There are cold calls. And then there’s the colder-than-the Arctic Circle ring Michael Feuer placed to Jack Welch one night in the late 1980s.
Feuer sought investors for what was then his startup office supply business, OfficeMax. He figured a guy like Welch — chairman and CEO of GE and an American business icon of the 1980s — would be a logical investor. Yet Feuer didn’t know Welch. Didn’t even know Welch’s personal assistant.
For a man who, in a book he wrote on his career, lists “if you don’t ask, you’ll never get” as his No. 1 leadership lesson, that wasn’t an issue. Feuer, pronounced like foyer, dialed up Welch’s assistant in New York from his office in Cleveland. If not exactly a friendship, he developed a rapport with her, enough to ask: If Jack was going to work late in the office one night, what night would that be?
The answer? Tuesday nights. So Feuer called one Tuesday night. And, being 7 p.m., with his assistant gone, Welch actually picked up the call. In a recent video interview, Feuer, who lives in Naples, recounted the call — a surefire candidate for the cold call Hall of Fame.
Welch: Who the F— is this and why the F— are you calling me?
Feuer: I’m Michael Feuer and I’m starting an office supply company in Ohio.
Welch: Why should I listen to you?
Feuer: If you don’t give me five minutes to tell you my story you’re going to lose millions of dollars.
Welch, says Feuer, a bit. “I thought I would shoot Jack with his own bullets,” recalls Feuer. Welch agreed to hear more about OfficeMax, and within a few months, Feuer scored a big win: a $1 million investment from Welch.
Feuer had some other wild successes — and setbacks — in growing OfficeMax into an industry powerhouse over 15 years. Feuer and his partners sold the company to Boise Cascade for $1.3 billion in 2003. “When we sold the company, we made 50 people millionaires,” Feuer says.
Feuer was recently the keynote speaker for a NextGen Speaker Series event held in Naples. In that conversation, an interview and in his books and numerous business columns several leadership themes emerge: He loves pithy and witty sayings about as much — maybe more? — as he loved selling a red stapler at OfficeMax; taking plenty of bold but somewhat calculated risks are his currency when growing a company; pinpointing what motivates employees and then hyper-focusing on that is the best way to build and sustain high-performing teams; and always think of the customer in every decision you make for a business.
Mind the gap
Feuer spends his time today working on a host of projects, ranging from writing and speaking to investing and philanthropic work. Feuer and his wife have supported a big project in Cleveland for medical and health care innovation at the Case Western Reserve Medical School and its hospitals, for example.
He attributes his good fortune today to his decision in 1987 to leave what he called a cushy job as an executive at Jo-Ann Fabrics. By spring 1988 — April Fool’s day, actually — Feuer launched OfficeMax, working out of a small Cleveland office. He started the business with $20,000 and a few investors. A decade later it was doing $5 billion a year in revenue with nearly 1,000 locations, a large catalog unit and direct sales across the U.S, Mexico, Asia and South America.
Some of Feuer’s leadership and business lessons he learned from OfficeMax that should resonate with leaders in any field include:
Feuer is fond of saying OfficeMax was No. 13 in an industry of 13 when he started. But he saw a gap in providing office supplies for people in small and mid-size markets, and not in main business hubs like New York City or Philadelphia. Being in smaller markets dotted nationwide also allowed OfficeMax to save on labor and rent costs. “When you find something people really need, the real money comes when you position it correctly in the marketplace,” he says.
If you’re not first
Not being the first to do big-box office supply retail was an advantage for Feuer, not a hindrance. “I never wanted to be a pioneer,” he says. “Why would I want to be the guy I learned about in seventh grade with arrows in his head shot and left for dead in the dirt? I wanted to be the guy right behind that guy.”
Time will tell
Every decision, he says, needs to be thought through with the customer-first, and employees not far behind. Store hours is a good example. One of the reasons Feuer thought OfficeMax would be a hit is because at the time most other stores were open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. But a large swath of potential customers worked those hours. So OfficeMax made its hours 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. “People would call the store (in the early days) and say what time are you open until,” Feuer says. “We would tell them, ‘What time can you get here?’”
Feuer writes about those tips and more in both a syndicated column he’s been writing for Smart Business Online magazine for more than a decade and a 2011 book he wrote, “The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build your Business and Outwith the Competition.”
Each of the 40 chapters in the book is a lesson, starting with the time before OfficeMax and ending with a look at serial entrepreneurs and what makes them tick. “What I really enjoy is doing it,” Feuer writes in the last chapter, “instead of just telling others how to do it and then walking away.”
Chapter/Lesson No. 16, “Managing People is About Achieving Objectives,” is one of my favorites for leadership. Feuer writes that one of the “most difficult lessons I learned about managing people is that it is imperative to have an evolving team.”
“The cold reality of the pure startup is that the entrepreneur must know the people who began with him or her most likely won’t be finishing in the same role they started…A key rule to my own hiring is that I always try to recruit somebody who has something to prove to him- or herself, and usually somebody else as well. A savvy entrepreneur needs to know how to push those buttons and put people in a position where they can rise to the occasion and excel. Doing so compels them to achieve the entrepreneur’s objectives and satisfy their own personal and occasionally deep-seated needs.”
Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.