LEARNING TO FISH EARLY
“GIVE A MAN A FISH AND YOU FEED HIM FOR A DAY; TEACH A MAN TO FISH AND YOU FEED HIM FOR A LIFETIME.”
“When I was fifteen, I was the richest kid in Brooklyn.”
— David Stern
I was incredibly bored growing up. In the area of Brooklyn where I lived, in the late ’50s and early 1960s, our family didn’t own a television, record player, videos, or any such form of entertainment. When the other kids and I came home from school, we didn’t play punch ball (a game like baseball, but without the bats). We weren’t involved in any sports or outside activities. Nothing.
What did that leave for us? Life for kids in my community was all about studying, studying, and more studying. I hated studying; it bored me. I would do anything to avoid doing my homework, which is when I started to watch my mother more closely. I quickly became inspired by her skills as a salesperson.
Before I was born, my father held down as many as three jobs at a time, doing anything he could to make a living. Then, after a few years, he and my mother started a rug import business, where my father was involved in managing operations, and my mother was the salesperson.
Growing up, I had no idea how hard my father had worked to be successful. I had no idea of the obstacles he had overcome just to arrive as an immigrant on the shores of the United States. As a child, he would tell me about his parents and his sisters, but I never fully understood why I could never meet them. Not until I was an adult, as I’ll relate later in this book, did I fully understand what it meant that he was a Jewish immigrant and a Holocaust survivor. As a child, I only knew that he was a hardworking man and content to let my mother have the limelight as the family business’s salesperson.
The thing about my mother is, not only is she incredibly good with people, but she is lightning fast, and stealthy enough that, most of the time, we didn’t even notice she had been gone on a sales trip! Between breakfast and dinner, she could be in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and then back, all in the same day, without us kids knowing she had gone anywhere.
She always told us stories about visiting customers on the road. My favorite story is the one she told us about her most difficult prospect. This was a prospective client in Boston, and he always showed her the door. Year after year, each time she came to prospect this account, he got rid of her. Finally, one day he told her, “Mrs. Stern, if you weren’t a woman, I would physically pick you up and throw you out!”
A few years later, after continued persistence, and her amazing salesmanship and product demonstration, she landed him as a client, and netted a $25,000 order—which was a fortune in those days. She just didn’t take “no” for an answer. In time, I would realize I had inherited her persistence.
The Richest Kid in Brooklyn
Like my fellow students back in the day, I always wanted some extra pocket money. I mean, what kid didn’t want some money for this or that—whether it be penny candy or some kind of new toy. Eventually, it dawned on me—in order to get more money, I would have to earn it. With my mother’s example in mind, I thought maybe the best way to earn the pocket change I wanted was to go into business.
Like I said earlier, homework bored me stiff. So each week, I would pick up the weekly local paper and read it from cover to cover, even the “want ads” in the back. Anything was better than homework.
In the want ads, I started to notice that people in the area were looking to buy or sell used refrigerators or other kitchen appliances. In the 1960s, people didn’t buy appliances like they do today; they sold their old ones in order to fund the new ones. After a bit of investigation, I decided I would become a “matchmaker,” bringing together the sellers and buyers of appliances. Thus began my first company. I saved some money and invested in a “record-a-call” machine (which was really high-tech back then, but it was basically an answering machine). I called NY Telephone and lied about my name, pretending I was my father, and I ordered a new phone line that I installed in my bedroom. I hid the phone really well, and I connected it up to the record-a-call. Then, I started placing ads in the local paper. The answering machine picked up the messages, and I brokered the deals. Within six months, I became the richest kid in Brooklyn.
I never could have pulled off my first business venture without one person: my mother. She found out pretty quickly what I was doing, but she didn’t seem to mind too much. For a while, everything worked great.
When customers would call my new number, the phone never rang because it went right into the record-a-call, which was set to a low volume. I’d come home from school and my four brothers and my sister would be studying and doing their homework, oblivious to my bustling enterprise.
I would immediately go into my bedroom to listen to the messages and return calls. I would tally my new clients and figure out the scope of new deals. It was a blissful time.
Sales, wheeling and dealing, gave me freedom. It allowed me to earn at my own pace and save some money. Some months, I made more than a $150, which made me feel wealthy and successful. To put that into perspective, at the time, a generous (monthly/weekly) allowance of pocket change from my parents was between a nickel and a dime. If I had a quarter, chances are I stole it.
Things were going smoothly until one day I got busted. The deal was set: the seller would drop off the appliance in my parents’ yard, and the buyer would come pick it up. But the buyer never showed up, leaving a monstrosity of a kitchen appliance inexplicably sitting in my parents’ backyard.
When my father came home from work, he saw stuff in the yard he called “junk,” and he asked my mother what was going on. After my mother told him what I was doing, he came upstairs and yanked the phone line out of the wall. My father believed that young kids should be studying rather than working in business. Just like that, I was out of business. But my excitement about sales—and wheeling and dealing—remained. That he couldn’t yank out of me.
Forty Years in Business
As you can tell, my ambitions lay outside of the classroom. I barely managed to graduate high school and earn a diploma. Upon graduation, some of my fellow classmates chose to pursue a higher education, but at eighteen, I chose to join the workforce.
First, I decided to work in a local bank where I became the first Orthodox Jewish boy who had ever been a teller there. I worked every day from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon, and after six months, the bank decided to promote me and send me to school to learn more about the business. I was excited about the opportunity. I learned the basics of banking, but I found the parts about customer interaction especially fascinating. That aspect allowed me to focus on sales and helping others for the first time.
Three years later, a colleague and I wrote a manual to use when opening up a bank branch in a new community. I’m proud to say that manual is still in use in the Chicago library where the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) is located. During this time, I was rising up the corporate ladder, moving swiftly from head teller, to platform assistant, to assistant branch manager, to, finally, holding an elected office as vice president of the branch.
My favorite aspect of the job was interacting with clients. Clients got to know me, I got to know them, and they started referring other customers to me. That was when I learned the importance of referrals in business. Taking good care of customers brings new customers. I became good at it, and I really took pride in my work. The feeling of helping others get what they want or need is worth more than just a paycheck.
Eventually, I got recruited to another bank that was planning to open a branch in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Within the first year, we earned $65 million in new CD deposits—breaking the bank’s all-time record for deposits in a new branch. That was surely a milestone moment for me.
It’s been forty joyous years since my clandestine backyard appliance operation and my fascination with my mother’s superhero-like sales life. What a journey it has been! I have sold to individuals, mom and pop stores, department stores, chain stores, and corporate America. I have trained well over 14,000 salespeople in the business of selling and its benefits. I have represented and built an immigrant American, family-owned, successful business in over twelve countries—and I’m not done yet.
You’re next…that’s why you’re reading this book—to learn about how to be the best salesperson and entrepreneur you can be, and I’m going to show you how.
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