Michael Feuer

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Trust, but verify

The playwright Oscar Wilde wrote, “A cynic knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” By nature, most successful business executives tend to be more optimists than cynical naysayers.

The leaders who are the best of the best, however, have an internal mechanism that allows them to dream, dare and do while simultaneously knowing to challenge and question. The good leaders probably possess a yet undiscovered gene that automatically flashes a yellow warning sign in the back of their heads reading “trust, but verify,” when they’re introduced to the unproven or unknown. Experience, judgment and wisdom are the tools needed to distinguish between dismissing an idea as flaky and accepting it at face value.

Case in point is the now infamous Bernard Madoff, the Ponzi-practitioner extraordinaire, who also had a bit of Houdini in him because he could touch a dollar and make it instantly disappear. His signature pièce de résistance was the vanishing act of putting other people’s dollars in his own pocket by using a sleight-of-hand maneuver, most likely in the form of a glib smile and nifty software program. The software produced a faux monthly statement that recapped the bogus previous 30 days’ perennial successful results. This led trusting investors to believe they could sleep soundly thinking that their money was not only safe but also growing exponentially.

This garden-variety swindler, who makes the Wild West bandit Jesse James look like a saint in comparison, certainly did not discriminate. Reportedly, he purloined more than $50 billion from supposedly savvy fund managers to unsuspecting charities with no doubt a few widows and orphans sprinkled in for good measure.

How could this have happened? First, people wanted to believe. Secondly, most of us have an innate desire to be associated with winners. However, eventually, we all learn the cold reality that if it is too good to be true, then more than likely, it is too good to be true. Worst of all, some professional “money managers” turned over unimaginably huge sums to this Ponzi artist without apparently doing their own due diligence, which is not only an ethical prerequisite but also an exercise demanded by common sense if not common law. Had the unsuspected subscribed to the principle of “trust, but verify,” this scheme would have failed. Instead, decades passed before the genie was out of the bottle, and it took the biggest stock market disaster since the Great Depression to defrock this con man.

How can executives learn from this debacle and translate the concept of “trust, but verify” into a safety net to protect the enterprise without dampening creativity and enthusiasm that could lead to the next great business success?

Every stockbroker must learn the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Rule 405, which is “know your customer.” This same requirement must apply to businesses. At a very minimum, have a sense of whom you are dealing with. Is it coming from a trusted peer or subordinate or the nephew of your brother-in-law’s barber? The best bets are made on those who have done it before and have done it successfully. Some call these habitual achievers “serial entrepreneurs,” but they also can be innovators who toil down the hall from you and constantly deliver on promises and concepts. Good leadership requires the discipline to hear out a proposal yet employ finely tuned instincts and cunning, sometimes indelicately referred to as the “smell test.”

Sniffing out the nuances of the real story to discover hyperbole or worse takes discipline and patience. Once the answers sort of make sense, move to phase two by doing some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations and research to determine if there is at least a snowball’s chance that whatever is being proposed won’t melt away as soon as your check clears the bank.

Finally, talk to others who may have tried something even remotely similar to what has been proposed. You’ll be amazed at what complete strangers and even tangential competitors will tell you when you simply pick up the phone and ask.

To build, grow and succeed, every organization needs a constant inflow of new ideas, be it products, services or a better way to skin that proverbial cat. Somewhere between an optimist and a cynic is a realist who always knows the difference between a quacking duck and a striped zebra.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder and co-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Most things start with a plan. In “The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers sang, “Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run” — which is practical advice applicable to business and, specifically, to planning. Introducing a new product or service or starting a company, takes a huge amount of thought and copious compilation of facts, figures, strategy and tactics.

Other plans, such as making it through a bad day, may simply require keeping your head down, your mouth shut and minding your own troubles rather than playing the under-appreciated and unwanted white knight bent on solving other people’s problems.

The “if” in any plan is, will it ultimately produce the desired results? Experience can be a bitter teacher, but anyone who has devised a plan from scratch knows that an initial plan doesn’t always play out as expected.

