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What do you get when one Inc. 500 CEO discovers a smart young company builder in his own backyard? You get -- eventually -- two Inc. 500 CEOs. Three-time winner Ric Leichtung of Leichtung Workshops Catalog, in Cleveland, stumbled upon Levenger Co. back in 1990. The retired CEO was looking for a reading table and found one advertised by Levenger in Scientific American. He noticed that the catalog company, in Delray Beach, Fla., was 10 minutes away from his home, and in typical entrepreneurial fashion, he drove over and met the owner, Steve Leveen.
"I said, 'You'll need some help here," Leichtung recalls, "and Steve said, 'I know it." Leichtung, whose own fast-growing catalog of woodworking tools placed him on the first three Inc. 500 lists (in 1982, 1983, and 1984), offered to review Levenger's 16-page black-and-white catalog of readers' tools.
The next day Leveen received several single-spaced typewritten pages in which Leichtung tore apart the catalog. Many young CEOs might not have taken the criticism so well, but Leveen thought Leichtung was right and called him up to tell him so. "I felt like the Karate Kid, or like Luke Skywalker getting the Force," Leveen recalls.
During that first year, the two businessmen talked on the phone and faxed letters daily. Leveen, who's now on his fourth three-ring binder of Leichtung letters, claims that some days they exchanged three letters each. "I would respond to his letters immediately. I worked on his schedule, because when you're not paying someone, you make it as convenient for that person as possible." As for getting paid, "in the beginning Steve couldn't have afforded me," Leichtung says. "Toward the end it was too late to start charging him!"
Leveen, who, as president, manages the business along with his wife, cofounder and vice-president Lori Leveen, acknowledges that eventually the two of them would have made the changes necessary to grow their business to its current $29 million in sales. But they got there a whole lot faster with Leichtung's help. "He taught me every aspect of the business."
In 1993 Leveen took another suggestion from his mentor and applied for the Inc. 500. Levenger placed 8th on last year's list and 39th this year.
Leveen knows he can never repay Leichtung for all his help, but he's trying. A plaque on the door of Levenger's new library and main conference room reads, "Leichtung Library, Dedicated to Ric Leichtung, Levenger's Mentor and Friend, April 1994." Leveen dedicated the library to Leichtung because "he's a lover of books, and I wanted to do something that would be a lasting testimony to him. I want all the Levenger staff members to know how important he's been."