This is the transcript of our interview with Larry Zavadil, Founder and CEO of American Business Solutions.
As small businesses, particularly promotional products and print distributors, we have a tendency to run to Google and type in “How to grow sales as a promotional products distributor” or “How to grow my print business”. Whether you’re seeking ideas for increasing promotional product sales or looking for ways to capture more print business, few have a longer history, or greater insight than Larry Zavadil.
Our full video interview can be found here: https://seawayprinting.com/general/optimism-and-opportunities-an-interview-with-larry-zavadil-founder-and-ceo-american-solutions-for-business/
We post transcripts for each and every interview for those of you who prefer to read through the conversation. Below is a full transcript of the Larry Zavadil, American Solutions for Business interview. Enjoy.
Hey guys, my name is Steve Gumm. And this is the Seaway interview series. We’re bringing you the people, the stories and the ideas totally inspire you and help you get from where you are to where you want to be. And today, I’ve got a remarkable guest on the show. Larry’s abajo, who’s the founder and CEO of American solutions for business. Now, Larry founded this organization has grown it to over $300 million in annual revenue. And I think the things that you guys can take away from this, I was really inspired on this interview talking to Larry, his perspective, and the way that he approaches business in life are, I think, going to be very helpful for a lot of you guys, particularly, you know, going through a lot of the obstacles and the challenges that are facing organizations right now during 2020 because their approach has always been looked forward. Where I can provide a solution. He was never interested really in just kind of going out there and selling his whole purpose was, okay, what is the need here at this organization and how can I fill that need, and he’s always taking a very optimistic approach to life, all the challenges that may come with, you know, business and life and finding the opportunity inside the challenge. So I really appreciate him carving out the time and sitting down and talking to me it was a lot of fun. And I think you guys are going to get a lot out of this. So enjoy the interview. You’ve got a background and everything.
Or Yeah, just doesn’t quite fit my laptop.Yeah, yeah, we got let me see if I can move this over here. I’ve been playing around but I got a camera, Stand.
Yeah, cameras work perfectly. Outstanding. Well, thanks for carving out some time. I appreciate it.
For those that may not know I don’t want to dive too deep because I’m going to give some background you know, on the post and before I post this live, but give us a little bit of history, I think for a guy that that founds a company and grossed over 300 million. It’s pretty impressive. If you don’t mind, just give me a little bit of the history and how you got where you are.
Well, it’s kind of unique are different in the fact that I always say none of this has been planned it just by the grace of God, it just happens, you know, and I was fortunate enough to find an industry or a product that I could sell through relationships that everybody really used. As far as consumables, it’s I say, it’s like toilet paper, although today totally paper is a little tough to get. But normally it’s not, you know, but yeah, it really started out. I went to school at University of Minnesota and journalism advertising has kind of a fallback because I started in accounting, but I was out for football. Me bawling and I’d probably didn’t study as hard as I could and so I was like grammar and accounting you don’t cram for but I got through the first year just because we had a great classes and teachers in high school and the first year freshman year is kind of a cost year if you had good teachers in high school. So but then sophomore year is a little tougher. So as I stumble around, dropped football, just a baseball, and then I ended up finding journalism and advertising, which is a lot like sales and, and I always like people and like to be around people and meet people and just relationships is always a very important thing. So when I got out of school and I interviewed with NCR, I started selling for SR media division, selling printing supplies. And I did that for about a year and three months in Minneapolis, who back to Glenwood, where I grew up in a farm five miles north of town, and Glenwood. It’s a small town, our little Mayberry, we call it it’s got 2400 people, it’s got the only stoplight in our county. Our county is about 10,000 people. We have the 13th largest lake and it’s about eight miles by three miles. And so Glenwood is one of the five government entities around the lake. So you put all five together seven 8000 people is really our city, but we’re all spread out. So but it’s it really became more of a comfort thing. I did a pizza place in a bar and then I that was when there was only one other pizza place close by that did fresh pizza. Now you can get it at nine places. So but I did auto parts produce and then went back to NCR in 76. And Peter call me and so it’s been kind of an evolution of trying to find something that was you know, when I worked for Schwab or ditch ones down a Marshall and so my biggest account at NCR and was my biggest killer on the left hand car, but it was having my business and they were about For 60 million or so, when I first started working with him, and then all of a sudden they grew to be 3 billion. And what it was he got into pizza. And so they got into commercial industrial Tony’s pizza, and they got a whole bunch of brands, but they do a lot of pizza for schools and government. So that was a big thing. So I always jokingly said that, you know, always looking for my pizza, right? Um, but that that was really kind of the thing is, is that as it evolved, it went from one thing to the next. But when I worked for NCR, you know, I always knew that I wanted to be the person that could always give the yes answer. And so working in a rural area, there wasn’t there was way before the internet, there was catalogues, telemarketing few competitors, but not very many and most of them moved away in a couple of years. So you cannot live them right. So you just kind of hung in there. So I just want to be the backup and, and I, my stick was or my approach was in a rural area. I was like Colombo. So anybody old enough to remember Peter Fox Colombo character? That’s