That is not a big deal and, in fact, can be a positive, as it requires the initiator to refine, tweak and nurture the plan until all the viable elements fall into place. A good plan should really be designed as a work in progress so that it can build, change and take on different shapes and directions as it matures.

Some of the best plans mushroom into something completely different from the initial objective. As the plan is vetted, many times a new and improved concept emerges.

On the flip side, corporate America is littered with plans that started with lofty objectives but during the embryonic stages became cast in concrete as the creators and implementers fell in love with their idea and were unwilling to deviate from their plan. Instead of succeeding, they failed because they lacked the creativity to recognize alternatives.

So how do you know when to hang tough and when to take a different direction? That depends on circumstances and on what you discover along the way. For example, if you are negotiating an employment agreement and the prospective employee wants a higher salary than you can afford to pay, it is time to go to Plan B.

Instead of additional monthly compensation, you could come up with a bonus plan based on reaching specified goals that are higher than you would have originally required. Instead of telling the candidate to take a hike, you offer a more creative solution via Plan B, which provides for a bonus on top of a bonus if specific incremental objectives are reached. The beauty of this is that it probably won’t cost you any more because the results will more than make up the difference of what you needed to make the deal work.

Another example would be in the purchase of high-priced equipment. If the seller balks at the price you offer to pay, you could come back with a creative solution that provides incentive payments after a specified time if the equipment produces better results than the predetermined targets.

This concept of integrating Plan A and Plan B into every major undertaking is limited only by your imagination. The key is that you can still get what you want at the price you want to pay, while giving the other side something in return.

If you had read the business plan created in 1988 for my company, complete with the obligatory long-term goals and objectives, and compared that with where we landed a few years later, the only commonality was that we were still in the retail business. The original plan called for 100 OfficeMax stores primarily in the Midwest, and instead, we grew to 1,000 stores on three continents.

What we expect to take place rarely happens exactly as anticipated. Our saving grace was that even though we always had Plan A, we used it primarily as a guide rather than making it sacrosanct. More often than not, we used Plan B or C or D when it became clear that there was simply a better way to do whatever needed to be done.

Like most start-ups, we never had enough money, time or resources. We quickly realized that the secret to winning was to be focused but also very flexible. Our battle cry was “carpe diem” — seize the day.

Clear winners in business today are those who have both a Plan A and a Plan B in their arsenal and can move from mind to market faster than their competition. Business is a marathon, not a sprint.

However, if you fall into bad habits and follow the ruinous practice of wearing blinders, you’ll spend most of your time planning how to make it through the day and keeping one step ahead of failure, leaving your company mired in mediocrity and always playing catch-up.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm that focuses on buying control and/or making substantial investments in retail-oriented businesses and businesses that serve retail. Reach Feuer with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Tuesday, 25 January 2005 11:14

Facing your fears

Almost without exception, every business success story starts with an idea -- a concept fueled by a dream.

Every day, we read about how these dreams take shape and come to fruition. We've also heard the hackneyed analogies for winning, the most ubiquitous of which are tied to sports. (Sorry ladies, it must be a guy thing.)

There are dozens of pedestrian lines such as, "If you don't step up to the plate, you'll never get on base," or "If you don't take a shot, you'll never get a basket." As corny as it sounds, these trite phrases apply to much of what we do, particularly in business. Simply put, if you never do anything, nothing will ever happen.

Most, if not all, of us have had what we thought was that big idea -- the grand slam concept that brings fame, fortune and, for some of us, the satisfaction of getting even with that seventh grade teacher who said we wouldn't amount to anything.

Unfortunately, many of these great ideas never get traction because we all suffer from the "F of F syndrome" or Fear of Failure, which almost always surfaces with a slam-bang big idea. We think to ourselves, "If I try it and fail, I'll embarrass my family, my friends, myself, and prove that seventh grade teacher right."

Self-doubt and second thoughts come part and parcel with breakthrough thinking. F of F can even be a strong motivator, making us delve more deeply, analyze fully and think through what it will take to make something really work.

