You Don't Get A Reputation for What You are Going to Do

Speaker Name: 
Joan Zimmerman
Speaker Title: 
CEO
Speaker Company: 
Southern Shows, Inc

Thank you very much Edward. I mentioned to Edward that when his father was state treasurer, he was enormously helpful to our company in growing our now HUGE Southern Farm Show in Raleigh. Mind you, in true Boyles style, he did not agree to upfit the Fairgrounds until we provided in no uncertain terms our revenue expectations against any costs to HIS state check book. So, it's a special privilege to be part of a Series named for Harlan Boyles. He was an amazing man.

Actually TODAY – April Fool's Day – is really a perfect day for me to be here. . When we started our business, bankers, friends, family and even people we didn't know asked us – Are you crazy? No one had even heard of a consumer show. They did not exist in this part of the country. And, we've been asked the same question lots of times since then. And the answer is -- probably a little bit. In fact, I think all the business owners in this room would agree -- entrepreneurs have to be a little bit crazy. Or we wouldn't be doing what we're doing. Hard to believe we crazy people create 80% of the nation's jobs isn't it?

My assignment for today is to share information on my background and our business – and share any advice I might have for the students who are here today. And, I have learned it's a good idea, when you're on a college campus, to stick as closely as possible to the assignment if you expect a good grade. So -

Let me give you a little of my background. It won't explain my mental health – but it might explain my ability to take risks.

I grew up in England, during World War II – the middle one of nine children. Which means you can correctly assume I learned some pretty serious survival skills. Some from the war, but mostly from my older brothers and sisters. The only ‘success' advice I remember receiving was "MAKE YOURSELF USEFUL," and STOP TELLING ME WHAT YOU'RE GOING TO DO … GET ON WITH IT. I don't even have to tell you who said that – I suspect most of you recognize the message and the messenger. It actually turned out to be pretty good advice, because I've always made a habit of doing things no one else wanted to do. And, I think, without realizing it I passed that ‘make yourself useful' idea along to our sons. They both have teenagers of their own now, and they finally told me a few years ago – that when they were younger, they'd nudge each other and say … "Here comes mother, LOOK BUSY!"

I also grew up believing the Little Red Hen story – if you do not work, you do not eat – so I had a lot of jobs as a youngster. They ranged from collector and seller of pig food, to potato picker, to debt collector for the local news agency, to cleaning Dr. Tickle's house. And all those jobs were before I was 13. My favorite job – believe it or not -was collecting bad debts. My nickname was the bumbailiff. If you can imagine a skinny 12-year old girl knocking on your door … You owe 2/6 Mrs. Waterworth. I don't have 2/6. When will you have 2/6? I still use that same technique today … it's not personal, nothing against you as an individual – but you DO owe this money, and I'd like to have it please. Plus I got paid a percentage of what I collected, so I learned to be very persistent.

When I was 13 I got a scholarship to a Junior Business College – and that is what changed my life's direction. My only ambition at 13 was to be a phys-ed teacher; I lived and breathed competitive sports. But, the professors decided I had a BUSINESS brain, and – since, back then, no one really asked or cared what you thought you wanted to do … that's the track they put me on. Happily this time the professors were right. So listen to your professors, and then listen to yourself.

In 1951, at the age of 19 I had enough money to come to the United States, and I came to Chicago. I loved Chicago. For almost two years after I arrived, I actually had four jobs at the same time, slept three hours a night – you students can relate to that -, and was making more money than I'd ever made in my life – you probably can't relate to that. I was sending money home. And I know your money travels in the opposite direction. I thought I'd really found the mother load. Then I collapsed on the street, and figured this was probably not a good long-term way to make a living or a life.

So I went to work as a civilian for the US Forces in Europe, in Nurnberg, Germany. I've had a LOT OF different JOBS – marketing, pr, accounting, sales – including door to door sales … and at every one of them, no matter how low on the totem pole I was - - I didn't realize it then – but I was learning, and storing the kind of information that would help me launch a business.

