Troy McClain has held onto the earnestness and Idaho charm that made him a fan favorite on the first season of Donald Trump’s reality TV show, “The Apprentice,” in 2004.
Life has changed for both men since. Trump fired McClain in one of the final rounds of the entrepreneur competition. McClain founded McClain Cos. in Boise to guide struggling businesses through turnarounds and to buy startups, building their value and selling them for a profit. He said he has delivered more than 300 speeches on business, being a self-starter and the power of charity.
And we all know what happened to Trump.
McClain hasn’t spoken to Trump in years, but his office at 201 N. Maple Grove Road is full of Trump stuff. Trump’s book, “How to Get Rich,” rests on his desk. So does a Trump bobble-head doll. There’s a framed photo of McClain and Trump shaking hands during filming of “The Apprentice.” McClain has framed several congratulations and thank-you notes, signed by Trump, in the hallway.
Asked if he voted for Trump, he said, “Of course.”
Q: Tell me about McClain Cos.
A: We specialize in mergers, acquisitions and marketing. I find little startups that either need financial support or leadership structure. I usually have between seven and 10 employees, but I’ve had up to 20 if we’re taking on a bigger project. It’s on a small level. I’m not in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In the last two years, I’ve been focused on a company, Axs [pronounced “Axis”] that I bought in 2014. The company was about how to be a better public speaker. We’re now working on exiting.
Q: How many companies have fallen under the McClain Cos. umbrella over the years?
A: I’ve probably had 25 companies that I’ve held or assisted.
Q: How did competing on “The Apprentice” shape your entrepreneurialism?
A: I was already an entrepreneur. After the show, I was an entrepreneur with a bigger platform. It introduced me to the world. After the show, I met with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. I met with the richest men and women on planet Earth. But what got me the meetings was my authenticity, the things I’d always done and continue to do in business.
After the show, I got to see and do what most people only dream of. How did the show shape me? It let me know that my way of living is right. They didn’t see me because of the show. The show let them see who I am, and they wanted to see more of it.
Q: What did you learn from meeting successful people?
A: Meeting Bill Gates and Mark Cuban was pretty cool. I don’t know that they shared any tips or tricks, but I do know there’s a pattern. They follow the tracks of other successful people. With one exception —Trump — Cuban, Buffet, Gates, [Bodybuilding.com and Black Box VR founder] Ryan DeLuca, [T-Sheets founder] Matt Rissell and the rest of these guys are all readers. They go to bed with a dream, and they wake up with a purpose. All these cliche kinds of things are true in these great leaders.
Q: When did you start looking up to Trump?
A: In 1989, my high school senior yearbook quote said, “Donald Trump, I’m coming.” I’d been obsessed with tracking him down and getting involved in his organization since 1989. “The Art of the Deal” was just out. I wanted to meet that guy. I decided to go into business and real estate. I’m tired of working off of my Ph.D. — living poor, hungry and driven. I want to start working on my MBA — my massive bank account.
I mailed that yearbook to him in 1989. For me to meet him in 2003 was a dream come true.
Q: Did you support him during the campaign?
A: I was rooting for him. I’m a fan of limited government. I’m a fan of the entrepreneur, and I’m a firm believer that some of the information we’re receiving isn’t the proper information. There is slighted information, slighted to the left and to the right, just depending on what news channel you are watching or what newspaper you are reading. Do I believe what he says is correct? Yes.
Q: Trump has famously been harsh while firing “Apprentice” contestants. He seemed almost apologetic to dismiss you. What do you remember about that moment?
A: I was the only one [to whom] he didn’t say the words, “You’re fired.” In the season finale, he said the hardest one to fire was me. I appreciate that. I still remember it being devastating. I was thinking, “This can be a life changer for me.”
So when he fired me, it certainly didn’t feel good. But I remember thinking, “I’ve already won.”
Q: How so?
A: They told us we were filming a pilot. Nobody even knew it would be a series or have the kind of bandwidth it was going to reach. I was able to stay true to my principles. I was able to speak honorably about Idaho, my ma and my kid sister. I was able to show a principle-based businessman on national television. When the show exploded, that introduced millions of people to Idaho values. That makes me say, “I won,” because there’s life beyond the game show.
Q: Trump passed over you for Kwame Jackson, who attended Harvard University, saying you, without a college degree, didn’t have enough education.
A: I was up against a gentleman, a savvy and highly educated man — Kwame Jackson — who I’m still friends with. Kwame’s father is a neurosurgeon. His mother owned a chain of CPA firms in the Southeast. Then you’ve got me, with a high school diploma, living in Idaho, talking with a twang and walking in boots. He’s a Democrat. [Jackson and other black “Apprentice” contestants criticized Trump’s candidacy.] I’m very Republican. You couldn’t have more of a dichotomy. Yet Kwame was my closest and quickest friend on the show.
Q: What’s the story about Trump offering to pay for you to attend college?
A: On “Larry King Live,” somewhat from my prodding, Trump put his money where his mouth was. He says, “Fine. I’ll pay for you to go to college right now. Get ready. Pack your bags.” But he knew I couldn’t leave a staff or a brick-and-mortar business for college. It was well played by Mr. Trump.
He said it was evergreen. I’m 47 years old, so I don’t know if I’m going to knock on his door.
Q: You ran Governor Butch Otter’s successful re-election campaign in 2010. Why did you get involved, and what did you take away from that experience?
A: He was re-elected, but we accomplished more than that. We put a real good stamp on Idaho and validated what Governor Otter has done for the state and for his constituents. I had my stint being a political operative, so I can add that to the resume.
Q: Trump campaigned as a political outsider who would bring a business approach to the White House. How has that translated?
A: Extremely well. Whether you like it or not, or whether it’s politically correct or not, is a different question. He’s running it like a business, and he’s being extremely disruptive.
The better question is, do we want him to stick to his promise or to start acting like a politician so we feel better? I want him to stick to his promise. I don’t know what his results will be. Do I get concerned? Sometimes. I’m not a big fan of him on Twitter right now. But I support him. I endorse him. Let’s get behind him.
Q: Are there any particular policy points you either like or dislike?
A: He stuck to his promise with the border controls. It was a freshman move and a seasoned business move to say, ‘Here’s what I’m doing.” I don’t think he knew or weighted out all of the procedures and what would come from that.
I believe our borders need some corrective courses. Trump put the eyeballs on immigration, and I think that’s important. His decision on supporting coal is something I want to wait to see the result on. Maybe natural gas is better, but I’m also not researched on this stuff. I just know: Don’t mess with our liberties.