Every once in a while, especially when I find myself training new employees, I'll reflect on my life experiences that made me who I am today and helped to deliver the success I have had. I will pull out various key points that I think are important that support the company culture I have spent years building. If I had to sum it all up in a couple of keywords, it would be perseverance and integrity. In today's world, both of these characteristics are sorely lacking. Given this is the start of a new year, and hopefully, one where we can return to prosperity, I thought telling this story might be helpful.
I have been a salesman and direct marketer since I was a Boy Scout at 11 years old. My Boy Scout troop sold fertilizer (yes, that's right – yard fertilizer to help your grass grow.) I went door to door asking people if they wanted to buy from me. I also made up flyers to put in mailboxes to advertise. I didn't realize until 20 years later that the use of those flyers was direct response marketing. All I cared about then was that it worked, and I led my troop in sales by more than triple what anyone else sold.
I was self-employed in a small business at the age of 14, painting houses. I fell into that when one of my lawn-mowing clients asked me to paint their house. I had just helped my Dad paint our house, which taught me how to do it. So when my grass cutting customer asked if I wanted to paint, I said, "sure." He paid me $4.00 per hour, and I remember earning $200 total on that job. Compared to the $5.00 per lawn I used to get, that seemed like crazy money. I said goodby to lawn-mowing and asked my best friend to be my partner in my new painting business. We had no fear and went door to door, asking people if they wanted two 14-year old kids to paint their house. To this day, I can't believe anyone said yes, but we got a few jobs the first summer, and we were off to the races after that.
The painting business grew into a reasonably large summer operation through high school until I graduated from college nine years later. It grew to a workforce of 12 guys, and we painted over 200 houses over the years. But once I finished college, I decided that I would put my Civil Engineering degree to use and try corporate America. However, that experiment was short-lived. I worked as an engineer for Procter & Gamble for a few years and realized that I hated both engineering and the bureaucracy of a large company.
I wanted to get back into self-employment but did not want to be a painter. So I decided to make a deal with my father-in-law, who owned a small printing distributorship. (He bought and sold everything – did not manufacture.) I would work for him as a salesman for about five years until he retired, and I would then buy him out. That agreement lasted about three years when I realized that my philosophy and his were not aligned, and I decided to venture out independently. But I did learn a lot and proved that I liked the industry and could be very successful in selling printing.
I started Graphic Connections in 1992 in my basement with no clients and a sales contract from my previous employer that prohibited me from contacting anyone I had contacted when I worked for them. I pounded the phones for sometimes 10 hours a day to set up appointments. 60-hour workweeks were the norm. It was tough, but since I had proven I could succeed selling printing in my previous job, I knew it was merely a numbers game, and I stayed the course.
By the end of the first year, I had generated enough profit to put food on my table, and that was about it. Then it took off. Twenty-eight years later, I have 40-45 employees and 15,000 square feet of production/office space that is filled with equipment that we own with no debt.
In those early years, there were no gimmicks. No fancy sales pitches. No patents or revolutionary products. I lived by two basic philosophies. I did what I said I would do – 100% of the time. I also returned all my phone calls in one hour or less. Integrity and my word were (and still are) the two most important things I lived by – both in business and personally. I have built a company culture around that philosophy and am convinced that is the biggest secret to our success.
One of our industry's challenges is that it has been shrinking since the day I got into it in 1988. The common message was that we were moving to a paperless society, and there would be no more printing in 20 years. It is true, the amount of printing has reduced dramatically with the advent of technology. The advances of computer printers have made it easier than ever for people to print their own forms and brochures. The advances in digital technology and email has reduced the number of letters written. Websites and PDF software have reduced the number of brochures and newsletters printed.
The one area of printing that has not shrunk, and is growing, is direct mail. These days, everyone has a website, and many sell online. But marketers have realized that their sales can be greatly enhanced by the addition of direct mail to push people to their websites. I realized direct mail was an opportunity about 20 years ago and have directed our resources to become experts in that area.
One way that I chose to grow the company, which is something that most entrepreneurs never consider, is to grow by acquisition. I have bought 18 companies in the last 20 years. No, I am not a rich guy or a corporate raider. I identified small companies in our area that did printing, direct mail, graphic design, and embroidery that were failing. I found a way to create a win-win scenario for the owner, where I could take over their operation and still pay the owner a fair price even if his company was losing money. Each deal was unique, but I used my ability to find win-win solutions and found a way to make them work for everyone. The deals usually involved some sort of payout over time, based on how well be could retain their clients after we took over.
Not every deal was a success. I had about five home runs, three losers, and the other ten in the middle somewhere. But one thing it did do for me, which was an unintended "good" consequence, was I got a lot of really great employees. When a company is about to close its doors, they are usually down to their last one or two best employees. When I bought these companies, those great employees came with the deal. I also acquired a few owners who wanted to stay in the industry and were good at what they did. Additionally, we got a lot of good equipment that was old, solid, and worked well. In printing, the old equipment is often better than the newer stuff, and it lasts forever.
One of the other things I realized is that finding a niche and being really good at supporting that niche, is an ideal way to grow. It so happens that I fell into a niche that has turned out to be big for us. I have been a real estate investor for 30 years "on the side." Through that activity, I met many real estate investors and realized that there was an opportunity to help investors generate leads through direct mail. We formed some strategic partnerships with leading real estate "house flipping trainers" and have grown into one of the top direct mail companies serving the real estate investing niche nationwide. Because I am an investor, I completely understand what investors need and how they need to communicate with leads. It gave me a leg up on the competition since I was on the "inside." We see our company growing dramatically over the next few years in this niche.
On a personal level, I am a believer in Jesus Christ and am very active in mission work both in St. Louis and also in Panama. I support a ministry in St. Louis called Love the Lou, which helps inner-city families to keep their kids in school and stay out of trouble while at the same time putting God at the center of all activities. I also have led a mission trip to remote villages in Panama for the last ten years, where we build clean-water systems, houses, and schools. The work is gratifying and keeps me grounded. I believe that I have been blessed in many ways and feel I should take a few weeks each year and give back.
I love to play golf, snow ski, exercise, and play the guitar. I have a family with three grown kids, a wife, and two dogs. We spend a lot of time at our summer vacation cottage in a place called Chautauqua, which is on the Mississippi River about an hour from our house. I can say with a smile that I have lived a good life.
As I said in the intro to this article, if I had to sum up the secret to my success both personally and in business, integrity is a vital ingredient. Perseverance is another critical element. I would add a third element to success and happiness, and that is good communication. Just about every problem we have starts with poor communication and usually gets worse as communication breaks down further. Ensuring that you are a person of your word and that the people you are speaking or writing to completely understand what you want them to understand will serve you well in all aspects of life.