On the other hand, we've all experienced -- or at least observed -- the effects of analysis/paralysis, where, through constant and obsessive study and rehashing, we beat an idea like a dead horse, with self-recriminations of woulda, coulda and shoulda. If I do it this way, that will happen. If I do it that way, this will happen.

At the end of the process, you're exhausted and frustrated, and you've taken your rags-to-riches dream and turned it into a fading fantasy bordering on a nightmare. As psychiatrists like to say, "When you hear hoof beats, look for horses, not zebras, lest you cross over the line to the darker side of paranoia."

So how do you stop this downward spiral of a good idea and translate it into a reality?

From my experience of coming up with an idea and building businesses from scratch, the best way is to start with the concept and ask yourself a few simple questions.

Does my idea fill a niche and provide a solution that no else does? Or, can I take an existing concept, business or methodology and make it better, more efficient, more effective and do it more economically than anybody else?

After I think of an idea, I create a mental storyboard, much like those used in creating TV shows. Each frame is a scene. I then fill in the blanks with words and a visual picture of what is to take place at a given sequence or point in time in my plan.

I call this process sequencing.

As the storyboard progresses, I come up with additional questions. Does the concept have staying power? What will I need in terms of resources, skills, people, and how much money will it take to harvest the concept?

Once done with my mental storyboard, I commit it to writing, and then the fun begins.

When you follow this scenario, you'll think about the idea or concept intermittently day and night. If it's a particularly good one, you'll find yourself staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. You'll ruminate about how to improve it. You'll also begin imagining yourself stepping up to the plate, taking the bat off your shoulders and, if you're both smart and lucky, you'll hear the crack of the bat and envision that spherical object soaring for the fences as the crowd cheers.

Some of the simplest ideas have become the biggest winners for those persistent enough to stay focused and create their own storyboard of success. This is known as really low-hanging fruit. Most people will think of an idea and say, "No, that's too easy. Someone has probably already done it."

Because of that always-lurking doomsday fear of failure sentiment, or perhaps more aptly put, fear of winning, you become afraid to try. The most successful people I've met are those who have something to prove to others or, more important, to themselves.

But, you'll never even come close to winning if you're afraid to lose.

Michael Feuer is co-founder of the mega office products retail chain OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm. Reach him at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Monday, 20 December 2004 11:49

Head, heart and gut

Before jumping on my soapbox about consultants, I must confess that, in the past, as a Fortune 500 CEO, I've used them. Some are even good friends. Select groups are very competent and, although I hesitate to admit it, I've crossed over to the dark side recently by trying to help a few companies.

At times, everyone in business and in life needs a second opinion, a sounding board or an unbiased expert to help work through a problem, strategy or opportunity. Consultants, as third-party hired guns, are also effective at providing heavy lifting in implementing systems, processes and the like.

However, I've learned that good managers, executives and owners run their businesses with their head, heart and gut.

On a good day, all three come into play. On a really bad day, any one will get you through.

Doing one's job is much like working out -- no pain, no gain. Most people don't spend enough time thinking and spend too much time just doing for the sake of doing. Perhaps it's because thinking up a solid solution can be painful.

The lazy way out is to say, "Let's call in the consultants and have them figure it out." While it's good for the consultants, it's not necessarily good for the company.

Early in my career, I had a boss who said, "Mind your own troubles." You need to take ownership and work through the issues before teeing up a project for outsiders. Bringing in consultants is much like making friends with the toughest guy on the playground, then talking trash with someone bigger than you -- you count on the tough guy to bail you out.

This is how many companies use consultants. They dump a load of garbage at their feet and tell them to make it work. The consultants like it because it results in good money, but the company loses because it should be minding its own troubles and better controlling the process.

There may be a better way.

Start with a legal pad -- not because I used to sell them for a living but because it's a tool for a simple process to flesh out issues. In the middle of a page, draw a vertical line from top to bottom. On the left, list the issues at hand. On the right, write top-of-the-mind thoughts about possible solutions.

