OfficeMax Founder: Every Successful Business Needs A Dictator

In 1988, Michael Feuer opened the first OfficeMax in Cleveland, Ohio with just $20,000 in savings. He sold it for nearly $1.5 billion in 2003, having built the office supply store into a $5 billion chain with 1,000 stores. These days, Feuer is focused on his latest venture Max-Wellness, which bills itself as a first-of-its-kind retailer for “products and services for ‘head-to-toe’ care for people of every age at every stage of life to enhance living, help prevent illness and treat health issues.”

With Dustin S. Klein, Feuer has written The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the Competition, which offers 40 lessons for would-be entrepreneurs drawn from his own experience. Here’s what he had to say in a recent interview with BNET.

Michael Feuer OfficeMax Founder CEO suit tie
OfficeMax Founder Michael Feuer

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BNET: You say, “We don’t need no more stinkin’ business books.” So why did you write this one?Feuer: Everybody in business has probably had it up to here in terms of theories, business books, and people telling them how to do things. What I tried to do was to stay away from the theoretical, and just chronicle the types of businesses I’ve built over the years and the successes I’ve achieved. I have also not been bashful about pointing out the stupid things I’ve done, with the hope that people will learn from them. But this book is not about me, it is about proven, unorthodox techniques and strategies. And it’s a book not just about business, but about how to get stuff done in life and cut down on some of the nonsense.

BNET: How is your perspective different from other business book authors?

Feuer: I am not a theoretical person. I am a survivor, first and foremost.  I’ve founded several major companies in my life, one of which was OfficeMax. I started with one store and a severe birth defect: poverty. This is a road map, and it’s worked for me. Will it work for others? Maybe not as much as it’s worked for me — I’m not presumptuous enough to assume that. You learn in business school the right way to do things. But the problem with Plan A is it’s never worked — you need Plan B, C, or D. Success belongs to the agile. Don’t fall in love with your plan, fall in love with the intended results.

BNET: What is a benevolent dictator and why should an entrepreneur strive to be one?

Feuer: In a startup company, you typically have limited resources in the form of money, time, and energy. So there’s not a lot of time for debate. One of the real dangers in a startup is analysis paralysis. The benevolent aspect of a benevolent dictator means doing the greatest good for your constituents: your investors, your employees and your customers. The dictator comes in when the time for talking is done. Building consensus is terrific, but in business, when you have to move from mind to market quickly, sometimes it’s just not practical.

BNET: How have things changed for aspiring entrepreneurs, compared to when you founded OfficeMax?

Feuer: In the late ’80s, credit was very easy to come by. Now, banks don’t want to give it to you, unless you can back it with your own money. So a startup needs to look at more creative ways to raise money.

What I suggest is to pitch to those who will be beneficiaries if your venture is successful. With Max-Wellness, I went to the landlords where I wanted to put stores and said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is I’m going to build another chain like OfficeMax and it’s going to attract people to your shopping centre. The bad news is I don’t have the money right now.” Then I show why they should back me.

BNET: What’s the biggest thing holding back fledgling entrepreneurs?

Feuer: A lot of people think the good fairy will just do it for them. That’s not going to happen. It comes down to how hungry you are to succeed. You’ve heard of fear of failure, but I’ve met many people who are afraid to win. They don’t want to do what it takes because they’re afraid to have that responsibility. The job of a CEO is to be a pot-stirrer — never settle for complacency, keep changing. Being a good entrepreneur also means being an effective teacher and communicator. That’s probably the reason I wrote this book. I hope people will learn from it.

This post originally appeared at BNET.