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

John Corcoran 11:24

Right right now, how much later after that was it that you started working with Gino Wickman and for those who don’t know who Gino is created Entrepreneurial Operating System, EOS wrote a book called Traction that was really what the basis of that doesn’t do the type of you know, one on one work anymore because he’s built this huge system got lots of I’ve had a number of different iOS implementers on on the show. But tell me about you know, working with Gino.

Stu Wolff 11:55

Yeah. So just to back up. So we were about a year into working with Gino when the realization hit me as to why we hit a ceiling and got stuck. And it had to it was all about my partner, my ex partner myself because that, you know, going through the EOS experience, where we identified our core values, our core focus our sweet spot where we’re going long term, that is when the reality hit me that the reason we got stuck in the first place was we don’t align from a core value standpoint, we don’t share a common vision. We had two different cultures going on in our organization. Fred, Sir, his culture, my culture based on the different offices that we were located at.

John Corcoran 12:52

And you weren’t, you weren’t working out of the same office? 

Stu Wolff 12:55

No, that’s the only reason we lasted as long as we did, is because we didn’t. And it was that reality. You know, I got, you know, really understood more about our vision, you know, about the right people in the right seats. We started actually looking at data and scorecards. And then it really got clarity as to what was going on and what wasn’t going on. And I really needed to look in the mirror and realize it. It was really him and I that were causing the issue. And the two of us can’t survive together. So one of us needs to make, one of us needs to move forward, one of us needs eggs.

John Corcoran 13:39

Right, right. And so during this time period, or following this time period, you managed to scale it up quite substantially, eventually expanding across different regions and across 10 different states. Over a billion dollars in sales. And you’re selling at this time sales and marketing training, where were you selling at this period of time?

Stu Wolff 14:04

So we were you know, our old term was we were food brokers, the new term. We were sales and marketing agencies. And we represented and provided sales and marketing services to manufacturers of foods, food products for the foodservice industry so food consumed away from home, restaurants, schools, colleges, hospitals, anywhere there’s a lot of people outside of the home. Those were our type of customers. And so that was the business we were in and it was yet we scaled it it was it was really working with Gino having kind of that third neutral party that helped guide us and it was also the key was so it was after I changed business partners brought brought in into business partner, Mike and I were, I was a partner with Mike at a previous business. So I trusted him. We aligned from our core values perfectly, we shared the long term vision of where we’re going. And once we had literally the right people in the right seats, you know, it’s a term from Jim Collins in the book Good to Great. That is when we literally took off. And it was not long after I parted ways with my previous partner, Mike came in, got on the same page, made some changes on our leadership team, and boom, we then started took off, we had a plan, we had a vision, and we started executing at it, I knew exactly what I needed to do to help take our organization to the next level. And that’s what I focused a good 50 plus percent of my time, I’m Matt.

John Corcoran 16:02

And I’m curious, talking about partnering with Mike, after your previous experience. What if anything, did you do to ensure that would be a good partnership? Or how did you know that it would be a good partnership before you decided to partner?

Stu Wolff 16:20

One, I had a long history with Mike previously. And we were business partners in a food brokerage company before the Wolff and Wolff Group. And so I knew Mike very well, we had, we were invested in real estate and some other things as well. So I had full trust in him, knew him very well, he knew me, we again, aligned, our core values fit beautifully. So there was so much trust. And that was one that was a key thing that was lacking between Fred nag, there was no trust. And he continually proved that to me. And, but with Mike, I knew I had that trust. And he really, you know, one of the things we did was, he had a really strong financial background. So Mike was Mike focused on the finance side of our business. My strengths were I call it the front of the house, because coming from the food service industry, I was working with our clients, our customers, our employees, I was kind of the front of the house, Mike was the back of the house, we focused our energies there. And we were a great, perfect combination of that visionary integrator relationship. And that is why our business was able to truly take off.

John Corcoran 17:59

And during this period of time, you actually acquired 10 Different companies and 10 strategic acquisitions. So take us through that. What, what made you realize that that’s what you needed at that time?

