What happens when you and your company become stars

It's the morning after the night before, and your company has been "discovered." Every reporter, book author, business professor, and CEO around has finally realized you've found the road to Truth -- not to mention triple-digit compound annual growth rates. So what happens next? Business as usual, maybe?

Not a chance. -- P.B.B.

* * *

The man on the phone from GM was looking for an after-dinner speaker to inspire this year's assembly of Pontiac and Oldsmobile dealers.

"I can't find anybody I like," he was saying. "Money isn't a problem, but I want somebody smart, entertaining, and well known. Somebody -- you know -- entrepreneurial."

"Well -- "

"Look, you guys know people at small companies," he continued. "What about one of them? Jobs, maybe? Or that kid in Cambridge, Kapor, the former disc jockey. What's he doing? Or that woman with the cookies, Mrs. Fields? And how about the guy in Texas who sells Cadillacs . . . "

What he wanted were the prized Rolodex listings on the growth-company beat, the people Claude Rains in Casablanca might have called the "usual suspects."

You remember the scene. Humphrey Bogart has just killed the Nazi who is trying to prevent Ingrid Bergman from leaving French Morocco, and Rains (police prefect Louis Renault) is the only witness.

"Major Strasser has been shot," Rains explains to the policemen who have rushed to the scene.

He pauses. He looks at Bogart. You wonder whether he'll squeal.

"Round up the usual suspects."

With that, Bergman escapes. So does Bogart, Rains going with him. ("Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.") The screen fades to black.

But what happens to the usual suspects?

Presumably, in Casablanca, they are interrogated briefly and released.

But is real life the same as reel life? That's what we began to wonder as we listened to the man from GM rattle off the names of the usual suspects.

What happens when the heads of growing companies -- people like Debbi Fields, Stew Leonard, Carl Sewell, and Jack Stack -- find themselves rounded up by the likes of the man from GM?

Is it fun? Annoying? Frustrating? What's it like to wake up one morning and find yourself a celebrity?

Strange, say those who have been discovered. "I'm a shot-and-beer type of guy, and all of a sudden people are listening to me like my opinion is worth more than theirs," says Jack Stack, president of Springfield Remanufacturing Center Corp. and the subject of a long, flattering profile in a national business magazine. "That's scary."

It's also proof he's arrived. After all, being profiled in print and consulted on issues of the day is something all of the usual suspects dreamed about when they started their companies.

But the constant scrutiny that comes with all this attention is enough to recall the ancient proverb, "Be careful what you wish for; it might come true."

Celebrityhood, some have found, is a full-time deal -- and one that makes it very hard to do the job that brought fame in the first place. When you're talking to reporters, you're not minding the store.

Instead you get to sign autographs, pose for pictures ("which is incredibly flattering"), and meet your idols -- who, not surprisingly, turn out to be other businesspeople. Somewhere along the way you become expert at dealing with the press.

The usual suspects, no matter where they are, return reporters' phone calls quickly. They've learned to speak in quotes. And they now almost intuitively provide the sort of wonderful anecdote or telling detail that brings any story about them to life.

They work at this. They study articles about themselves, trying to determine what it is that reporters need to write a good story. (Indeed, Carl Sewell is one of the owners of D, a city magazine that covers Dallas.) The work pays off -- and not just in continued good press. It boosts sales (after all, publicity is great advertising), and increases their clout. Thanks to all this attention, the usual suspects can now influence, however slightly, the thinking of the Fortune 500.

Sewell, who owns three car dealerships in Dallas and one in New Orleans, is now a member of the dealer council that is helping GM design the Saturn, GM's car of the future. Executives representing companies ranging from Citibank to Procter & Gamble have trooped through Stew Leonard's dairy store in Connecticut to learn his secrets of customer service. And Debbi Fields has had the chance to talk, at $10,000 a pop, to the corporate elite -- folks who might not otherwise have cared what a bright mother of four had to say about the importance of team spirit and a positive attitude.

That's terrific. But Stack, who heads a Missouri company that was once part of International Harvester Co., found that being featured on the cover of a magazine (this one) brought his company to a screeching halt for three full months, and Stew Leonard, who "adores" all the attention, finds that what he does for a living has changed.

