20: Gary Sirak on Mastering the Art of Family Businesses
Gary Sirak has been helping other people achieve their American Dream for the last 30 years of his life. He does this with the tools of his trade; insurance and proper planning. But not just an insurance agent, Gary is the alchemist of success and prosperity for family businesses where psychology, finance and good humor makes everything else work.
He is the CEO of Sirak Financial Services in Canton, Ohio. For the last 60 years his business, started by his father, Stan Sirak; taught Gary the most important lesson of his career: “My job isn’t to make as much money as I can. It’s to help my clients accomplish their goals.”
Gary Sirak on Mastering the Art of Family Businesses
What would you say if I were to bring you an interview from a gentleman who has 30 years of experience helping family-owned businesses transition to the next generation? I bet you’re going to enjoy this one. Mr. Gary Sirak is with us. He is an expert at helping families transition their business from generation to generation. Gary is also the author of two books. The first one, If Your Money Talked…What Secrets Would It Tell? was released in 2012.The second one, The American Dream, Revisited: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Results, was released in November of 2016. Gary, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Mitch. Pleasure to be here.
It’s interesting because I used to work for a family business and it was probably the most dysfunctional business I’ve ever worked in my life. I don’t know if you run into that, but maybe you could tell us a little bit about how you got started doing this.
If you were in a family business, if it’s not dysfunctional, something is clearly wrong. I’m a positive proof of that myself. I fell into this by accident, in the financial services world and advising people. It wasn’t what I really intended to do. I was an English major from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. My family had this financial services business, so at some point in time I decided to join the business because I was tired of doing what I had been doing. I found myself in the middle of a family business with an uncle, a father, and a brother. Being the youngest member, it was very fascinating to see how everybody was operating poorly. I just observed a lot and realized this is really not what should be happening, at least I didn’t think so, but I didn’t have any experience to know. I really learned on the job.
You’re not alone. I’ll tell you my quick experience. I worked with Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes building Business Breakthroughs. We were brought in on a consulting assignment for a dog food company. I won’t name the name, a multigenerational company. The CEO brought us in to basically fix the company. It was pretty dysfunctional. He told us we had free rein to interview everybody and then come back with recommendations. We did that. We came back and said, “Your vice president of sales’ last job was driving the delivery truck for your dog food. He’s probably not the right guy.” The CEO got quiet and thought for a second and said, “That’s my wife’s brother-in-law. I don’t know what we can do about that one.” What do you do?
This is what happened in my own company and I’ll never forget this. My dad basically started this institution 60 years ago and it’s our 60th anniversary, which is pretty cool. We’re third generation and the chances of doing that in the financial services is pretty much nil, but we’ve managed to get through that. The interesting thing is at one point in time, my brother and I walked into my uncle’s office and fired him for just reasons. It was very odd. I never thought I would fire my uncle. He was a lot older than me, but that’s what happens. You just learn what you have to do in a family business if you’re going to survive.
Your business is in helping other family businesses. Besides working in your own company, when did you start helping other family businesses?
Almost immediately, as soon as I had a comfort level. My real business is solving problems, and that’s what I realized. My father taught me that a long time ago and said, “Gary, when you’re going to be successful is when you stop thinking about money and just solve problems. You’ll make more than you ever dreamed.”I was a slow learner. It took me a while to catch on, but he was 100%right. There was a point in time where we had a ‘come to Jesus moment’ and it lit up and I said, “Dad, you’re right.” That’s when I changed my whole business model and I stopped thinking about anything except how can I help someone. That began to bloom right away when that happened because I could look at my business and say, “This is pretty screwed up. How can I help other people? Maybe I can keep them from having their problem.”
How many years ago was that?
Let’s walk through your career because we’re looking for the lessons. We’re trying to understand what you discovered as you started to build your practice and grow your business. Take me through the first several dozen of your assignments or with new clients. What happened?