Use your head by writing solutions that are close to being intellectually sound, fact based, learned or tested. For the heart portion, list those that you hope, pray or fantasize that, by some miraculous act, even divine intervention, might work.

And think with your gut. We've all had situations where the answer that worked best came from some mysterious source within.

Next, remove ideas that have no chance of working, are ridiculous or that you would be embarrassed to show a colleague.

Finally, hide the legal pad where no one will find it for a pre-determined period of time -- an hour, a day, a week, a month. Some call this a cooling off period; I call it a sanity check.

At the self-appointed time for redemption, take out the legal pad and give it a fresh read to see if your list passes the probability smell test. If it doesn't, flush the pages down the john, knowing that you'll have total immunity from future embarrassment. However, if the list does make sense and the solutions might work, start fine-tuning, tailoring and tweaking.

When you're finished, you'll have a plan. At this point, you can bring in your associates to help further flesh out the idea. And, if you're so inclined, look at that timepiece on your wrist, knowing that you've reached the bewitching hour to bring in the consultants and hand over your watch with a big, smug smile.

Michael Feuer is co-founder of the mega office products retail chain OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. Over 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm. Reach him at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Monday, 22 November 2004 11:41

Us and them

Every day, we make decisions -- some because we want to, others because we have no alternative. With every choice there are pluses and minuses, and some of the thornier decisions will ruffle a few feathers. The higher you go in an organization, the more far-reaching the decision's implications, and the greater the degree of feather ruffling.

So how do we make decisions that will stick and most likely work? How do we make them quickly, yet with thorough deliberation?

Soon after starting my company, the reality hit me. As business continued to grow and I made hard decisions, some people liked them and others didn't. Many times, I'd be second-guessed. But if you look at failed companies, you'll find that much of the failure lies at the feet of the management team, specifically the CEO who didn't pull the trigger on critical strategic and financial decisions.

I also learned that procrastinating or taking half measures to solve problems made things worse. The winners in business are those who can move from mind to market faster than the competition. That means making decisions and taking calculated risks.

My method for making difficult choices was to follow the time-tested formula of ready, aim, fire. This meant taking emotion out of the equation, gathering the facts, deciding where I wanted to go and determining how I planned to get there.

It also meant not trying to please everybody, because that just doesn't happen. Certainly, you take into account the effect of the decision on all of your constituents, starting with your customers, because without them, you won't have a business. I also sought thoughtful input from my associates, employees, investors and advisers, but not necessarily in that order.

Finally, and most significantly, I learned not to make decisions based on how it affects "us" or "them." Instead, I made the decision "for the love of the company" and the good of the entity. I learned that by putting the organization first, instead of special interest groups, you'll win many more times than you'll lose.

There are downsides to this Machiavellian, unemotional, fact-based, decision-making process. Expect to be by yourself. Some will choose not to spend unnecessary time with you because they'll feel you made a choice adverse to them.

On the upside, you'll spend less time going out for lunch. You can fulfill your mid-day sustenance requirements in five minutes at your desk, giving yourself 55 extra minutes a day to think about your business and its future.

And since people won't want to be with you as much, there's no need to own a big SUV or an ugly sedan. Instead, you can justify buying a svelte, two-seat sports car, knowing that the second seat will be occupied by a trusted companion, your briefcase.

Decisions are not supposed to be easy. Business is not a popularity contest. To make your move, listen and learn. Your wife, husband or significant other is good source, as is your barber, who you tend to listen to, particularly since he or she is wielding a sharp razor.

Next, study the consequences of your decision from a short, intermediate and long-term perspective. Finally, you've got to lead, follow or get out of the way -- make your decision, then build consensus with anyone and everyone who will listen to you. Speak with passion and conviction, and always have your facts and figures at your fingertips.

