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Bright lights, big business: Football buddies team up for successful venture

Photo: Andrew McMurtrie. Friends and former college football players Des Williams, left, and Zach Hugo have found success in Outdoor Advantage, their lighting, landscape design and maintenance company that they started last year. Williams, a former football player at Dacula High School and the University of Georgia, has relied on his Georgia Bulldog ties to give the business a jump start, doing projects for guys like David Pollack, D.J. Shockley and Hines Ward.

Photo: Andrew McMurtrie. Friends and former college football players Des Williams, left, and Zach Hugo have found success in Outdoor Advantage, their lighting, landscape design and maintenance company that they started last year. Williams, a former football player at Dacula High School and the University of Georgia, has relied on his Georgia Bulldog ties to give the business a jump start, doing projects for guys like David Pollack, D.J. Shockley and Hines Ward.

It all comes back to football.

A game Des Williams and Zach Hugo played for years under the lights played a role in getting their successful lighting, maintenance and landscape design company started, kept it going in tough economic times and now helps its continued growth.

One of their biggest jobs thus far, the one that kick-started their Outdoor Advantage business to a higher level, also has an indelible Gwinnett County football mark on it.

“One of our first projects was (former Georgia All-American and NFL player) David Pollack’s project,” said Williams, a teammate of Pollack’s at Georgia. “He finished work on his house in late May, early June last year. We were good friends through Georgia and through Gwinnett sports (Pollack played at Shiloh). ... I finally went over there and saw Pollack, we did a demonstration for him and it looked great. That kind of catapulted our business from there.”

From that point, their football connections took over. Particularly those of Williams, who had the added bonus of being a former UGA linebacker. It never hurts to have ties to Bulldog Nation in these parts.

Outdoor Advantage already has done home projects for former Bulldogs D.J. Shockley and Thomas Brown, as well as a commercial job for Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Hines Ward, also a former UGA star.

“The Georgia thing was huge for us,” Hugo said. “It jump-started the business.”

Williams, who handles a heavy sales and marketing load while Hugo runs the landscaping and maintenance side, picked up seven UGA-based clients simply by networking in the Sky Suites at a Bulldog football game last season.

“It’s an immediate rapport builder when people find out I played for Georgia and that we’re both (former) college athletes,” said Williams, whose partner Hugo played football at Morehead State. “This area is Bulldog country. Everybody’s like, ‘wow,’ and they want to ask you a little bit about your experiences. But also too, they know you’re going to work hard and do a good job.”

Outdoor Advantage never would have been around if not for football. Hugo, 24, and Williams, 26, may never have met without the sport.

Allen Hugo, Zach’s father, was Williams’ youth football coach for years when Hugo’s older son played with the future UGA linebacker. Williams and Hugo also were teammates for a couple of seasons on the high school team at Dacula.

“I was two years younger and my brother was (Williams’) age, so they played football all the time together,” Zach Hugo said. “He was always at the house. I was probably the annoying little brother then, saying, ‘Let me hang out, let me hang out.’”

The two friends parted ways in college, then took jobs for separate landscaping and contracting companies. They followed that by taking corporate sales jobs — Williams with Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Hugo with Verizon — that neither enjoyed. They both agreed that desk jobs didn’t fit them, so they began talking about a possible business together.

After three to four months of planning, they stepped away from their corporate jobs to start Outdoor Advantage.

“We both said if we work as hard as we have to work for these entry-level sales positions, we know we can be successful with our business,” Williams said. “We’ve already got the work ethic from high school ball and college ball. We already had our foundation set. We just said if we do what we’re doing now for ourselves, there’s no reason we can’t be successful.”

The success isn’t easy, running your own business rarely is. It takes standard, 70-hour work weeks, often in the blazing heat (not unlike two-a-day football practices).

The lighting jobs can be pretty complex, too. None trickier than their project in The River Club for Pollack. It’s still the biggest residential installation they’ve done with more than 100 lights.

“It was about as complicated as it could be,” Hugo said. “We knew we wouldn’t really see anything harder than that. After that, every other house has been a walk in the park because we’ve seen it, we’ve done it.”

The connections from Pollack and others have kept the longtime friends busy the past 14 months, but those networking links can only do so much for your business. It still takes production to keep your job, something both Hugo and Williams learned years ago on the football field.

“Getting the jobs is just part of it,” Williams said. “If you don’t do a good job, it doesn’t matter who you know.”