Stu Wolff 18:12

Yeah, so we were in a very fragmented industry. There were literally hundreds of food brokers all over the country. Where I was based in Michigan, we probably had 30 different food brokers in the food service industry. And all had certain little different niches and things like that all independently locally owned. And we saw this as an opportunity where the industry was going to consolidate. And we just needed to be positioned well for it. And when 2009 hit and the economic crisis headed, it’s what helped fuel the consolidation in the food service industry. Because prior to that, the food service industry was growing double digit every year 2009. people lost jobs, and the foodservice industry which is based on disposable income started to shrink. And so the first time ever, in the end, and that industry that I was in, did it ever shrink? Other REITs that grew every year. That’s what started the consolidation. So I I started meeting with food brokers first regionally in Michigan, in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa and sharing our vision because we had implemented EOS. We had literally had our vision clear lies in writing on paper, which most other brokers had no clue, they had no idea what a vision was. So for us to be able to share who we were, where we’re going, how we’re going to get there really helped tell a consistent story. And really, because what I was trying to share the vision is to find others, other companies that had similar core values that would understand the vision and want to be a part of that vision. And because we were looking for other brokers that wanted to not retire, but really have some ownership in The Wolff Group. So through our strategic acquisitions throughout the Midwest, we offer the partners, the owners of those firms, you know, could be the one deal, but we could have had two or three different types of programs for those owners based on what they wanted. And but we wanted local ownership, that was a key to our strategies that we had to have engaged local ownership in the market. And that helped us fuel and help bring together because otherwise, we have, we had all these entrepreneurs that built and ran their own businesses. But we needed to have a model and a system and a process that we can immediately flip everyone on to that we knew worked. So we could then get scale because of the right consistency to scale your business.

John Corcoran 21:35

And, you know, that’s such a hard thing, because I’ve heard statistics that, you know, something like 70-80% of acquisitions don’t go well, or they aren’t successful. So what did you do to ensure that these acquisitions were successful, especially given that, you know, the ownerships going to remain on they probably have been doing things a certain way, for a long time have an idea of the way that things should be done? You’re introducing a new way of doing things. And you’re expanding into new geographic territory. So it’s maybe further away a couple of states away? How do you monitor it to make sure that they’re actually implementing these things?

Stu Wolff 22:14

Yeah. So I’m not the smartest guy. However, I definitely try not to be so sure about that. But I appreciate the humility. Right, oh, learn from experience. So my experience that I learned from was Fred NYGH. We did not share common values. So the most important thing I looked for, when I would meet with other brokers in other parts of the country, was did our values align, if our values align, we had a much greater chance of success. And I saw I didn’t focus on how well their manufacturers fit with our manufacturers, because that’s what I looked at when my original partner and I got together. And it looked great, but didn’t work. So nine out of the 10 acquisitions we did worked beautifully. One didn’t. And it’s because I broke my own rule. And I have one of our largest manufacturers, kind of help kind of pushed us to make this acquisition because they needed that acquisition to happen. And we did it. And it was a mistake. Because the owner of that brokerage, I had never met a pathological liar before. But I, I did, I ended up meeting one. And it’s really an interesting experience. And I definitely learned from that, but I broke my own rule. And I didn’t listen to my gut about the core value alignment. But it kind of went with Hey, we need this manufacturer to align with us and all these states, I need to make this happen. Right. And it cost us a lot of time, money, energy, resources, and frustration, but we fixed it, but it took a lot of everything I just said

John Corcoran 24:16

Right now, what questions do you ask to ensure that a company you’re considering acquiring has values that are aligned with yours?

Stu Wolff 24:27

So I would ask, you know, how do they interact with their people? What you know, what are their priorities? What’s important to them? How do they communicate with each other? How do they innovate, you know, work together. You know, it was questions along those lines. And I would get a feel you, you, I can get a real good feel just in an even when I’m in an office and you can feel when things walking

John Corcoran 25:02

around the office. Yeah.

Stu Wolff 25:05

Yeah, yeah. Right. When things are really working well, right. And that

John Corcoran 25:09

and people power when the boss comes around the corner,

Stu Wolff 25:13

back like, though, you know you, I became very sensitive to those things. So I’d be looking for, you know behaviors and look for consistency when I’m in the office one day, and how was it another time? And you know, and I would talk to get feedback from people outside the organization, how do you like working with them? You know, how do they treat their people? How do they treat you? And you know, you pick up and you learn?

John Corcoran 25:41

Yeah, April 2013, you decide to sell the company. What inspired that?

Stu Wolff 25:48

So, prior to April, once we made our strategic acquisitions throughout the Midwest, now we were a strong regional player. So the next, our next plan was to become national. And so what I did was I took my roadshow that I did in the Midwest and took it to other parts of the country. Actually I think it was about April or May of 2012, when about 40 different brokerage owners all came together in Dallas, Texas, at the airport, at a hotel there to share the vision of, of the industry consolidating to a national, that we’re going to need national representation. 

John Corcoran 26:41

And interestingly, you recruited them all to come to one event to kind of pitch them all on the idea.

