Stu Wolff | Growing to Over $1 Billion in Sales, Breaking Up with a Business Partner, and Financial Peer Groups
Smart Business Revolution

Stu Wolff is a seasoned entrepreneur, business coach, Certified EOS Implementer, and Detroit Chair of TIGER 21. He started a company providing sales and marketing assistance in the food services industry back in 1997, changed ownership, and then rebranded as The Wolff Group which he built up to 40 employees managing sales of $140 million. 

Stu then started working with Gino Wickman, the Founder of EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System), and with the help of a great leadership team, grew his company to over 160 employees across 10 states managing over one billion dollars in sales. They made 10 strategic acquisitions and increased their footprint before selling the business in April 2013. Stu is now a business coach and professional EOS implementer. He also runs a peer group through TIGER 21.

In this episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, John Corcoran sits down with Stu Wolff, Certified EOS Implementer and Detroit Chair of TIGER 21. Stu shares the steps he took to build up his business to the billion-dollar range, how he broke off a poor partnership, and how he drives acquisitions that match his core values. Plus, Stu discusses the ways in which peer groups are transforming the way we think about business. Stay tuned!

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • How Stu Wolff entered the food service industry and what made him realize that restaurant management was not for him
  • Stu explains why his first business partnership didn’t work 
  • What Stu learned about his business from working with Gino Wickman
  • Stu talks about the services his business provided, bringing in a new business partner, and how they scaled the company
  • What Stu did to ensure his new partnership was a good one, why they acquired 10 food brokers, and what they did to ensure that the acquisitions were successful
  • The types of questions Stu asks to ensure his acquisitions are in alignment with his core values and vision
  • Stu explains why he decided to sell his company to Acosta and how strategic relationships helped him expand
  • Why Stu decided to become an EOS implementer
  • What is TIGER 21 and what topics are discussed in their peer groups?
  • The life lesson Stu learned the hard way, the peers he respects, and how to get in touch with him

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Sponsor: Rise25

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Episode Transcript

Intro 0:10

Welcome to the revolution, the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, where we ask today’s most successful entrepreneurs to share the tools and strategies they use to build relationships and connections to grow their revenue. Now, your host for the revolution, John Corcoran.

John Corcoran 0:40

Welcome everyone, John Corcoran here. I’m the host of this show. And you know, I get such pleasure out of having great conversations with smart founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs of different companies. Check some of the archives, I’ve got some great episodes back there with founders or CEOs from Netflix and Kinkos’ and YPO, EO, Activision Blizzard, LendingTree, Open Table, and many more. I’m also the Co-founder of Rise25 where we help connect b2b business owners to their ideal prospects. And my guest this week is Stu Wolff. He’s a seasoned entrepreneur, he’s a business coach, certified EOS implementer, and Detroit chair at TIGER 21. He started a company doing sales and marketing services in the food services industry back in 1997, changed ownership and then rebranded as The Wolff Group, which they built up to 40 employees managing sales of 140 million. And then he started working with the founder of EOS, that’s the Entrepreneurial Operating System, Gino Wickman, who go and check out my archives, because I’ve interviewed him as well. And along with the help of a great leadership team grew to over 160 employees across 10 states managing over a billion dollars in sales, and made 10 strategic acquisitions to increase their footprint. And then April 2013, sold it and now is a business coach and professional EOS implementer, implementing EOS for other businesses as well as running a peer group through TIGER 21. So we’re gonna talk about all of those different things in this episode. 

And of course, this episode is brought to you by Rise25 Media, where we help b2b businesses to get clients, referrals, and strategic partnerships with done for you podcasts and content marketing. And if you ever listen to a podcast and ask, “Hey, should I do that?”, I’ve told everyone since I started that you should start a podcast, get involved in podcasts, such a great way to have great conversations and to deliver value like Stu’s going to do here today and pay it forward in many respects. So go to Rise25 Media, and we can help you out, lots of resources there. Stu, such a pleasure to have you here today. And I want you to take me back first of all, so how did you get started in the food services industry and what you were doing back about 24 years ago now?

Stu Wolff 2:44

Yeah, well, I originally got into the food service industry, by the way. Thanks for having me, John. Appreciate it. Because I actually it goes back to high school when I worked in restaurants and decided I wanted to own a restaurant and decided the food service industry was my career path. And once I went and went to Michigan State for hospitality business, I went into restaurant management and realized that wasn’t the right fit for me, just didn’t fit who I was. And then I got a dual degree in marketing. So I decided I wanted to tie my marketing education into the foodservice industry. And that’s how I ended up into the sales and marketing agency side of the foodservice industry

John Corcoran 3:33

got it. Got it. I you know, I tell people all the time that a great place to start when you’re younger is to work in food service. I think, for me personally, waiting on tables when I was in high school in college was hugely valuable. I’m curious for you. What was it that you realized about yourself that made you realize that restaurant management was not the thing for you?

