Archive for the ‘Business Wisdom’ Category

5 Exceptional Lessons from Avalon
December 18, 2007

Jackie Victor and her partner had no business experience and weren’t bakers, but they formed the right relationship with the earth, the community, and their employees and have now been successful for over 10 years. Though, they have learned several lessons along the way. They learned to do your homework, start small, have a value based business, provide something exceptional, and think outside of the box and be bold.

Lesson One: Do your homework.

For Jackie and her partner, this meant to write a business plan. “The clearer your intentions, the clearer your outcomes,” she says. Setting goals helps guide your business.

Lesson Two: Start small.

Build as you see demand, and not before. Jackie and her partner paid themselves since day one, but only modestly in the beginning.   They always follow their gut.

Lesson Three: Create a value based business.

Jackie highly recommends “The Purple Cow.” Not only is it a great book, but a very popular strategy. This is about viral marketing. Find the people known as “sneezers.” These are the people that “sneeze” wonderful words about your business to others. They actively spread the word. First you must create a core of devoted followers that share your values. Jackie personally prefers Detroit customers. She says they are the best; second to none.

Lesson Four: Provide something exceptional.

People believe people that talk about your business more than they believe you or a paid advertisement. Find out who your “sneezers” are and provide exceptional products and services. Then keep reinventing the cow. Keep doing exceptional things. “Exceptional Detroit businesses don’t go out of business,” she says.

Lesson Five: Think outside of the box and be bold.

Think outside your familiar areas. Move to unexplored territory. Be brave. Set your values high and value them. Also, the press is far more important than paid advertising. It is “earned media.” By doing exceptional things you can earn the media.

These are the 5 lessons that Jackie and her partner learned along their 10 year journey at Avalon.  Jackie believes that if you truly keep these lessons close to the heart that you will have a flourishing business… especially in Detroit.


Canine To Five
November 21, 2007


Liz Blondy says starting Canine To Five was the best thing that she has ever done. She didn’t enjoy working for someone else and she didn’t feel that she had enough self discipline to work from home. She began visiting doggy day cares, researching the industry, volunteering, and she even researched everything to know about dogs. Since she didn’t have the initial investment for a franchise and didn’t want to have marketing guidelines and facility layouts to follow, she created Canine To Five.

One of the most difficult things Blondy has had to deal with was employees. Her one regret is not having become more familar with employment law. “With employees you must cover your butt every step of the way,” she says. Blondy has even began having her employees sign non-compete clauses. However, while surviving many difficulties, Blondy has managed to grow her business to over 10 employees.

Another thing she has learned along the way is that you don’t have to take every opportunity. Although they may all seem appealing and increase revenue, you must stay focused. Decide what will be most profitable and what will coincide with your core business. It’s much more important to have one or two strong, main revenue streams that are clear to the customer than to dilute your business with many weak ones. One mustn’t lose focus.


The Purrfect Entrepreneur
November 18, 2007

Entrepreneurs view the unmet needs of consumers as opportunities, not problems. And that is the reason why Robert Mazur has been awarded an immense amount of recognition and grants recently. Mazur noticed that his grandmother was having difficulty opening her medication bottles, so he began searching for a solution. And that is how the Purrfect Opener was created. Mazur took advantage of his background in engineering and many other resources including local colleges. He soon created designs, met with consultants, created rough prototypes, and surveyed consumers. He also attended trade shows and talked to many people in the industry. In addition, he took plenty of safeguards with a patent and trademark. And with much dedication and the help of his brother, he introduced The Purrfect Opener in 2005.

Now in order for Mazur to meet his expectation of becoming a leader of “Healthcare Brands for Independent Living,” he needs to focus on getting his product in front of the people who want it. Mazur advices being the leader in whatever it is that you do. He says it will in turn motivate you and give you the edge needed. “Even if it’s for your product in a 30 mile radius, always try to be number one,” he says. “Always keep moving and improving and you will meet your goal.” Mazur is currently building distribution channels through Meijer and QVC, and hopefully with his passion and dedication to learn and grow, he will soon be the leader.


