Business failure is not personal failure. Many people that I admire have not given up in the face of failure and have a strong sense of belief in themselves. I had a former client who shared with me that he had over eight startup failures prior to his first big success. He was supremely confident in himself when there was plenty of data that didn’t line up with his recent experience. If you are a good person, be nice to your parents, your spouse, your kids, your colleagues and your community, things will work out. None of us gets to choose how financially successful we are, but we do get to control our level of kindness, humility and ultimately how we treat others.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brett Heffes.
Brett Heffes is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Winmark Corporation, North America’s leading franchisor of sustainable resale brands including Plato’s Closet, Once Upon A Child, Play It Again Sports, Style Encore and Music Go Round. Brett’s prior experience in financial and executive management has aptly prepared him for his roles at Winmark, and has given him the skills to lead an organization that supports approximately 1,300 franchised locations across North America and equip them with the tools for success in this competitive market.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I grew up in New Jersey about twenty minutes from the Shore. Big Springsteen fan, Yankees fan and still very close with many of my high school classmates. I went to Boston College with a concentration in finance, and the education I received has served me well to this day. I remain closely connected to Boston College, and the vast majority of our philanthropic efforts as a family support student formation, academic achievement and BC’s highly-ranked business school. My wife and I also have a particularly strong connection with the men’s hockey program at Boston College.
My parents instilled a strong work ethic in my brother and I. We both had great role models who demonstrated the payoff that is created from hard work. I chose to come to Minnesota almost 30 years ago after a bad career decision — it ended up shaping my personal and professional life in ways that I could not have imagined when I showed up here in 1992.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned and a quote that has been a great guide for me has always been, “Run to something, not away from something.”
After two-and-a-half years as an investment banking analyst in New York City, I got a crazy idea to move to Newport Beach, California, to work for a very small boutique firm. I got to their offices, looked out the window, saw the ocean and said yes. In other words, I did no due diligence.
I remember sitting at Newark airport with my father as I was about to board the flight to California. We both knew that I was making a very bad decision, but I was already committed and needed to see it through. Fast forward after less than six months, I was recruited by an old mentor to come to Minnesota and the rest is history.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are extremely rare in our absolute focus on providing Resale for Everyone.
For those who may not be as familiar, Winmark Corporation is the largest for-profit player in the fast-growing resale category. Our stores have purchased an astounding 1.4 billion items (apparel, sporting goods, handbags, guitars, etc.) directly from consumers since 2010.
Across our network of over 1,270 locally owned and operated buying centers in the U.S. and Canada, that breaks down to 158 million items recycled per year, 432,000 items recycled per day and 5 items recycled per second. And on an annual basis, each of our stores pays out over $350,000 to its local community.
Another unique feature about Winmark is our commitment to provide world-class support to our franchisees. Without strong franchise partners and profitable locations, our ability to service local communities would be greatly diminished. While growth is a priority, making sure that our existing stores are being supported and profitable will always be our highest operational priority.
It is overwhelming at times to consider that I get to work for a company that is making such a positive impact on society on a daily basis.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are plenty of people that have helped pack my parachute. First and foremost, my family. My parents instilled great discipline and curiosity in my brother and me. My brother helped me get started and showed me a path that resulted in my first job. In that role, I built a foundation for financial analysis and attention to detail that has served me well in my career.
Outside of my family, there are many, but two in particular have had a profound impact on my career.
A former colleague, Sven Wehrwein, left the investment banking firm where I worked as an associate in 1994 to take a position as a CFO for a private company about to go public. Seeing someone who I respected self-select out of the fast-paced investment banking business to pursue a different path was inspiring to me, particularly as I was interested in starting a family and spending less time in hotel rooms and airplanes. Sven was also instrumental in helping me get my first CFO job and has remained a mentor to me all this time.
The other individual who had a profound impact on my career is Gordon Cooke, the former Chairman and CEO of the J. Jill Group, Inc. My firm took J. Jill public in 1993, and Gordon was hired to turn the company around in 1995. We did some work for them, and we developed a very healthy professional relationship. J. Jill was one of the first companies to embrace multi-channel marketing for specialty retail, and Gordon’s vision was key to the turnaround at J. Jill and its success. When I left the investment banking business in 1997, we stayed in touch, and he took a big chance on me and asked me to join his board in 2000. I was 32 years old and definitely had a lot to learn. We ultimately sold that company in 2006, but I have always appreciated that he didn’t view my age and inexperience at the time as a negative. Gordon believed that I could add value to the Company and be of service to J. Jill’s shareholders, and I’ve always remembered him as someone who put his faith in me at a key point in my career.
There are countless others who have helped me on my path. When I was named Chairman, I reached out to thank many of these individuals acknowledging their impact on my career and life, and their responses made me smile. It would take an entirely separate interview to adequately thank all of the people that helped me, and I feel incredibly lucky for that.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I define resilience as the ability to bounce back after something doesn’t go your way. For me, it’s like making a birdie after you make double. Or the ability to adjust and adapt to career changes as they occur.
