Chapter 8: Of Mentors and Men

Rise Above Chapter 8

Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success. - Henry Ford

One of the things I’m most proud of at Braun is the low turnover rate of our workforce; 40 percent of our employees have been with us for more than 10 years, and nearly a quarter have been with us for more than 15. In this day and age, when people switch jobs as often as they change clothes, that is quite an accomplishment. Is it because Winamac offers fewer opportunities? That could be partly true. However, I think it’s more than that.

Every day, our employees make a choice about where they will apply their talents and their passions. They alone decide which company is worthy of their hard work and ingenuity—and they could work anywhere. Like me, they could even start their own businesses. Some could retire. I think our employees stay at Braun because it is a rewarding experience. Our people genuinely enjoy working with each other, and they also appreciate the fact that they are making a difference in so many lives.

I think there is another intangible that makes Braun attractive to our employees. It’s not written in any manual, and we have no formal program for it, but I’ll bet if you ask our people whether they have a mentor at Braun, they’ll say yes. They might not use the term “mentor,” but they definitely have people they turn to for advice on how to do things and how to guide their careers.

Braun—and Winamac itself—is a close-knit place. Our people socialize together outside of work and watch out for each other on the job. Because everyone knows everyone so well, each employee is also comfortable enough to challenge another when needed and offer encouragement when times call for it. To be honest, this closeness also comes with its own set of problems; it can sometimes inhibit people from seeking information and points of view from outside their circle of associates. On balance, however, our cohesiveness is a good thing.

Even though I am the company’s founder and CEO, I often turn to people for advice. Braun’s president, Nick Gutwein, who came to us from Rohm and Haas, is one. Our backgrounds are complementary, and I routinely turn to him for help in my decision making. But it’s not just Nick or other members of our senior management team who I see as my mentors. Every time I go to the shop floor and start asking questions, I’m also gathering input I can use to make decisions. In that environment, I feel comfortable enough to simply say “I don’t know” and get guidance. In my view, “I don’t know” is one of the most powerful things a person can say.

I have been fortunate to have great mentors throughout my life. One of them was the aforementioned Ralph Rocky, the man with the action hero name, to whom I constantly said, “I don’t know.”

As I noted earlier, Ralph and I had drifted apart but remained close friends after my business had evolved to the point that I no longer needed to purchase my materials from him. We’d stop in and see each other when we were in each other’s neck of the woods, but mostly we talked on the phone.

Then one day, Ralph’s wife came to see me at my office in Winamac. She told me that Ralph was seriously ill and might die soon. Consequently, Ralph had sent her to ask me whether I would consider buying his business and taking it over. I was making both Tri-Wheelers and wheelchair lifts by that time and had about 50 employees, so I didn’t think I could take on that responsibility. I said no. I was flattered and appreciative of all Ralph had done for me, but I didn’t feel it was the right choice for me.

His wife was disappointed. She herself was riding a Tri-Wheeler I’d made for her, and she knew the care I put into my work and how hard I worked to market my products. She was with us when Ralph and I went to the Indiana State Fair to sell his lawnmowers, minibikes, and go-karts, as well as my Tri-Wheelers, all in one booth, alongside each other. In addition, I had become adept at my own manufacturing process, and she was aware of that as well.

When she came to visit me, I had moved out of my parents’ garage and into my own facility and had different people making different parts all over the place. In fact, a few years earlier I even had some of my employees making lawn mowers for Ralph so I could earn some extra money to pay for the advertisements I was taking out in a magazine called Accent on Living. I hadn’t realized that I needed to factor the cost of advertising into my products. As a result, the added cost was killing my profits. When I had mentioned it to Ralph, he had an idea that would suit both of us.

Ralph had purchased a factory that manufactured riding lawnmowers that was going out of business in St. Louis. He loaded up several tractor trailers and was storing all the parts in an old schoolhouse in Galveston, but because he lacked the workforce and capability to put it all together, the parts sat there, unused. Today, they’d be called “stranded assets,” but to Ralph, they just weren't doing him any good. He asked me to take them home, put them together, and paint them red—Ralph said you could sell anything as long as it was red—and he would pay me for them. He outsourced his manufacturing to me, and I used the extra money to pay for my advertising. It worked for both of us.

But on this particular day, Ralph’s wife was there to tell me he was on his deathbed, and I was sorry to have to say no to taking over his business. I was also sad I wouldn’t get to see him one last time. I said my silent good-byes.

Over the next few years, my business grew, and I got involved in several moneymaking ventures, including building and operating a Dairy Queen franchise right outside the back door to my office.

One day, while I was having lunch at the Dairy Queen with my family, just as I did every day, I saw something that floored me. A man and a woman were walking across the driveway from my company toward the Dairy Queen, and when I looked at them, I thought to myself, “Man, that guy is the spitting image of Ralph Rocky. But it can’t be Ralph because he’s been dead for years.”

The man walked into the Dairy Queen with this woman, who was using a cane and looked as though she may have had a mild case of cerebral palsy. They ordered lunch and sat down in a booth near us. I kept glancing over at the couple as I ate but tried to return my attention to my family so as not to seem rude.

Finally, the man got up from his booth, walked over to me, and said, “I thought I would come up to see you today, Ralph.”

My eyes bulged. I was in shock. I said, “You, you’re—you’re alive.”

He said, “Yeah, well, looks like I am.” Then his face twitched, just like it always used to.

“But a buddy called me and told me he read your obituary in the paper a while ago,” I said.

“No, I didn’t die,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what. My wife did. He must’ve seen her obituary.”

I stammered. “I mean, well, that’s just … your wife came to see me just before you … when you were ill and wanted me to buy your business because you were dying, and I—I …”

“Well, I survived, and she died,” he said. “Isn’t that incredible?”

