Sunny Singh’s father was granted asylum in the U.S. in 1988, a few years after religious riots threw parts of India into chaos, parts that were traditionally peaceful. In order to pursue a better, less volatile life for their family, the Singhs decided to find a safer place to raise their young son.
Sunny’s father began driving a cab in DC, and it took him five more years to raise the money to bring over his family. By then, Sunny was eight, and his new younger brother was only about nine months old. The family rented an apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, where the boys quickly began to learn the American dialect and accent and make friends in their diverse neighborhood.
A few years after that, Sunny’s mother finally got her driver’s license, and the family went to pick out a used car for her. The occasion turned out to be a memorable and motivating one for Sunny. “We ended up settling on this 1993 Ford Escort station wagon,” he recalls. “They paid about $1,200 for it, and the look of excitement on their face was incredible. Even though my parents felt excitement, I felt sadness. It was a bittersweet moment for me because I knew the car was a piece of crap. It had around 180,000 miles on it. And I said to myself, ‘I want more, I don’t want to settle.’”
From then on, Sunny was never satisfied with his lot in life. Upon graduation, when other kids went to college, he was focused on making money. Now, he sees the value in education, but at the time, he was hellbent on getting a full-time job and beginning to climb the corporate ladder and achieve financial success. His first job was an entry-level gig at Chevy Chase Bank as a service associate selling bank accounts to customers. He had immediate success and began attracting attention from his superiors. He set his mind to attaining the branch manager position, and before long, he rose to Assistant Branch Manager, and then Branch Manager at the age of 20.
Within four years, Sunny had grown the tiny company from around $100,000 annually to over $4 million in annual revenue.
But then something funny happened. After working so hard to achieve his goal, his dissatisfaction returned with a vengeance. “I got the promotion, and immediately, it was just a big dud,” he remembers. “My first thought was, ‘So what? What’s next? Am I going to be branch manager here for the next ten years? No!’ It made me realize that I needed to become an entrepreneur. And immediately I started looking at different businesses to buy. I was hungry for more.”
Sunny had a decent amount in savings, but nothing close to what he’d need to buy a large, successful business. Instead, after looking around for some time, he ended up buying a tiny moving company from a man he met through his future father-in-law. In early 2007, Sunny’s parents got a home equity loan to help him finance the purchase, and for his money, he got a moving truck and a mere $10,000 a month in revenue. “We were lucky to get five jobs each month,” Sunny recalls. “It was that slow. All of the jobs were local moves and did not include any long-distance moves. In my mind, I knew it was something that I could really grow. But since it was the only thing I could afford, I jumped in headfirst.”
Within four years, Sunny had grown the tiny company from around $100,000 annually to over $4 million in annual revenue. Through it all, he never lifted a piece of furniture. He focused on business development, management, and leadership. “I was ambitious, and I was driven,” says Sunny. “There was so much room to grow. They didn’t have a website when I started so I created a website. I did Basic 101 for Beginners stuff. I reached out to everybody I possibly could including all of the storage companies. I didn’t have an employee in the office so I sent all the calls to my cell phone. It was just me, going out, and doing everything I possibly could; and slowly, it just started clicking.”
In 2011, with $4 million in annual revenue, Sunny was still looking to expand. As always, success was a motivator to work harder than an invitation to rest. He set his sights on winning government work and applied for a highly competitive Department of Defense contract. “You can’t be a prime contractor with the government until they choose to request applications. And there is no set schedule when that will happen,” explains Sunny. “So it had been closed for around ten years and they hadn’t let anybody into the program when we applied for it. There were over 360 companies who applied, 49 were pre-approved, and 12 actually got the contract. We were one of the 12.”
The win was fateful. The contract took effect in 2013, and the business quickly doubled again, rising to about $8 million and then continued to rise. Two years into the DoD work, Waste Management approached Sunny with an offer. They were impressed with his operation and had been hemorrhaging money through their own 1-800-Packrat division. “They decided they were either going to close that division or double down,” says Sunny. “I met with the CEO and had some great conversations. He really wanted me to join them. They wanted to buy my company so they could add me to their team. They basically brought me on to turn this division around for them. They were great people, and I’m still in touch with them today.”
