Recently I took part in a phone conversation about creativity in business with a writer who is working on a book. She first wanted to hear the story about how our company got its name, and for me, I confess, that's become a bit of a hoary chestnut because I've told it so often. (The two-sentence version goes something like this: We changed our name from the HVLS Fan Co. to Big Ass Fans because people kept calling and asking if we made "those big-ass fans." After a few years of responding with, "you betcha!" -- and possibly after a few bourbons -- we decided to go with it.)
But then she asked which business books had inspired me -- "Yertle the Turtle," of course -- and what companies had been "creative" influences. Well, in terms of product development, there's 3M. But more than anything, that last question transported me, like the aroma of a fine sopressata salami, back to a certain Midwest deli with an inspirational business model: Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
For anyone who doesn't know the place, Zingerman's serves sandwiches made of ingredients like Iberico bacon, Portuguese sardines, Montreal smoked meat and aged raw goat's-milk cheese. The sandwiches are expensive, and they're worth every penny. You can also buy cheese, meats, and fish by the pound, and they have a separate bakery and a coffee house. But the first time I went there, what really stood out was the customer service. Zingerman's prides itself on having employees personally visit its purveyors, so when you walk in and ask to sample, say, a raclette, the person behind the counter can expound enthusiastically and at length on why it was chosen, how it compares to other cheeses, and precisely where it came from, down, I'm pretty sure, to the that gave the milk. name of the animal
Though Zingerman's has grown into several food-related businesses over the years, they're all in Ann Arbor, and you get the strong sense that the company is going to stay there. It's not going to start peddling salami from Waltham to Walla Walla, because it would lose the direct contact with its customers and the quality control that makes it what it is.
Zingerman's inspired me the first time I visited, and to this day it remains an example for me of how business could and should be approached: It doesn't take itself too seriously in its marketing but takes the quality of its products and service very seriously; it talks to and listens to its customers every day; and though it has branched out, it's stayed true to its principles. The result is a strong brand built on quality products and a company culture that's fun and creative. I think that describes Big Ass Solutions, too.
Some people travel to the Ganges or follow the Route of Santiago de Compostela. But my idea of a pilgrimage is a trip to Zingerman's. Every budding entrepreneur should take the time to visit, to see first-hand what goes into building a successful, rewarding business -- and experience a first-class sandwich.
But I'd recommend going on a weekday. The last time my wife and I visited was on a weekend, and the place was so popular we couldn't get in.