Stu Wolff 3:57

So I’m, I’m a really hard worker, and I have been since I was probably 10 years old. So that doesn’t scare me. It was the hours of work that scared me with the restaurant business. So I used to work nights, weekends, holidays, and what I learned was I really at that time, I was engaged to now my wife, and I realized I we weren’t I wasn’t able to spend time with her and then I wouldn’t be able to spend eventually time with my family and and friends and realize that just wasn’t the right balance and the right fit for me. And that’s why I needed to move out of the operation side.

John Corcoran 4:42

So funny. I had a similar kind of realization. I remember when I was working at this barbecue ribs restaurant in high school in college, and it was mandatory. You had to work two out of four nights of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, you had to work two out of four of those And when I was working those nights there, all these other people, they’re off, they’re off work. They were with friends, they were having a good time. And I was schlepping and working really hard. And I thought, you know, I want to be relaxing when everyone else is relaxing. I want to be working hard when everyone else is relaxing, you know?

Stu Wolff 5:17

But yeah, so a tipping point for me was Christmas Eve, doing physical inventory of a restaurant, we’re counting every bottle in the bar. And that was kind of it for me. I realized, okay, I need to, I need to figure something else out.

John Corcoran 5:35

Yeah, yeah. It’s a tough, tough industry for sure. Now, I want to ask you about your partner from the beginning 1997, it didn’t work out with that partner. Take us through that. How did you realize that it wasn’t the right partnership for you, because it sounds like once you jettison that relationship, and rebranded the business, that’s when things really took off for you.

Stu Wolff 6:01

Yeah, and when my previous partner and I started getting together, we merged two businesses together. And the reason, you know, it made a lot of sense, on paper, it was a beautiful partnership. The manufacturers he represented didn’t conflict with mine, the people side where his strengths were, where some of our weaknesses, where our strengths were some of his weaknesses. So on paper, it looked beautiful and sounded great. The realization was, he was a very different person than I was, and sometimes, you know, that can work. This, we just, you know, what I learned down the road was how important values iron core values and our alignment wasn’t their business vision wasn’t there. And I didn’t learn that for quite a while. And so it took some time. And probably the reason it took time is, when we started our business together. Our business was growing. So when things are going good, we’re not looking under the hood for what’s wrong. We’re just trying to keep up with it and keep it growing. It’s when we hit a ceiling and our business got stuck. That’s when you look under the hood, and you’re trying to figure out what’s not working anymore. And that’s when you know, you discover a lot of things that were there, but you didn’t see them. Yeah,

John Corcoran 7:35

yeah. And how did you unwind it? Was that challenging to unwind the business?

Stu Wolff 7:41

Yeah, it was, it was, it was more emotionally challenging than operationally challenging. And honestly, I was part of a peer to peer business owner group in the Detroit area. And it wasn’t, if I wasn’t part of a group, probably still working with the guy. Because it was those members of the group. And I used to be on the agenda every month because I constantly had partnership issues. And then finally, one of them said, you need to you and Fred need to split up. You need to part ways. You need to get rid of him. And Linda is serious, but it never crossed my mind. That was even an option. And once it did, I couldn’t let go of it. And until I reached again, kind of one of those other tipping points. At that point, there was no return either. Either I buy him, he buys me or we sell the business because I realized I could not continue on in that partnership.

John Corcoran 8:53

Yeah. And was it once you came to that realization? And you started to talk about unwinding it, then? Was it difficult to do? Are there challenges along the way?

Stu Wolff 9:03

Um, you know, it took about a six month period, until we actually figured out what we were doing at first, he was actually going to buy me out. And until one of my trusted employees on our leadership team came up to me and closed the door said, You can’t let that happen. If that happens, this business is going to fall apart. And all these people that you work with and build this business and depend on you are not gonna have jobs. And it was one of those turning points for me that really helped me make a whole mind shift change.

John Corcoran 9:48

Yeah, but that’s a big change. So how do you take that conversation and then go to your business partner that you’re unwinding things with and say, Okay, I know you’re gonna buy me out, but it turns out, you know, the guys here like me better. So why don’t I buy you out instead?

Stu Wolff 10:04

Well, he kind of set it up for that opportunity for me to switch it. He really, you know, part of our partnership issues was he really didn’t listen to what I said, you know, what I was communicating. So his view was, I just want to get out of the business he could not hear, which I communicated clearly that I can’t be in business with him. So, so he put together a, at the last minute shifted a deal, the deal, and it’s called, it’s called a suicide clause, which I didn’t even realize we had in our agreement. And he basically came at me with a lowball offer that either I accept, or if I don’t accept it, I could flip it. And then he has to buy me out at those same terms. Mm hmm. So that’s exactly what I did. I can tell you exactly what the conversation was about. I can see it in my mind. I remember that moment vividly. That discussion because it was, you know, one of those things that leaves an imprint in your, in your mind forever,