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The Master CEO

September 6, 2012

Usually when a bank wants me to perform an assessment on one of their credits I find a business that is underperforming and an owner who has grown incapable of returning the business to its former glory. This is not the case with my Marvin Zamler. Marvin is nearing 70 years old, already has millions in savings from his last business and obsessively works on the basics of his business every single day.

On my first day at his business the little voice in my head said; "Jeff, now is when you shut up and learn, just listen, take notes and don't talk." So that's what I did.

Marvin has an extremely well run $50 million manufacturing operation. Every activity and input is measured and every afternoon Marvin sits with his production manager to review the day's production versus standard and budget. If hourly production on line #7 dropped below standard he needs to know why. If scrap on line #12 spiked in the afternoon, Marvin wants to know why. If Ed on nightshift got an hour of overtime, Marvin needs to know why. Every variance is measured and valued. If that scrap on line #12 cost him an extra $30, he wants to know how you're going to make that $30 back tomorrow.

These meetings are often conducted over the phone as Marvin travels extensively to sell his customers. He doesn't visit them, he sells them. He shows up, sells hard and they buy more. He doesn't outsource the customer relationship but maintains close contact with the key decision makers. They all have his cell phone and know he'll do whatever is needed at any time.

Marvin's not a fun guy to work for but most of his managers have been with him for over 20 years, through three different corporate entities. His factory is unionized but he seems to get all the benefits of a reliable workforce without the headaches, high pay and antagonism we often associate with unions.

When I step back and think about it, business really can be this simple; relentlessly manage your margins, sell your customers and provide good jobs to your employees. Sure Marvin's never going to be featured in Fast Company magazine for having hip office space, cooperative management structures and inspirational career paths. Instead he has his third fast growing business, employs hundreds of people and helps make the world go round.

My report back to the bank was that Marvin's a winner and deserves their support. Sure that's a few extra million for Marvin that won't go to some struggling entrepreneur but I suppose that's how our economy works these days.