me. And so I would go to customers and see I know you don’t know me and don’t know anything about me and my company. But I just want to be your backup, you know? So if you ever need anybody let me work. So I just I was that backup because I knew I wasn’t going anywhere and I could not lose these people. And so it evolved. And then when I left NCR was because every one of my customers said, well, can you do this? And I say, we don’t do business cards, and we don’t do over the bar, we do some supplies. We don’t do that, you know, so and I kept coming home to my wife and say, you know, I hate this. I’m going to say Yes, I can. And then we’ll figure out what I want to be that employee without being on their payroll or the customer. I want to be the answer person. I want to be the number one direct dial when they get a problem. All the stuff we’re selling is consumables. They buy this stuff every year. Day or week or, and I could sell to anybody. You know, now things evolved. But I did. I grew up and down Main Street and I could sell everybody something, you know, and we still can. It’s just a matter we try to do it with technology, and e commerce and with the, you know, the internet. And so as we evolve though, never had a plan of having a big company or multiple locations or whatever it was really to bring on like every other distributor that started, I started because I had the biggest amount of volume and the biggest need for support. So a couple other guys that worked with an NCR wanted to come over and I said, I want to manage you. So we came up with a model where the lion’s share of the money went to them, they could figure out how they wanted to spend it. I took a little bit to cover the in house office as a CNA because that time other more and more business forms is a big one out there. And they had all the tools, they had great offerings and so they said we need buying power, we need to synergy, and we need tools. And if you look at every little distributor out there, everybody is replicating the back room. You know, and so everybody that started a company like American or a distributorship. 99.9% of them didn’t do it because they wanted to run a business. They did it because they were sick and tired of where they were. They wanted a better deal for their customers. They wanted to work for their customers. And they ended up getting an office because they were good salespeople. And they were good salespeople. They got saddled with operations. They didn’t go into it for operations. You know, the ones that did few and far between. And they never got they were never successful, because they could never understand salesperson, because running the sales force and deal with you know, everybody’s a snowflake. They’re all different unique. So we look and saying it’s like herding cats. Yeah. We herd cats, you’re American herds, cats. That’s all we do, is we just herd cats. So And we just we got 775 snowflakes that everybody has, you know, and so our job is to keep them going in a direction, and you never get everybody to do the same thing. So you say, Fine, you know, we always have a saying that, as we’ve evolved is that everything begins and ends with the face in the mirror. You know, we’re not going to tell you how to do things. You don’t sell, you don’t eat, we’re going to put together a plan, but if you have a problem, we’re all over like a duck on a June bug right here, just tell us what you need. And we’ll help you so we’re very reactive, and how we solve problems.
So in all of these things, and going through and what I wanted to do, and I couldn’t find anywhere out there, and so we had to gradually build them over the last 40 years and, and a lot of times, you know, we go down the wrong wide road and even though Yogi Berra says when you come in, come to the wine road, take it. Sometimes it’s wrong, back up and go the other way, but you God’s been good to us and allowed us to change direction come back and the other road and hand survived some of my mistakes or ideas that I thought were great, that weren’t so great, but and then also a lot of things in the in the economy. But we really had a premise of we have three customers, we have the end user who has the money in the need of the sales associate who has relationship. We have thousands of vendors that have great products and solutions. And we have finally the home office. And now as an Aesop employee on company, our Salesforce in our in our support people, our shareholders in it together. And Aesop was the best thing to save our model to save our little Mayberry because we still have about 300 jobs here in Glenwood, and we knew we couldn’t keep hiring people to support a big network. But when, when the internet came through, and it started to really pan out, we started to find more and more qualified people throughout the country. So now we got 100 150 support people nationwide that are remote support that are really home office direct employees along with our 775 sales associate so yeah, there’s it’s about 1100 some people are companywide and in the support and sales
Put in Yeah. And that has been a gradual, gradual evolution and movement from that. Day one when my wife told me to put up or shut up or fish or cut bait, right. So, so in all Ebola, I told her, it says, No, it’s your fault, you create it. Well, you’re never wrong. You’re always working. Right? So in 92, we had a customer of ours because everything we have is because somebody asked for, you know, customers said, Well, we’d like that. You got two people on site and they, you know, do the work of four people in our business. Purchasing department. We like your cost plus program and managing all the local vendors. It was a casino. And oh, wow. Yeah. And so, you know, we can manage your local vendors who always put pressure on them. And they were always the most expensive. So we could say you guys got to be competitive now, if you want business. So we became that that really that in between liaison forum to still get there. Everybody, you know, the local person got work, but they had to be fair. And so we were the ruler. And so in working with that, they said, we like all this. And, you know, we’ve been working with you for two years. But you know, as we go around the country, we really need to find a way to make this via diversity span. So yes, we can because we always say yes, we can, and then we get in the car and try to figure it out. Right. So I come back from Mississippi and said, yes, we could, and it’s like, imagine how are we going to do this? Well, I