Jim Zuehlke | Crain's Twin Cities

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Jim Zuehlke


Cardinal Board Services is a Wayzata, Minn.-based executive recruitment firm that specializes in assisting privately held companies with an annual revenue between $50 million to $1 billion.

The Mistake:

Trying to be a "transactional" salesperson underestimating the power of personal connection.

In 1990, I told my wife Mary that I wanted to start this executive search firm. And she agreed but said I needed to give up and get a real job if our savings dipped below $20,000. So in the middle of a bad recession, with three kids at home – including a one-month-old baby – I set out to start this recruitment business.

It was very high pressure, and our savings account was dropping like a rock. I was incredibly frustrated, and then the answer came to me. I remembered something from the day of my very first sale back in 1976. I had just inked a contract with Harvey Mills, the head of a manufacturing distribution company in St. Paul called Mills Enterprise. I found the prospect, I worked the lead, and we signed the contract at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon.

In sales school, they tell you that once you get ink on paper, you get the hell out of there before they change their mind. So that day, I got up, grabbed my stuff and was ready to bolt out the door. Harvey looks at me and says, “Hey, don’t leave just yet, have a seat.” I sat down all confused and Harvey says, “Well, I don’t know anything about you. What’s your story? Where did you grow up? Where did you go to college? What do you like to do in your spare time?”

We talked for more than an hour, and we got to a place where we were half-friends, half-business associates, and stayed that way for a very long time. I still go to the dentist he recommended to me. Harvey’s lesson was: great salespeople build relationships, the more personal the better.

Unfortunately, that message didn’t stick. Not right away. For 15 years after that, I was what you might call a “transactional” salesperson. I was all about good product and good service, but I wasn’t much for becoming pals with my clients. I’m naturally an introvert, and it just wasn’t something I wanted to do.

Great salespeople build relationships, the more personal the better.

The Lesson:

But by embracing Harvey’s lesson in 1990, I was able to win the sales I needed to launch Cardinal and not completely bankrupt our savings – though I came darn close.

Twenty-six years later, Harvey’s lesson is still with me. Almost every client I have, it’s like that. I know their personal life, and it helps out a lot that we relate at that level so when the tough business things have to happen, we can get through that.

Follow Cardinal Board Services on Twitter at @Cardinal_Boards.

Photo courtesy of Jim Zuehlke

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