"In a lot of ways, my job right now is to be Stew Leonard," says the man whose name adorns the "world's largest dairy store." Thanks to all the attention, he says, "it's become very hard to run this place."

Leonard, 58, has been featured in a dozen books, and says he now spends a large part of his day responding to requests for speeches, doing television interviews (yesterday he was on "The Morning Show" in Cleveland, tomorrow the people on superstation WWOR out of New York City want to stop by), and promoting things he believes in (he's the focal point in a series of Dale Carnegie ads).

A former milkman who was forced to open a store when the state decided to put a highway through his Norwalk, Conn., dairy farm, Leonard is quick to stress that he's not complaining. "I love it," he claims, and employees, family, and friends say he really does. There is little reason he shouldn't. He's a natural on camera -- he's appeared in one of Tom Peters's videos and is featured in INC.'s upcoming video on marketing. He's quotable ("Who wouldn't like spending their days talking about their company? It's like bragging about your kids"). And thanks to his status, he can count Paul Newman and Sam Walton among his friends.

"Businesspeople who tell you they don't like the attention aren't telling the truth," he says. "This is fun."

But it's also trying, even if Leonard doesn't like to admit it.

On the day the writer came to visit, Leonard was being interviewed for yet another video. The camera crew had set up in his office, which is filled with the books in which he is mentioned and huge pictures of Leonard with President Reagan, Leonard with Tom Peters, and Leonard with Frank Perdue. Things were going fine, until the man handling audio noticed he was picking up the sound of singing dogs.

That's not surprising. After all, Stew Leonard's is a cross between a huge supermarket and Disney World. In addition to aisles of meat and racks of cookies, there are singing and dancing dairy products and, yes, eight-foot-tall dogs -- doing bad Elvis Presley impressions.

Very cute, the sound man said, but it would be annoying if the dogs were heard on the tape.

"Could we turn them off?" he asked.

It was then that you truly saw what it means to be a celebrity. Watching Leonard's face, you could see he wanted to be gracious. But you also saw him thinking about the effect the lack of the performing dogs would have on the people -- especially kids -- wandering through the store downstairs. He hated the idea of silence.

The sound man and the rest of the film crew, though, never saw any hesitation. Leonard picked up a phone, and the dogs hushed.

And the second the interview was over, Leonard had them howling again.

Leonard looks slightly embarrassed when a visitor asks about this later. "You do what you can to make the interview go well. There are trade-offs [to all this attention], but you can minimize them."

And as Carl Sewell is quick to point out, you can also use them to your advantage.

Sewell was discovered by the ubiquitous Tom Peters. After listening to Peters talk to a business group in Dallas, Sewell, a second-generation car dealer, invited the co-author of In Search of Excellence to come by for a tour of Sewell Village Cadillac. What Peters found was a deep-carpeted showroom decorated with dark woods and chandeliers. But as impressive as the front room is, it's the back shop that captures your attention. Everything -- including the floor -- is immaculate. And Sewell works hard to keep it that way. In his body-welding shop, for example, sanders are attached to a vacuum hose so that the dust they produce is immediately captured.

"We are proud of what we do," says Sewell, 45. "This is one way to show it."

The pride also shows up in the work. Sewell's dealership has ranked at the top, or near there, in every customer-satisfaction survey Cadillac has taken.

When Peters's syndicated article was published in 1985, Sewell and his staff went from anonymous to famous virtually overnight. People who had never noticed them started coming by and asking for tours. Tours of a car dealership! The place has become almost as popular with Dallas visitors as Southfork Ranch.

Now all that is pretty flattering, but when you are leading folks around and explaining for the 158th time why you keep your repair shop so clean, you're not selling cars. And in a local economy in which your two biggest industries -- oil and real estate -- are flatter than an armadillo leveled by a semi, the last thing you need is something that distracts from the business. But Sewell doesn't see it that way.

"First off, all this attention helps sell cars," he says. "More people in Dallas know us now than before the article." And that attention has also helped Sewell expand. When the folks who make Sterling and Toyota were looking for dealers to sell their new luxury cars, they came a-courtin'.

"Second, when people come to see us, I have access to the best minds in business," Sewell says. "Sure, they ask us questions, but I get to ask them questions about how they do things, too." Executives from Procter & Gamble, major banks, and even Ford have come by for a tour, and every one of them has been questioned by Sewell -- as was a writer who came to call.