I can run you through a number of them but I’ll give you one. I’m a big coffee guy. I circulate coffee shops where I live, and that’s my first stop in the morning. I met a friend of mine who’s also a client of mine, and we’ve been working together for 30 years. She’s also in a family business that happens to be a brick manufacturing company. We sat and talked about family businesses and her son came over. She has two sons. She has a brother in the business who’s not very happy because the one son is going to become the president. Basically, I really learned that I’m a psychologist now. I really don’t do much except psychology and sociology, helping people figure out how to solve their problems. We really talked about her problem. The funny thing is she and I became friends. When I moved to my first house, her parents lived in that house and that’s how I got to know her. Actually, she was the daughter of the son whose parents lived in the house. She’s the daughter-in-law. That’s how I met her. It’s funny that 30 years later, we’re still talking about the same thing we talked about 30 years ago. She was in her family business, she hadn’t taken over yet. She had her father and an uncle and the same stuff that we’re going through today.
Literally, you almost transitioned from being in the financial industry to the help industry. You’re helping families resolve problems. This is probably what you figured out by the time you had several dozen clients, am I right?
Absolutely, Mitch. That’s exactly what became apparent to me. I was a little bit of a slow learner. It took me a while to figure out what I was doing. Once I figured it out, I found a tremendous amount of joy. What I also learned is that you can’t solve everyone’s problem. You can give them advice, and sometimes they take the advice and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they take the advice and they don’t like what happened and they fire you just because they didn’t like the result even though it was the right thing to do. That’s an interesting one. I had that happen to me.
A lot of people go to places, go to people, hire coaches and even mentors and say, “Solve my problem.” Unfortunately, some of them are going to be disappointed because not everybody’s problem can be solved. To have that insight and understand that before you start this process makes all the difference in the world. I’m glad you brought that up. When you were in a business where you’re the sole problem solver, what do you do? When I started my software company, I felt like I was the only one who could ever close a sale. How did you scale, because obviously you can’t do everything yourself?
No, not even close. I’m a member of Strategic Coach, Dan Sullivan’s company out of Chicago, and I’ve been doing that for thirteen years. One of the reasons I joined there was exactly to solve the problem you just broached, “How do I figure this out and how do I make sure that there are other people that are helping me? How do I build my team?” What I’ve done is I’ve created a wonderful workforce around me. I have a great support system of about fifteen people. The beauty of it is if I’m away on vacation or if I’m doing something and I have some time off, they’re still functioning and doing the same things I’m doing and helping my clients and our clients solve problems. It’s taken me time to build that team and I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I probably have the best team I’ve ever had at this point in time.
Gary, this sounds like a coaching company, not a financial services company.
I think it’s because financial services help solve some of these problems. I’ll give you a great example. This is a very sad story but it just happened recently. A client of mine, an older gentleman who had actually worked with my father, had a very successful company. He had a son who was taking over the company and they transferred all the stock. At one point in time, I convinced the son who was taking over that he should buy a life insurance policy, a key man policy in this company because he truly was the key man. His father was stepping out. At 57 years old, he gets sick, gets pneumonia and passes away. We have a $2 million life insurance policy that we set up if something like this would happen, although you never really see it happening, but here it is. I’m with his father delivering a check for $2 million in change to a man who just watched his son, who now has this company back and has no clue what he’s going to do with it. He looked at me and said, “At least I have this to give myself some time to figure this out,” and I said, “Absolutely.” We’re solving problems, but sometimes financial problems help too. You can solve them with products that we sell.
Let’s go five or seven years into the future from that beginning date. What has changed in the way you did business from the first few years in business to five, seven, ten years later?
I actually know what I’m doing, Mitch. Honestly, all that education and all that screwing up, you remember what your mistakes are and you don’t make as many and you understand better. When someone asks me a question, I often don’t just respond to the first question. I will ask another question to dig deeper. I’ve become a better listener and a better problem solver in that period of time. In the beginning, I was okay. I’ve gotten a lot better.
What you’re talking about is called imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is where you’re doing the work but you don’t feel like you’re doing it well enough and it’s almost like you’re an imposter in the role. It sounds like in the beginning, it was a little scary for you and you may have felt that way, and then later you lost that and started to get real confident. Is that anything like what you went through?
