Jack Nadel, a decorated World War II veteran and highly successful entrepreneur, started distributor Jack Nadel International with his late wife, Elly, in January 1953, after several years in the import/export business. During his nearly 70 years in business, Nadel has founded, acquired and operated more than a dozen companies that have produced hundreds of new products, thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in profits. During the Reagan administration, he was appointed as an official delegate to a trade mission to Japan working toward the goal of free trade around the world. Now 89, Nadel lectures at colleges and universities, writes books, mentors future business leaders and joins his wife, Julie, in supporting philanthropic efforts through the Nadel Foundation in their home community of Santa Barbara, California. Among his recent contributions is a music therapy program for hospice patients, which Nadel introduced six years ago. He not only provides the musical therapists but the iPods and speakers so patients can choose their own music.
PPB: You’ve had a really impressive track record for success. What was the hardest lesson you had to learn?
Nadel: I had to learn to do my own research when making important decisions. For example, when I opened my company’s operation in Europe, I started with an office and factory in Italy and it was a mistake because the employment situation wasn’t right. If I’d done my research properly, I would have opened it in the South of France—and saved a lot of money.
No. 2, I learned to dismiss my ego and admit I’m capable of making mistakes. No. 3, I learned to listen. Some people are so intent on what they want to say they don’t hear what the other person is saying. If you learn to listen you really find out how to make a deal because you hear what the other person wants. There are two ends to a deal—I’ve got to find out what the other person wants before I can make a satisfactory deal. Perfect your ability to listen and then decide what you can take in. You can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s answers. You have to learn how to think.
PPB: What would you say is your proudest accomplishment and why?
Nadel: I’ve been a fortunate guy. I was chairman of PPAI in 1970, and I’m proud of the accomplishments of my administration. I’m also proud to have been elected to the PPAI Hall of Fame [1988.] I also helped women to crack the glass ceiling in the promotional specialty business by being one of the first to hire female account executives in 1953, and I’m proud of that. Another is when I sold my company to a public company in 1968. It was the only time I worked for anyone else—for four years. Then I bought back the company on a leveraged buyout.
I’m also proud of the writing, lecturing and mentoring I’ve done. I get a kick out of seeing people make more money. I can’t leap over tall buildings anymore, but I can write.
PPB: What advice do you have for small distributors struggling to stay afloat?
Nadel: I think small distributors have to take all the risks of business conditions into mind. Are they better off as a small distributor, taking all risks and having to perform all functions, or should they do the things they do best? The most important advice I would give is for the small-business owners to take stock of what they can do better than anybody else and specialize in that arena. What are the capabilities you can bring to bear that will make you stand head and shoulders above the competitors? And stop selling products—sell ideas. One of the things I understood from the get-go was that it wasn’t about the products; it was about the ideas and solving problems. When I was a salesman, my opening question was: “What’s your biggest problem? If I know what your problem is, I can help you solve it.” I became an ally rather than an opponent.
PPB: If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
Nadel: There’s really nothing that I can think of that I would have not done the same way today. The thinking was right. Anytime you have a new idea or a different approach, you’ll find a thousand people who will give you reasons not to do it. When I went into Europe, everyone said I was crazy—that it wouldn’t work. But it did work. I had the experience. I was in foreign trade; I had traveled to other parts of the world. If I had it all to do over again, I’d do more!
I’ve certainly made mistakes, but I’ve never agonized over them. It’s a mistake to agonize over bad decisions. I never lost something for lack of effort. I never agonized over losing a deal. You lose a few. Take your losses and don’t go down with the ship. Put it into your bank of understanding and don’t do it again. I never use the words “should have” or “could have.” I don’t reprimand myself, and if I made a mistake, then I correct it.
PPB: How do you want to be remembered in the promotional products industry?
Nadel: I would like to be remembered as an innovator, original thinker and as a doer. I’ve always been very positive and thought out-of-the-box but had an outrageous percentage of success. I would say I want to be remembered as originating, innovating and succeeding.
My goal now at 89 is to pass it on through this book, the internet, blogs—whatever means I have to pass on the word to a better life. If you look at the base of a great number of problems we face in the world today, it always comes back to the economy. People with full stomachs who are doing what they like to do are happier than those with empty stomachs. The spirit of entrepreneurship is one of the major solutions to our economic problems. The individual worker, small-business man or woman can no longer count on what used to be a staple … the relationship of the individual to the corporation has diminished tremendously. One of our greatest weapons is the American entrepreneur.
Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.