He credits his family for instilling good values. His parents had a couple of small businesses, but nothing that had a major impact on his deep dive into entrepreneurship, he said. But they were helpful and supportive. “When I was about 18 years old, one major influence was when my mother bought a piece of equipment for my first business and maybe believed in me before I really believed in myself,” he said. The equipment was probably worth less than $500, but the faith she displayed in his enterprise gave him confidence that was vital to his long-term successes, he said.
He graduated from high school in 1988 and went on to IUPUI, where he majored in business administration. His high school sweetheart, Jeanene, went to Purdue University. They married after college.
Christy worked a couple of years at Prudential Insurance Co., the only time he worked for someone else. “It was good to see corporate management in action. I saw the hierarchy, the corporate culture, how managers think, and thought, ‘I think I can do it better.’”
Striking out on his own
Using $12,000, the entirety of his savings in January 1994, Christy founded Approved Mortgage in Greenwood. At first, he did just about every job, from taking mortgage applications to closing them, hiring and training staff, to taking out the trash. “There didn’t seem to be enough time in the day,” he said. The business was successful, however, and allowed him to create related businesses that built on the successes of each other. After Approved, he started Ben Franklin Insurance and Investments, which provides auto, home and life coverage to Approved’s mortgage clients and others. Jeanene Christy owns MVP National Title Co., an all-women owned and operated business that handles the title work for Approved’s clients. “These businesses shared a common core of offering the very best lenders and carrier programs and rates in the marketplace for a distinct client advantage,” Derrick
Christy said. Next, he started Ben Franklin Wealth, which offers investments, insurance and estate planning, and
Ben Franklin Finance, which provides education loans and business portfolio management. All of his businesses except one are housed at 107 N. State Road 135 in Greenwood.
Building and owning this space, as well as his friendship with builder J. Greg Allen, led to a new venture: Horizon Property Group, which owns and/or manages more than 300,000 square feet of retail space in central Indiana.
It has seven retail centers and also rents out office space in the 57,000-square-foot Approved Mortgage building.
Horizon has also completed commercial construction projects, handling all the details involved in building new retail space. Recent projects include Paul Mitchell Beauty School near the Greenwood Park Mall, and
Charter Crossing and Fannie May, a strip mall and stand-alone building for a candy retailer, also near the mall.
His family of businesses is diverse, Christy said, on purpose. He invests in a wide range of diversified assets and businesses that makes the group stronger. “We learn from our experiences in different companies and apply those ‘a-ha’ moments throughout all our companies and charitable work,” he said. Entrepreneur magazine named
Approved Mortgage to its “25 Best Small-Company Cultures in 2015.”
Christy entered the education market in 1999 when he created Distance Learning Systems Inc., which provides a high-quality, low cost path to earning college credits toward hundreds of online degrees and partners with universities such as Indiana Wesleyan and Liberty. As with his other businesses, once
Christy stuck his toe in the education waters, he found other opportunities and created related businesses. Kick
Start Learning offers college-level courses that can be purchased one at a time and are designed to be transferred.
Pay It Forward EDU is a nonprofit venture he describes as a “GoFundMe” for students. People are able to help fund college for their loved ones and take advantage of charitable tax deductions. Coastal Education Institute is in Fort
Lauderdale, Florida, that is the production company for the online courses.
“The face of education is changing today with the advent of the internet,” he said. “We provide a more direct path to passing college courses but in less time and with more convenience. This is half the cost, and the pass rate is higher than traditional colleges.”
New office space
Christy’s latest venture is fairly new ground for Greenwood. Loft 107 is “co-working office space.” The arrangement builds on the business incubator concept but encourages more networking among the inhabitants. Everyone works together in a common area. It has a lower price point — starting at $169 per month — than many shared office space sites, and the amenities include free Starbucks, fruits, vegetables and snacks, a lounge area and conference room, dedicated desks and work areas, and all the telecommunications services needed to run a small business.