took the lady was doing my support person on my accounts, and I moved over with an accounting person and told my wife Diane, I said, Now you have a company. American diversity Business Solutions is a nationally certified 100% levy. And so then they became another option if we had a vendor who really needed that need to fill that bucket and our salespeople and ESB are also independent contractors over there if they have that need. So they do about 35 $40 million, so about 10% of us and there but their focus is really taking care of that niche, more so than our focus has to grow. You know, because with our model where the lion’s share of the money goes to the salesperson, and a little bit comes to us Yes, GMA, our model is other income is our profit drives and now as an ISA if we don’t pay taxes, so we don’t have to make 10% the net for we can we can pay more to commissions and in support. A model and still make it work for everybody and add value for the shareholders. And that was a biggest thing is, you know, in 2000 we had a guy who was with me for 18 years dusty Dupree died of cancer. And another one David gore Dino had a small plane crash. He was with us for five years. The three of us were number one, two, and three in sales in the company. And so when that happened, I said cheese. You know, if that had been me, we’d be paying, you know, we’d be paying and we’d be selling the company to pay taxes. Yeah. And so that’s when I seriously looked at. And he said, we looked at going public way back in the 80s. And family business, but a family Justin came back after we started the ISA. And now he’s the president because he knows the business knows that culture, knows our model, and has done an awesome job with our best senior leadership team that we’ve ever assembled in our 40 years. And, and that’s one of the things I’ve learned as you grow you get more volume and you get bigger. You start meeting more people get more relationships. And because everybody told me well, you’ll never be able to pay a good quality management people to live in Glenwood, Minnesota, you know and work here as well. Yeah. When I was half the size or a third of the size, I didn’t have the money where I could pay him a decent wage or a competitive wage for the war they would. But living out here where our only traffic jam is a stoplight? Or is if the train stops traffic on the way from Alexandria 50 miles away. I mean, it’s a pretty nice quality of life. And there’s only a handful of us that travelled two hours to Minneapolis to fly. And now nobody’s flying anyway, so we learn how to do it virtually.
Oh, that’s incredible. I definitely have some question when I asked him the way you structured it, but you know, before that, I mean, having started out like given the times now, right? If you were to, I guess if you were a small distributor, now Or Property Organization, you know, given the economic climate and this is definitely a, you know, a challenge for everybody, like, what would you be doing?
We always preach our people will say, don’t listen to us. We want to listen to you. What is your American dream? What do you really want to do? What are you trying to achieve? And that’s what we try to. That’s really what I try to get our people to do. And we’ve got a seven person group that all we focus on is recruiting, retention, acquisitions, and transitions. So we’re like in those moments, say, what don’t you like about today? It’s kind of like when I go to a customer and say, what’s that source of pain? What is that time waster? What’s that thing you can’t get off your desk? I mean, the things that are working well, I’m not talking to you, but I want to know the painful ones. Because those are the things that you need to get rid of. And that’s the ones I want to work with. Because if I can make that go away, then I’ve created value, and I prove value. Anybody can do the no 10 so that’s how we do the same thing with anybody starting out saying, what do you really want to do? I mean, what do you like about sales? What do you like about the products that you think you want to sell? What do you like? New people joining us in our industry today? They all love promo because it’s like Christmas every day, right? So catalogues and stuff, no way for them print oh, it’s hard and so boring. But you talk to a print guy that’s been doing it for 40 years, and he says, oh, there’s promo stuff so crazy and so chaotic.
How do you get them to figure out the benefits of both?
I think we just I’m just like when they do a DNA, see all these products and all this technology? You know, because I’ve seen so much I don’t know where to start. Yeah. So you start with a customer relationship. You go out and if you don’t have any, you go out, meet some people and find out what their problems are. What do they need fix and then you try to fix, you know, come back to Glenwood and say, Hey, I got a problem. How do I do this? Same thing we did 40 years ago, we dug around. In our SOS No, we get people in support or product support, we got people that can source and help you and give you solutions. We get people, they’ll do demos for you do rafts for you, I mean, we’ve got five or 40 years, we’ve got the resources and the team to help you, you just got to reach out and do it. And so once we know what your need is, we’re all over at trying to help you, you got to go to the customer where the need is starts and find out what their source of pain is, and build a relationship with them and bring back some ideas you know, so here’s some things that might work or could work and yeah, all different timings or all different pricing, but it’s it that’s how you start you learn and then if you’re you know if you like promo and you’re out there pushing promo and you’re pushing that and you get in with a customer start looking around the office and say Where do you buy your chairs? You know, we sell office supplies? Really? I didn’t know you did that. Yeah, you know. And so then you start broadening and start saying, you know, what else do you buy? Or what else do you do? And you start to get into other categories. And that’s where you learn the next product category. So it’s kind of the path of least resistance. But again, I tried to tell people don’t make it too hard. You know, everybody thinks, well, I got to have a story. And I’ve got to have it, you know, rehearsed. And I’ve just got to have a pitch write an elevator pitch. So you know, if you talk from the heart, and you really care about what you’re doing, you really have your pitch.