Sure, some in the "us" camp will dis you, and the "thems" will talk behind your back. Others will refuse to utter your name and refer to you as a pronoun. But rest easy. You made your decision for a greater good -- the love of the company. All things being equal, you will not only survive, but succeed. Finally, remember, sometimes it's lonely at the top, but the view is truly spectacular.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of the mega office products retail chain OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money along with a then partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion. In January, Feuer launched Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating. Reach him at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Editor's note: Michael Feuer will discuss "Tips from the top" at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 6 at The Forum Conference Center as part of the 2004-2005 Smart Business Live Luncheon Series, sponsored by Skoda Minotti & Co., The Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, Brightnet and The Forum Conference Center. For information on how to attend, call (440) 250-7021.

Thursday, 25 November 2010 19:00

Common business sense

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last three years, you know that the term “app” is shorthand for software application, made famous by the technology geniuses at Apple. It came into vogue with the iPhone and now with the iPad. Following Apple’s remarkable success, just about every other manufacturer has figured out how to put microchips in a cheap plastic case and call it a personal digital system or PDA, which does all kinds of incredible stuff.

Innovation spawns accelerated innovation, and today, there are more than 30,000 apps from how to find romance in all the wrong places to creating a voodoo doll with a photo of your least favorite person imposed on a deformed body, all for the purpose of poking it with pins with one click when circumstances dictate. These know-all, do-all digital marvels can be downloaded to miniature handheld devices that only a few years ago were a mere glimmer in a few computer geeks’ eyes. Even more astounding is that there are more than 100 new applications being created every day. Based on these numbers, it’s only logical to wonder what’s next. Will there come a time when at the flick of a finger we will know the answers before we even know the questions?

At least to date, however, I have not found an app for common sense. It would be great to click on an icon to avoid stupid mistakes that can lose a customer, really get you in hot water with a boss, bank or investor, or result in hurling unintentional epithets.

Even with all of these new electronic tools we have at our fingertips today, management must still train employees not to rely solely on pseudo- or quasi-artificial intelligence to make the right decision but instead use their noggins. There are dozens of very effective and simple rules to ensure that your people think before they act. Most of them were taught to us by our parents, third-grade teachers and, for advanced learners, a few mentors that we have all met along our career paths.

Here are five common-sense rules that have saved many careers, a transaction or improved business. You’ve heard them all before but they bear repeating. I suggest at the risk of insulting everyone on your team, you pass this column on to them and make me the bad guy for insulting their tech-savvy intelligence by stating what should be obvious.

1. Always, count to 10 before hitting the send key and firing off an incendiary e-mail. Unlike many relationships, jobs and even wealth, e-mail is really forever and can come back to haunt you.

2. Ask yourself before finalizing a deal, “Are you doing it so you can say you won or because it really will provide benefit to the business?” Too many deals get down to proving who’s the better deal-maker or salesperson, rather than who’s the more effective businessperson.

3. As Abraham Lincoln said, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” All too frequently people talk themselves out of a transaction because they provide, as the kids say today, “TMI,” or too much information. Translation, when you have made your point, zip it.

4. If it’s too good to be true, it’s almost a guarantee that it will prove to be too good to be true. Just ask any of the clients of convicted conman extraordinaire Bernie Madoff, many of whom are now probably holding second jobs flipping burgers to make ends meet.

5. Although it’s nice to give the other guy the benefit of the doubt, trust, but always verify, too. Just count how many times in every U.S. president’s term an appointment is suddenly withdrawn when Congress starts digging into a candidate’s background.

Unquestionably, we’re all becoming more efficient and effective because of technology. However, at least for now, there isn’t an app for common sense and clear thinking. Nevertheless, the good news is that there are many apps to help you find at least 10 excuses for any bonehead mistake that caused irreparable damage, in at least as many languages.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, will be published by John Wiley & Sons in early 2011. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Important business lessons can be learned from observing how others in unrelated professions make decisions under stress. I have co-piloted planes and helicopters in the second seat next to experienced aviators, trained to race sports cars and ride motorcycles, scrubbed in to watch surgeries, and even did a stint in an emergency room just to get an up-close look at how the highly skilled function under pressure. Recently, I added a police patrol ride-along to my repertoire in order to see what else it takes to have the right stuff.

