Greg S. Jones

Beyond the Comfort Zone

Growing up in the blue collar steel town of New Castle, Pennsylvania, Greg Jones didn’t look up to his teachers or athletic coaches, who often did not make the best role models. But his brother, three years older and very successful in high school, was always someone he admired. “He and his friends always let me hang out with them, and they set a high bar in terms of athletics and accomplishment,” Greg remembers today. “I wanted to achieve as much or more, and they were wonderful influences.”

When his brother went off to Westminster College, Greg would visit him often, becoming close friends with several of the football players there. Greg himself was a remarkable player and had been courted for recruitment from the very outset of his sophomore year. He knew he could easily follow in his brother’s footsteps and be very happy at Westminster. But Greg had always been an open-minded risk-taker, and had gotten enough of life as a big fish in a small pond. He made the life-changing decision to step outside of his comfort zone and aim for a top notch Division I university, ultimately settling on Penn State. “I knew that if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere,” he explains.

Before the start of his freshman year, Greg was nervous to meet the figurehead Joe Paterno, but by the end of his four years there, he was the team captain. “We went to four bowl games while I was there, and were ranked in the top ten  for three of my four years,” he recalls. “According to Sports Illustrated, four of the team’s seven best years occurred during my tenure. I remember the anticipation and excitement of playing in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship. I loved the level of competition and exposure. I really thrived there, and it made me want to strive for more. I realized that success is always striving for the next thing, and that you can’t spend much time looking in the rear view.”

Today, Greg utilizes that same philosophy as Director of The Unicorn Group, a Northern Virginia-based business development strategy and marketing firm that amplifies the prospects of its clients through access, experience, and trust. The firm was founded in 2002 by John Aggrey, a visionary who saw a need for business strategy and executive management consulting. He launched the firm as an executive relationship marketing company, serving businesses ranging from startup size to Fortune 1000 companies.

Over the years, The Unicorn Group has evolved further in its ability to escort clients along the road to success, whether it’s getting that meeting with a top government contractor or helping secure a deal for a fortune 1000 company. “We don’t do the nitty gritty of writing the proposals or selling directly for a company” says Greg. “We oversee the strategy, connections, and steps taken toward that win until it’s accomplished. That’s come to involve business strategy, business development, mergers and acquisitions strategy, and raising capital.”

In this way, The Unicorn Group is the perfect solution for a company that’s just landed $4 million in private equity and needs a strategy to deliver on its promises. It’s also a godsend for companies that have just lost a key executive and need someone to come in to help execute on strategy until a replacement is found, or for companies that simply aren’t hitting their numbers and need some assistance. It’s perfect for the engineer who designed a game-changing product but needs expertise in putting the pieces in place for a company that can truly soar. “If you want to get into government contracting, we have a team overseeing the bids who can match you to the right opportunity for you,” Greg explains. “We’re like the coach and general manager, bringing in the talent and the strategy while our client’s team does the implementation.”

Growing strictly through word of mouth, The Unicorn Group has helped over ninety organizations and counting. They only take on clients that are the right fit for them, and Greg relishes the freedom and empowerment that comes from spending his days wisely investing in efforts and projects that are perfectly suited to his skills and passion. “I’m driven by the effectiveness I can achieve when my background, exposure, and experience allows a group, individual, or company to win, whatever their particular game may be,” he says.

Time in the business world has shown Greg to be a hard-charging, dynamic leader who likes to be out front but has learned the value of thoughtful, patient, thorough communication and listening. It’s a character profile that has taken time to develop since the days of his hometown roots, where communication was not markedly valued. His hometown of New Castle thrived through the 1960s and 70s, and his father, a Korean War veteran who never went to college, was a tough union guy who made a living climbing telephone poles for Bell Telephone Company. “Playing catch with my dad was one of the biggest thrills of my life,” Greg laughs. “He would drive the Bell truck home for lunch. We’d grab our gloves and go out back, and I absolutely loved it.”

The Jones family lived in a little ranch house his father built with his uncle, and Greg shared a bedroom with his brother. They were always outside playing, and when Greg was eight, he started playing football, the sport that would have a profound influence on his life. He then picked up basketball and baseball, and sports practice obligations became a great excuse for skipping chores like mowing the yard or bailing hay. “I was playing on teams year-round,” he recalls. “I loved getting to interact with so many different teammates.”

Greg did well in school as a child, showing particular affinity for history and art. His home life changed markedly, however, when his mother moved out with his baby brother, leaving his father to raise the two older boys on his own. Greg was in third grade at the time, and he would watch his father go through several dysfunctional relationships through his formative years. Divorce was rare at that time and in their social circles, and Greg bottled up much of the negative emotion that was felt but rarely discussed in his family. “Where I grew up, you didn’t show vulnerability or talk about your challenges,” he says. “You didn’t ask for help.”