So don’t make it complicated. Hey, life is complicated enough.
Yeah. Have you always thought like that? Like I was reading that article on counsellor. And you know, there’s some really great things about you. And then Justin knew who the president is now over there, your son and he says like about you. He’s taught me that the relationships we have in life are more important than success or money that people remember how you make them feel and to always do the right thing for the right reason. Like if you always just kind of operated like that?
You know it’s kind of the thing is that my dad was a small farm of 160 acres. All he ever mostly ever made was $15,000 a year. And then when I got out of college, I went to work for NCR. And together my wife and I both made $15,000 a year. Harmon Kill brew was a baseball player for the twins, which was very good. He had paid $150,000 a year. So money was a lot different in those days. And so it got into the wall and my dad always told me one things is the only thing you can pass on in your life is a good name. So you do the right thing for the right reasons and take care of people treat them the way you want to be treated. And it’ll come back in spades. So what goes around comes around, you get what you give all those things that we’ve used. And they’re true because they lived in and they continue to live because they’re true. And so yeah, really is that if I give well, I don’t always get good, bad back, but I can’t stop doing it just because somebody didn’t give it back to me, right? No one just does you die cancer is. You said, I went to church and I started giving 100 bucks a week and you know what, I’ve done it for a month, and nothing’s happened. Nothing’s changed. I said, Tessie, you’re missing the point. It’s not like winning the lottery or going and playing poker or going to the casino. You got to give the hundred dollars because you want to and you can and but you want, you’re doing it for that reason, and not to get something back. And so I think that’s where human nature misses, you know, it’s like it’s a tit for tat kind of thing. And you just can’t do that because it is true when I said I came into the world, naked and broke, and can leave the world negative bro pancake and shit with me, right? So so the end of the day is that you try to get through life and it tries to have a good time. And really, if you find out that you are blessed if you’re helping other people, and that’s where we always preach to all of our people, and for years and don’t say, whatever replace you find yourself in a poor place you find, leave it better than you found it. And so if you can constantly make that better, I think that if even if it doesn’t work, it makes yourself feel a whole lot better. And you can get through life a lot easier than trying to be negative and the other way because I always say life is full of events, even with a virus thing as an event. And we’re going to get through event after event because that’s all life is a series of them. So the thing about it is that you focus on the positive in you deal with the negative and make them go away as fast as you can. Don’t ever get bogged down. Negatives are there, they’re going to be there. How do I understand them? And, you know, really figure out and dissect them and say, Okay, what can I do to make this go away? Or what can I do to make it better and move on? But I had 10 other things. Today that happened that were really great. Yeah, so but mostly human nature is negative and focuses on the negative. And the good stuff is happening all around them and it’s bypassing them and they don’t get to enjoy it.
So well, Larry, I appreciate that. I want to be respectful of your time and I can’t thank you enough for jumping on is great for me to just talk to you man it man, I really respect what you’ve built over there, your approach, everything you guys are doing. It’s really exciting and you know, we appreciate being a small part of it and Man, I just can’t thank you enough.
Maybe you can help me write the book because 40 years takes a lot of time.
You should be writing a book, what do you…
I talked about? I said, Yeah, because I’d kill a lot of brain cells. So I get it, I get it, I get it, bring back some of the old timers and do okay, we’re going to do the first five years, then we’re going to add some times. But that’s what you try to do is try to take that trip and come to those different why’s and, and just be like Yogi Bear and take one now, but then if it doesn’t work back up, and But again, it’s kind of you got to have a feel and it’s got to be here. Yeah, you got to like what you do you hear that? So many times people say, do what you like, and you’ll never work another day in your life. You know, it’s kind of easy to say but you got to find that thing. You got to find that skin that you can get into and that’s the dumb luck part. Then the harder you work the luckier you get.
A lot it. Well, Larry, thanks so much. I’ll definitely be in touch you know, personally but thanks for taking the time. It was great.
Good thing. I’m glad I can help. Have a good day and be safe.
Have a good one. Thank you