Stu Wolff 26:46

Yeah, yeah, I had individual meetings with all of them, but needed to start bringing it together. I had a private equity firm that was very interested to help with this. And one of the lessons I learned from that was, as he pointed out, because he was there, it’s really hard to, you know, to hurt a lot of cats all at once. And so we tried, first, we were trying to do it all at one time, then we realized, you know, what, let’s focus in and the other four regions of the country looking for regional brokers like us that fit our values had shared the vision we needed, we needed them to share the vision, that the industry was going to do much further and deeper consolidation. And that eventually, it’s going to get down to three or four national brokers, and then a handful of small regional brokers. And that’s exactly where we’re at today. It’s been like that for probably the last five years. But we were, you know, we were, we had the vision, we were planning for it. And during that once we identified our other regional brokers, we want to partner with the so on the other side of the food industry is the retail grocery industry. And so the brokers and the retail grocery industry that the big three decided they wanted to get into the food service business. They started acquiring brokers. And it was during that time, and they were writing checks, and that got a lot of attention. We were trying to do more of an equity merger of companies, and that the cash went out. And so, you know, it started

John Corcoran 28:41

to realize it’d be harder to make acquisitions as you went along. Got

Stu Wolff 28:45

it? Yeah, exactly. 

John Corcoran 28:46

Got it. So when you sold them to a casa, did you feel like you? I don’t want to say it was your only option, but you kind of feel like you needed to do it?

Stu Wolff 28:58

Well, I know, it’s funny, because when it rains, it pours. So when a caster approached us, we were kind of thinking that was the only option. But we then had two other options that were interesting, all of a sudden, we never put up, you know, we never said we’re selling. But all of a sudden, we had three companies interested in acquiring us. And so, you know, we listen to what we learned. And we really felt at that time, the CEO and CFO of a caster. Really great people align beautifully with them. From a value standpoint, we again shared a common vision for food, the food industry, so we felt they were the right fit. And that’s where we focused our time and energy to put that deal together and I don’t regret it. The industry did further consolidate And it was, you know, it was the old saying, being at the right time at the right place. And it was, and we were positioned beautifully for it. Because once we realize the vision and that we needed to be prepared for it, we were working on it for five years to be ready for it, this isn’t something you just say, Okay, we need to start process, figure out our processes, figuring out our systems, and these things don’t happen overnight. So it took five years to really get the company to the point where we have that ability to really scale and grow and, and so it was the right time. It really was,

John Corcoran 30:43

I’m fascinated by you, people who have been on these types of journeys from, you know, small little company to over a billion dollars in sales, 160 plus employees, and how you learn along the way, because we’re constantly evolving up leveling our network, meeting new people, you know, you had Gino as your coach, you had your peer group? How did you continue to learn the new challenges that were before you like acquiring companies and expanding geographic territories? Did you find that? You know, you needed to uplevel your network? Were there new people you were learning from? You know, tell me a little bit about the relationships that kind of helped you along the way?

Stu Wolff 31:28

Yeah, so some of the relationships were. So there were a couple. One, I started a peer group within our industry, it was called the Smart Share Group. So it was other brokers from around the country. And so we shared it together. But the other side was I became more involved with some of the bigger manufacturers, like a General Mills for an example. We represented them, and being part of their advisory board. So I can really connect with senior leadership. And you know, you know, hearing their vision and hearing what they see the industry doing, really helps cement things, add ideas and thoughts, but it really helped give me a little bit more confidence in the direction we were going in the plans we had. That’s great.

John Corcoran 32:24

So you sell the company and you decide to become an EOS implementer. What gotcha there? Do you decide to go back and help others? How did you come to that realization that having benefited from the system yourself that that was something you actually wanted to do and help other businesses with?

Stu Wolff 32:43

Sure. Yeah. So you know, I stayed in a live cast for several years, and had really interesting, unique possessions and I enjoyed it. When I didn’t enjoy it is when okay, it was time to start to figure out what my next chapter was. And I worked with Gino was our business coach for eight to nine years. So I really got to know Gino, well, we became friends and, you know, seven coffee with him one day and say, you know, I’m thinking about my next chapter. I think EOS implementation might be something he goes, I think you’d be great at it. And, I talked to my wife and said, You know, I, in this chapter of my life, I want something, I just want flexibility. I want to do something that I love and I’m passionate about, and I want to help other people. And so EOS checked all the boxes. For me. I think what was important is, this isn’t the EOS process. And the system isn’t just something I read about. I lived it. And living up having that experience, scaling my business building it to something that I never thought was possible. And realizing that she just showed me the potential. And so I just wanted to have that opportunity to do that with others. And that’s what I’m doing. And I absolutely love it.

John Corcoran 34:19

Yeah. And you also became a chair. I don’t know if that’s a term that you use for TIGER 21 which is a similar kind of peer to peer group similar to the one you mentioned that you are involved in at a local level. So what is TIGER 21? And, you know, tell me what you do through that.

