Air Factory COO Bill Dully is bent on changing the face of addiction in America
Celebrating 10 Under 10 honoree Bill Dully, MBA ’18
A sports memorabilia executive who worked with and was inspired by basketball champion Michael Jordan, a speaker committed to teen substance-abuse education and prevention, a U.S. Navy veteran, and an advocate for reducing cigarette consumption and disease, Bill Dully, MBA ’18 (an Executive MBA Americas graduate), is one of the inaugural 10 Under 10 Notable Alumni honored by the Johnson Recent Alumni Council (JRAC).
Dully is global president and COO of e-liquid products manufacturer Air Factory International, which includes LCF Labs, a position he is passionate about because he views the company’s electronic nicotine delivery products as a way to help cigarette smokers overcome their addiction and improve their health. A former COO of sports trading card companies Upper Deck and Donruss, where he also served as president, Dully refers to his segue from the sports and entertainment industry to the addiction and mental health recovery field as “a midlife career change.” He was inspired to make that career change by his own addiction challenges, which he overcame at the age of 24.
Dully hails from Huntington, Connecticut and now calls Sunset Beach, California, home.
His favorite quote is from a book by Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction: “Passion creates, addiction consumes.”
Learn more about Dully in this Q&A.
Luck is when preparation meets opportunity
What drives your commitment and focus in your professional career?
Dully: Two life experiences drive me every day. First, the Jesuit motto that I was educated under for eight years at Fairfield College Preparatory School and Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, which means “For the greater glory of God.”
Second, working with Michael Jordan for 10 years.
I started working with Michael Jordan at age 30. I was young, raw and impressionable, but we were the same age. He befriended me and as part of my job as COO of the Upper Deck, I had one hour with him every month to demonstrate how the business I ran for him was performing. He expected excellence and professionalism from all his business partners, just as he did from players on the court, and he wanted to win at everything he did. He was uncompromising in his approach and in his goals. He inspired me to be organized, creative, and to excel at my job to impress him, gain his product approvals, and grow the Upper Deck trading card, collectible, and toy businesses around the world. I had to adapt quickly and use my vision to compete and remain relevant to him. Revenues grew from $91 million to $289 million a year, we gained 66 percent of the U.S. market share, and earned a #1 ranking in basketball, football, and baseball card sales in the U.S.
How did Michael Jordan change my thinking? He was all about preparation. I had to be prepared for that one-hour meeting every month to keep his attention on our success and continue to grow. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity, and I made my own luck by preparing for the work I did with him and that he demanded. That kind of preparation, combined with an understanding of how to persevere in life, led me to the Cornell Executive MBA Americas program and to what I am doing now in the challenging, controversial, and compassionate addict recovery field: using technology products to help individuals overcome life-long addictions and achieve better health and a better life.
Paying it forward: Givers get and takers lose
Dully believes that in business, in recovery, and in life, his faith must be accompanied by self-sacrifice and unselfish, constructive action to be vital. “Life is a series of connected, actionable events that lead to a natural outcome that is always glorious,” he says. “In short, givers get and takers lose.”
An active keynote speaker at AA meetings, World Vision Advocacy events, and 12-step programs around the world, Dully is also an advocacy speaker at Faith Lutheran High School in Las Vegas and serves on the Fairfield College Preparatory High School long-range planning committee. Dully notes that he overcame his own personal challenges at 24. He says he focuses specifically on “teen substance-abuse education and prevention and mental-health wellness treatments, along with harm-reduction therapy techniques, to bring people through a continuum of care that improves their individual health status and eventually leads to total abstinence and greater health and well-being.”
What inspires you to dedicate your time and energy to this community service and what impact do you want to have in the world?
Dully: I got sober at 24-years-old, myself, after my first tour of duty in the U.S. Navy, in the Persian Gulf and South China Sea. I was recalled for a second tour of duty for Desert Storm One in 1991, due to my Military Occupational Specialty Code or MOS, and I have been clean and sober for 34 consecutive years now. It is my duty to be there for anyone who is afflicted with the disease of drug and alcohol addiction, just as people were there for me decades ago.
I want to change the way the world views its relationship with drugs and alcohol. I want to be in the White House and lead the country’s drug policy. Instead of a war on drugs, which pits two sides against each other, I want to create a new conversation so all of the people in the U.S. can decide: What role do I want drugs and alcohol to play in my life? What is good mental health for each individual? These questions are not asked and need to be decided on so people can make a plan for their own well-being.
Finally, I want to educate everyone on the short- and long-term, as well as positive and negative effects, of using psychoactive substances. I want to shift the paradigm and the rhetoric.
An advocate for Johnson MBA student consulting teams
As a limited partner of Relief X, a cannabis toxicology-testing facility in Irvine, California, Dully engaged MBA Class of 2022 students enrolled in the Strategic Product and Marketing Immersion to prepare a go-to-market study of the new business enterprise in California’s heavily regulated market environment. Relief X is designed to test cannabis medicine for purity of product and sale throughout the state of California, pending final inspection by the California Bureau of Cannabis Control. Dully has engaged another group of students to work on a separate project beginning in January 2022.
What drives your continued engagement with and contribution to the Cornell community?