The police are trained to make decisions with limited information. When a car is dispatched to unknown trouble, the officer often has limited information about what may be encountered. It could be a man with a gun or merely a barking dog.

In business, every day, executives must make decisions that can be life-altering. These include hiring and firing as well as dealing with serious issues that could affect a business’s well-being.

During my ride-along, I asked numerous questions. Topping the list of good advice from my new temporary partner was his response to my question of, “How do you get control in a difficult situation?”

My mentor for the evening stated, “When you lose respect, you lose your authority, and bad things can happen.”

He went on to explain that, when he arrives on the scene, the first thing he must do is gain respect from everyone involved. Respect, he added, is achieved by first giving respect and not by muscling your way in and pushing people around.

Respect also comes from looking the part. That’s why officers wear uniforms, have badges, and carry scary-looking guns and handcuffs. That is also why I’m not a huge fan of everyday “business casual.” When one is attempting to wield power, if nothing else, he or she must look the part, either sitting in a squad car or at business meeting.

Most civilians think that when a police officer’s radio crackles “211 in progress” (code for armed robbery), the officer hits the siren and lights, does a U-turn with tires smoking and speeds off to save the day. I learned on my ride-along that “fast is not really always fast.” Instead, speed is about “being smooth,” and first thinking through the proper way to proceed.

In business, how many times do executives react to a situation with lightning speed but without first weighing all of the possible ramifications? The streets are littered with the resumes of executives who acted before they assessed.

Once on the scene, an officer has to size up the situation and set priorities. If the bad guy has a gun to someone’s head, the cop doesn’t walk around asking a female witness, “Just the facts ma’am.” The same applies with a corporate problem. When it occurs, the manager must triage the issue to mitigate the damage. It is equally critical in crime scene investigations and in finding a business solution to assess the situation and to do what is most important first before determining who is at fault.

Police officers depend on concise communications and teamwork when lives hang in the balance. Most times in business, lives are not at stake, but the need to ask for assistance is no different from a cop shouting over the radio “Officer needs help.” Not every patrol person is a SWAT expert, but every officer is trained to know when to seek help. Too many managers wait too long to recognize that they lack the specific skill set to fix a portion of the problem. In both professions, those involved need to know when to call for reinforcements.

As I concluded my ride-along, I asked my new cop buddy his opinion of what it will take to reduce crime. His one word response: “Consequences.” The perpetrators must know that if they do the crime, they’ll do the time. This is no different from setting guidelines for employees, contractors and suppliers. A leader must make clear what is expected and what the consequences are if someone doesn’t deliver.

I learned a lot on this ride-along, including that preparation and thinking before reacting go a long way in keeping the peace on the “mean streets,” as well as in the corporate boardroom.

Finally, in case you’re wondering … no, we didn’t stop for doughnuts.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, will be published by John Wiley & Sons in early 2011. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

The opening scene of many Western movies features a scruffy-faced, toothless gold miner who turns to a sidekick and proclaims, as he mystically gazes yonder to majestic mountains, “There is gold in them there hills.” This is the sidekick’s cue to grunt, thus acknowledging that this utterance is, indeed, fact. In turn, the miner’s nonverbal shrug suggests, “But where?” Change the setting and this scene could be two businesspeople staring out of an office window, but standing in for the toothless miner is the eager entrepreneur or CEO, and the man of few words is, no doubt, the accountant.

Reality is it takes money to make money, no matter if a business is just starting out, trying to keep running or growing, the entity needs to find the gold in the hills to move forward. The conundrum is where in the hill is it?

Every month, I receive many comments from both faithful and new readers alike. The No. 1 question I’m asked is, “Show me the money,” or, more aptly stated, “Where does one find money?” Anyone running an enterprise can relate to that queasy feeling when the company is bumping up against its credit line, can’t get credit at all or is desperately searching for new investors.

