Seven Lessons From Bob
The Octogenarian Entrepreneur: Seven Lessons From Body Glove Founder Bob Meistrell
No. 1 Set goals and stick to them
Bob and Bill had three goals when they moved to California at age 16: own a submarine, find buried treasure and go deep sea diving. Over the next 60 years, they accomplished all three, and if you ask Meistrell, inventing the first commercial wetsuit and build a million dollar surf brand was just something that happened along the way.
Sort of. “We had three goals for what we wanted to do in business,” Meistrell told me by phone from his California Riviera home. “to live close to where we worked, because in Missouri the roads were so bumpy you could barely read on the bus—two, to make a good product and sell it for a fair price and three to love what we did every single day.”
Still, that whole submarine, deep sea diving, treasure hunting gig didn’t fall by the wayside. Bill famously discovered more than a million dollars in gold coins along the Northern California coast and Bob found a trove of jade off the Catalina coast. “Last year for my 84th birthday I went down 300 feet in a submarine with my diving partner,” Meistrell says, making it clear he’s still in the business of setting goals and achieving them. “I think we’re engaged now because it was really, really crowded in there.”
No. 2 Love what you do, do what you love
When Bob and Bill were growing up in Missouri, where they lived until the family moved to the coast when the boys were 16, they fell in love with the ocean from afar. “We’d read any book on the ocean we could get out hands on,” Bob says. “We hadn’t ever even seen the sea and we were in love.” He recalls building submarines out of cardboard appliance boxes pilfered from an older brother’s store and playing for hours and, at age 15, building their first diving helmet prototype out of an oil jug, a garden hose and some tar found along the roadside. “We developed a switch valve out of a spring and a marble.” Remarkably the thing worked in a nearby pond.
It goes without saying, Meistrell says, that when they finally reached the California Coast they knew they had found the love of their life. “The first thing we bought was a used diving helmet, because we’d left our homemade one back in Missouri.” It cost $35, a steal Meistrell says they got because the previous owner had died underwater, the result of a bad switch valve, a safety valve that releases pressure in diving suits. “If you didn’t have that in there and the pump failed, the pressure would chuck your head up into the top of the helmet and kill you,” he says, but it was easy work for the brothers. A marble and a spring did the trick.
“We love the ocean and everything you can do in it,” Meistrell says. “We’re in the hall of fame for diving and the hall of fame for surfing. For two kids from the farm that’s a real kicker.”
No. 3 Make a good product, sell it for a fair price
When the Meistrells bought into the Redondo Beach Dive ‘n’ Surf shop, with friend and surfboard shaper Hap Jacobs and diver Bev Morgan they figured if they could do $100 a day in business they’d be pretty lucky guys. “Each of us was only working there part time, we all had full time jobs,” Meistrell says. “And we’d close up the shop one day a week to surf and spend time with the wives and kids.” For $100, a customer could purchase a “whole setup,” or a wetsuit, fins and a snorkel. The famous neoprene wetsuit—now an industry standard with a retail range of $100 to $1,200—cost just $29.95.
When daily totals began to reach closer to the thousands, Meistrell says he remembers feeling secure that this little idea might start to pay off. But upping the prices was never an option. “You’ve got to treat people the way you’d want to be treated,” he says. “Asking them to pay more than you’d ever pay for your own product is not ever going to be the right thing to do.”
No. 4 Guarantee the product you’re selling –and demand a guarantee from suppliers
“Once, a few decades ago I sold a man a Johnson motor and he called me from Catalina telling me the propeller broke off,” Meistrell recounts. “So I found out where he was and had a new motor to him in two hours.”
Three weeks later the man came into the shop and was wondering why he hadn’t received a bill in the mail. “So I told him the thing was guaranteed!” The customer was still confused, Meistrell remembers, calling him crazy if he ever thought Johnson Motors was going to refund Meistrell for the faulty motor. “And I told him a guarantee’s a guarantee. Either I’d get my money back or I’d never sell another of their motors in my store ever again.”
Johnson coughed up the cash and the customer, now 92 years old, remained a lifetime customer. “Listen,” Meistrell told me. “You’re not going to get ahead if you don’t treat people fairly. That’s what makes businesses honest and long-lived because people will continue to do business with them. It goes both ways.”
No. 5 You can’t win every battle (especially with the government)
Body Glove made its wetsuits in the United States until the nineties, Meistrell says, when the government finally got the best of them. “They came in and said we had to put a tag on every item we made,” he says, a daunting—and costly—task for the California company which boasted more than 100 SKUs. Every tag was going to cost Body Glove $2 per item. “You put a $2 tag on every product and you’re going to have to charge the customer a lot more than that to break even,” he says. “It affects the bottom line in the cost of the wetsuit.”
When they beseeched the government, pointing to foreign competitors who were able to keep prices down and avoid the cost of U.S. tagging their complaints sank like stones and the Meistrells were distraught. “We were very proud of being a made in America company,” Meistrell says. “We were both in the U.S. military.” But in the end it was a battle without end. “We were hampered by the government and ultimately moved to Thailand,” Meistrell says with a hint of sadness. “Just like everybody else.”
No. 6 You don’t get ahead by treating people badly—customers or cofounders
“Bev is a great guy but he’s kind of moody,” Meistrell says of his early business partner. He’d take off for days on end, telling the Meistrell brother he wanted out, the business was theirs free and clear. “Days later he’d come back like nothing ever happened and be behind the cash register.”
But when the friends finally got around to forming a corporation in 1958, Morgan was adamant: he was getting a divorce, cash was tight and his days in surf retail were behind him. To part ways he asked the Meistrells to pay him for 30% of the store’s current inventory of boards, wetsuits and diving gear. “He said ‘Write me a check,’ and I said I couldn’t,” says Meistrell. “I said ‘We don’t have any money in the bank. If it cost a nickel to get around the world, we couldn’t get on the boat!’”
But Morgan insisted. “So I wrote out the check and he signed the back and handed it back to me and laughed: ‘Now you’ve got to pay my alimony while I go around the world.’”
And he did. Despite a dramatic backstory (Morgan’s ex-wife happened to be the former fiancé of brother Bill Meistrell—she had married Morgan while Bill was fighting in south Korea), the Meistrell brothers paid their friend’s alimony for more than a decade until the debt was repaid.
No. 7 Pick a name you can stand by
As Dive and Surf sales began to build Bill and bob put more and more of their focus on their neoprene wetsuit, the first of its kind. But to gain traction in the growing surf community of the 1950s, they hired a marketing expert, Duke Boyd, another entrepreneur and founder of the Hang Ten surf brand. “He and my brother got together one night and Boyd said ‘You’ve got to rename the wetsuit. Dive and Surf’s Thermocline Wetsuit is a terrible name.’”
The brothers were confused—the name described what the product was and where it came from, shouldn’t that suffice? Boyd laughed in their faces. “Duke said ‘What makes your wetsuit different from anybody else’s?’” Meistrell recalls. “And we said ‘Well it fits like a glove.’”
Within hours, he says, Duke had hired a graphic designer friend to draw up the hand logo that the company uses to this day. “He charged us $235 for the logo,” Meistrell says. “That’s a pretty good deal for an icon that’s all over the world.”
Original Article located here: www.Forbes.com
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