That is exactly what it was. Part of it is just common sense. I’m making decisions and being asked to make decisions, not really having the background and the experience. What I really got in that timeframe is the experience, the background, and knowing how to correct my errors that I made, if I did make some, and of course I did. Some of the suggestions weren’t great suggestions and I figured that out. In the very beginning, you fake it a little bit until you make it. At this point in time, I’m very confident in what I tell people and why I feel that way. I have life experience behind me. Also, I’ve had so many different consultations with so many different companies. There’s a whole lot I’ve seen. I won’t say I’ve seen it all, but I’ve seen a bunch and that comes across loud and clear.
We all go through this. I know I went through it. I’ve actually been through several different occupations or professions, and each time I transition, I have those same set of feelings all over again. Just like you described, you work through that and you become confident. This is a common feeling. It’s something that we all experience as entrepreneurs. What was it like when you finally realized that I now have stable confidence? The amount of change in your day when you started, where all this new stuff was coming at you, compared to where you are now, there’s probably not too many things you haven’t heard or seen so far at 30 years, right?
That’s very accurate. One of the things I noticed is a whole lot of people started hugging me and they kept leaving my office in a much better mood. I realized that they kept always saying the same thing.”You don’t know how much better this makes me feel, Gary. I now feel like I have something solid. I have someone to talk to.” Some person said, “I don’t know why you don’t have one of those Snoopy signs that says Psychologist on your door. You really get us in a better place in life.” That was never my intention. That wasn’t what I set out to do. It just happened and then I found out I was pretty good at it. Now I have a following because of that where people will come to me and say, “I know you helped them solve their problem.”
Maybe because I’ve been around so long, a lot of people I know are retiring. What I’ve learned is most of those people have no clue how to retire, not only on the money part but on the mental part. The mental part is way more important than the money part in some regards. I have lots of very wealthy clients die two years after they retired because they didn’t have the mental side handled. They had plenty of money, $25million, $15 million, $10 million, but it didn’t matter. They didn’t have the brain side of it worked out. They would come to me and say, “I got the money.” I’d say, “What are you going to do for the rest of your life?”They look at me like, “I’m going to travel.” I say, “Yeah, for about a month, then what are you really going to do?”They had no idea.
This is very common. I saw it in my own family. I watched as my dad retired to Florida and within three years, he restarted the business that he sold. He just couldn’t figure out and never was truly comfortable. Finally, many years later, he did get the hang of it. I think it’s a common problem, so I agree with you.
It’s so common. I’ll give you a great example. The man who cleaned my building for the last ten years retired, and he sent me a resume because he wants to go to work at Mark’s, which is a department store here, just because he’s so bored. When he left me, he said, “I’m never going to work again. I’m done. This is it. I’m finished. I’ve retired from two places. I’m done.”Six months later, you can’t believe how bored he is.
Let’s go back to business-building here. When you started, you probably didn’t need a whole lot of systems in place. When did you start building, creating, or hiring people to help you build and run systems?
About twenty years ago is when I really started realizing that everything I was doing was a system and that everything I had in my head needed to be on paper. That’s when I started transferring that process and really creating programs, thought processes and homework just so I could put things together and go back and figure out where we were and do a timeline or a scorecard.
The systems that you started building ten years ago, are these the same systems you have today?
Yes. They’re tweaked of course because we’ve made them better. When we started out, they were rough. Now they’re not very rough at all. They’re pretty finely polished, actually.
Many companies create systems when they first are getting going and then hit some point where they have to completely replace them. You are lucky in a sense that you didn’t have to do that, but it’s very common. In fact, what’s more common is people build the business without systems and then later have to figure out how to systematize what they’re doing every day. Again, very smart, very insightful on your part. Let’s now talk about sales. A lot of what you do is word of mouth, but tell me how you got clients.
I was pretty stubborn. I had coffee with a couple of bankers and we were talking about how they have also been in business as long as I have and they said, “It’s really interesting, the new generation just wants to text people and expect to do business that way, and we were always brought up on creating relationships.”That’s really what I’ve always tried to do. I find that communicating over a cellphone doesn’t work particularly well for me. I would much rather have a conversation with them. If I could, I’d rather be in front of them. I’ll give a great example. There was an individual that I tried to see for five years and finally he agreed to let me see him. I walked into his office and I knew this guy and I were going to do business. The reason is because all the stuff he had on the walls, his books, were all things that I had on my wall and my books. We sat down, I had never met him before, I was referred to him, and I had called on him and called on him but couldn’t get there. I get in there and we talked about all the stuff on his walls and his books for about an hour, and we spent five minutes on business. He is my largest client today.