Fortunately, his grandmother lived just next door, and the boys often sought solace at her house. She was a tough German disciplinarian, but she was also a great listener who would cook dinner for the boys and talk with them about whatever was going on. “I still have a figurine that belonged to her, and whenever I see it, it reminds me of everything she taught me and how she was there for me through the issues I was having at the time,” he says. “Her house was a safe haven, and she was an angel. Those moments with her were very defining for me.”

Greg’s relationship with his father was not always the best as he got older, but looking back, he recognizes the reasons for it. “His father left when he was a kid, so he grew up with no dad around,” Greg remembers. “He was a hardworking guy who just didn’t show emotion or weakness ever. It wasn’t his fault, it was just all he knew. He did all he could to take care of me, and in retrospect, that means a lot to me.”

Though Greg never wanted for anything, he was innately inclined to save any money he earned, even from his very earliest days doing odd jobs to earn a few dollars here and there. He worked in the summers and put at least half his pay into savings. “I never wanted to be broke or not have cash in my pocket,” he explains. “We always had food to eat so I don’t know where that came from, but saving 50 percent of my earnings has always been my mantra.”

Because Greg was so close with his older brother, he was always hanging out with boys three years older than him, and always worked hard to keep up with them, intellectually and athletically. In that respect, they were hugely beneficial influences on his coming of age. “I was always pushing myself to stay in the mix,” he recalls. “I was also a little more streetwise than a lot of kids my own age.”

This high bar certainly contributed to his remarkable abilities on the football field, which captivated the attention of college recruiters across the nation when Greg was only a tenth grader. When he received his first recruitment letter from the University of Tennessee, he remembers being incredulous that they were interested in him, and so early in his high school career. Recruiter interest was a constant thrum through his high school career, and Greg ended up having to make the decision of which school to attend on his own. “I’d ask for advice from others, but they would just say that it was my decision,” says Greg. “It was frustrating not having anyone to help give me direction, and it’s one reason I like to mentor and coach people today.”

Greg had his pick of the cream of the crop in Division I football schools, and he still recalls the day Jackie Sherrill came to his home to make the case for the University of Pittsburgh. “I remember Jackie sitting there in this leather jacket that went down to his ankles,” Greg says. “He looked mean as could be, and I decided right then and there that I was going to Penn State. There was just something about the culture that Joe Paterno instilled there—everyone was clean cut, tight, polite. I wanted to be like that.”

Greg spent four wonderful years at Penn State striving for excellence on the field and doing his best to balance his academics with his rigorous football obligations. “I was able to get good grades through high school, but college was a different animal altogether,” he says. “I resolved to finish in four years, but I definitely had to prioritize athletics a bit more than academics during that time.” Greg also found time to court Cathy, the lovely young woman on the swim team who would become his life partner several years down the road. He was the big fish escaped from the small pond of New Castle, testing his abilities in bigger waters.

Over time, the foreign and strange became comfortable and familiar, and by the time Greg graduated from Penn State, he had made the most of his time at the university. But when he wasn’t drafted, he found himself moving quickly toward the edge of a comfort zone he had relied on all his life. Football had always been there for him, a pillar of his character and a guidepost for his future. Once he decided his football career was officially over after testing the field as a free agent, he was confronted by the stark, unsettling question, Now what? “I was so used to the structure that football brought to my life, and to being treated a certain way,” he recalls. “I was entering the ‘real world’ for the first time, and I didn’t know what else to do, so I spent time at home, back in New Castle.”

The year was 1982, and the steel and manufacturing industry in New Castle was drying up. Armed with his business and marketing degree, Greg looked for job opportunities, but the possibilities were scant. Then his father laid down the law. “He told me I wasn’t allowed to stay there,” Greg remembers. “I was angry at the time thinking he didn’t want me around, but looking back, I know it was his way of telling me he loved me. He wanted a better life for me than what I’d be able to find in New Castle.”

With that, Greg moved to Philadelphia in search of a career. “When you don’t know exactly what you want to do, it takes time to figure it out,” he recalls. “I should have gone back to the Penn State football office to help open some doors for me to find a job, as many of my friends did.  But I had grown up believing that you don’t ask for help—that you have to figure it out on your own. Things would have been so much easier, though, if I had just asked. Now I tell my kids all the time to reach out, talk to people, and ask for help.”

Coming from the privileged world of a college football star, Greg had to learn some of the most basic aspects of everyday living, and he still recalls applying for his first apartment and being offended that they asked to run a credit check on him. “I was on my own for the first time,” says Greg. “I made plenty of mistakes along the way, but I know it was the best thing in the world that could have happened to me. I never wanted to stay in my comfort zone, and I’m grateful my father gave me that kick start after college to make sure I didn’t return to it.”

