I, Jonathan West, like to tell people that I am in the oil business. Their eyes light up and I can watch them mentally calculating how much money I am worth. I can almost see them imagining mansions in Texas and meetings with sheiks and princes in the Gulf states.
Then, waiting a beat, I explain that I am in the olive oil business. I import olives, olive oil, and related gourmet products. The bubble bursts and I am once again an ordinary, if not boring, guest at a dinner party.
If they had the interest and I had the time, I’d share with them a story that’s both wonderful and tragic. It’s the story of my great-great-grandfather who came to America penniless, spoke no English, and was taught by a very cruel person that saying “screw you” was how one thanked people in his new country. After many fistfights, my great-great-grandfather figured out what he was saying, plunged into learning English, and began to make a living. You’ve all heard stories of the immigrants’ struggles after arriving in America, and his was no exception.
Life was hard, but fortunately over time things began to pay off. The Dutch gene in him made him a natural at trading and selling. He became a middleman, moving buggy whips, pool tables, baby dolls, and olives. Apparently, there was a lot of money in these pitted fruits, and he founded West and Company, the import business I run today and hope to continue running. But things at West and Company are so tough that there’s a serious chance I will have to close or sell it.
My business is in trouble. I’m a middleman, you see, and we all know from the success of Michael Dell that, in today’s economy, the middleman is dispensable. Technology now allows both customers and companies to buy and sell direct. Our service, at least the way it’s currently perceived, is quickly becoming obsolete.
Adding to my woes, many of the local mom-and-pop stores that sell our products are being forced out of business by much larger supermarket chains. These larger shops are merging, and our flow of sales is falling victim to consolidation. These chain stores are in turn being squeezed by the big-box stores like BJ’s and Costco, who are being squeezed by the biggest retailer of them all, Wal-Mart. As we go up this chain, prospects get worse and worse for West and Company.
We are losing our long-term relationships on both ends. Our leverage on both sides, suppliers and retailers, has shrunk, along with our profits. The big-box stores can simply dictate our pricing, and, you bet, that’s what they do.
I’ve saved over the years, so if the business went under, my family and I would survive. But like any family businessman, I’ve been haunted by a peculiar fear that keeps me up at night and worried all through the day. You could sum it all up in one word: “legacy.” I couldn’t face being responsible for ending three generations of business, firing a hardworking and loyal staff, and starting some type of new career from scratch.
Change had happened and I hadn’t adapted fast enough.
I needed a different perspective, so I called a buddy of mine, Wilcox, for lunch. We were college chums, and while I studied psychology, he played guitar and skipped classes. After graduation, Wilcox gave guitar lessons for a living—then opened a guitar center—then expanded into a chain and then sold the business for a respectable profit. He then went back to school, got an MBA, and founded a business that recycles tires into rubber flooring for home and industrial use. He was always full of energy and never without an idea. My other motive for the call was an unrealistic belief that his counsel would provide a magic solution to all my problems. And it did, but in a way I never suspected.
While we were waiting for our food I brought Wilcox up to speed and told him I needed new ideas to stimulate sales and keep the business growing. Maybe he sensed my desperation, I don’t know, but Wilcox seemed very willing to help. He had a curious little smile, almost as if he was setting me up for one of those practical jokes he loved to do in college. He told me there was good news and bad news. I asked for the good news first.
“Jonathan, the good news is, I know someone who could help. But here’s the catch: To have him help you, you have to keep an open mind.” That’s it? I thought. Maybe it was my frame of mind, but this “bad news” wasn’t so terrible.
“This guy helped me when my guitar centers were heading in the wrong direction,” Wilcox informed me. “He’s a genius. He will challenge the way you think from the moment you meet him. You could say his method is unorthodox but highly effective. He made me think differently about the way I do business. He taught me new ways to get people to buy a product and showed me how to profit from changes in technology. He revealed to me how to identify the essence of what makes me unique.”
“So, what’s the deal?” I asked. “Is
he some megabucks consultant who will only see people who pay him hundreds
“His name is George Miles,” Wilcox continued. “But he will ask that you call him by his trade name. I’ll keep that a mystery for now.”
Wilcox gave me George Miles’s number and told me to make an appointment.
“What kind of trade?” I asked. “Is he a consultant, past CEO, or a successful business entrepreneur?”
“He’s a magician,” was the reply, “and he’s one of the reasons my new business has grown 28 percent this year.”
OK, I thought, a magician. “Is he going to wave his little wand and double our revenue?” I asked.
Wilcox listened and said he understood my skepticism completely. He confessed that, a while back, he faced a similar crisis in keeping his guitar centers from stagnation. One of his entrepreneur friends suggested that he meet with George Miles. He thought the whole thing was a joke when he heard that Miles was a magician. But now he swore by the man.
“I can only tell you that it will change the way you do business forever. Business needs a constant stream of new marketing ideas to grow, and you will learn how to keep generating them. Business needs to help employees get out of the rut of saying, ‘It can’t be done; it costs too much; I don’t have the time to do it.’ Business has to learn how to use technology in ways the competition never considered. Business has to constantly relearn the basics of reaching out to customers and motivating their response. Business has to learn to think differently to survive.”
