Last night, I laid in bed thinking about pickles. The company that I worked on for my entire adult life had just been acquired by an international conglomerate, and I thought about pickles. Maybe not pickles exactly, but sort of. I was wondering if Mr. Vlasic or Mrs. Claussen stared at their respective ceilings after someone bought their pickle factories. I don’t know if pickles are made in a factory, but I was going with that.
Did they lay in bed thinking about the guy that sources the cloves for their pickling-spice and wonder how he would be affected by the sale? Was his life going to get better? Was Mr. Vlasic worrying about the lady that puts the lids on so tight that you can’t open the jar, how that nice woman was going to do with new shareholders? Did he even care? Did he get such a big stack of cash that he immediately forgot about everyone that pickled his way to the top? I think not. I bet they freaked the hell out.
The very few people that were in-the-know on my dealings said to me, “John, you will sleep great after the deal closes.” I can tell you first hand that Mrs. Claussen did not sleep great that night. Her pickle-empire was her life’s work. Were the new owners going to relish her creations? (sorry). Were they going to care about the team like she did? They most certainly said they would. They had a 50-year track record of exactly that. There was every indication and incontrovertible evidence that the pickle empires would not only continue, but there would be a path for the spice dude to graduate up to vinegar or maybe a shot at the CUCUMBER.
I remember reading about Midwich acquiring Starin years ago. I just thought to myself, “That is interesting. I wonder why?” and I went about my day. I think I might have Googled Midwich for a minute. I certainly did not stop to reflect on the change that might lay ahead for the people of Starin. I did not bother to think about the fact that Jim Starin had been at it a little longer than me, and this must be a big shock to the people that work there. From the outside it was just a transaction. I can assure you know that from the inside, it was more than just a transaction.
Before all this went down, some of my friends had sold their companies. I spoke to Jay Rogina of Spinitar briefly. He has been so good to me over my career that I really wanted to just check in. I wanted to make sure he was good. We spoke about the sale just for a few moments as he had a lot on his mind. I really wish I would have spent more time asking questions.
Here is what I want to share with anyone that might be part of one of these mergers or sales or whatever you might call it someday. It is not anything like you might think. Here is how these things actually work… or at least how this one worked. It was not months and months of negotiation.
The people of Midwich are amazing.
They said they were interested and already had done mountains of homework. They asked for a little more information under NDA. Then they made a thoughtful and very considerate offer. That was that. Negotiation over. Our company is an open book. They knew what they were getting. They had presented the way they do things. I had some friends at Starin and SFM. My factories loved them. Negotiation was not something we actually ever really did. This is the true essence of partnership.
The rest of the time was mostly just Tom Mattley and me digging in about our team. The money part was done in an instant. Midwich had already assured us that our team was going to be given more opportunity for growth, equal or better comp plans, and that they would keep our culture intact. It was what they wanted. But there were no words, slide decks, history, evidence, plans, or blood-oaths that could keep me from the gut-wrenching worry about our team going forward. I suspect the same is true for anyone in a position similar to me, but I am only me. No matter what anyone said, I was going to stress.
Chris Wehba is literally the kindest and hardest working person I have ever known.
Chris came to us after Middle Atlantic made a rep change in one of our regions. They promptly fired us a few months after hiring us (they fired all their reps). As much as Middle Atlantic angered me, Chris has been one of my greatest blessings of my career. But I am not the owner anymore. Can I honor every promise I have made to my friend still? Are the new owners going to understand what a gem they have? How long is it going to take them to see the loyalty and effort this man as put forth? Yeah… that kept me up at night. That kept me up.
Not only Chris, but Skip and Dana. Skip Godwin and Dana Moody were partners in a rep firm and competitors of mine for years before joining us. They are my rock. When I am down or burned out, I have someone that has literally walked a mile in my shoes to call. They save me. Often. Does Starin need that? Will they appreciate having that kind of experience and empathy on their team?
The list goes on. Dana Sanders Nickel showed up and showed us what “professional” meant. We all had to get better to match her performance. Whenever there was some sort of national sales contest that George Astin was part of, I would threaten him “Win or you are fired”. I was joking… sort of. He won anyway. He kept winning. Are there sales contests at Starin? Are they going to be ok when George asks way too many questions in meetings? I didn’t know.
The list goes on and on. Sleepless nights thinking about this group of people that all care so much about each other. I knew I was doing what was best. I was ensuring a bright future for all of them. It was the right thing at the right time for all the right reasons. But there was lingering doubt, guilt, worry.
Then I was able to spend three days with Tom Sumner, the CEO of Midwich North America and Chief Strategy Officer. He and the managing director Stephen Fenby got on a plane from England and spent time with me. In a KIA SUV. Driving around grinding it out in traffic. Visiting customers and vendors. Working our asses off. Talking, laughing, strategizing. Crushing a 14-hour day of meetings, dinners and presentations. Together. And it was like I had worked with them for my entire career. It was clear to me that if I would have fulfilled all my goals and achieved everything I had planned, we would have ended up as Midwich. And here we are… just like that. After a handful of signatures, we are exactly where we have been heading the entire time.
And I slept that night. I slept like a baby. I know with complete certainty that everything I knew was true… actually was true. It was not just a slide in a deck. When these guys spoke about their team, everything was “we” and “us”. They talked little of themselves, but reveled in the successes of the people they work with. The term “employee” was never used. These two men were grinding it out in L.A. all day with little-ole’ me, stuck on the 405 going two miles an hour for hours on end. Using gas station restrooms. Letting their guard down in the car so we could have our A-Game on for the next meeting. I knew, I know that our team is on a rocket ship. These men are leaders. Our team won the career lottery, and they might not see it yet.
There is no way not to be apprehensive if you are on our team. It is crazy to say this, but without exception, everyone loves this place. Nobody calls in sick. Nobody ever stretches a 3-day weekend with a phone call saying, “I think I came down with something on Memorial Day.” We all show up for each other. So, change might be a little scary, but change is WHAT WE DO. And this is no different.
We had been challenged by our industry to reimagine the rep model. Factories for years have been saying, “You better change or you will not survive.” I took this to heart and challenged our team to make it real. Real change. Not just a new website. Not just a new look and feel, but a fundamental change in how technology was and is sold. And we pulled it off. We did it different. And someone noticed.
Now that opportunity has presented itself again. This time it is much more significant. Starin has quietly been making all the right moves to create real change in the distribution model. They have not been jumping up and down and saying, “Look at us, we are changing.” They have been quietly preparing for what is happening today. Methodically. Deliberately. And you probably didn’t even notice until this acquisition. Their systems are already in place. The table is set. They have been investing their success back into the business and have secretly assembled a rocket. Soon we roll it out onto the launchpad.
AV distribution in the U.S. could use a little shake-up. It has seen some consolidation. There have been a few subtle additions here and there, but the model, for the most part, has been a little boring. It has been anything but aspirational.
So, we have a plan. A bold plan. And by “We”, I don’t mean “The Farm”. I mean WE. Midwich, SFM, Starin, The Farm… All of us. We know there is a better way. And it isn’t neither risky nor scary… but we are going to be the first to pull it off. When we do, there will be others. This will be categorical change, and we will welcome competitors. Our secret-sauce will not be secret at all. Just like The Farm. IF anyone asks what we do our how we do it, we tell them. Down to every last detail. This will be no different.
That being said, this FORMER CEO is going nowhere. This is anything but an exit strategy. It is an ENTRY STRATEGY and I cannot wait to see what the future holds.
I want to thank all of you for supporting me in my 30-year career of struggle to get to this point. The next 30 are going to be amazing!