After the market meltdown of 2008, we’re operating in uncharted waters. Although banks claim they are lending, that’s only partially true. For the most part, they are willing to lend money to businesses provided they don’t need it, but banks are reluctant to do so for a company whose lifeblood is working capital.

This new lender’s modus operandi requires borrowers to employ creativity, perseverance and a healthy dose of chutzpah. Make no mistake, there is money to be had, it just may no longer be available from the traditional sources.

For a newer business without a boatload of hard assets to secure a loan, the task is a bit more challenging. What I have advised readers to think about when they are trying to raise money is to ask themselves one important question, which can be expressed as a type of algebraic expression: “My success will = success for ____?” Fill in this blank and the operator will have taken the first step in finding new money. It could be from key suppliers or vendors with which a company creates a new channel of distribution. It might be another business that would be complemented by the establishment of a new business. Rudimentary examples would be a parking lot operator who is located next door to a new restaurant, or a gym that could lease space to a sporting goods store within its walls.

If you’re trying to find gold from suppliers, you will have to think of it from their perspective. The win portion of the question could be that the company in search of capital gives warrants or option to the benefactor/lender that entitles it to buy equity into the company either at a prescribed price or under other advantageous terms at a specific point in time.

A midsize or larger company might use similar creativity by refinancing a package of company assets, which have been paid down or owned outright. In addition to paying interest, the borrower might include a “kicker” or something extra that would be provided when the loan matures. In this time of survival of the fittest, there is always the possibility of a merger when going it alone is no longer practical.

Most lenders/investors will need to know: What is the borrower’s skin in the game? This means how much of the owner’s own money has been contributed to fund the business or has the CEO pledged his or her first-born or other less valuable assets? Also required is a thoughtful plan that demonstrates how one is going to get from Point A to Point B, travailing any landmines along the way.

To go for the gold takes unique thinking, logic and tenacity. Another tip: Just because you’re told no the first time doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be turned down the second time if you provide additional information, a twist to the plan and improved incentives. 

Don’t just gaze off into those majestic hills, merely fantasizing about finding the mother lode. Instead, gather up your pick and shovel and start prospecting for your future.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind wellness chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Too many businesses are fixated on immediate gratification. All too frequently, a company’s worth is now measured almost entirely by the paybacks it achieves in the near term, rather than by its ability to plan effectively and execute a sustainable long-term growth strategy. The use of this barometer to keep score significantly intensified after the economic meltdown of 2008.

Management teams are now on a very short leash. “What have you done for me today?” is the mandate for public companies with their required 13-week earnings report cards, and both public and private companies must typically provide their lenders each month with data that measure results against promised targets. Much of this is appropriate. The negative, however, is that management has less incentive and support to focus on far-off goals to ensure the company is still in business 20 or 30 years from now.

When a company misses the mark, even for a month or a quarter, the team finds itself under the glaring bright lights of intense scrutiny, which can make even the most secure management skittish about undertaking costly programs.

In this current environment, a CEO’s tenure is almost measured in dog years. Although definitive figures are not yet available for last year, some estimate that the median average tenure of the top executive at a publicly held company may have dropped to a new low of approximately 5.5 years. This presents a dramatic, more than 40 percent decline from about 9.5 years of service in 1995.

Whatever happened to the nurturing of the CEO by the board of directors or advisers providing him or her time to gain insightful understanding of the intricacies of the business that leads to sustained growth and the ability to implement long-term plans? Isn’t the obligation of a management team to ensure that it makes the appropriate decisions to pave the way for the next generation that follows?

Think about it this way: It took more than 100 years to build the great cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and a span of hundreds of years for the Great Wall of China to be built during the Ming Dynasty. Those making the decisions to embark on these massive undertakings surely knew that they would never see the full fruition of their planning. They knew that they were planting trees under which they would never sit.

In modern times, a project that might take a century or more to complete is obviously a bit much. However, for a more realistic example, think about energy companies, which must make decisions today to ensure that we have the energy plants for tomorrow. These expensive, very long-term projects require huge capital, extraordinary amounts of time and the maturity of management to know that most likely they will not be around to savor the completion of the new facility. Current senior management teams in all companies must understand that what they do on their watch will become their legacy on which history will judge them.

