the world. Why 5.11 I wondered. Davin explained that 5.11 is a rock climbing term because the original product was a rock climbing pant called the 5.11 pant. It got the name because when the rock climbing rating system was created it went up to 5.10 so 5.11 was a joke rating meaning the pant could do the impossible. And if I learned anything about Davin over the next 20 minutes, he personified the pants. Here is how Davin explained 5.11:
“It started with a pair of pants and in 1992 the FBI discovered the pant and decided to adopt it as their standard issue pant in going to the firing range, the pistol training range. So all of the people who went to the FBI Academy as agents or police chiefs from around the world to attend something called the FBI National Academy started being issued the pant and now it’s just really taken off. For the next 10 years it was kind of this underground ‘Are those the FBI pants?’ and everyone wanted those pants. So ultimately a man named Dan Costa set up the company as a separate business called 5.11 tactical. That was 10 years ago and the company did about $5 million in sales 10 years ago and this year we’ll do over $10 million in sales. So it’s really become a global brand that started with a pair of pants on a mountain, found by the FBI and now is this crazy brand. We serve mostly police officers, firefighters, military professionals and we do that around the world. It’s a lot of fun and great for me. I learn something new every day.”
Now I certainly won’t be jumping out of my chair to fight fires or engage in any battles, but he left me intrigued enough to want to buy a pair of the 5.11 pants. After all, the FBI started the trend and what woman at some point in her life didn’t think being Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs would be really cool?
The Athlete Remains within Davin
As you might have guessed with an athletic and military background, Davin is still committed to fitness. He has brought that to his 5.11 Tactical offices through kettlebell and CrossFit training as a StrongFirst coach and a RKC Russian Kettlebell Challenge coach. This motivated his company to launch a fitness line for military operators and law enforcement professionals and 5.11 also recently had a display at the CrossFit Games.
“At our office we have a full CrossFit gym and dozens of kettlebells. Fitness has really become a part of our culture along with healthy eating. We really try to take a holistic approach in helping people be their best. It’s great for them as individuals, it’s great for their families and obviously it helps us with business as well because if people feel good, feel on their game and feel a part of something then they’re going to be more productive at work.”
He believes a lot of his theories about why working out together is effective tie back to his time as a student-athlete at Duke. Much like how he and his teammates bonded through shared suffering, hard work and a shared commitment, he sees it in the business world now as well.
“You’re spending a lot of time together having worked out and that’s a real leveler in the business world because when I’m out there doing burpees with one of my colleagues we feel very connected. They’re like ‘I know Tom, I just saw him struggle to get his 50th burpee at the CrossFit workout this morning.”
Let me just say – 50 burpees? No thank you! But it did make me think how cool it would be to work out alongside someone you would consider to be your boss. Certainly is an equalizer as he would say.
Learning to Lead
A team captain his senior season at Duke and a successful leader with the Marines and in the business world, I thought it would be great to pick Davin’s brain about his view of leadership. His response was thought-provoking and energizing.
“I believe very strongly that the whole concept of leadership starts with making a choice. And that’s making a choice to say ‘I am a leader’ and adopting that leader mindset and saying ‘I am going to do whatever I can do in my control to improve myself, make the team better and help the team win.’”
That being said, Davin is adamant that everyone can be a leader. You don’t have to have the ‘C’ next to your name or a ‘C’ in your title – CEO or CFO. A receptionist or someone who works in the warehouse can make a difference he stated. And recently, Davin shared a recent situation at 5.11 that proved leaders exist everywhere.
“I had a meeting recently with about 60 people from my warehouse and customer service teams and that literally is what we talked about – leadership and how that team of people responded to an order from the government of Mexico. The government needed some of our product in about a two-week time period and it was literally impossible to give them what they had asked for, but we were able to substitute some products. We ran three shifts to embellish the various jackets they needed. Myself and my president, we were thinking there is no way we can come close to fulfilling this order, but the team figured it out. That’s leadership. You’re leading from within. You’re not waiting and saying ‘I’m not a supervisor, I can’t be a leader.’”
Leadership, while partially innate, was learned for Davin from the seniors he played with at Duke. They gave him the mindset of – ‘Make yourself better every day. Make a difference. Do more than is asked of you.’ He did just that and is now carrying the torch and passing along the lessons year ago.
Davin’s Course to the Marines
Long before Davin became a CEO of various corporations, he honed his leadership skills as a United States Marine. I admire greatly those who choose to protect our country at home and abroad. And because my military knowledge is severely lacking, I always wonder why students who are getting a world-class education at Duke end up pursuing careers in the great unknown of the military. Davin shined some light on the subject for me.
After earning a Navy ROTC scholarship when he decided to attend Duke, Davin went a summer cruise and was convinced the Marine Corps was for him instead of the Navy. The Navy culture just didn’t feel like the right fit for him at the time, while his experience with the Marines was more positive.
“I thought, ‘well I really want to be challenged and I want to be on a team where everybody is proud to be part of that team and everybody is working to get better. A lot of my friends, particular guys off the lacrosse team, I saw what they were doing going into banking or consulting or even engineering jobs and I just didn’t see them that energized by what they were doing. And I thought ‘Wow, join the Marine Corps, who knows where they’ll send me? That’s really exciting. I’ll never be bored. I’m up for that. And I figured I’d learn something more about leadership. So it was one heck of an adventure.”
The Davin Family Tradition at Duke Continues
The Davin legacy continues at Duke as his daughter, Meredith, arrived in Durham as a freshman this fall. While Duke was among her top three choices to attend, she wasn’t sure he said. However, all it took was one visit to the university and she was ready to apply early decision.
“It was so exciting. Last September I brought her back for a visit and we happened to run into Coach Krzyzewski. And Coach was so nice to her. He and I waved to each other and I introduced Meredith and he called her by name. All she said was ‘He is such a nice man. This is such a great school. Everybody is so into being a part of Duke.’ After the visit, you could tell she could picture herself being a part of the Duke community so when she told me about three weeks later ‘I’m going to apply for early admission’ I was really excited. And now that she’s there, she is volunteering for all sorts of programs. And she’s playing club lacrosse so she’s carrying on the lacrosse tradition in a slightly different way.”
As he talked about moving his daughter onto East Campus and reflecting on what life was like for him when he was in “House G” I thought it would be good to pick his brain about some of his memories at Duke.
And like he did in many other parts of the conversation he answered with being a part of a team. He talked about how as a member of the lacrosse team and a brother in the Sigma Chi fraternity gave him a really good set of emotional memories.
Like in life, some years were good, some years were great, but to Davin it always felt terrific to be a part of a team. He still tries to recreate those emotions today in his business life even if it is selling orange chicken at Panda or selling pants at 5.11.
“I try to bring those emotions that I recall from my time at Duke, particularly on the lacrosse team. I try to recreate those emotions of being on that team and being part of something bigger than oneself in a business context.”
And lastly, the friendships and especially the road trips really stuck in his mind. They’d typically travel in vans with seniors driving them and then put four guys in a hotel room. But it didn’t matter because it they were together and experiencing it as a team. It was all part of a being on a team.
I thought to myself: this is a lesson to all current players. Enjoy these times, soak it all in and take the lessons with you because they’ll come in handy one day. And if you don’t believe that – call up Tom Davin and he’ll change your mind.