“It has become a very popular concept in Indianapolis,” he said. “I believe it is a much more efficient model for tenants to minimize costs and maximize amenities.” And when this takes off, Christy, through his Horizon Property Group, plans to build another office building, a three-story, 30,000-square-foot space, just south of the Approved Mortgage building. Christian Maslowski, president and CEO of the Greater Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, said Loft 107 is a much-needed amenity for the Center Grove area. “It’s a great way to support small business owners in their quest to grow out of their home offices,” he said. Co-working space can provide a culture to support entrepreneurship. “Derrick is a natural fit for this. He’s done it himself and knows what’s needed.”
Channeling Ben Franklin
Christy is the seventh-great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin. He has visited his grave site and home in Philadelphia, as well as his home in London, where Franklin lived when he was an ambassador for the United States. This inspired many of the names of the companies Christy owns. Christy channels Franklin’s reputation for pithy and wise advice when he recites one of his own aphorisms: “‘Spend less than you make, so you have money to invest,’ which I have never stopped doing,” he said. “I am still amazed by air travel, so I fly coach and don’t ever think about upgrading to first class because that’s money to be invested.” He naturally gravitates toward financial services. He said in the early days of his marriage, he placed more value on conservative investing because of his duty to his wife and children.
“Having that initiative, I was focused on that for myself. I thought I could help other people plan properly and counsel them on good financial decisions,” he said. One of his recipes for success is finding and keeping good people. He does that by empowering employees and making sure they have the right talents for their roles.
“We’ve been really blessed with long-tenured team members,” he said. He also tries to create a positive culture and promote healthy, well balanced lifestyles, he said. His companies have hosted speakers, singers, themed events, parking lot barbecue parties, corporate holiday luncheons and dinner parties.
Mentoring for success
Christy continues to want to learn and seek advice. “I am in a monthly one-on-one with a CEO coach, where we work on business goals and aligning personal growth goals. I also meet with a peer group of CEOs once every six weeks, where we share ideas and process business issues,” he said. The one piece of advice he would give a young person starting out in the business world is find a mentor. “If I’d known then what I know now, I’d get a mentor,” he said. His early mistake, he said, was self-doubt and not placing enough value on himself. “A mentor would have helped with that,” he said. His first business took all his money, and it was a little daunting, but “if you fall, the fall is not that far.” Later, however, risk became a little scarier.
“Most of us (entrepreneurs) are a little paranoid. We’re always playing for ‘what if this changes or that turns?’ Now, one of my biggest goals is to eliminate risk,” he said.
He enjoys reading, especially books that offer advice on business and life success. His favorites are
James Allen’s “As a Man Thinketh,” and Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich.” Christy and his businesses give back to the community by financially supporting Emmanuel Church, Greenwood Christian Academy,
Leadership Johnson County, the Johnson County Community Foundation, SMI Haiti Ministries, World Vision and the YMCA. He serves as an ambassador at the Center Grove School Corp., on the board of the
Greater Greenwood Chamber of Commerce and served on the board of the community foundation. He was also named to the Indianapolis Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” list of business people to watch in 2003. Maslowski said he appreciates Christy’s contribution to the Greenwood Chamber’s board, which he has served on for one year. “He’s always willing to lend a fresh perspective and he asks tough questions. He’s very generous with his advice based on for-profit best experience. He’s just enjoyable to be around,” Maslowski said. “He’s really done a fascinating job pioneering and testing out new concepts. He’s a measured risk taker and he’s a hard worker.”
Christy tries to strike a balance between work, family and fun. One of his favorite activities is traveling, and the Christys have been all over the world. “I think this has given me insight into other cultures and civilizations that I bring back to reflect on my own community and the United States with both a social and business perspective,” he said. He has participated in a men’s Bible study group for more than 15 years. Every year, the group takes a ski trip to Beaver Creek, Colorado. He and Jeanene have two children, Blake, who is getting ready to start his medical residency at Franciscan Health, and Jena, a student at University of Indianapolis. Christy continues to look for new business opportunities, but also takes time to appreciate what he already has as he no longer has to work seven days a week. “I have been blessed with very good friends, family and business partners,” he said, especially crediting his wife for her support and understanding though the early years of sacrifice. “I strive to keep improving my work life and family balance, which she has said she can definitely see and appreciates. This is really only possible because of my team that affords me more flexibility today.”
This article originally appeared in Southside Business Exchange, Summer of 2019 Issue. Story By Amy May. Photos by Mark Freeland.