A year ago last week, my grandfather, Leo Levine, passed away. He was a self-made man in every sense of the word, growing up during The Depression in the Bronx. When I delivered my eulogy at his funeral, I recounted the story about his memory of bread costing nickel and not having the nickel to buy it. By the time he died, he had built a business that included four family owned restaurants, a franchise company, a distribution company, and a stellar reputation throughout the Jersey Shore community. Everyone loves a WindMill hot dog! He's been on my mind a bit this week and I thought I'd share some of the lessons he taught me in the 38 years we shared together. Some relate to business, some to family, and all relate to life.
1. Love your family unconditionally. My grandfather wanted his entire family around him as often as possible. He was originally partners with his brother Eddie, brought my Uncle Steven in to the business, then recruited my mother. He gave my cousins small tasks to make them a part of the business and I even worked there for a short time after college. While he was a tough boss and we all didn't always get along, there was a rule that you couldn't end the day mad at someone else in the family. You could yell, scream and curse, but when that was over, it was over. A family business is just that. Family first.
(In the first published version of this blog post, I told a story that I simply should not have shared. My great-uncle, Eddie Levine, was the managing partner of The WindMill when he and my grandfather first bought it in 1976. He worked very hard to build the business and many nights slept in his car because he was too tired to go home after working an 18 hour day behind the counter, only to face another 18 hour day ahead. It was his hard work that established the business and set the stage for expansion to Belmar and other areas. When he died, The WindMill was closed, allowing all the employees to attend the funeral and I was honored to deliver a eulogy. Anyone that has ever drawn a paycheck from The WindMill, or eaten a hot dog, owes him a debt of gratitude.)
2. Honor your word. When I was in my early teens, he and Eddie opened another restaurant in Long Branch that failed fairly quickly. Nearly 25 years later, I remember my grandfather telling me that every vendor that serviced the restaurant got every dollar owed to them, without argument or question. The bankruptcy laws certainly would have provided some relief, but it was important to my grandfather to honor his commitments and pay the vendors. After all, he might call on them to do business again in the future, but more importantly, he was a man of his word.
3. Loyalty above price. My grandfather hated to change vendors. He wanted the best prices possible, but it was more important for him to do business with those he trusted and he knew would deliver, not only for him, but for his customers. He also knew who he could beat up and who he had to bring a bottle of vodka to when negotiating.
4. Take care of your customers. My grandfather wanted everyone that came in to The WindMill to have a great experience. He wanted them to have the best food, the best condiments, a clean environment, and he loved to ask people their impression on the way out. If he got a negative report, he was known to refund the money and give them coupons to come back for another visit on him. It's always easier to keep a customer than get a new one.
5. Keep an eye on the competition. There's another hot dog place in Long Branch that's only open in the spring and summer. Every spring he would check their prices, see if they added anything to the menu, or made any improvements to the restaurant. He always wanted to be the best and that meant staying one step ahead of the competition.
6. Watch the store. If you aren't watching your business, who is? Maybe that's why I am a bit of a control freak, but he loved nothing more than to drive to his restaurants, check in, and see what was going on.
7. Be one step ahead. We had employees that stole money. As long as they were good employees, and it was a little money, he wouldn't fire them. He might warn them or subtly let them know he found out. He explained to me that as long as he knew how much they were stealing, he could tolerate it because the extra $10 or $20 a week was worth it so that he didn't have to train someone else. He believed that if they felt guilty about stealing, they might work harder. His style might have been unorthodox, but many of his employees were very loyal to him, in spite of his temper.
8. Work hard. He thought that when I started working in real estate that it was a part-time job because it was only five days a week. He told me stories about working 15 hour days, six or seven days a week, and he didn't have a lot of respect for people who didn't work hard. Since I wanted his respect, I had no choice.
9. There's always more. He created an amazing business, took great care of his family, but was more focused on his failures at times. Not because he was interested in beating himself up, but because he wanted to do more for the family and have more success. He would say, "If I had just invested in that stock, none of us would have to work." To which I would answer, "Then what would we do all day?" He'd just smile. He liked my work ethic.
And last, but certainly not least.
10. Don't trust anyone. He had a sign in the office with those three words in big letters. He was wary of everyone, and in business, concerned about their motives. It kept him sharp, kept him thinking, and kept him from getting screwed in many cases.
Gone, but never to be forgotten.