This is a very personal story and what you’re talking about is building relationships, but what I’m asking you is how do you find those relationships?
Part of it is just being attentive to what’s going on around you. Relationships are a great thing. I attend certain organizations and I’ve joined different organizations. I just joined Rotary for the first time. The reason I joined Rotary is a couple friends of mine are in it and said, “We really do great things for people.” I said, “What do you do?”He was telling me, and I said, “I’ll join.” He said, “This might be good for your business.” I said, “That would be wonderful if it is. If it isn’t, I don’t care because I’m going to join for the right reason. I like what you guys are doing.”What I’ve tried to do is join organizations, get involved in things that are important to me and that I care about. What I find out is if I care about them, other people that are in the same organization care about them and we have something in common, then you just wait and see what happens. I just try and help people solve problems in those organizations. It’s what I do in real life. It’s addictive. That’s how I create the relationships and that’s where I find them. I look for people that have common interests that I have.
What I’m hearing is you’re a networker. You go to meetings, you join clubs, you get yourself out there, you show up and offer to help. It sounds like the formula that you’re using right now.
It’s the same one. It’s funny how it’s worked so well for the last 35 years, and it really has. The first five years were tough and I really was trying to earn a living, so I wasn’t very good at it, but that was one of those transitions that I made, a big breaking point. I joined Jaycees. When I joined Jaycees, my cousin was a member and said, “Gary, I’m going to give you the secret to being a successful Jaycee.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “Just go and work on everybody’s projects. Don’t do insurance, don’t talk about it. Just work on their projects and see what happens.” I said, “Okay.” For two years, I did nothing but work on people’s projects. There were 65 members and 50 of them were clients of mine.
You’re an expert networker, but do you network enough to keep a team of your size going all the time?
No. Part of my goals is to teach them how to network, so that is one of the things I’ve done. I try and bring people in, explain how networking works, and coach them to become better networkers, I’m good at it, but I don’t want to spend all my time doing that. I have other hobbies and interests. I like to write books and do things, so I don’t really want to do that stuff. I don’t want to go to black tie affairs anymore. I’m tired of all that. What I really want to do is teach other people to do that, pick up the ball and run with it.
Have you done the modern version of networking? Do you participate in groups on LinkedIn or Facebook?
I do Facebook mostly because of the books that I write. I find that it’s a fairly good way to get that out for marketing. I’m on LinkedIn, but I’ve not had great success. It’s one of those things where technology’s my friend, I just don’t know how good of a friend it is yet. I’m still trying to figure that out.
The thing I find is that a lot of what worked many years ago will work online and will work in those types of communities. I do find that having a presence in online communities does work well. It’s the same theory that you follow. You basically are there to help people. If you help people, people want to know more about you. That, what I’m hearing, is the basis of your entire success.
It really, truly is. I just joined two organizations online. Both of them I’ve started to get a little more active in because they’re actually asking questions I know the answer to. Every time I post something and help somebody solve a problem, something happens off of that that’s pretty good. Clearly, a part of my networking and marketing is the online presence. There are a couple of things that I’m trying to do new that we’ve never done before and we’ll see how those work. I’m always willing to give it a shot.
I want to ask you about the advice you would give to a small company. They’re probably at this stage doing okay, maybe a little bit better than breaking even, but they’re struggling. They can’t scale as fast as they’d like. Let’s say a young woman walks into your office and she wants to get some advice from you. You probably are going to ask a bunch of questions, but in essence, what is it that you’re looking for in a situation like that?
