Some business leaders seem to have the Midas touch. Everything they touch turns to gold. Or diamonds. Is it luck? Or is it hard work and perseverance?
Barnett C. Helzberg, Jr., the former CEO of Kansas City-based Helzberg Diamonds, has a few things to say on this topic. In his book What I Learned Before I Sold to Warren Buffett, he covers many of the lessons he learned from his father and other successful business leaders. These lessons prepared him for the eventual sale of Helzberg Diamonds to Warren Buffett, joining the family of Berkshire Hathaway holdings. According to Helzberg, a certain amount of luck may play into your success, but you have to be paying attention so that you can seize opportunities when they present themselves.
Getting Started in Business
Helzberg started working in the family jewelry store in Kansas City, Kansas, when he was 15. The business was started by his grandfather, Morris Helzberg, and was being run by his father at the time. He went on from that summer job as a sales clerk to become president of the company in 1962 when his father got ill. He was 29 years old.
Fast forward to a chance meeting with Warren Buffett on the streets of New York City in 1994. On the spur of the moment, Helzberg introduced himself and made his sales pitch right there on the street. It took less than 30 seconds. Imagine his surprise when he got the call saying that Buffett wanted to purchase the company!
How did Helzberg land that deal? He was prepared. He knew his company inside and out. He knew his elevator speech and wasn’t afraid to use it. And he seized an opportunity that was presented to him – one that might have escaped a less-prepared individual.
Here are just a few of the lessons that Helzberg says prepared him for that chance meeting with Buffet in New York. Through the use of these and many other lessons, he was able to shape his company into something that met Buffett’s investment criteria. Without that, the meeting probably wouldn’t have happened.
Make sure your business stands out.
Define your USP – your Unique Selling Proposition. Find clear ways to set your business aside from your competitors. Build your business on principles, not on profit; that alone will help you stand out in the crowd. Helzberg’s father created the Certified Perfect Diamond designation. He would only sell diamonds that were absolutely perfect in cut, color, and clarity. This meant that often their diamonds were smaller and more expensive than their competitors’. But once customers learned the reason for that, they were sold.
If your customers complain a lot, it’s probably because you’re not fulfilling their needs adequately. An unhappy customer is one of your best assets. Listen to their complaints, and you may find opportunities to improve your products or services. Once you’ve fixed a problem for a customer, they often turn into one of your most loyal advocates. This is because when you listen with empathy and go out of your way to make the problem right, the customer leaves feeling special. They’ll tell all their friends about their great experience.
Use mistakes as learning opportunities.
It’s not a crime to make mistakes. We all do. The crime is in not learning from them. Use mistakes as learning opportunities, and you’ll move the business ahead by leaps and bounds. Thomas Edison failed 1,000 times while trying to invent the lightbulb. But every time, he learned something new. Edison refused to give up, and each time he tried again, he applied the knowledge he’d gained from the previous attempts. In Helzberg’s case, he learned that he couldn’t build the company’s mail-order business from $2M to $100M within a three-week period based purely on back-of-the-envelope calculations. He nearly sank that part of the ship trying to do so. And he learned a good lesson in the process.
Never give up unless it’s the right thing to do.
Perseverance goes a long way in growing a business. Many entrepreneurs would not be where they are today if they’d run at the first sign of trouble. Hanging in there, giving it your all, and pushing forward are the paths to real success…unless it turns out that the road you’re on is a dead end. Sometimes that happens in business. Sometimes the right thing to do for the good of everything is to give up, regroup, and reallocate resources. Says Helzberg, “The longer you wait to take action, the deeper the hole you have dug.” Don’t fool yourself. When it becomes clear that the path you’re on is going nowhere fast, cut your losses and move on.
These Lessons Work
I recognize many of the lessons in this book because I’ve experienced them myself over the years. Starting and running a business is hard work. Sometimes it feels like you’re doing it in a vacuum with no guidance to help you out. Thank goodness for books like this one! It’s full of invaluable lessons that any entrepreneur or business leader will find useful.