Stu Wolff 34:37

Yes, so it’s really interesting. I’d never heard of TIGER 21 until a couple years ago. And TIGER 21 is a peer to peer learning group targeted to high net worth individuals. And so those high net worth and TIGER 21 terms is considered having $10 million of investable assets. And what the reason TIGER 21 was started and founded back in I think 1999 by a gentleman named Michael Sonnenfeld. In New York the hit belt built a great wealth, but didn’t didn’t have people to talk to about some issues and challenges that come with wealth. And, and so that’s how TIGER 21 was started. The group, I have 15 members in the group. They’re all entrepreneurs, half of them have run their businesses and EOS that had up to that level. And so it’s a peer to peer learning, it is really kind of think about it as kind of a personal board of directors. And I just had my group meeting yesterday, and, and it’s about sharing, it’s about learning. And it’s about networking together. The majority of the members I work with, are fully engaged in their businesses, as I mentioned, entrepreneurs, some are second generation. And it’s not about running your business so much. It’s about how you’ve created wealth. So now, how do you hold on to that wealth that you created? How do you grow some of that wealth you created? How do you plan for it? How do you deal with your kids with it, and friends and family when you have wealth? And maybe they don’t have the same type of wealth? How do you think about taxes and estate planning, and all of those types of subjects that we, you know, we just don’t talk too about with each other. And the group each member, once a month, each member shares what we call a portfolio defense. So they are literally sharing their entire net worth, where they have their assets invested in what their philosophy is, and I help them to prepare three to four or five questions of what they want the group to respond to, what do they want him to focus on? You know, we don’t know what we don’t know. So it’s trying to open up and under and learn from each other and from different perspectives. And it’s fascinating.

John Corcoran 37:38

It’s such an interesting time right now, just, you know, coming out of this pandemic, as we record this in September 2021. That, you know, the economy has just been interesting. You shared a little bit about, you know, cryptocurrencies that have been coming along on your LinkedIn page and stuff like that. What are you, what’s your eye on? That’s interesting right now without, I guess we could do a whole nother hour long episode probably talking about this. But, you know, what are some interesting areas that have been subject to discussion? If I were a fly on the wall? In your group?

Stu Wolff 38:15

Yeah. So we had a really interesting discussion last month on opportunities, opportunity zones, investing into real estate, and those avenues and some potential tax savings. Yesterday, we had a speaker on aging parents, how to deal with parents that, you know, and how to deal with there, not just from a wealth standpoint, but providing different services, a state planning, I had a speaker you know, there’s some potential new tax tax laws going into effect in the near future. And a great speaker helping to open up my members eyes and ears to what those implications could be and how they need to start to plan and execute for those when they when they you know, when they fall into place. So estate planning is a big thing. You know, you think most people have really put a lot of time, energy and thought into their estate. Most can say they can check it off, but it is not deep enough or strong enough. So it needs more. It definitely needs more time and attention and even people with great wealth but I have the opportunity to work with our finding that they have a lot of holes and they need to have expertise to really review it. So yeah, it’s fascinating. The different subjects, the different investment vehicles and opportunities, and it really has an impact and changes people’s lives.

John Corcoran 39:55

Yeah. You know, we were chatting beforehand and you shared a question that you asked your group yesterday, which I’m going to turn back on because it’s such a great question. What is one life lesson you learned the hard way?

Stu Wolff 40:08

Yeah. So that lesson was, I didn’t listen to my gut, I did not listen to that inner voice. When I had originally started going back to my original partner, when I met with him the first time and the second time, I knew in my heart, my stomach was telling me, Don’t do this. But I’m paper, like I said, looked good. And that is the lesson I learned the hard way. I really need to trust in my instinct, what that inner voice is saying, what my stomach is telling me. And I’m trying to train to do that much more today than ever before.

John Corcoran 40:51

That’s great. All right, I want to we’re a little short on time. So I want to ask the last question I was asked, which is, you know, a big fan of gratitude, especially, especially, expressing gratitude to those who’ve been helpful, professionally along the way. So if you look around at your peers or contemporaries, you know, others in your industry, however you want to define that. And you’ve mentioned a few here, Gino and others. Who do you respect? Who do you admire? That’s doing good work these days? Yeah, so

Stu Wolff 41:21

there’s two people that pop in my head when you said that they’re very near and dear to me. One is Gino Wickman. He was life changing for me, and still is to this day. And the other is my was my partner, Mike, that came in after my first partner, because I didn’t realize what a partnership what a healthy partnership could be. And, and having that be able to have trust in somebody else to that extent, besides my wife. And both of those people had a dynamic impact on my life, previous to building my business and to this day, and I feel such gratitude that they’re part of my life. 

John Corcoran 42:09

That’s great. Stu, this has been wonderful. Where can people go to connect with you or to learn more about the various different things you’re involved in?

Stu Wolff 42:16

Sure. Yeah. So my website is Email is [email protected]. And, certainly cell 248-310-8026 or on LinkedIn. 

John Corcoran 42:39

Excellent, Stu. Thanks so much. 

Stu Wolff 42:41

Thank you. Appreciate it, John.

Outro 42:48

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