“He taught us to be fearless in business”.
That was a lesson taught by Jerry Zucker to his staff, said Jay Tiedemann, COO of the InterTech Group, of the company’s founder. Zucker, a self-made billionaire, passed away this past Saturday at the young age of 58. He lived in my (small) city, and I knew him slightly, and I knew his wife from various community activities, including Rotary. Jerry had built his company, the InterTech Group, into a $3.6 billion company, and was in the Forbes top 100 largest privately held companies. Two years ago, he led a successful raid on Canada’s Hudson Bay Company, and apparently had been inroads in turning around the large retailer.
Be fearless. While every management book and lecture speaks of risk taking, and how it is such a good thing, the reality in the business world is really to minimize and eliminate as much risk as possible. Take a big risk and win – you’re a hero. Lose – a dog, often kicked to the corner. We tend to live to our income, so failure can have severe consequences. As the recession takes hold, the stakes are higher.
There is a difference, I suspect, between being fearless and being stupid. In the end, yes, business involves risk. We don’t know if another customer will walk through the door, of an order will come in. Even regular customers are not guarantees of business – they may have a downturn, or may choose to start using a competitor.
Being fearless means working your business to keep the customers and business coming. Fear breeds paralysis, unable to work the business, to invest, to spend as needed to do just this. That’s my read of what Zucker meant. Taking on a raid of Canada’s largest retailer, a company who traces their history back over 300 years, who was working to turn around a retailer when he had no retailing background. Which, it could be argued, might have been an advantage. Since the professional retailers are in so much trouble, maybe it takes someone from the outside to change things up? Maybe experience would have been a disadvantage?