No Need To Re-Invent The Wheel
October 18, 2007

Lisa Toenniges is a classic example of how you don’t have to recreate the wheel. Toenniges is the CEO of Innovative Learning Group, a company that provides custom training to large companies. Toenniges took an existing company that had just sunk, and helped it to resurface. She brought to the table her passion, dedication, and expertise in the field. She applied her past leadership experience from high school teams. Toenniges turned the company around in a matter of months. Within 2 months, the company was profitable. She expects that Innovative Learning Group will be a $3 million company by the end of the year. But most importantly, her vision for the company is to grow steadily and profitably.

Lisa Toenniges realized that the secret is that people really want that personal touch. So she does everything she can to provide her customers with that. She understands her customers’ fiscal year, finds out what they foresee coming, and understands how they are budgeting. She uses this information to get in on their planning process. She attempts to foresee their next set of needs. She is always ahead of the game. She takes her customers to lunch and out for drinks, hosts picnics, and stays in touch through friendly emails. She even “gumps” the company language, making what they do for their customers particularly easy for them to understand. Customers say that working with Innovative Learning Group is like working with their friends.

Hangin’ by a String
September 26, 2007


I’ve heard it from Dan Gilbert, Magic Johnson, Dave Bing, and many more: Customer service is a must. Everyone says how important it is, but Mike Himes can vouch that customer service is the only thing that has kept his business from going under.

Between the very steep discounts from big box stores and the music downloading over the Internet, small record stores have been struggling to stay open for years. It is continuously becoming more and more difficult. According to the research group Almighty Institute of Music Retail, over 2700 record stores have closed since 2003. According to an article in the Detroit Free Press last month, over 70% of music sales now take place in big box stores such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy, which have a much more limited selection. Himes has used this information to focus on some of the best practices he have recently learned about. Himes has acknowledged the brutal facts and applied his energy toward getting to know his customers, offering excellent customer service, and re-framing his target market.

First Himes really stayed close to his business, noticing certain purchasing trends between his two stores. His Ferndale locations attracts Detroit techno fans, meanwhile his Roseville location attracts the rap and hip hop lovers. So, as Dave Bing suggests, Himes gives the customers what they want, so they don’t go elsewhere. Himes says he looks beyond what he can’t control and focuses his attention on who comes into his stores. And as we learned, it’s a lot easier to retain your current customers than to attract new ones.

Once he gets his customers in the store, he always provides an experience with great customer service. “We do the song and dance and treat people the best we can,” he said. He went on to talk about how you won’t get that over the Internet or in Wal-Mart. He personally makes sure his customers leave happy.

And finally, Himes restructured his target market. His target market, once being the average music lover, is now the “super fan.” The super fan is someone that still loves music in its physical sense. These serious music fans “want to own everything, even the hard-to-find music that chain and big box stores don’t carry.”

Himes realized that his market was quickly being introduced to more appealing options. So focusing on customer service and the appropriate target market may have been the wisest decision that he could have made. Himes now not only offers music, but he offers a great experience. He has also realized that the Internet is soaring, and in turn expanded its web presence, now offering a web based store. Himes in now looking for a smaller location, due to his drop in sales, however he is still hangin’ by a string.

. . . . Replacing the guest speaker from September 25, 2007 . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . Source: Oakland Business Review . . . . . . . . . .

“Budda Bing!”
September 21, 2007


Dave Bing, a former Detroit Piston, was named one of NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all time.  But his career didn’t stop there.  He went on to become a successful businessman and the founder of the Bing Group (  The Detroit area manufacturing company supplies automotive parts to suppliers.  The Bing Group is a “certified Detroit-based minority business enterprise dedicated to uplifting the community.”

Bing was born in Washington D.C. and it wasn’t until his days in the NBA that he was introduced to the city of Detroit.  Initially, Bing had the same pessimistic view of the city as did many others that weren’t from the area.  But it didn’t take long for Bing to call Detroit “home.”  Bing quickly established a passion for the city and wanted to be a part of the revitalization of Detroit.

