Saying Yes to Opportunity Fires Mariska’s Success
Chad Mariska (University of Nebraska, 1998) made his mark in business and in his personal life by saying yes to opportunities.
He felt pulled to the business world at an early age but did not have a clear picture of exactly what direction his career would go. He found his answer by seizing every opportunity through the inspiration of watching his father, Brian, deal with the debilitating disease of multiple sclerosis.
“That’s my life story – say yes to opportunity,” said Mariska, who serves as president and CEO of APS FireCo. “My father was limited physically but he set an example throughout my life. When I was 10 years old, he encouraged me to buy two shares of American Family Life Insurance. Even though he wasn’t a businessman himself, he would check the paper with me every night to see how my stock was doing.”
The support from his father, who worked as an engineer for the State of Nebraska, and his mother, Donna, led Mariska to his first job as a paperboy. Soon after, he was named Paperboy of the Year by the Inland Press. This work ethic set him on the path to pursue a business administration degree at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
“At Nebraska, I got involved at Delta Tau Delta Fraternity and served as president. That experience was like running a small business because I was managing people as I would later do running a team or division or an entire company,” he said.
Mariska credits his classroom experiences with helping him envision his future career. He fondly recalls a class speaker who impacted him because the message he received echoed what he learned from his dad.
“Former Dean Jack Goebel taught an entrepreneurship class and brought in prominent business leaders like Duane Acklie and Alice Dittman. One of the speakers asked us a very tough question. It took a while for anyone to raise their hand, but when someone did, the speaker walked over and gave that student a hundred dollar bill. He told us, ‘This is a lesson about taking a risk.’ That was a powerful message I still remember and it didn’t take long for me to know I wanted to be one of those people,” he said.
After graduating, Mariska got a consultant position at Accenture where a co-worker introduced him to his wife, Amy. Although they never lived in the same city until they married, Chad and Amy both said yes to each other and moved to their next stop in Cleveland.
“At that point, I decided to shift from being a consultant to a leadership position by getting a master’s from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. That led to an opportunity with John Deere which connected to my grandfather who had run a tractor dealership in Pleasant Hill, Neb. Here I was a fifth-generation Nebraskan with an east coast graduate degree. It was perfect for John Deere’s executive leadership development program,” he said.
Working at John Deere required several moves from Cary, North Carolina to Davenport, Iowa and finally to Tahoe, Nevada, which gave him various perspectives of the company. In Tahoe, he helped dealerships become better businesses.
“It was the first time in my life I’d been able to work with smaller businesses. I began to study the operations and appreciate how I could run a business rather than be on a path to vice president for a Fortune 500 company. My entrepreneurial engine and passions were stoked,” he said.
Mariska's many business experiences prepared him to make the biggest move of his career and it also connected family.
“My wife’s parents came to visit us in Nevada, and her father, Tom Palmer, mentioned how his business partner at APS Fire Co wanted to retire and there was no succession plan in place. Amy and I listened to the situation and thought here’s a great opportunity right in front of us. We ended up moving to Tulsa despite the risk involved. I did it because I saw the potential for tremendous growth,” he said.
For the past decade, Mariska helped lead a resurgence at APS FireCo raising revenues and profits dramatically. It’s become the largest fire protection company of Oklahoma with a growing presence in Texas. The company also became a global leader in special hazard fire protection in several industries including aerospace.
“I was not aware of the opportunities out there to partner with young adults when I came out of college,” he said. “One of my long-term missions now is to deploy my time and experience to help younger people achieve their dreams. That’s a goal of mine to help the younger generation flourish.”
Dr. Kathy Farrell, James Jr. and Susan Stuart Endowed Dean of the College of Business, was one of Chad’s finance professors during his time at Nebraska. She hopes his path inspires current students and alumni to make the most of their opportunities.
“One thing Chad exemplifies is not only seizing opportunities, but also giving back to the college,” said Farrell. “He served on our Dean’s Young Alumni Board and will be hosting an event in Tulsa where he’ll be meeting with me and other alumni to help build community. We want alumni like Chad to connect with our students and we have a new Family Business Initiative which follows right along with what Chad wants to be doing in helping young people. It’s also cool for me when I can reengage with a former student who has gone on to have such a successful career.”
Mariska believes programs like the Family Business Initiative help model the same encouragement he received from his father – and saying yes to engaging in such opportunities will take you exactly where you need to be.