I was still skeptical and Wilcox sensed it. “Tell you what,” he said, “I believe in George so much that I will send you a check to cover the first visit. If you do not get anything out of it, hand George the check. If you use what he says, you pay. Nevertheless, keep the check. If at any time you feel you haven’t gotten your money’s worth from one of the lessons, use the check.” I later learned that Wilcox, by providing me with choice and control, was applying lesson two, called “Building Trust—Making the Audience Part of the Act.”
As I headed back to the office, my spirits lifted. I began to imagine that things were not as bad as I suspected, that I was overreacting, that we just needed a break that would turn the business around. Riding up the elevator, I looked in the mirror and realized I was scared and I didn’t know how to share that fear with my team.
You see, my personal history and the history of West and Company were so entwined it was like we were like two peas in a pod. I hadn’t intended to go into the family business; when I went to Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I had been set on studying psychology, with the plan of going on to graduate school and becoming a clinical psychologist. I loved the field and was fascinated by how and why people behaved. Turns out, I wasn’t fascinated by the prospect of spending the next eight years in academia. I took a rain check on getting that degree.
My studies in school trained me to think empirically, which contrasted with the way I approached cooking (I never followed a recipe) and bike riding in Europe (I created my own routes). My dad perceived that these conflicting ways of thought would make me an ideal candidate for the family business, which required a passion for gourmet foods, a love of travel, and a mind for business. He saw my hesitation in going after a degree and began his campaign to recruit me to sign up to West and Company.
He was right. I’ve been eating bread drizzled with olive oil since I was two. When I was ten my grandfather taught me the art of testing the quality of a wheel of cheese by using smell and feel, examing the rind, cutting it open, smelling it again, tasting it, taking an iron, and pulling a plug out as a final test. I could name seven different types of mushrooms before I started high school. The business was in my DNA. The family joke was that my blood type was “extra-virgin.” Even after I was married.
So my new home became the familiar offices of West and Company, located in six thousand square feet of loft space in New York City’s Soho district, one of the most popular retail destinations in Manhattan. It’s housed in a five-story building, constructed in 1859, which my grandfather moved into when people still had horse and buggies. My father, along with some associates, purchased the building almost a hundred years after it was built. Walk into our office space and you immediately sense that “heritage” is very important to us. It provides a vision and standard for our family-oriented service. We still have the old three-foot-wide oak floors that gently creak as you walk, an old fireplace that we gather around to do our product tasting on cold winter days, and when you look up, you see the sparkly, tinned ceilings that designers today charge a fortune to replicate. It’s an open space that is roomy enough for my forty employees. You can see from the back of the office to the sixteen-foot windows in the front of the loft. The back half of the office contains our kitchen, storage, bathrooms, freezers, and freight elevator.
Our conference room is in the center of the office. Industrial-type Metro shelves twelve feet high—the kind you see in restaurant kitchens—frame the room on three sides. These shelves are constantly being stocked and restocked with olive oils, cans of olives, tins of crackers, bottles of sauces— items we are testing as well as selling. The top of the conference room table is the refurbished loft door of our space. It’s surrounded by eight modern-looking Ikea chairs, two computers used for tracking inventory and videoconferencing with our international suppliers, and a small refrigerator filled with milk for our coffee and snacks. I loved this place, and the thought of losing it filled me with as much anger as dread. I was committed to do whatever it took to assure its survival.
So, two weeks after my conversation with Wilcox, I found myself sitting in the conference room. I had decided to meet with the magician and was about to share the news, as well as the reason for my decision, with my team.
They entered the conference room, unsure of what to expect, as we did not, as a matter of practice, have many agenda-less meetings. “As many of you know,” I said quietly but sternly, “business is down, we are not making the numbers we need, and, to be frank, a lot of you are not happy.”
The faces around the room told me that my colleagues were terrified that their worst fears were about to be realized. A few looked like they were holding back tears, including my key salesman.
This forced me to get to the point quickly. “I am going to seek help,” I blurted out. Now the group looked at me in a funny kind of way, as if I were heading into rehab.
“What I mean is that I ...we... all of us, need to change.” As the words stumbled out, I realized this was still heading in the wrong direction.
OK, I thought, time to fess up. “Look, I think you are some of the most talented people I have ever worked with. Our product is terrific. We have a brand name that is respected and loved. But the world of business is changing and getting tougher. We have to change to enjoy future success. But we cannot do it alone. We are too used to doing things our own way, and we don’t stray outside our comfort level. We need some kind of catalyst that will help us think differently. And I believe I have found the guy to do it.”
Everyone was relieved that they still had their jobs and
that we were moving forward. I told them how this “consultant”
“Soon,” I told them. I didn’t bother to
tell them George Miles’s trade. I was hoping to keep it secret,
at least until I actually met him and saw him do his “magic.”
Heading back to my office, I immediately picked up the phone to make the
appointment. If I waited even five minutes more, I thought, I might chicken
I kept waiting for a sign-off or beep. Later I learned that is one of his trademarks. He never says anything final like goodbye. Apparently, a prominent magic magazine incorrectly reported his death. He spent weeks explaining to people that he was still around. After that he became superstitious about his mortality. He figured if he never said good-bye, he’d live forever.
I spoke into the silence on the phone: “This is Jonathan West. I am interested in a lesson and was referred by Wilcox. I’m free to meet on Thursday at 10 a.m. Please let me know if that works.”
I hung up, wondering if I should just send Wilcox his check back and forget the whole thing.