LOS ANGELES — During that first hard year of building my personal management company, I had lunch with Michael Levine, a celebrity publicist who seems to show up on TV every time a star overdoses, heads to rehab or goes to jail.
“Rick,” he said, “what you need is revenue. Doesn’t matter if you believe in the clients or not, it only matters if they help pay your rent.”
Several years later, with my company now mature and well established, he called me to remind me that it was his advice that led to my subsequent success.
“I do have to thank you,” I told him. “Every time I thought about taking on a client I wasn’t passionate about but was making money, I thought of your advice and chose not to take on the client.”
My business success was predicated on casting directors and producers believing in my sense of taste. How could I have asked the buying community to trust my belief in my clients if I didn’t believe in them?
I think about Michael Levine and how my long-term thinking served me better than short-term quick fixes every time I see stories about new ways to make more money.
There are lots of ways to create extra profit; many of the best ideas for dry cleaners are highlighted in other places in this magazine. But even a cursory examination of the businesses that do the best the longest shows that it’s not necessarily starting something new, but maximizing what you have that works the best.
I’ll give you an example. Fred Schwarzmann is the president and chief executive officer of A.L. Wilson Chemical Co. As most of you probably know, Wilson is an eighty-some-year-old company; Fred is the third-generation carrier of its corporate flame.
At first, those who know the two of us may see us as total opposites. Fred’s even-keeled, thoughtful, introspective; I, well, am not. While I do not know his politics, my guess is that he’s a conservative. Many, to my occasional protestation, see me as a liberal (I view liberal as just wanting more, like a liberal serving of my favorite drink; I think of myself as a progressive). But here we are in a big election year, and I can unequivocally say that when I grow up, I want to be Fred Schwarzmann (it’ll be tough, since we’re pretty much the same age).
Here’s why—Schwarzmann has mastered what may be the real, best way to maximize profits over the long term: he has a stable, content work force. The average tenure for his employees is 18 years. Part of it matches up to what some might think is left thinking: “I’m altruistic in that I want my staff to be able to take care of their needs.” But then he bends to the right: “It’s selfish, really, because I want them to think this is the best place for them to work, which in the end betters the company’s chance for success.”
The key is right up front—doing your best to hire the right people “and let them do their jobs.” Schwarzmann calls the hiring process painful, knowing “that small businesses are fragile” and he needs a team “to buy into the project.” Then, make sure the employees know that their task, be it administrative, sales, maintenance or executive, “really matters.” If one part of the engine falters, it hurts every part.
The Wilson team, according to Schwarzmann, was not perfectly assembled. “Some were not first hires. But for the most part, my employees and I have gone through our lives together. And I think that’s had a lot to do with our continued successes and innovations.”
There’s a parallel here to our political system, I think. Be it conservatives, liberals, libertarians, moderates or progressives, we all want pretty much the same thing. Let me work for a living, provide for my family. We all want the poor to be housed, the sick to be cured. The ends are the same, it’s the means—the best way to reach our objectives—that we argue about.
In business, we all want to make money. Grab onto a trend, and you’ll continually need to latch onto the next trend to keep the revenue momentum going. But do good by your customers—which only becomes easier by having an experienced, knowledgeable team working for you—and your customers will stay. You can even incorporate that into your marketing efforts. Judging by visits to various dry cleaners’ websites, some of you are already doing that.
My personal management business wasn’t built on having a lot of clients. It was built on successfully marketing my handful of clients to help them secure more lucrative opportunities.
There are dry cleaners that sell tchotchkes, some that fix shoes, some do delivery, and some specialize in bridal, restoration or tie cleaning. All of those kinds of things have the potential to better your bottom line.
But my advice: never wander too far from what you know you’re good at, your wheelhouse. And build a team you can trust, and do what you need to keep them. Their loyalty may be the best profit center of all.