I’ve interviewed several of the mentors who brought me to where I am today. In the upcoming weeks, you’ll see them posted here. Though none of them are in the publishing industry, the things I learned from their expertise still apply. I hope through this series, many of you will find something to take away from it, be inspired, and share so others can learn, too.
I met Dan when I was working for a car dealership a few years ago. I walked in with no prior experience in accounting and sat down with him and his assistant CFO for an interview. I was immediately drawn to Dan’s candor and sense of humor. There aren’t many people who can mix the two without one of two things happening.
A: No one takes you seriously because you’re trying to be a “comedian” or
B: No one likes you because you’re too honest and get labeled an “asshole”
The honesty was a breath of fresh air. In the course of two years, I grew to respect Dan more and more. One of the most intelligent people I had ever met, he was open to sharing his knowledge if “you weren’t an idiot”. (I may, or may not be quoting him. I plead the fifth.)
If you could handle the task, Dan gave it to you. And in the short time I worked for him, I learned an incredible amount of things. It showed me what my own potential was, it allowed me to never settle (once I learned one thing, he tossed me another), and it taught me to trust my gut. Even if I was wrong. And yes, I was wrong a lot. He never made me feel stupid when I was, but rather used it as a learning experience. See, it’s ok to be wrong if you are genuinely willing and capable of learning. Being open, and being vulnerable to being wrong is how you grow. In fact, it made me more confident. It taught me to ask questions, think critically, and never settle.
One of the things I learned from Dan which I apply to running Stitched Smile Publications is to ask: “Is this the best you can do?” If it isn’t the best work you can turn in, then don’t settle for “good enough”. (I really hate that term!)
If it’s your best, it’s your best. Own it. Learn from it. Get better.
Experiences make us who we are and if we constantly shy away from being uncomfortable or being vulnerable, if we never take a risk in life, we’re condemned to being a box of crayons: Individual colors neatly packed in cardboard. Same colors, same label, no matter how bright the outside is.
LV: Tell us a little about yourself. What your line of work is and area(s) of expertise
I’ve been in the automobile business forever. 43 years or so. I worked as a Zone Manager for the Ford Motor Company, as a controller is some small dealerships after I left Ford, and as General Manager of a Chevy dealership. I spent four years with the National Automobile Dealers Association as a consultant and financial management instructor. I spent the last 24 years as Chief Financial Officer of the Russell & Smith Auto Group in Houston. Much of what I’ve done has been accounting-related, with the rest being sales. I’m currently Vice President of Sales for ProBilling and Funding, a company which offers receivables management products.
LV: What things motivated your “younger” self to succeed?
Probably the two summers I spent working as a construction laborer, or maybe it was my high school job at McDonalds….. Seriously, I just never thought there was anything I couldn’t do. I think that was our attitude when I was in college (late 60’s). We just knew we would be successful. It helped that big corporations were actively recruiting us, and it was not unusual for one of us to receive a number of employment offers prior to graduation.
LV: A lot of people struggle with feelings of failure. When we look at our mentors and leaders, we sometimes forget they are human and have gone through similar experiences. Can you recall a time when you felt your lowest? Tell us about it and how you got through.
Probably getting fired from what I thought was going to be my dream job in Atlanta. I left that thinking, “I’m tired of the car business. Maybe it’s time to find another line of work”. I spent about a month doing nothing constructive, almost trying to avoid looking for another job. I finally got off my ***, put my resume together, and, within a couple of months, had five job offers in hand. It never really occurred to me, once I finally started looking, that I might not find the type of job I was seeking, only that it might take some time. The average time between jobs for my type of job was around four months, I think I solved it in three. You just have to be like the “little engine that could”.
LV: You served in the military for many years and rose through the ranks through hard work. Did the military teach you that, or do you feel like people are born with a natural desire to be a leader?
Hmmmmm….. The military, or at least the Army, turns ordinary people into remarkable leaders, whether they want to or not. I don’t believe you are born with the desire to be a leader, I think you become a leader when you need to be one, or when you are needed to be one.
LV: What are your biggest strengths, and weakness?
Biggest Strength: I never give up or give in.
Biggest Weakness: I never give up or give in.
LV: What do you do to keep yourself centered with everything you have going on in your life?
I asked my father a similar question; my step mother had a number of health issues, life wasn’t going well, and it had to be tough. I asked him how managed everything, and he basically said “Put one foot in front of the other. Repeat”. The best way to remain centered is to keep doing what needs to be done. The rest of it will take care of itself.
LV: What traits do you look for in a person prior to making the decision to invest time into teaching them? And once you’ve begun to mentor them, what are your expectations?
Not to disparage testing……but I think you just know who that person is. It’s not about education, or age, or anything actually measurable. It doesn’t take long to figure out if a person wants to learn. The results come fairly quickly. My expectations are simple: they learn what I’m teaching, show me that they’ve learned it, and then show that they’re able to go to the next learning level without being told what it is. I value creativity, and the ability to think.
I’m often guilty of giving somewhat vague guidance. That’s on purpose; let’s see what the person you’re mentoring can do with this. That’s designed to drive the unwary completely crazy. I had a Drill Sergeant in Basic Training who kept saying, “Got no time for slow learners”. He was right, at least for what we’re discussing.
LV: I know you read a lot. What are some of your most recommended books?
This is the answer which gets rotten fruit thrown at me, but my favorite book is Atlas Shrugged. I first read it when I was about 15, and I’ve worn out several copies. If you have a few hours I’ll be glad to explain what it’s really about.