Bing was also introduced to a world of business knowledge during his days as an athlete.    He learned the importance of teamwork.  He learned how to maximize his skills and integrate his teammates’ skills.  He knew to appreciate the skills his teammates brought to the table.  He was taught to surround himself with the skill level that he didn’t have.  Just as he needed a “center” on his sports team, he needed a “financial officer” on his business team.  “You can never forget how important your teammates are,” emphasized Bing.

In addition to surrounding yourself with the right people, Bing feels strongly about several other best practices.  Bing strongly suggests developing a business plan in the beginning.  However, he doesn’t believe in a 5 year business plan because things change so quickly.    He also believes in the importance in mentorship.  Mentors provide a person with a lot of insight and guidance.  A person must also have good contacts.  “Getting to know people with money is very key,” says Bing.  But the most important thing is people skills.  You must have employees that can get along.  Plus, people do business with people.  Every teammate must have people skills in order to excel. 

Bing believes that if you apply these business concepts and find an opportunity, you must jump in with both feet.  “Never be afraid to fail.  Your dreams and visions are achievable, so go after them,” he says.  “Entrepreneurs can shine during times of transition,” says Bing.  And this is our time to shine in Detroit.  

John Ferchill
September 16, 2007


John Ferchill, CEO of The Ferchill Group, shared some of his wisdom with us last week. People that know John Ferchill say he’s tough, delivers on his word, and gets things done. He built his entire company on loyalty and is very proud of that fact.

Ferchill has had a phenomenal success at finding niches. For example, Ferchill knew that people wanted nice, expensive housing within his niche, downtown Detroit. There was a high demand, but low supply. So Ferchill built 65 condos downtown for a sale price of $500,000 each. He sold 40 of the 65 in a matter of hours during the first day. Not only is this absolutely amazing, but Ferchill’s company managed to do this quality business with a team of 9 people.

Ferchill and his staff are relentless for finishing jobs on time and on budget. One thing I find fascinating is that his company does no marketing. He has created such a strong reputation for himself through his excellent business practices that he hasn’t had the need for marketing. He either finds his customers or they find him, mostly through word of mouth. Through following his niche and practicing effective business techniques, Ferchill has had only one failure out of his 75 projects and it was due to the market.

Ferchill’s one piece of advice to budding entrepreneurs is to “live up to your word and always be straightforward.” Ferchill definitely “eats his own dog food.” He tells it how it is. “Everyone may not like me,” he says, “but they will certainly have respect for me and want to do business with me.” In Ferchill’s eyes, clients are far more important than friends.

“People only want to be associated with people that are successful.” And therefore, people want to associate themselves with John Ferchill.



Vince Thomas
August 15, 2007


Vince Thomas is the remarkably driven founder of Billhighway is a web-based financial services platform for both organizations and consumers with an emphasis on “groups” and “people’s social money.” Vince created Billhighway in 1997 during his sophomore year of college. Before he knew it, Vince had 50 customers and had accidentally created a test case. Vince had the drive and determination to take Billhighway from 50 customers and make it the rapidly growing company it is today with over 300,000 customers.

Since day one of Billhighway, Vince lived by one of Dan Gilbert’s isms: Numbers and money follow, they do not lead.” Vince didn’t chase money at first. Instead, he chased the skills that would make him great at what he was building. He became an expert. He became the best. After years of hard work, focus, and pursuing his dream with uncompromising passion, the numbers and money followed. During the beginning years, Vince charged $5 for his services, and at one point, he even gave his services away for free as a means of research, trial and error, and brand awareness. He worked all day and night, practically lived in an attic, and gave up any resemblance of a personal life to get his business off the ground. Vince didn’t even tell any one about his business because of fears of having his vision tainted or discouraged. Now Vince has grown to 22 employees and has processed over $500 million in transactions this year.

Vince wishes he would have had people like him to provide guidance when he was a struggling entrepreneur. So for any budding entrepreneur seeking advice, here are some of Vince’s words of wisdom:

People do business with people – Make people like you.

Infrastructure and customers are two very important things.

Keep stupid things stupid – If something is simple, keep it simple. Don’t turn a one day project into a huge ordeal.

