If you could be any character from literature, who would you be?
I admire Dean Moriarty’s restless adventurism in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Rabbit Angstrom’s flawed but engaging personality in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, and Harry Potter’s endless curiosity.
If I could blend all three into one person, I’d do it. Then, I’d infuse killer sales skills, and surgically extract personal foibles, like taking no for an answer. An un-freaking-stoppable sales super hero, unencumbered by a cape. Head-to-toe spandex? Sure! Why not!
Fun to think about, but there’s no need to create sales alter egos, because the ones you’re about to meet are real. Maybe you’ve already met them. Super salespeople who embody fantastic traits, who doggedly pursued goals, overcoming doubters who said “no one will ever buy that!” Salespeople who got up after being knocked down again, and again, and again.
Who are these rare people? They are now-deceased sales champions who were recognized for the examples they offer and for the inspiration they provide. They are white, black, and Asian. Male and female. Some born into wealth, some into poverty. Some were nice, some happy. Others, well—neither. But all began with an idea they passionately believed in, and they persevered in selling it to others. We need more people like them.
Mr. Becher and his business partner Ed Valenti created demand for products people didn’t realize they needed. “We were mindful that the last thing anyone wanted was another set of knives. The challenge was to position the product so that it made every other knife you owned obsolete,” Mr. Valenti said in 2001. The product was among the first to be sold on TV using 800 numbers. Eventually, the partners sold over $500 million in knives and other kitchen utensils. I remember the day my mom bought her Ginsu, excitedly telling me that she saw it slice an aluminum can clean through—something she’s never used it for, as far as I know.
Eugene Ferkauf, 91. E. J. Korvette. Who said discount is a bad word? Harvard Business School professor Malcolm McNair described E. J. Ferkauf as “one of the six greatest merchants in US history.” Mr. Ferkauf began E. J. Korvette in 1948 in New York City by selling luggage, and then quickly expanded the chain to over 45 stores in the New York area alone. “He was a brilliant entrepreneur, innovator, and pioneer of the discounting concept,” according to Burt Flickenger, managing director of the retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group. The chain went out of business around 1980.
Dan Evins, 76. Gold in grits! Fans of Cracker Barrel Restaurants know that it doesn’t matter whether they’re eating in Bessemer Alabama, or in Missoula Montana, they will have the same dining experience. Hardly a novel idea, though, because by the time Cracker Barrel opened in 1969, McDonalds had already sold Americans on the value of food-sameness. But instead of copying McDonalds’ institutional get-‘em-in-get-‘em-out customer experience, Mr. Evins played to nostalgic heartstrings.
What made Mr. Evins a super salesman were his insights about future American culture. First, he recognized that the evolving interstate highway system not only would change how people travel, but how they would eat. Second, he understood that in a transient society, a home-style meal would have powerful sales appeal. As Mr. Evins explained in a 1992 Forbes magazine article, Nostalgia Sells, “We aimed for authenticity, but without the outhouses.”
Don Cornelius, 75. Soul Train. “You can bet your money it’s going to be a stone gas, honey!” In 1969, just one year after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Mr. Cornelius invented Soul Train, beginning with a series of staged dance shows in Chicago. “It was extremely influential,” said Ron Simon, curator for radio and television at the Paley Center for Media in New York. “It opened up a window on African-American culture, not only its music, but fashion and dance, in homes all across America.” Visionary? Before MTV was even an idea, Soul Train hosted Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, Al Green, Ike and Tina Turner, Elton John, David Bowie, and Earth Wind & Fire.
But Mr. Cornelius’s greater achievement “might have been as a behind-the-scenes producer and businessman who helped persuade mainstream companies to spend advertising dollars on largely black audiences,” The Washington Post reported in a tribute. In 2006, Mr. Cornelius told Vibe magazine “what I take credit for is that there were no black television commercials to speak of before Soul Train. There were few black faces in those ads before Soul Train. And what I am most proud of is that we made television history.” Mr. Cornelius retired as Soul Train host in 1993, and the show lasted another 13 years. “The audience was changing, and I wasn’t,” he said.
Robert A. Citron, 79. Spacehab. “The power of Bob’s ideas, technical designs and business concepts made space business, including businesses involving humans in space, more real,” said James A. M. Muncy, a space policy consultant. According to The Washington Post, “one of Mr. Citron’s most important contributions was demonstrating that the private sector could build space hardware far more cheaply than the government. He built two Spacehab modules for $150 million, substantially less than NASA’s estimate of $1.2 billion. During his varied career, Mr. Citron founded an adventure travel agency, built satellite tracking stations, produced National Geographic documentaries, and monitored natural phenomena such as insect invasions and falling meteorites.”