About our business. I'll do you a favor, and not go into the minutia of how it came to be -- but I will tell you – when we launched our company in 1959 the #1 best-seller was Exodus. But we were NOT SUPERSTITIOUS. We were young. We had nothing to lose -- so we went ahead with our pitiful plan. The buzz phrase back then was from George Patton – that A Good Plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. Problem was, ours wasn't even a good plan. Bankers and friends predicted we'd last a year, and for a while we thought they'd be right

Incidentally, my husband Robert – the smart and handsome Southerner I met in Germany, is here today … and those who know Robert and me know he is the REAL visionary and creative genius in our business. People ask how Robert and I have managed to stay married for 52 years, and in business for 47 of those years. Robert says – well, it's like this – when we first went into business together we agreed that I, that's Robert, would make all of the BIG decisions, and Joan, that's me, would make all the small decisions. And, he said – you know, it's an interesting thing – in all these years we've never had to make a big decision.

Robert will agree – no matter what kind of decisions we make - Ours is an exciting business. We get to work with the heads of major corporations, as well as individual craftspeople, small business owners, landscapers. The variety is endless, and it's exciting. We own and produce 21 consumer shows in 12 different cities, and we do everything in house, from A to Z . We lease the facilities, negotiate all contracts, sell, market, promote and create.

We've been picketed by anti-smokers when we had Virginia Slims in the show. We've been attacked by Animal Rights groups when we had real furs in a fashion show. We've been sued by the NSPCA when we featured Twiggy the Water Skiing Squirrel. We've been locked out by Unions, closed down by Hurricanes and we've even had Santa Claus arrested. Turns out our Santa Claus, in his long flowing red robes – and nothing else - was approaching small groups, preferably mature women from Watauga county ... and he would greet them Ho, Ho, Ho – Merry Christmas." Santa was a flasher.

One of the biggest challenges we face, like most businesses – is not getting stale and complacent. I have to admit flashing Santa's & water skiing squirrels do help us out a bit. But, I also believe there is a definite link between creativity and shortness of cash. When you're starting out, you live by your wits and talent – and you create things you'd probably never think of if you had money to throw at the problem. I think that's why so many ENCORE entrepreneurs don't do as well as with their second venture – they aren't as hungry or as passionate as they were starting out. Anyone who's been in business for more than 10 years knows It is VERY easy to get into a rut – and, it is absolutely true…the only difference between a rut and a grave is just a few feet.

How do we stay out of the rut? We hire people of diverse ages and backgrounds. We listen to them. We read CONSTANTLY. We are trend watchers. All our folks are challenged to be involved in different organizations, and bring information back from those groups. We try everyday to think outside the proverbial box. I'm sure you've all seen that puzzle where there are nine dots – and your challenge is to join those dots without lifting your pen from the paper, and without going over the same line twice? How long did it take you to figure out that the ONLY way to solve the puzzle is to take your pencil and some of the lines way outside the box?

On the economic front we generate good revenues for the communities we're in. Our surveys, show us that the Southern Christmas Show alone -- a 12 day show that attracts 142,000 guests, generates around $38 million in annual new revenues – that means the average guest spends $213 at the show – I spend a LOT more than that, so it means some of you are not doing your share … and we're working on that.

Interestingly enough we are fairly recession-proof. For exhibitors the shows work during economic down-turns because they get an IMMEDIATE return on their investment, and for the guests – it is a very inexpensive way to be entertained, and to find products and services that offer good value. Despite what economists say, and I was on the Federal Reserve board for six years, so I know what they say … but despite what they say …consumers do not stop buying in difficult times – they shop for value – look which companies are doing well…COSTCO, TARGET. Our shows provide value beyond the price point. Remember: The purpose of business is to make or do something and sell it...the closer you can get to those activities the better your chance of success.

You've probably read that Warren Buffet says he invests in the leisure and entertainment business, which is where we're classified, because the market will pay you better to entertain than to educate. That's sad, but true. In our shows we try to educate and entertain – maybe that's why we're not as rich as Warren Buffet.

Mind you, much as I admire Warren Buffet there's one of his practices we don't use. He says, whenever he wants a group decision, he looks in the mirror. We actually go out of our way to ask guests what they want –– how can we improve? And, you can be sure they do not hesitate to TELL US WHAT THEY THINK. Again – maybe that's why we're not as rich as Warren Buffet. I'd like to say we don't want to be as rich as Warren Buffer, but that really wouldn't be true. We like to make money.