Be careful, people can waste a lot of time in a day – Don’t fall into that trap. Time is your most valuable commodity.

The people that really make it are the ones that stick with it through years of determination – Never give up. It will eventually pay off. Nothing is easy.

Accountability is directly related to success.

Be unreasonable in your dreams, but create very reasonable goals. – Never limit your dreams, but always make your goals attainable.

Like Father, Like Son
July 8, 2007


Bruce Schwartz, President and CEO of In House Realty, began his entrepreneurial career at a very young age. At eight, Bruce began working with his father, the ultimate hustler. Bruce’s father was a hustler in both the business world and the world of billiards. His father, a kitchenware salesman and former 9-ball world champion, took Bruce around the country selling pots and pans out of a truck during the summers. Bruce learned a lot while helping with this very lucrative business.

After graduating high school, Bruce briefly tried the college life and soon realized it wasn’t for him. Bruce then moved to Florida and began a sports information business with his father. This business provided “inside” information and forecasts on future games. This ultimate hustle worked great for several years, until banks prevented credit card transactions over the phone. They soon shut the doors.

Bruce quickly began another endeavor. Bruce and his friend owned a home improvement company that focused on small repairs and upgrades to the homes. Again, this business was very successful for several years, but soon took a downward swing. Several years into this business, the area was hit with a hurricane. Bruce and his friend knew this could be the defining moment in their business, but never thought it could ruin the business. Bruce and his friend took on every job they could. However, these jobs were much larger and more difficult than what they were used to. If the work wasn’t perfect, customers wouldn’t pay. Their opportunity turned into their own hurricane, causing Bruce to again close the doors.

In 1994, Bruce moved back to Michigan and began working at Rock Financial. As a mortgage banker, Bruce proved to be the best salesperson for several years. Bruce then moved to Florida, with the support of Dan Gilbert, and began converting apartment buildings to condominiums. He soon realized though, that the real estate business could be much more leveraged here in Michigan with the help of Quicken Loans, and again moved home in 2006.

In January of 2007, Bruce launched In House Realty, which is based in the Quicken Loans headquarters in Livonia. In House Realty continues to grow as it quickly develops relationships with real estate companies nationwide. In House Realty now employs 8 agents. They closed 25 deals in April, 48 in May, and 60 in June. After only 6 months, In House Realty is breaking even. I am anxious to see where Bruce takes this business!

Bill Emerson
June 29, 2007

Bill Emerson, the CEO of quicken Loans since 2002, shared a little bit about his leadership beliefs in class last week. 

First, you can’t motivate people.  People are either internally or externally motivated.  You are there to help them, direct them, and lead them; but you are not there to motivate them.  You can create the right atmosphere and culture for a person to be externally motivated, but one must allow themselves to become motivated.  As an effective leader, you are there to help, serve, and develop your workers. 

Other leadership advice from Bill Emerson:

  • “Let them tell you what they want to accomplish.” – Let your workers express their goals to you, and then help tweak those goals.
  • “You must be approachable.” – If the people around you don’t come and talk to you, you’ve lost.
  • “You get one chance to build a culture.” – Start building your culture from day one.
  • “Under-promise and over-deliver.” – Never fall short of your promises, always go above and beyond.
  • “You’re on stage 24/7.” – Always watch your body language and physiology.  It’s critical to understand your non-verbal communication.
  • “All of us are smarter than one of us.” – Never be the smartest person in the room.  You can always teach someone and learn from another.
  • “All of us are leaders.” – Number one, we lead ourselves.
  • “Leadership is doing the right things and building trust with your people so they will ultimately follow.” 
  • “Human beings run at about 65% of their potential.  As a leader, push them closer to achieving 100%.”
  • “The person that recovers the quickest will be the most successful.”
  • “Tactics without a belief system is a fad diet.” – You must have a belief system to be successful.
  • “Actions speak louder than words.” – Don’t just say it, do it.  Execute.  

Bill Emerson’s advice of the day:

“Ask yourself every sengle day, where can I have the most impact?”