Dully: What drives me to work with Johnson MBA student consulting teams is the hunger for knowledge that Cornell students bring to a project. The collaborative efforts of all involved open new streams of thought and business practices. The respect and admiration we all shared for each other and quality of the project deliverable upon its completion are also drivers.
What does being selected for the Johnson 10 Under 10 Notable Alumni list mean to you?
Dully: I was command-advanced [a meritorious advancement] in the U.S. Navy in 1986, after my first deployment to the Persian Gulf. I was Sports Executive of the Year in 2000, and I graduated at top of my class with my master of health administration from the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy in 2015. Being selected to the inaugural 10 Under 10 notable alumni list is the highest honor in my life to date, and a culmination of 33-plus years of work and education to engage people in the message of recovery and mental health wellness. I hope it is a testament to the fact that you can do anything in life that you want. I believe my Cornell MBA and the 10 Under 10 recognition will provide a new audience, a broader platform, and the heightened visibility that I could not get on my own to fulfill a life’s mission. It is my duty to continue to deliver a message of physical and mental wellness, free from alcohol, drugs, and other addictions.
What are the most valuable things you learned at Johnson that have helped you in your career?
- Persevere: You have to cut wood and carry water throughout life.
- Be vulnerable: When I am vulnerable, I am open-minded and able to learn.
- Practice participatory leadership: Gather as many perspectives as you can. Different points of view are the most valuable information you can garner.
Did any particular faculty member(s) influence you on your chosen career path?
- Andrew Karolyi [Harold Bierman Jr. Distinguished Professor of Management and dean of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business] increased and sharpened the content of my character through class.
- Justin Johnson [Deane W. Malott Professor of Management and professor of economics] defined and crystallized what it means to think strategically and how to use it.
- Mark Busch [visiting professor of management and organizations] is brilliance personified.
The challenge of a lifetime
Describe a challenge you encountered as you built your career and how you overcame it.
Dully: At 58 years old, I have had more than a few challenges in my life. I am a veteran of two deployments as a member of the U.S. Navy—in 1986 and ’88, and I was on the recall list for Desert Storm in 1991. As COO of Worldwide Operations I successfully guided the Upper Deck Company through the Major League Baseball strike of 1995, avoiding insolvency. I was CEO of [trading cards manufacturing company] Donruss and worked it out of bankruptcy to a #1 market position in baseball and football in 2004. I reinvented myself through the economic collapse of 2008 by returning to school at 53 years old and earning my MBA from Cornell at 58. While difficult, these events pale in comparison to what I am doing now.
Tobacco kills more than eight million people each year around the world. Over 80 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion tobacco users live in low- and middle-income countries. Cigarette smoke is filled with more than 70 cancer-causing chemicals, all derived from the tobacco leaf. Technology has developed electronic nicotine-delivery systems that allow a smoker to switch from a combustible cigarette to an electronic device, without any plant-derived tobacco, cancer-causing chemicals, or tar.
For the last five years I have been engaged in the most important and challenging work of my career. As president and COO of an FDA-registered and approved company that has developed smoking cessation products, I am working to prove that new nicotine-delivery technology reduces cigarette consumption and disease created from cigarettes. I am working to create a shift in an existing market and show that heavy smokers can quit cigarettes altogether in a less painful, step-down process. By empowering smokers to be in full control of their nicotine intake, they can reduce the amount of nicotine they use daily until they can quit, ending their addiction.
The fight is monumental and victory will be achieved the same way as any other challenge in life, big or small. Changing the face of addiction in America will take a dedicated and disciplined work ethic. I must be able to face doubt and criticism daily. I can never lose sight of what I am fighting for and must do the right thing for the situation at hand. This particular battle will take a strong moral fiber, an iron will, and courage. That’s why I got my MBA at Cornell at age 55.
Honoring a sports hero and veteran
What is the proudest moment of your career or of your personal life?
When Dully was president and COO of Donruss, the company would regularly cut up famous ball players’ jerseys following a game and attach squares to Donruss sports trading cards. One day in 2004, a three-year-old jersey that had belonged to five-year NFL veteran Pat Tillman of the Arizona Cardinals was found in the company’s back room. This happened just a few days after Tillman, who gave up a three-year, $3.6 million contract offer to join the U.S. Army in 2002, died while fighting in Afghanistan. Donruss could have made as much as $4 million if they had cut up that jersey and attached the pieces to cards, Dully estimated. Instead, the company decided to donate the jersey to Tillman’s family as a tribute to what he stood for.
Dully: The day after this story broke, there were over 100 news vans in the Donruss company parking lot in Arlington, Texas, asking for interviews and to see the jersey. I made the Top Ten List on the Late Show with David Letterman that night and was highlighted on the Jimmy Kimmel Show. ABC, NBC, and CBS Nightly News did feature stories about me, the company, and the gesture.”
What do you do to recharge?
Dully: Spend time with my family, golf, swim, walk my dog, nap, go to an AA Meeting.
What do you wish you’d known as a Johnson student and what advice would you give to Johnson students today?
Dully: Trust more, worry less. Everyone at Cornell wants you to succeed and will help you achieve your academic and life goals. You’re a part of the best MBA program and alumni network in the world. Go Big Red!