Before long, Greg found a job as a counselor at Glen Mills, a juvenile detention school with a focus in athletics. He was then connected with a Penn State alumnus, Harrison Hartman, who ran DC development for the hospitality company Loew’s Corporation. Greg delivered his pitch to Hartman and then followed up with the HR department each week, ultimately gaining admittance to the company’s management training course. He spent six weeks in each department in DC and then replicated the process in the New York location, learning just enough about the hotel business to understand that it would take him years of seven-day workweeks to make it to a general manager spot.

With that, he left Loew’s and joined a Fortune 500 telecommunications hardware company called Harris Corporation. “It was a great company with great training, and they gave me my first sales gig,” Greg recounts. “Growing up, I never wanted to be a salesperson because I had that image in my head of a car salesman. But I started making great money, and because it was all commission, it was like I was running my own business. If I wasn’t selling anything, I wasn’t making anything, but if I was hustling, I was seeing those direct rewards. I really thrived there, and I knew I wanted to run my own business one day, so it was a great experience.”

Greg rose through the ranks at Harris, moving down to Richmond to take over a sales management team. He then moved to Wisconsin to oversee an entire region, and was later transferred to Chicago, which was a much better fit for the young family. In time, however, Greg felt the entrepreneurial itch and wanted to try something new. He decided to take a position at Litel, an Ohio-based company undergoing a tremendous overhaul as it transformed into LCI International. “It was one of the greatest rides during the greatest period of telecom,” Greg reflects. “They brought in an ex -MCI executive, Brian Thompson, who had tremendous vision and execution strategy. He was one of the only CEOs I ever met who could predict what would happen the following quarter with remarkable accuracy. I really enjoyed working there.”

When the company went through it’s public offering, Greg saw that the people at the top were the ones to benefit most from an IPO, and he was ready to be one of those people. He and Cathy moved back to the DC area, where he took a job as the twenty-fifth employee at Primus Telecommunications. There, he was tasked with building a national sales organization from scratch, opening major hubs in seven cities across the country to interface with clients in Europe and Asia. He helped take that company through an IPO as well, going on to launch his own company in 1999.

Greg and his partners sold that venture, Net Results, in 2002, freeing him up to try his hand at investing, franchising, and real estate. He took over the business sales of a struggling firm called Cavalier Telecom, redesigning the division and helped grow the company from $150 million to over $300 million in three years. Taken together, his track record of success earned him a reputation as an entrepreneurial aficionado in franchising, small business growth, and turnaround success. “I love coming in to a company for a period of time to get things back on track and moving in the right direction,” he says. “Then I like to move on to the next company. I’m not the guy to sit around and manage operations once the business is on the right path.”

Greg also co-founded Bookkeeping Express, in 2007, and brought in an Accenture partner to serve as CEO while he sat as Chairman for several years. Yearning to stretch outside his comfort zone again, he launched Joshco Partners as a management consulting firm in the franchising space. The business took off and did remarkably well, and when Greg would run into commercial accounts that needed assistance his firm wasn’t tailored to provide, he would refer them to The Unicorn Group. At the end of 2015, Greg and John Aggrey sat down to discuss future possibilities, and they decided it made sense to work together under the Unicorn umbrella.. With that, Greg came onboard as Director and brought along his corporate and franchising expertise to house under The Unicorn Group.

Through it all, Greg has enjoyed the wonderful support of Cathy, the yin to his yang. “I made an incredibly wise choice when I got married,” he avows. “She’s more conservative than I am, so I lean on her a lot for reflection. But she always encourages me to go after the things that will make me happy, even if it involves risk. Thank goodness for her, because she never told me to stop doing crazy things and just get a solid job. She’s always encouraged me to do what felt right, and that means a lot.” Together, Greg and Cathy volunteer time and money to So Others Might Eat, which serves the homeless, and to Boulder Crest Retreat for Military and Veteran Wellness, a wellness center for active duty, reserve and National Guard personnel, veterans, and their family members.

In advising young people entering the working world today, Greg underscores the importance of getting a great education. “Even if you don’t like school, drive as far as you can go with it,” he says. “Also, remember to keep an open mind. You don’t have to accept or like someone’s opinion, but at least stay open to what people have to say, because you never know when you might come across something life-changing.”

Beyond that, Greg urges us to embrace the unknown, even if it means you might fail. There’s a lot of pressure in the world today to get things figured out quickly, but there’s tremendous value in experimentation, risks, and venturing off the beaten path. It’s about stepping outside your comfort zone at each stage, never allowing yourself to rest on your laurels. “I’ve always wanted to try for more,” he says, reflecting on both his football career and his journey in business. “I thrive off of striving. When I left football, that question of What’s next? was really terrifying. But now, it’s what drives me.”

Greg S. Jones

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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