There are dozens of reasons why a company does not plan far enough into the future. Aside from being selfish because current management will not be the beneficiary of the efforts, perhaps a bigger reason is that companies don’t have the backing from their constituents to do some of the things necessary for the next generation. In many cases, this would require too big a hit to current profitability. In a more esoteric scenario, some narrow-minded leadership would say, “What’s in it for us and our shareholders or investors today?”

There are many excuses, some of which are comparable to a fifth-grader who does not turn in his or her homework and asserts, “The dog ate it.”

Companies that make equally absurd statements about focusing solely on the present might be better served by using the dog-ate-it excuse — plus it would probably be more believable and make sense.

Today’s leaders must balance short-term, intermediate-term and very long-term objectives in order to satisfy all of their constituents and to improve the odds that there will be a tomorrow.

Being a CEO is akin to being a tightrope walker who must have nerves of steel and very good balance. Unfortunately, we all know what happens to tightrope walkers who lose their balance — they fall, and most times, they don’t ever get up again.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind wellness chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Every business executive wants to make the right decisions that lead to a win, be it completing a transaction, launching a new product or orchestrating a mega deal. However, reality is that there are few, if any, players who are always right and who always win.

Think about it this way. A great major league baseball player, such as the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, has a lifetime batting average going into the 2010 season of .305, with more than 2,500 hits, including 583 homers. For this, he has a current contract worth about $275 million, which is nice work if you can get it. A-Rod’s average means, however, that for every time he is at the plate, he gets a hit less than one-third of the time.

Using baseball batting averages as a benchmark puts into perspective that being great or batting a thousand in most anything is virtually impossible. In business, it can mean a leader is afraid to take a swing when he or she steps up to the plate. It’s hard to get on base and ultimately score if an executive is unwilling to take appropriate and measured risks. Baseball is a game where failing seven out of 10 times is a success, not to mention very lucrative. In business, a good leader who makes the right decisions between 60 and 70 percent of the time is a darn effective mover and shaker who will consistently deliver top and bottom growth.

Now ask yourself: What is your batting average? Equally important, what’s the average for the top members of your management team? Do you reward your players for taking chances even if they don’t always pan out, or do you subtly punish an associate for daring to try something different? Sometimes it is difficult to swallow a loss; however, a mistake or a series of controlled misses can lead to uncovering that next big success.

The true game-changer in business is to be sure that you and your team are taking enough chances, new routes if you will, and breaking fresh ground. This is not a loosey-goosey process or just a thoughtless periodic roll of the dice. Risk-taking requires discipline and confidence. The discipline portion is setting a course for which you’ve never previously traveled and then progressing deliberately yet cautiously. This includes having safeguards in place to recognize when the undertaking isn’t quite right, at which time you must take a time-out and make a few tweaks or even change direction. As a company explores new avenues, there must be safeguards in place to avoid painful missteps. These include setting parameters for the dollars you’re willing to risk and the time and the resources you can devote to the effort.

The confidence portion of the equation is not being afraid to be wrong, to admit it and to try again another day. It all gets down to the risk versus the possible rewards. Certainly if you do nothing and it’s the same old, same old every day, you might keep going for some time. During this period, you could bat a thousand, but it’s just a matter of time until you strike out. As the old adage states, there’s nothing more certain than change. Those who don’t change will ultimately be the victims of change.

As a leader, you have to set the standard for change and communicate the virtues of discovery and new alternatives to your team. Growth is all about making sure you always have enough lines in the water that provide the possibility of finding that better way or new widget.

The best hitters in baseball have a career that can span many years. The flash-in-the-pan players who are great one season and forgotten the next are equivalent to executives who only had one good idea. When they stepped up to the plate the next time, they were afraid to take a swing. Three out of 10 is terrific in baseball and six or seven out 10 in business might just get you into the hall of fame.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind wellness chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.