One of the things that most companies really concern me is how poor their balance sheet is set up and how little money they have in reserve to solve problems or end a crisis. One of the things I focused on is making sure they have cash. If they don’t have cash, I want to know why they don’t have cash and how they’re going to get it because ultimately, that’s what allows companies to survive. When I find companies failing, I usually find them failing because they didn’t have enough financial support behind them. That’s one of the places I hone in on because it’s something I know quite well. The second thing is I want to find out what kind of talent they have. Do they have their brother-in-law in charge of sales who really drove a delivery truck? Those are the things I really am after. I want to know what kind of talent they have and if they’re happy with their talent. If not, why haven’t they changed it or what are they doing or what’s going on? It’s almost always family that’s tied in and they don’t know how to get rid of their family. They’re not getting along anyway, and yet they’re working together because they think that’s a good thing. It’s fascinating. For sure, those two questions are guaranteed that are going to be on my radar.
Money and talent, you couldn’t have asked better questions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had entrepreneurs come to me and basically digging into the same issues. The only problem I have when I have an entrepreneur like that in front of me is when I say, “Tell me about your reserves,” and they say, “We don’t have any.” Your answer was, “You have to get more.” Most of the time, they’re telling me, “I know that. How?”
That’s the first question they ask me. They said, “We don’t have them. How do you build them?” I say, “I can tell you how I built mine.” They said, “How?” I said, “Very slowly and every week. I just scrape off something every single week and I put it into a reserve account.” They said, “How do you pay your bills?” I said, “Slowly, but I made sure I had reserves. Quite frankly, that’s the only way this is going to work unless you have a big hit and then you take a portion of that and put it in a reserve. That’s okay. Then you’re hunting elephants. I was never good at hunting elephants. I was very good at getting singles and doubles. I didn’t hit many grand slams.” My point was that I just began to build my reserves very slowly. If I had $10,000 in the checkbook, I was thrilled. If I had $20,000, I was really thrilled. I just worked from that mentality and really never changed from that.
I feel like I follow the same basic advice, both in my own life and with the clients that I work with. I have a question for you, Gary, because this is my favorite question, I call it the change the world question. The reason I ask this question is because in some cases, there may be folks out there that would like to help you, so think about this. What is it that you’re doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to literally change the world?
You hit the nail on the head squarely. The reason I wrote this last book, The American Dream, Revisited, was because of a conversation that I happened to overhear in a coffee shop right down the road from me. It’s called Karma Cafe. It was early one morning, I go in, I get my mocha, and I sit and think about my day, my week, my month, maybe my life, it just depends on where my head’s at that day. I was sitting at a table, four college students came and sat behind me and started talking about the American dream. Their conversation drifted to the American disaster. I was very disturbed by that conversation. Disturbed is an understatement. I just really didn’t like how that was going. Then one of the students who hadn’t said anything started talking about the fact that he had college debt, he had credit cards, he had all that stuff, but he was going to get a job, he’ll pay them off and he was going to have a great life. They just shut him down in about a minute. He never had a prayer. They got up, changed subjects. I walked out of there in really bad karma. Four or three days later, in the middle of the night, I woke up and said, “I’m writing a book.” I just was so ticked that young people had such a negative attitude, it really bothered me.My answer to your question is the reason I wrote that book is that I want to keep that from happening. I want to see how many lives I can change by writing a book that’s positive about the American dream that says, “Stuff is going to happen, but don’t quit. The real world is not going to be friendly and easy and all that stuff, but so what? You get over it. You do what you have to do, and you can have a successful life.”By the way, I don’t think that a successful life means you’ve got to be wealthy. It just means you’ve got to be successful and happy in what you’re doing. I don’t think money and happiness go together so well, at least sometimes.
Gary, thank you so much. If there is somebody out there who can either get involved or find out more, where would they go to do that?
GarySirak.com, that’s my website. I have a lot of information on it. I have a scorecard on there for people trying to achieve their American dream. They can actually see where they score out on the American dream.
Can they get answers in that book that you wrote?
Absolutely, they will definitely get direction, Mitch.
Gary, it’s been such a pleasure chatting with you. I learned so much about family businesses and I really appreciate the conversation. Thank you so much.
This has been an absolute pleasure. You are talking about something that’s near and dear to my heart, so this is a win-win, Mitch. Thank you.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode:
- Gary’s Website
- If Your Money Talked…What Secrets Would It Tell?
- The American Dream, Revisited: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Results