After that? Anything by John LeCarre. Anything by Charles Dickens. The entire Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter. I’m kind of a nut for British murder mysteries, so you can toss in Agatha Christie, and P.D. James.
I like to read books about business. Not business books. One of my all-time favorite books about business was called, “From Those Wonderful People Who Gave You Pearl Harbor”. It was written by a New York advertising executive, and chronicled his life in the ad business. Really interesting insights, along with being absolutely hilarious. I’m sure it’s long out of print.
For business books I highly recommend Peter Drucker’s “Management”. Some things just don’t go out of style. Actually, any of Drucker’s books are good.
LV: One of the things I admire about you is how you can take an idea and run with it using what you’ve learned from past experiences and then adding your own touch. What is your method for deciding if something is a worth pursuing, or if you should discard it?
First, did I even understand the idea? The best ideas are the simple ones, and the ones that take too much explanation probably aren’t the right fit. Warren Buffet said, “I don’t invest in things I don’t understand”. I’m with him.
Second, does it sound like us? Any idea, whether it comes from inside or outside, has to be something that fits with our culture. If it doesn’t, it won’t work.
Third, is it actually legal? There are some great ideas which may be legal in one state, but not another. One of my students at NADA heard about an idea to place used vehicle for sale ads in the newspaper without identifying the dealership, only putting the phone number in the ad. Turns out that the person who had given him the idea was from state where that type of ad was legal but, unfortunately for my student, it wasn’t legal in his state. The state DMV suspended the dealership sales license for two weeks.
Fourth, is it going to make our lives better? The best idea I ever heard came from a meeting that Ford put on, and made us think about what was going on in the dealership. One of the focus items was employee morale. What came out of that meeting was that we were going to build a lunchroom in one of the buildings which had some unused space. We built the room, put in vending machines, microwaves, tables and chairs, and the employees absolutely loved it.
Fifth, and the really important one, is whether we can actually implement the idea and keep it implemented. I’ve seen a lot of great ideas and programs for which the dealerships have paid lots of money die within a few months of launch. There are always excuses and reasons why the program failed, but the biggest one is that there was no buy-in and no plan to solve that. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told, “yeah, we used to do that, but I guess we stopped”. And nobody noticed or cared. On to the next magic solution.
LV: Sales is a hard business. Whenever you begin a business, sales and marketing are its bread and butter. Without it, your business starves. Are there certain tactics that work across the board, regardless of what kind of business it is? What are they, in your opinion?
You have to show that you are different and be able to rise above the clutter of other businesses in the same line of work. I was reading today about a number of companies which have tried to become the next Facebook. I had never heard of any of them. I wonder why they failed to gain any large number of users? Apparently, even Google had one, with about 500,000 supposed subscribers. They announced this week that they were ending the service….and nobody actually noticed. It’s one thing to start a business. It’s quite another to prove to your public that you have a product to which they need to give the time of day. If your business plan is to just be like the other guys, you’ll fail.
Google gained prominence by simply being better than everybody else. They’ve become so good they’re now a verb. We don’t search the web; we Google it.
Gallery Furniture is a furniture store in Houston. A furniture store in a world of furniture stores. It is owned by a gentleman called “Mattress Mack”. He does is own television commercials. HORRIBLE commercials. Stuff that no self-respecting ad agency would create. And yet……he has a huge operation, everybody knows who he is and he probably makes a ton of money doing it. He managed to rise above the clutter. He also promises same day delivery. “Gallery Furniture Delivers Today”. He’s hit that line really hard, and has billboards all over Houston which simply have the word “TODAY” on them. Powerful stuff. He blows the rest of the competition away.
The internet has made the process much more difficult. I just Googled “car dealer”. It said there were 539,000,000 results. Tough to get noticed in all of that clutter.
LV: You retired from the military, and not too long ago you retired from another longtime career only to begin a new journey. First of all, congratulations on both achievements-but I do question your definition of “retirement”! Secondly, do you find it to be a trait in successful people to never stop working? Or do you feel it is your Achilles heel?
I think successful people never stop working, or at least never stop thinking. It may be everybody’s dream to spend their “golden” years sitting on the beach sipping a beer….but what do you do the second week? If you can move from a sixty hour a week job to a twenty hour a week job which still gives you the opportunity to use your talents, why not? I retired, in large part, because I was just tired of doing the same thing every day. It didn’t mean I wanted to quit working – it meant that I wanted to quit that job. I now have much better control of how I spend my time, which is currently half in Houston and half in Play del Carmen, Mexico. Much better than having to be at my desk everyday…..
LV: What words of advice would you give to someone who has a dream of success but has no point of reference of where to begin?
Take risks. Take the job nobody else wants – it might be the perfect place for you to learn. Don’t be afraid to move on to the next job – and make sure it’s a better one than the one you’re leaving.
LV: And finally, who are the mentors and people you admire, and why?
Mentors, not so many. At the time I started working, the idea of mentoring hadn’t made it into the business world.
People I admire? The ones who stood up for what was right, no matter what the cost. The ones who told the truth, however inconvenient. We seem to have a shortage of them lately.
- What’s your favorite quote?
“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money”. Everett Dirksen. It’s believed that Dirksen didn’t actually say that, but he said it sounded so good that he never denied saying it.
- Tell me about the closest person in your life who you’re comfortable talking about. What would they say if I asked them, ‘What is the one characteristic they totally dig about you?’
- Name a song/artist we can listen to, to get a good feel for who you are.
“Girl from Ipanema”. Stan Getz/Astrid Gilberto/Joao Gilberto. Written by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Set me on the path to love jazz and Brazilian music.