Once I got over the shock, I left business to the others for the day and spent the rest of that afternoon with Ralph and his friend. Ralph had successfully sold his business and was retired, but he still had much to teach me.

For one thing, I was reminded again of how precious life is, and I was determined not to lose contact with him again. He was about 25 years older than I was, and I made a point to see and talk with him as often as I could until he actually did pass away a few short years after that.

For another thing, Ralph was the person who taught me the lesson about pricing my products accurately. He said, “If you don't price fairly, you are not going to be there to help anybody else. You have to price this stuff right. You have got to be honest about your pricing because otherwise, you won’t stay in business, and then you won’t do anybody any good.”

Ralph was also a big proponent of value and quality. The lawnmower deal we struck was a good example. The company selling the lawn mowers went out of business. Ralph and I then took the exact same parts those lawn mowers were made out of, assembled them correctly, and sold every single one of them we made. It wasn’t just the price, and it wasn’t just the quality; it was the combination of the two that worked.

Ralph was a self-made man, and by his example, I learned I could be a self-made man, too. I listened as he told me how he started his business by selling parts for lawn mowers out of the back of his truck; how every day he traveled around Indiana, from one lawn mower repair shop to another, to sell those parts; and how after he built some customer loyalty with that strategy, he established a mail-order business that enabled him to make sales through his catalog and then ship the products instead of hand delivering them, thereby reducing his travel and overhead costs.

This really stuck with me. In my earlier days, I used to drive more than 50,000 miles a year to Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals, to customers’ homes, and to places where I knew people might appreciate my products. As time went on, I was able to figure out that I could have a greater reach and exposure at far less cost by advertising. That didn’t mean that I completely stopped visiting places, but it did mean that a proper marketing mix required more than just one approach.

I also learned a great deal at my quality control job. Because we made automotive switches, our big customers were Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler—even Studebaker, before it went out of business. From a process perspective, my job placed me essentially at the intersection of customers and suppliers, and from that vantage point, I had free reign to observe the goings-on of business. If the auto manufacturers had problems with the assembled pieces, it was my job to figure out why there was a failure. In addition to learning a lesson about quality, I developed a keen eye that enabled me to know at a glance whether a product was made to specifications. During those days, more times than not I could challenge an engineer and be right, even if he did have his fancy instruments to work with.

Just as I am happy to call Ralph one of my mentors, I’m glad that I’ve been a mentor to others. One such person whom I’ve mentored is Mike Bruno, who started a company called Bruno Independent Living after working for me as vice president of sales in the early 1980s.

Mike moved his family to Winamac after a successful career in Wisconsin, where he and his family were originally from. Mike was a true sales professional and was instrumental in developing our dealer network and in really making our sales take off. I loved being around his energy, and we made a good team, with me developing products and him selling them. I look back at our time together with wonder—he was so driven he made me look like I was standing still.

However, after adapting to our company and to Winamac so well, his wife became homesick and said she wanted to move back to Wisconsin. Mike was in a tough spot; he loved his job and had a lot of room to grow, but he also wanted to accommodate his wife’s wishes to be near her family. He opted to leave Braun and move home but not before coming to me with an offer. He wanted to start a business that would not exactly put him in competition with me but would be somewhat in the realm of what I was offering. Because our businesses had similarities, Mike needed my consent to make it happen, so we struck a deal. I gave him my blessing, and he moved back to Wisconsin to start his business.

Only a few months down the road, Mike called me and said he was having some financial difficulty. He had a shipment coming in and didn’t have the money to pay for it. It was a typical cash flow problem—in fact, one that I’d faced from time to time. I thought about Mike’s predicament. I knew that I could have easily bailed him out; however, I also knew if I stepped in for him, he wouldn’t learn the lesson he needed to learn. So, like a father giving his son tough love, I swallowed hard and said, “Mike, here’s the deal. In order for you to really ever run this business, you’ve got to be standing on your own two feet. You’ve got to be self-sufficient. If I loan you this money, you're never going to develop a relationship with a bank and be able to go forward on your own.”

Mike asked, “Oh, well, how do I go about getting the money from a bank?”

I gave him a few ideas and said, “You can do this.” After we hung up, I felt terrible, like I’d really let him down in his time of need. That situation was very hard, and I wondered about him often.

A few weeks went by, and I hadn’t heard from him. Curiosity got the best of me, so I called him. “Hey,” I said. “What’s going on? Did you get your shipment in?”

I’ll never forget his response. He said, “Oh, yeah, no problem. I got the shipment in, and everything is fine.” He paused. “I want to thank you.”

I said, “Thank me? What for? Aren’t you mad at me for not loaning you the money?”

“Oh, no, no, no,” he said. “Just the opposite. I went to the bank just like you said, and I got things set up. Now I have a good line of credit that I can borrow from, and it’s going to work out just great.”

“Good,” I replied. “That makes me feel a lot better. Because I was really hurting when I hung up that phone having said no. but I didn’t think I was going to be doing you a favor by telling you yes and just by writing a check to you.”

He said, “And you were right. You were dead-on."

A few years went by, and we corresponded back and forth. One day he called to tell me he had won a Small Businessman of the Year award. His business had grown like crazy. He said, “I owe this to you. You taught me, and you gave me the knowledge on how a business should and shouldn’t be run. I learned a lot of what I know from watching you and listening to you. then I just went and did exactly what I saw you doing. That’s how I got the award.”

I’ll tell you, with all of the things I’ve accomplished in my life, that interaction with Mike was one of the happiest, most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had. He passed away a few years ago, and I miss him terribly. One thing gives me solace in his absence: just as I passed on whatever I knew to Mike, he did the same with his son, and today, the business Mike began is a thriving enterprise.

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