In fact, money is a very good thing, if you do good things with it. Our grandson, a few years back, was scheming about how he was going to make lots of money … and, as grandmothers must – I said "Well you know, Carl, money does not always make people happy!" He thought about that for 10 whole seconds, and he said "It would make me happy!"

Incidentally, you've probably heard that money – or lack of it – is the number one reason businesses fail. Not true. The #1 reason is ‘poor decision making on the part of management; #2 is money - lack of capital – and #3 is competition – or more precisely not knowing your niche.

A lot of the people in this room grew up with computers. I grew up with manual typewriters and carbon paper. You students can google them under Museums if you're not familiar with them. But I LOVE computers. I am amazed at how they have changed the way we do business. We CONTRACT 10,000 exhibitors in a year, and communicate with 10 times that many companies. We have more than half a million guests at our combined shows. We used to sell most of our tickets by mail, or at the door – now 60% or more are sold on line. We have over 100,000 visitors a month to our web site. All of our documents for exhibitors are on line. We've resisted the intrusion of text messages, but we use permission-based eBlasts in a big way. So, even though we are in a high touch business – where people can talk face to face, kick the tires, smell the gingerbread, feel the fabric – we love what technology does for us.

And now the advice. I could get pretty basic, and give you the kind of practical advice I heard at our Farm Show – which was "Never slap a man who's chewing tobacco," but I'll stay with things I'm more familiar with. My advice is very simple, and I'm sure it's nothing you haven't heard before – but here it is – just for reinforcement.

Apart from figuring out how to make yourself useful while you're doing something you enjoy - and hopefully being a lifetime reader and learner I'd say: Stop trying to fit yourself into whichever jobs you think will be hot in four years, or whichever jobs you think will pay the most money. Figure out what you're good at … because that's where your personal future will be.

And if you THINK you don't know what you're good at, you're wrong. Here's what a 78-year old orchestra conductor told her students. She said QUIT ASKING OTHER PEOPLE WHAT TO DO. Sit quietly and listen to the Geiger counter inside yourself. You need to realize this is an inside job. Once you learn what makes you tick, you'll never stop figuring out what makes you tick better. And, she's right. Think about Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Jim Goodnight – and a huge list of world-changers—what if they hadn't listened to that inside voice. What if I hadn't? After 48 years I still love and enjoy our business.

Something else business and life survivors need to do is : learn how to analyze a situation, come up with a solution AND DO SOMETHING. When the BIG gas crunch hit in the 1980's, our first thought was THIS is really going to impact our shows, because the only way people get here is by car. So, what to do? After we'd gone through the chicken-little bit, called our Congressman, called everybody we knew trying to get SOMEONE ELSE TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS, we said ‘wait a minute, what can WE do. And we decided to contact all the bus companies, all the churches, clubs, recreation centers – and get them to organize bus trips to the show. THAT was a turning point for our shows – we got 100's of busses. Instead of our attendance going down, it went up, and we've been getting that bus business ever since. So – advice: Visualize the result you want, not the result you fear.

The other advice you've heard a thousand times: GET INVOLVED, get in the habit of giving back to your school, your community, your church, your friends... because life really does work on the law of the boomerang. I am living proof.

Develop an Intellectual Assets Network – we call it a Brains Trust -- filled with ideas, questions, thoughts, and people you can call for advice. It's one of the best things we've ever done. In our Brains Trust we have filed Murphy's Law, and we have Hugh McColl's Law – "Nothing is impossible, for those who don't have to do it."

And finally, back to advice from Mom – except this time it is from a friend of mine Cynthia Marshall. Cynthia grew up in the projects of San Francisco. She's Mom to two abandoned children. And she is now President of AT&T for North Carolina. She is an amazing woman. Her advice, and she does live it, is " Strive for a life that is filled with Passion, Purpose and Perspective."

In a nutshell, here are the thoughts I'm leaving today: You do not get a reputation for WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO DO. You get a reputation for what you have done. So find your passion, pursue it with purpose and keep life in perspective. As Art Buchwald said "I don't know if these are the best of times or the worst of times – but I DO know it's the only time you've got." And there's still a lot that needs to be done. I have enjoyed being here, and I will be here after lunch in case anyone has questions. Have a great day.

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