The telecom magnate

Craig Jerabeck, BS ’83, MBA ’84.

Craig Jerabeck, BS ’83, MBA ’84, is co-founder, president and CEO of 5LINX Enterprises, a direct marketer of telecommunications products, energy services, security systems, wellness products and more for consumers and businesses. 

The Rochester-based company has made the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing companies consecutively for the past nine years and has rocketed from a bootstrapped startup to a global operation with $135 million in annual sales.

Hard lessons

Back in 1994, Jerabeck founded his first business, Cellular Unlimited, a cellphone retailer that would grow to 23 stores before he sold it in 1997. Success didn’t come easy. To raise startup capital, Jerabeck mortgaged his house—but his partner bailed.

“I ran out of money two weeks before Christmas and had nothing, no inventory on my shelves and no cash,” he says. “That was the first major hurdle—learning that everything that can go wrong would.”

In June, Jerabeck received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the UB Alumni Association's Rochester chapter. From left: Christopher Diehl, PharmD/MBA ’12, who accepted the Young Alumni Award; Jerabeck; and J. Michael Colyer, MBA ’96, who received the Distinguished Alumni Award.

A new model

Next, Jerabeck founded @Wireless, a cellphone franchiser that operated 78 stores in 11 states. During this period from 1997 to 2004, 5LINX was born. Constantly searching for new distribution channels, Jerabeck and co-founders Jeb Tyler, BS ’96, and Jason Guck decided to start their own.

“The challenge was learning a different business model,” says Jerabeck, who was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young in 2003. “This is about trying to get people passionate about joining your business. Getting recruitment to be predictable, stable and measurable was the biggest challenge because it was foreign to me.”

Company culture

With 235 employees and 95,000 sales reps in eight countries, Jerabeck says a strong company identity is vital to 5LINX’s success. “It’s building a sense of family and making people feel like they belong,” he says. “We always talk about, ‘What’s your why?’ We want to understand what’s driving you to take on a part-time sales business.”

The perks aren’t bad, either. Top performers earn vacations, Bentleys and other incentives. “One of our most successful people used to drive a bus. Now, he wears $2,500 suits and has written a book,” Jerabeck says. “He’s an ordinary person, and other people see that. That can be enormously powerful.”

Written by Matthew Biddle, this story originally appeared as part of the cover feature in the autumn 2015 issue of Buffalo Business.