I believe resilient people have a strong belief in themselves, a great understanding of their purpose in life and in a business setting a strong understanding of the organization’s mission. “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” Father Leahy, the president of Boston College, shared this proverb with my wife, and I and it resonates with me to this day. A strong leader can set the tone for an organization, the purpose of the organization which can be an extremely important and a powerful beacon during turbulent times — this was particularly evident during the pandemic and was critical to how we supported our franchisees and employees.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
I think courage is having the strength to face adversity and make decisions despite the environment. Resilience is the ability to bounce back or redirect your efforts and your message when things don’t go your way.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Jim Marshall, former NFL defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings, is the first person that comes to mind. When I was a kid, I remember watching film highlights of him picking up a fumble and returning it for a touchdown — the only problem was that he ran the wrong way, and it ended up being a safety for the other team. This was early on in his 20-year career and frankly, it could have crippled him. But he ended up being a dominant player and an eventual Hall-of-Famer. To me, that is the epitome of resilience: he never let one misstep define his career or journey.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Early on in my career, there was a management change at my company, and I wanted the position. I prepared an impressive PowerPoint slide and scheduled a meeting with this individual to demonstrate that I was ready for the job. For the record, I absolutely was not.
This individual told me I was not ready — and would never consider me for this job, and advised me to focus my efforts elsewhere. They did say, however, that they could see me as the president of the company one day.
I did not know how to process that feedback at the time, and ultimately, I left the company to pursue an opportunity that was similar to the position I wanted. That interaction always left a great impression on me regarding giving and receiving honest feedback.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
This is a repeat of the story from above, moving 3,000 miles away for a bad job which I figured out was bad 30 days into it, a long way from home, long-distance relationship, thought my career was derailed and got out and started a new life in Minnesota.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I have had plenty of setbacks in my life, both professional and personal.
I think I was, and continue to be, a resilient person because of my upbringing. Our parents had expectations regarding academics, respect, obligations and made it clear that I have some God-given abilities and my purpose is to achieve what I am capable of. They both had much different lives than I had and while I didn’t realize it at the time, I greatly benefitted from being one generation away from a challenging upbringing.
Moving forward is important, but there were plenty of times in my life where I didn’t get what I wanted and/or had hardship. I didn’t get into the college I wanted to go to, I didn’t get the job offer I wanted, I made a couple of bad career decisions, some challenging colleagues and bosses and plenty of other challenges as well. But all of those experiences brought me to where I am today. I have always had a belief that good things will happen if I continue to work hard and be a good person. Pretty basic philosophy from my perspective.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
One of my favorite quotes of all time that my father shared with me is, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Getting on the right path is the first thing that is necessary when adversity hits. Here are my suggestions for becoming a more resilient person and professional.
Take a deep breath. It is never as bad as you think it is, and unless it is life and death, it is not life and death.
Develop a framework for decision making. At the very start of the pandemic, Winmark chose the following framework for our company and our priorities were as follows:
- The Health and Safety of Our Employees
- Continue to Provide World Class Support to our Franchisees
- Maintain the Long-term Viability of Winmark
- Having this framework in place made it easier for all employees to make decisions and how to prioritize. The framework was an effective way to communicate and execute. In general, I have found it easier to execute and move forward when you have a plan.
Start with the outcome and move backward. Where do you want to be? What steps are necessary to get there? Keep in mind that someone like me only gets to tell their story after someone like you perceives me to be “successful.” This is very hard to do in the moment but easy to do with hindsight.
As a company, we are currently in the midst of executing this now. Our mission at Winmark is to provide Resale for Everyone. We move backward from that statement to guide us in our daily, short-term and medium-term activities.
Focus on the process, not the outcome. Sometimes you are not getting the results you want, but you are still executing at a high level. It is important to understand when you should stay the course and when it is necessary to chart a new course. Over the past 24 months, we have changed the course of Winmark, and I believe, for the better.
We have refocused the company on its mission and have shed all non-core activities. This included selling a small ticket leasing business, running-off a middle market leasing business and ceasing operations for a franchise consulting initiative. These decisions were hard because of the impact they had on individuals, but the decisions themselves were relatively easy to make within the framework of our newly-defined strategy and mission.
Business failure is not personal failure. Many people that I admire have not given up in the face of failure and have a strong sense of belief in themselves. I had a former client who shared with me that he had over eight startup failures prior to his first big success. He was supremely confident in himself when there was plenty of data that didn’t line up with his recent experience.
If you are a good person, be nice to your parents, your spouse, your kids, your colleagues and your community, things will work out. None of us gets to choose how financially successful we are, but we do get to control our level of kindness, humility and ultimately how we treat others.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger 🙂
The advice or feedback I wish I got when I was younger is pretty basic. “Everything is going to be ok”. I wish I would have understood that. I would have avoided a lot of undo pressure and stress I put on myself and others in my orbit.
I give that advice frequently to the people that I mentor, many of which are former classmates of my son. I guess the movement would be to work hard, chill out and be a good person. If you do that, everything will fall into place.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
The person I would most like to have a private breakfast or dinner with is my Mom, and I am expecting to do that soon.
From a business perspective, I have found that the older you get, it is more important than ever to have mentors that both challenge and support you. In that capacity, I would love to meet Doug McMillon. I have a great deal of admiration for what Walmart has accomplished by being the low-cost provider to countless communities across the globe and what they have created through scale. Their evolution to multi-channel retail is something that is exciting to see.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My LinkedIn account is the best way to stay current on Winmark. I am open to interacting with anyone that can help us advance our mission to provide Resale for Everyone. We have over 2,800 territories available and are actively looking for partners to bring our sustainable business model to local communities across North America. https://www.linkedin.com/in/brett-heffes
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!