Milanese
by Mark Milanese
July 17th, 2012

The Legend of the Grey Couch

Since 1950 the Miami Somers Company has been the premiere exterior remodeling company offering energy-efficient doors and windows to property owners along the Jersey Shore from its showroom on Route 9 in Somers Point, N.J. I was down the shore last week and briefly caught up with Charles Zuschnitt, the owner of the Miami Somers Company.

Charles Zuschnitt is one of the good guys in the remodeling industry. He is honest, hard working and has made a success of himself–not only as a business owner, but as a devoted husband to his lovely wife, Tracy, and as a doting father to his adorable daughters. I first met Charles almost 20 years ago when he was hired as a sales representative by a supplier.

Charles received a territory of existing dealers, including Milanese Remodeling, from his new employer. His future salary would be based on his ability to grow the purchases of the dealers in his territory. Unbeknownst to Charles, he would need to mend strained relationships between the manufacturer and its dealers before he could sell them more products.

The young company that hired Charles as a sales rep was going through growing pains. Success had brought more business than anticipated. A lack of inventory delayed deliveries. Haste to catch up to the unexpected demand made waste. Service issues were the inevitable result. Unfortunately, many of the service issues remained unresolved. The beleaguered supplier was sending Charles to the front line to defend its market share and his first skirmish would take place in my dad’s office.

The furniture in Dad’s office was modern and dominated by a large curved desk. Glass and chrome cases displayed pictures of family and colleagues. Chairs for each of his sons surrounded the desk and a large grey couch was placed in front of the desk for guests. The grey couch was covered in a silky smooth, man-made material that was unlike any I have ever seen before or since. The story of Charles sitting on the grey couch and meeting my dad the first time has become “The Legend of the Grey Couch.”

Dad was not a poker player. You knew what he was thinking and how he felt because he told you in no uncertain terms. Dad gave Charles his keys to good relations between a dealer and a supplier while Charles sat on the Grey Couch.

Dad told Charles, “There are only a few things I can do for you as a dealer. I can order product. I can pay for product. And I can be loyal. In return, as a supplier, there are a few things I demand from you.”

Dad went on to tell Charles what a supplier must do for its dealers. “You have to deliver my orders – in full, on time and in good condition. You have to sell me product at the price I deserve. And you have to service what you sell … That’s it.”

Over the next half hour Dad listed the individual cases where Charles’ employer had not fulfilled its end of the bargain. As Dad made an inventory of his employer’s shortcomings, Charles melted. His nervousness at this first meeting–his baptism by fire–made him perspire. He found himself sticking to the Grey Couch. When the meeting was over he found it difficult to lift himself from the Grey Couch that had attached itself to him like an anchor. He knew he had work to do.

Over the next few months Charles resolved the outstanding service issues. Over the next few years the company improved its delivery, pricing and service to meet its dealers’ demanding standards. Charles and I travelled the countryside together reviewing projects and we became friends. Each winter he spent a day with me reviewing marketing campaigns for his product line.

After a few years, Charles recommended an audacious spring marketing campaign centered on hundreds of thousands of newspaper inserts that would require a five-figure investment. He presented his case for making this investment. The economy was stronger. We had already gone through the painful introduction stage of his product and created consumer awareness. Now, we should ramp up advertising to capitalize on the growth phase. Furthermore, he informed me that newspaper inserts were working for other dealers in his territory. Finally, Charles guaranteed the campaign would be profitable, or he would personally reimburse us for our investment …

I believe Charles would have taken money from his own pocket if the campaign was not profitable, but we will never know for sure because the campaign was hugely successful and produced record-breaking numbers of leads, estimates and sales.

At the manufacturer’s next dealer conference Charles and I shared the stage. Milanese Remodeling was being honored for joining the Million Dollar Club and I accepted a crystal vase to commemorate our accomplishment. Charles received the company’s Most Valuable Employee award and accepted a beautiful fishing reel that would allow him to catch even bigger tuna from his new deep-sea fishing boat.

After the awards, Charles shared with me his ambitions to have his own remodeling company. He asked my opinion of where to locate his business. I recommended the South Jersey shore. I thought it was underserved. I saw the trend of homes further from the beach being remodeled for resort living. I also saw the glut of new construction that would provide a never-ending supply of future remodeling.

He must have agreed with me because, soon afterwards, Charles Zuschnitt purchased the Miami Somers Company with the blessings of his employer, who would now become his supplier.

This year Charles Zuschnitt is celebrating ten years of owning the Miami Somers Company. He has grown his business. He continues to succeed despite the gloomy economy. He is still optimistic for the future of our industry as he fondly recalls his past.

Charles reminded me about “The Legend of the Grey Couch” when we talked. He told me how he sweated and stuck to the fabric of the Grey Couch during his first brief meeting with my dad. He reminded me of the first rule that dictates the relationship between a dealer and its suppliers … the important lessons he learned from my dad all those years ago and that he still follows today.

Charles learned a lot of valuable lessons from his dealers and his employer during his time as a sales rep. But Charles Zuschnitt did not need to be taught to be enthusiastic or honest. Perhaps, those are the most important traits a business owner can possess to be truly successful.

Charles Zuschnitt is one of the good guys in the remodeling business.

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