After patiently answering questions for two hours, Sewell turns the tables. "When was the last time you drove a Cadillac?" he asks.

"Probably 1971."

"Well, that is about to change," says Sewell, handing over the keys to his car, a 1988 Cadillac Allante, GM's attempt at a high-priced sports car.

The gesture is, of course, one any good host might make. Sewell understands that reporters, even those who work for business magazines, are unlikely to spend much time driving $56,000 sports cars. But he had an ulterior motive. The reporter could serve as another form of market research.

"Tell me what you like and don't like," he says as soon as his guest is behind the wheel. "Is the seat comfortable? Is the ride too soft?" The questions keep coming through the entire tour of suburban Dallas.

The car handles better than anticipated, but doesn't accelerate as quickly as expected. It doesn't feel like you're really driving. It's more like steering a couch.

"Do you think it ought to come in a five-speed?" Sewell asks.

"Yep."

"Me too. You know, I have some folks from Cadillac coming down here tomorrow. That's what I'm going to tell them."

That is what being a celebrity can mean. You can get GM to come to you. And GM will listen.

Being in the public eye, says Sewell, also raises expectations and puts more pressure on you. That, he says, is good.

"If we stub our toes, a lot of people will notice, but that just gives us one more reason not to stub our toes. I want us to be constantly improving."

But the pressure of knowing -- or at least thinking -- that the whole world is watching, paralyzed Springfield Remanufacturing for three months, after the company was profiled in INC.

For the first week after the article came out, everything was fine. The only noticeable change was that company managers -- who typically have little chance of gracing the pages of GQ -- started coming to work with shined shoes. Some were even spotted wearing ties in the company offices in southwestern Missouri. The officers were pleased that their open-management style had been heralded in a national magazine and singled out as key to the company's turnaround.

Then things got worse. "We got all these letters praising us," Stack remembers. "Business-school professors said they wanted to write us up, and we started living in this fantasyland, thinking how great we were."

Euphoria quickly led to paranoia. "We began thinking that the whole world was watching everything we did," says Stack. "The article triggered requests for more interviews, people were asking me to make speeches, and suddenly we started worrying about how our decisions would look to outsiders.

"I'll give you an example. The article praised the fact that we were able to share information and get everyone involved without having a union. Well, we had one guy who was on the brink of being fired. Normally, his supervisor would have handled it. But this guy started talking about how he was going to bring the union in, and we just panicked. We spent two months worrying about what would happen if we became unionized. How would that look to the outside world? We had meeting after meeting worrying about unions, instead of spending 20 minutes dealing with a guy who would have been happier elsewhere."

The union never arrived, and the worker finally left on his own, but Stack had had enough. He called a meeting of his top managers and said, "We can't let this publicity control us. We have to control it. We're becoming afraid of doing anything, because we might fail. But if we don't do anything, we will fail. It's time to move on."

Still, there is an aftermath. Stack has become a local hero. The folks at the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce have asked him to join, and he is getting three requests per month to talk, compared with maybe three per year before.

According to Debbi Fields, that goes with the territory. Fields, whose high profile is due to many things -- she's a woman running a $118-million company, her name is on the store, and she's young and pretty -- says the secret to handling all this attention is keeping it in perspective.

"I don't see myself as 'Mrs. Fields.' I'm Debbi Fields, and there is a big difference."

But not to many people. "By being Mrs. Fields, you are totally accountable for everything that happens in the stores. If a cookie is overdone, or someone is unhappy about our service, it's my fault. That's the way it should be. I want to know about it."

But most of the time, the comments are positive and the attention flattering. At the request of Simon & Schuster, last year -- at the age of 30 -- she wrote her autobiography, One Smart Cookie. (The message: if you concentrate on customer service, quality, and can-do spirit, you can accomplish anything. The royalties went to charity.) She finds the requests to do speeches, interviews, and sign autographs "exciting and flattering."

As do all the folks who have been discovered. They point out that this is more fun than bothersome, and they go out of their way to make sure it will continue. All the people in this story responded to an interview request within hours, were willing to rearrange their schedules to answer questions and fit in photo sessions, and if something needed a bit of research before they could provide an answer, it was supplied the next day.

