Book review: Business lessons from a serial entrepreneur
Bill Green was just 43 when he retired, having built and sold his stake in a US$1.8 billion hardware business now owned by The Home Depot. Most people would be happy to hang up their boots - but not this man. In All In: 101 Real Life Business Lessons for Emerging Entrepreneurs, he tells his story from paper boy to chief executive to a second life as a serial entrepreneur, through a series of 101 real-life business lessons.
In his teens, Green turned a flea market stand selling sample hardware tools into the Wilmar wholesale distribution business (Wilmar standing for William and Martin, his father and co-owner). The business acquired 15 competitors and went public in 1996. Green stepped down as chief executive in 2001, remaining as non-executive chairman until 2004.
He tried to retire but lasted just a couple of months, going on to set up a boutique private equity firm (now Crestar Partners), then Crestar Capital, a property tax lien foreclosure business, adding Crestar Homes four years later to acquire, renovate, sell and lease homes.
By 2014 he had created his fifth business, LendingOne, to provide short-term loans to homeowners. Lesson 99: build new businesses off what you’ve learnt.
There are two standout lessons in the book. Lesson 33: good customers complain, bad customers go away. Anger is a compliment, Green says: a complaining customer cares about your product and is a “gift”.
And lesson 28: make your business a piggy bank, not a cash cow. Too many entrepreneurs pay themselves huge salaries, he says, citing the example of a Detroit company he was looking to acquire. It made $25 million in sales but its owners were raking out five per cent of that with salaries of $600,000 each.
Even when Wilmar’s business was of a similar size his salary was $120,000, he writes. “Don’t loot the treasury,” he warns.
From basic lessons (always be on time) to detailed lessons about taking a company public (your shareholders will own you if you let them, as will analysts), there’s plenty here to inspire, in a linear memoir written in edible chunks.
All In was published in hardback on Monday by Koehler Books and is available from Amazon for $25.95.
Q&A: Bill Green tells Suzanne Locke more about his book All In:
You say in the book you didn’t want to be known just as an industrial distribution expert. Why not?
I knew I had much more ability than to have had a career in only one industry. When I started buying companies through my private equity business, I was able to understand a wide variety of businesses.
Out of all the 101 insights, which is the very best bit of advice?
Lesson 10: winging is not a strategy. This is my favourite – anything meaningful you do in life should have a detailed plan. Business is tough enough; attempting to do something like start a business without as much knowledge as possible, and without a detailed road map, is suicide.
What was your biggest mistake?
I can write an entire book on my mistakes but at the end of the day that’s the only way you learn. The travesty would be making the same mistake twice. I would say my biggest mistake was when I did my first acquisition (Lesson 86). We integrated the business the day after closing, and we lost 20 per cent of revenue in the first year.
You leave us in 2016 in the book with LendingOne looking to eclipse the US$100 million-mark in loans since launch. How’s the business doing today?
It’s running on all cylinders. We did eclipse $100m, and, four months into 2017, we eclipsed $150m. We are ahead of plan and will most likely achieve $200m in 2017 alone.
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