Over the next three years, Sunny took the division from $1 million to $30 million in revenue as the VP of Government Services. “We went from losing a lot of money to making a lot of money,” smiles Sunny. “Then in 2018, my employment contract ended, and Waste Management sold their shares in the logistics division. From the start, I had been upfront with them and told them I was an entrepreneur. They knew that I wasn’t there for the long run. They just wanted me to fix that division. So I went from owning a moving company with $12-an-hour movers, to winning a prime DoD contract, to growing significantly, to selling to a publicly traded company, and to running a division that was larger than my company. I had a lot of different experiences for a young person under the age of 30. Now it was time for a new challenge.”
Right away, he introduced new benefits, provided raises, quadrupled the training budget, and began meeting every one of his new employees.
This time, Sunny chose carefully. He had had success, he had made money, and he could afford to be picky about where he next invested his energy and expertise. He knew he wanted to get out of moving and more into government contracting. He knew he didn’t want to acquire a staffing company; he preferred to run a company with a real mission, a passion, and a culture of dedication. The particular field of the business, however, was less important to Sunny.
“I wanted to buy something that was sustainable, was affordable to an extent, had a leadership team, and had good people in place. I knew I wasn’t going to be the subject matter expert,” he details. “It had to be a perfect fit and one that would allow me to exercise leadership. Most buyers bring in their own team with them, they clean house, and they identify synergies. I wasn’t doing that. In reality, I was a CEO replacement. I wanted to promote and develop from within. I wanted people working there who wanted to be there. I wanted a business that was working to accomplish something special and didn’t want to just make money. I wanted to invest in people and grow it from within. And so I bought a company specializing in acquisition strategy and data—Artlin Consulting.”
Sunny bought Artlin in November of 2018, a then-seven-year-old company that had grown to $20 million in revenue and 80 employees by its founder, a former VP at IBM. She was brilliant and had done great work taking Artlin as far as she could, but didn’t want continue to deal with the headaches. And growth, organization, and management were Sunny’s specialties. “They had a very immature infrastructure,” observes Sunny. “There was no structure in the organization, just a very flat organization. We were a $20 million company without our own office space. Our address was a UPS box in Fairfax. Today, we’re moving into new office space. Financially, we’re also in a great position. We’ve experienced significant growth in the past year and are where I hoped we would be at this time.”
Artlin is a government contractor specializing in data and acquisition support. Their primary customer is the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD).
Although the staff at Artlin was nervous about the buyout at first, Sunny hopes he’s won over their trust by demonstrating his commitment to running the business for the long haul. Right away, he introduced new benefits, provided raises, quadrupled the training budget, and began meeting every one of his new employees. “My goal was to shake the hand of every single employee and get to know them within the first 90 days,” nods Sunny. “I did it within 60. There was no central office and all employees worked from a client site so it was tricky to get it done. It took a huge commitment on my part to do that, but it was important to me to make it happen. I did a lot of one-on-ones and meet-and-greets with groups of six to eight people. And today, we have strong communications from top to bottom within the Artlin team.”
Developing future leaders has a personal resonance for Sunny who, as an Indian immigrant from a poor family, has had a truly impressive career trajectory. Back in India, his father was gone for years at a time working on a Naval vessel before returning home to his humble farming work. In the U.S., he began driving a cab, which he still does to this day. Sunny loved India and would visit each summer. Sunny and his brother were very close to their maternal grandparents and would stay with them when they visited. Sunny’s grandmother passed away when he was 13, and his grandfather five years later while visiting them in DC. Both left a lifelong legacy of love and respect. In fact, their picture is Sunny’s most prized possession. “I’ve carried this picture in my wallet for 15 years,” he shares. “It’s their house in India. Those are two amazing people who really meant a lot to me.”