Minoru Mori, 77. Mori Building Company. Envisioning Tokyo as a vertical garden city, Mori’s company became a major player in the Tokyo real estate market. Born into wealth, Mr. Mori said acquiring wealth didn’t motivate him, but rather a desire to change Tokyo, which he believed “suffered from a lack of urban planning,” according to The Wall Street Journal. “He was unique in Japan as a risk-taker. Since he controlled his company, he was able to do things that others could not do through the force of his ideas,” said Seth Sulkin, president of Tokyo-based real estate developer Pacifica Capital KK. In 2003, he developed the Roppongi Hills Complex, which became the Japanese headquarters for many international financial firms. The company also developed the 1,627 foot high (492 meters) Shanghai World Financial Center, completed in 2008, and currently the city’s tallest building.
John Hoyt, 80. Humane Society of the United States. When Mr. Hoyt took over the Humane Society in 1970, it had a staff of ten people serving 10,000 members. During his tenure as president through 1994, it grew to the largest animal protection organization in the US, with over five million members. When other animal rights organizations became more confrontational, “Mr. Hoyt staked out a centrist position . . . The group accepted that animals could be used for food and testing while seeking to minimize suffering,” according to The Washington Post.
That position required strong selling skills. Mr. Hoyt successfully campaigned to limit long-accepted practices, including hunting cougars with dogs in Washington State, animal abuse at rodeos, the use of rabbits to train greyhounds, and the slaughter of baby seals for their furs. Mr. Hoyt pioneered the use of direct mail tactics, and expanded outreach programs to support the organization’s broadened scope.
Vidal Sassoon, 84. “It’s Vidal Sassoon! It’s very in,” Mia Farrow exclaimed in the film Rosemary’s Baby. “He was the creator of sensual hair,” said John Barrett, founder of the John Barrett Salon at Bergdorf Goodman. “This was somebody who changed our industry entirely, not just from the point of view of cutting hair but actually turning it into a business. He was one of the first who had a product line bought out by a major corporation.” Grace Coddington, the creative director of American Vogue, put it this way, “He changed the way everyone looked at hair.”
Mr. Sassoon opened a chain of salons and beauty academies, and using his famous pitch, “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good!” he sold a full line of shampoos and conditioners. Sales reached more than $100 million annually before he sold the company in 1983.
Sylvia Woods, 86. “Queen of Soul Food.” When Ms. Woods opened her eponymous restaurant in New York City’s Harlem at Lenox Avenue near 127th street on Aug. 1, 1962, it had six booths, 15 stools, and served fried chicken, greens, pork chops, pig’s tails, lima beans, and rice. “Over time, Sylvia’s expanded to seat more than 250; it is the cornerstone of a commercial empire that today includes a catering service and banquet hall and a nationally distributed line of prepared foods,” according to The New York Times.
Considering that as a child in the Jim Crow South she was not allowed inside most restaurants, her success was remarkable. It wasn’t until she moved to New York that she had her first dining experience outside her home. “I came from no lights to the bright lights,” Ms. Woods told The Chicago Tribune. In 1994, when asked about the reasons for her success, she said “I keep pressing on, I can’t give up. I’ve been struggling too long to stop now.”
Robert Cohen, 86. Changed the way travelers spend time waiting. When Mr. Cohen began his retail chain, Hudson News, in 1987, “his stores were a break from the claustrophobic newsstands of the past, boasting hundreds of magazines instead of just a few dozen, with tall racks and bright lighting that invited customers to browse . . . (Hudson News Stores) were a hit with travelers looking to kill time between flights.” according to The Washington Post. “It was all based on the not-so-scientific fact that people really like to read stuff when they go on a plane,” his son, James Cohen, said. The chain now has over 600 stores.
Nostalgia, abandoning odious racial biases, the business possibilities for space travel, universal humane treatment of animals. There’s nothing formulaic about how to tackle these abstract sales challenges. But what strikes me most is how easy it would have been for the protagonists to quit, to lay off their idea when they hit the inevitable craters in the road.
I sense that what made these individuals so successful had more to do with their passion, tenacity, and steadfast belief in their ideas, and less to do with formal sales training and their ability to recite features, capabilities, and benefits—the stuff we indoctrinate sales pros with today.
When it comes to mentoring salespeople should we focus on teaching them how to sell? Or modeling how to be successful? When demonstrating the selling behaviors we want others to emulate, are we moving in the right direction? I don’t think so.
These stories suggest that there’s a palpable something else to selling. Maybe it’s communicating from the heart and within our comfort zones. Maybe it’s internalizing the visions that we want to persuade others to have. Maybe it’s possessing the latitude to create something we imagine to be valuable to others, along with having the freedom to innovate unique pathways to sell it. These exceptional salespeople had the right stuff. We need to break out of our boxes to learn exactly what it is.