Part of this is just good manners. But it is more than that. Good manners may have called for Stew Leonard to meet a reporter at the door. He didn't have to put the name of the reporter's magazine in 25-foot lights on the electronic billboard that usually displays the prices of eggs and vegetables.

Good manners may have required Stack to keep playing telephone tag with a writer. But he didn't have to leave a message at the writer's home saying he was worried that the writer might be on deadline, leaving his home number with the message "You can call me until 11 p.m."

And good manners may have required that someone send off a copy of Debbi Fields's book, when a reporter told her assistant that he needed it for fact-checking purposes, but it didn't have to be sent via Federal Express and include a personal dedication.

No, this is more than good manners. It is an implicit understanding that fame can be fleeting; maybe not as short as the 15 minutes Andy Warhol promised everyone, but short nonetheless.

Consider Sandra Kurtzig.

Between 1983 and 1985, Kurtzig, founder of ASK Computer Systems Inc., was written up some 53 times in major newspapers and national magazines. Back then computers were hot. Enterpreneurs were hot. Women in business were hot. Kurtzig was a natural.

Then Kurtzig, who intended ASK to be only a part-time job while she raised her two sons, turned over the running of the company to someone else (although she remained chairman), and the stories stopped.

So did the attention.

Here is what happened when a writer telephoned ASK's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters not long ago, trying to find her.

"Hello, ASK Computer Systems."

"Sandra Kurtzig, please."

"Who?

"Sandra Kurtzig. K-U-R-T-Z-I-G."

"Oh." (Long pause.) "She's like the chairman or something, right?"

"Right. Is she there?"

"No."

"Do you know where I can reach her?"

"No, but maybe somebody at the corporate offices does. I can give you that number."

Sic transit gloria mundi.

* * *

Research assistance was provided by Leslie Brokaw.


STATISTICS

CARL SEWELL

Home: Dallas

Age: 45

Occupation: President, Sewell Village Cadillac. Owns three car dealerships in Dallas and one in New Orleans

Discovered: Tom Peters's syndicated newspaper column, in 1985

If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's: Treat the customer like you would like to be treated

My heroes are: My dad and Stanley Marcus

Last book read: The Icarus Agenda, by Robert Ludlum

I never could: Talk Cadillac into Grand Prix racing

Quote: "We like giving tours. It has gotten so that we have to schedule them. But if someone shows up without an appointment, and just has to be shown around, we'll do it."

STEW LEONARD

Home: Westport, Conn.

Age: 58

Occupation: Chairman, Stew Leonard's, a Norwalk, Conn., dairy store that grosses $100 million annually

Discovered: The New York Times, June 1983

If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's: Don't walk away from negative people . . . RUN!

My hero is: Walt Disney

Last book read: Thriving on Chaos, by Tom Peters (he's in it)

I never could: Have done it without the inspiration of my wife, Marianne

Quote: "Rule number one, the customer is always right. Rule number two, if the customer is ever wrong, reread rule number one." While many companies say this, Leonard has it chiseled on a 6,000-pound piece of granite that sits in the front of his store.

DEBBI FIELDS

Home: Park City, Utah

Age: 31

Occupation: "Head cookie-baker," president, and chief executive officer of Mrs. Fields Inc., which runs a chain of more than 400 stores that recorded $118 million in revenues last year

Discovered: INC., July 1984

If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's: Good enough never is

My hero is: Mr. Applebaum, my English teacher, who believed in me and challenged my mind

Last book read: Marketing Warfare, by Al Ries and Jack Trout

I never could: Compromise

Quote: "There is no such thing as an insignificant human being. To treat people that way is a kind of sin and there's no reason for it. None."

JACK STACK

Home: Springfield, Mo.

Age: 39

Occupation: President, Springfield Remanufacturing Center Corp., a $42-million former division of International Harvester

Discovered: The Wall Street Journal, February 1983

If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's: Always be prepared to go backward

My hero is: John Galt (a character in Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand)

Last book read: The Goal: The Process of Ongoing Improvement, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox

I never could: Take myself seriously

Quote: "The hard thing is to say no to people who want you to join boards or serve on committees. You'd like to do everything, but you just can't. And no matter how you explain it, some people will take your saying no personally."