Why Every Retailer Needs a Stephen in Their Lives

By Rich Lindblom

Back in the late 1980s our family-owned appliance business had already been around for over 30 years and we had two stores. Maytag had announced yet another reorganization of its sales territories and our store was assigned a new sales rep. When I found out who our new rep was, I was not happy.

From talking to other dealer friends of mine, I learned that the rep came with a reputation. So, I called around and asked a couple of dealers whom he had called on previously what I could expect. The universal answer was, “You are not going to like him Rich. He’s kind of a jerk.”

A couple of days later he called me and asked if he could stop by the store. We set up an appointment and as the meeting approached, I prepared myself for the worst. He showed up right on time and I was surprised how young he was — he was actually the first Maytag rep to call on our company who was younger than me.

To protect the innocent, let’s go ahead and give him a name: let’s call him Stephen.

Introductions out of the way, he told me he’d like to discuss my company’s direction for the future. That seemed a pretty reasonable place to start, so I let him share his thoughts. He then spent the next fifteen minutes telling me how I was going to run my company. Flabbergasted, I let him finish what he had to say, and then it was my turn. It was actually a pretty short and sweet conversation.

If my body language and demeanor didn’t make it apparent to him, the tone of my voice should have. “Listen Stephen,” I told him. “We’ve been in business for 30 years without you, and we’ll be around for another 30 years long after you’re gone. You’re not going to tell me how to run my company. If you have an idea I’ll listen to what you have to say. But if I don’t like it, you’re gonna know.” 

I was stunned by his response. He simply answered, “OK, sounds good!” 

From that moment on the ground rules were established and Stephen served as our Maytag rep for the next three years. We actually got along quite well. Over time we learned to be straight with one another and I would even say we became friends. But friend or not, Stephen was never afraid to make a suggestion, and I was never afraid to tell him when I thought his idea was just plain stupid.

He was young and hungry, hungrier than most I would say, and he was always suggesting ways to grow my business (and earn him more money in the process). Many of his proposals were shot down immediately, but he did have some good ideas as well, and we did end up growing our business during his time as our rep.

After about two years as our rep, during one of his in-store visits (you all remember those), Stephen said to me, “I have to tell you something Rich; you are not doing your job.” 

Surprised and more than a little offended, I shot back, “What are you talking about?”

 “I know you Rich and you’re not yourself,” he said. “Something’s wrong.”

As I thought about what he said, I realized he was right. There was something going on in the periphery of my life that was distracting me. I didn’t even realize it, but apparently Stephen did, and he wasn’t afraid to point it out. In a moment of clarity I replied, “You know what Stephen? You’re right. Thanks for pointing it out.”

Thirty years later I still look back on that moment fondly. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was distracted by life outside of work and had let it affect my job performance. I thought I was doing my job just fine; no one else had noticed anything, including my father or my brother.  But my Maytag rep Stephen had the guts to call me out, and he was right. Thanks to Stephen, I was able to put my head back on straight and started running my company the way it was supposed to be run once again. He may have been a pain in the butt sometimes, but he was the pain in the butt I needed at that moment in my life.

So, the question I want to ask is … do you have a Stephen in your life? Is there someone keeping an eye on you who is not afraid to tell you the things you need to hear?

If not, you might have to take a good look in the mirror and be your own Stephen. In this tumultuous age of retail, you can’t afford to not be on top of your game. Because if you aren’t, even little things can have a dramatic impact on your business. And without the Stephens of the world to point them out, you might not realize it until it’s too late.

Rich Lindblom is a former principal of Advanced Maytag Home Appliance Center in Schaumburg, Ill. He recently retired after selling the 64-year-old family business.