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The Soul of an Entrepreneur

May 29, 2013

On Wednesday, I had the privilege of moderating a panel focused on building retail brands. The two panelists could not have seemed more different.

On the end sat Nick Bayer, the polished, Cornell-educated, Founder and President of Saxbys Coffee, a coffee café business of approximately 30 stores with solid funding, a rapidly maturing brand and an aggressive growth plan. Saxbys is a company on the rise; delivering a personal touch  ‘big coffee’ can’t match, with operational excellence the mom-and-pops’ can’t promise – as its thousands of enthusiasts will attest.

Beside me sat Rick Forman, Founder and CEO of Forman Mills, a pioneer of off-price retail, whose career started in the flea markets before he began placing large format stores in ‘underserved’ (read: extremely poor) neighborhoods almost 30 years ago. Scrappy, humble and hilarious, Rick runs a company that now grosses $200M each year, covers nine states, and boasts some of the most immediately recognizable advertising in the industry.

Not only are Nick and Rick very different stylistically, their business approaches vary considerably: model (franchise vs. company-owned), consumer target (premium vs. extreme value), real estate strategy (centrally located vs. forgotten), store experience (inspiring vs. not so nice that customers question the prices), marketing platform (new vs. traditional media), brand personality (sophisticated vs. loud) and so forth.

This made for compelling content –yet, it wasn’t just contrast that was so fascinating, but similarity. It was during the Q&A, when an audience member asked about the trend towards structured entrepreneurial education, that it became clear that Nick and Rick share much more than the surface would suggest.

In each, one can find the soul of an entrepreneur – restless, urgent, intuitive yet curious, confident yet neurotic, financially-driven yet inspiring, brash yet humble. They each also model enduring truths about retail, including:

1.  No matter what you sell, you are in the people business

2.  The world is best seen through the eyes of the consumer

3.  Competition is to be challenged rather than avoided

On this day, the audience was treated to a very entertaining study in contrasting styles, but saw once again that successful businesspeople have far more in common than initial impressions may suggest.

This is especially true of retailers, who thrive in an industry with unique rhythms that put brands to the test thousands of times daily. And of entrepreneurs, who take many different paths, but ultimately share many professional success attributes and personal ‘wiring.’

Bill Gullan, President

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