In Alexandria, Sunny and his brother began making friends in their very diverse, new neighborhood. There was a large Indian community, which helped make the transition easier. However, when Sunny turned 12, the family was finally able to afford a house and moved to more remote Springfield, VA. Unlike Alexandria, Springfield was far from diverse. Sunny’s family was Sikh which meant he wore a turban growing up. “Kids can be cruel,” he acknowledges. “Things got a lot more challenging at that point. I remember being spit upon while riding the school bus for no reason whatsoever other than I was wearing a turban. So those parts were hard. But they did make me stronger.”
Sunny says family is ultimately the reason he does what he does. His wife, Neha, has been a constant source of support and strength through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.
In the long run, Sunny overcame the bullying and racism, but in high school, his grades suffered as he continued to feel alienated. Looking for something to do and a way to earn money he got a job at a local CVS when he was 15. His family’s financial circumstances only added to his difficulties in high school. “The other kids had Air Jordans,” he laughs. “I had Hakeem Olajuwons which were $25 from Wal-Mart. So I felt really out of place. My parents couldn’t afford to spend the money on nicer clothes so my money allowed me the ability to fit in a little bit more.”
By the end of high school, Sunny’s GPA was awful. He guesses it may have been something like a 1.6. He didn’t have many friends, but he’d already started dating his future wife. Unlike Sunny, she had great academic success and was going on to college. But Sunny remained focused on finding work. His first job after high school was working in the lady’s shoe department at Nordstrom. “I was so unsure what I wanted to do,” he says. “I had a lot of ambition and envisioned being an entrepreneur at some point. But I didn’t know how I was going to get there? I didn’t have any guidance or mentors.”
After selling lady’s shoes for a little while, Sunny had the sales experience to get him in the door at Chevy Chase Bank. Unbeknownst to him, he had set himself on the road that would lead him to the fateful purchase of the moving company and an eventual sale to Waste Management. He ended up getting a college degree online. And while working for Waste Management, he went back to school to get an MBA. “When I went back, I was like, ‘Holy cow, if I had only known all this stuff back when I bought my business!’ I was such an idiot,” Sunny laughs. “I can’t believe some of the stuff I did. But in a way, it’s a good thing I didn’t have the MBA back then because I took risks that I didn’t realize were risky. I took risks that I might not take today. But I really got the degree for my son. He hadn’t been born yet, but I knew I wanted to set a standard for my future son or daughter. My wife has a Master’s degree and works for Northrup Grumman as a CPA. I had to keep up with her!”
Sunny says family is ultimately the reason he does what he does. His wife, Neha, has been a constant source of support and strength through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. “We grew up together,” he smiles. “We’re best friends. We know each other well. It’s crazy, but we were actually just talking the other day about the fact that we’ve been together for 17 years. And we still love being together. I couldn’t have asked for a better soulmate. She’s incredible, and she’s always been there for me as I have pursued different opportunities. She’s smarter than I am and even passed all four parts of the CPA exam on her first attempt which is very rate. I’m very fortunate.” The two have a six-month-old son together.
Sunny’s still close with his parents as well, literally. “We have an Everybody Loves Raymond situation,” he grins. “We bought the house next door to them. My dad’s in better shape than I am. The work ethic that guy has is incredible. And my mom, she’s a superstar and an overall great person. She’s been my primary motivation and drive and was there for me in tough times and good times.”
As a leader, Sunny emphasizes the importance of believing in people and in helping them develop and grow. “If somebody’s not performing well, it could be just the situation they’re in,” he points out. “Getting the most out of people means believing in them, talking to them, and putting them in the right situation. I think that goes a long way toward being a good leader. You need to dig in and take the time to invest in people.”
To young people entering the working world today, Sunny advises going for what you want in life. “People have dreams ideas, but they don’t often pursue them,” he says. “When people are on their deathbeds, one of the top regrets they have is that they didn’t take that risk. Well, do it! Live in the moment, do it, take that risk. Don’t just do something because society thinks you should. Do something because you want to do it, and go through with it, whatever that may be. I was 21 when I bought a moving company, having never worked at a moving company. I’m so glad I did. If I were to kick the bucket tomorrow, I wouldn’t have any regrets. How many people can say that?”