|This is the sixth post of the eight-part “The Business Breakthrough” series, in which small business owners share the biggest regrets, best advice, and hardest lessons of their careers. “The Business Breakthrough” is sponsored by Capital One Spark. See more posts in the series »|
In 2003, entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis started buying up RV dealerships with his company, FreedomRoads. Three years later, he merged it with parts and accessories dealer Camping World. Now, the combined company is a $3 billion business that controls 25% of the entire RV market.
Going into that business wasn’t an accident. Lemonis deliberately chose an industry he thought he could dominate, a decision sparked by what he calls the best piece of advice he’s ever gotten.
Many entrepreneurs can trace their careers back to a powerful lesson learned on the way or a wise mentor. Not all of them get the help of Lee Iaccoca, the man who helped create the first Mustang, turned around a nearly bankrupt Chrysler, and remains one of the most legendary figures in American business.
“The best advice I ever got was from Lee Iaccoca, who was very influential in my career,” Lemonis told Business Insider. “It was very simple. It was get into a business where you can be a big fish, not the little fish. Get into a business where you can be a change agent,
where you can make a difference. It’s worked well for me.”
Indeed, Lemonis has become a very big fish. And he’s taking that advice, and everything he’s learned over 13 years leading businesses, and using it to help others. In addition to his “day job” as CEO of Camping World and its parent company Good S, Lemonis is the host of CNBC’s “The Profit,” a primetime reality show in which Lemonis tries to save struggling businesses. But rather than just giving advice, he puts his own money and reputation on the line.
“I wanted people to know that this wasn’t just a fresh coat of paint on the wall, that these were real stakes,” Lemonis says. “If you want to get somebody interested, you put money on the table. You don’t go in there and tell them how smart you are or impress them by telling them what your credentials are. You go in there and stand side by side and put your money up.”
The experience has had a real impact on the businesses Lemonis has invested in. It’s taught him a lot as well.
“What I know now is that running a small business is as hard as running a big business,” Lemonis says. “It also reaffirmed my belief that people are the ones that make the difference. My greatest takeaway is how important or unimportant people can be — how effective or how destructive they can be if they’re not the right people.”
Lemonis judges every business by what he calls the people-process-product principle: Great people, an excellent and relevant product, and the best possible process for creating, delivering, and selling that product.
Beyond people, Lemonis noticed one common mistake among business owners that he finds particularly irksome. “People don’t know their numbers,” he says, referring to everything from inventory and price points to the company’s balance sheet. “Nothing infuriates me more.”
Everything in business boils down to knowing how cash is flowing through the business, Lemonis says. He’s remained in touch with all of the participants in the show, and he hears frequently how much knowing their numbers has positively impacted their businesses.
Lemonis was in his 20s when he first got into the RV business. Before starting FreedomRoads, he worked his way up to managing 67 stores for AutoNation by the time he was 27. And he readily admits he made his share of errors.
“When I was young, I said things I shouldn’t have; I did things I shouldn’t have,” Lemonis says. “I don’t know that I could have necessarily re-charted that course. The benefit is that I learned lessons, and it helped me mature over time.”
Doing the show and putting his own money on the line is about more than making good investments or even good TV, he says. It’s about getting some of those lessons out there, so people don’t have to make the same mistakes he did.
“I really look at this in two ways: One, as a way for me to make a good return on my investment, and second, as an educational tool for everybody, including myself,” Lemonis says. “We want to pick businesses and concepts and topics that are real and raw and understandable. Whether it’s family-owned businesses, integrity, second-generation businesses, or controls of cash, they’re all themes that are essential.”
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