It is a warm June day in rural Wisconsin. I, along with fellow Nexstar Business Coach Jim Hamilton; Dan Weltman, owner of Weltman Home Services in New Jersey; Tom Kelly of Drucks Plumbing in Wisconsin; and Kip Salas with Advanced Plumbing in Idaho, have made our annual pilgrimage to visit the deer hunting camp of Frank Blau, industry legend and founder of Nexstar.
This was the fifth year of our annual trip to see Frank, which, make no mistake, is typically not a weekend filled with sipping fine wine and discussing poetry. It normally consists of three things: listening to Frank, drinking beer and eating cheese curds. Not a weekend getaway for the faint of heart or the lactose intolerant.
As I was saying, it was a warm day and we decided to spice things up a bit from the normal routine of sitting in the garage listening to Frank and getting moon-eyed on cheese. We decided to drive to a local bar/restaurant and grab some lunch.
For a nice June day, the place was surprisingly busy with locals up at the bar watching the Brewers game and one suspicious table eyeballing a lone TV tuned into a World Cup soccer game. I say suspicious because there is no way a soccer ball has been kicked in these parts of Wisconsin - ever - so they must have been outsiders from Chicago or some other foreign country.
The locals bellied up to the bar were the normal Saturday afternoon bar crowd in Anytown, Wisconsin. Once-bright rose tattoos now faded and drooping on the ladies, neck beards on the gentlemen… You know - typical Green Bay Packers fans.
Anyway, with the two ballgames on and some very interesting people watching, it was quite easy to get into the spirit of things and forget about our businesses, our careers and the life we chose. We all did except one person - Frank Blau.
The Raising The Prices GuyAs soon as we enter the joint, the owner of the bar, who was throwing back a cold one with his buddies, unsteadily lifted from his bar stool and says in a loud, friendly voice, “There is that ‘guy’ who keeps telling me to raise my prices.” It seems that Frank has been to this place in the past and has attempted to share his business acumen with this proprietor.
We all grab a side table and order up some pizza and beer. Everyone but Frank, that is. He quickly peels away and wanders up to the bar and sits next to a young guy - a complete stranger - and starts a conversation. He is about 10 feet from us and we can’t hear every word but just enough to know exactly what is going down.
Frank was giving this guy his CliffsNotes version of the “Business of Contracting” seminar. This is the same seminar that Frank has preached hundreds of times. He has popped the “hypothetical question” from his seminar on thousands of people. The question is Frank’s way of introducing the need for financial and business literacy. He asks a simple question. He gets a wrong answer 90 times out of a 100 and then that opens the door to his life’s mission of imparting sound business principles to willing ears.
The question is, “If a job has $1,000 of costs, including overhead, and you would like to make a 25 percent net profit, what is the proper selling price?” If you have ever met Frank, he likely asked you the question. If you haven’t met Frank but think it is possible to bump into him at an industry event, I recommend you remember the right answer ($1,333.33 by the way, not $1,250).
I could hear the question asked by Frank and the incorrect answer he received from the unsuspecting beer drinker. I could see Frank scribbling the math equation on a bar napkin to show the proper selling price. All of this occurred while the rest of the bar patrons were watching baseball with the strange background buzz of vuvuzela horns blaring from the soccer game. It was a surreal setting.
Still Spreading The WordAfter about 30 minutes, the young guy walks to the bathroom, and on the way out I introduce myself and get to talking to him. He drives a truck for a living - maybe he was a diesel mechanic. I can’t remember. I was overdosing on cheese. In any event, he was not in business for himself, has never developed a selling price and has never ran a business - in all likelihood he never will. Why did Frank find it necessary to spend time with this gent?
My friends and I collectively chuckled. “That is Frank,” that eccentric industry icon still, at age 81, sitting in a bar sharing his message with all the zeal of a revival tent preacher.
That is Frank, who in addition to spending the better part of a Saturday trying to educate bar patrons, was:
• The creator of flat-rate pricing in our industry.
• The founder and operator of a wildly successful business for more than 40 years, Blau Plumbing.
• The same guy who from age 60 until his full retirement at 71 didn’t work in his business one day, yet drew a deep six-figure salary as the company chairman.
• The same guy who after 10-plus years of retirement has a net worth closer to eight figures than seven.
• The same guy who saw the need for a different kind of organization and founded Nexstar.
• The same guy named the most influential contractor in the last 25 years by Plumbing & Mechanical.
Optimism And PassionWhat I saw displayed that day in the bar were two things that I believe every successful business owner must have and which Frank has in abundance to this day - optimism and passion. What kind of passion does it take to find it worthwhile to hunt down a perfect stranger in a bar, who doesn’t even own a business, and spend 30 minutes trying to educate him? What kind of optimism does it take to believe that his time spent will make a difference? Optimism and passion filled the room that day.
While running a business, it is easy to become disillusioned and negative. You run into enough roadblocks, drive down enough dead ends, make enough bad hires and have enough jobs blow up on you to make it possible to become cynical. It is possible to lose your faith that tomorrow will be better than today. It is easy to just quit, at least mentally. When that happens, it is over. You quit fighting and your business begins a downward spiral.
It is not a coincidence that Frank’s business interests and his success on the seminar circuit did not decline because he believed that tomorrow would be better than today. He never quit believing that his business and our industry would be a better place because of his hard work and good intentions. He enjoyed decades of business success (nearly a half century, actually) due in large part to optimism and passion - mixed in, of course, with brilliant business savvy.
As I watched Frank preaching fire and brimstone to the bar patrons, I saw a quality that is rare in our industry but common in successful companies. The owners are always optimistic and still passionate about growing a successful, highly profitable company. They believe that tomorrow will be better due to their actions and they look forward to going to work.
The message of business education is not hard to miss with Frank. He will get right in your face, squint and tell you exactly where your head is at that very moment. The business acumen he imparts is no doubt important, but it is not the full story. Don’t forget the less tangible qualities - passion and optimism. Not getting derailed by a few business setbacks. Dusting yourself off and charging into the office the next day with a better plan and a fist full of determination. That is what I saw on display under the neon beer sign in rural Wisconsin.
Here I am, a Blau disciple for 24 years, and I still learn something every time I spend time with him.