A Jersey boy at heart, Gordon Keil is quick to tell people how, even though he earned an M.B.A. from Harvard, he really learned the basics of business in West Orange, where his father owned a small janitorial service.
“My father was an educated guy who was thrown for a loop by the Depression,” says Keil. “He and some of his friends were basically all business people, so I didn’t know anything else aside from business. I did feel that I would be able to start my own business and be an entrepreneur.”
Today Keil is an in-demand businessman who has helped well-established companies maneuver through rough patches and several start-up franchises grow into million-dollar ventures.
He will share his expertise on Thursday, November 12, at 9 a.m. at Eisenhower Corporate Campus in Livingston. The panel discussion, “From Entrepreneur to CEO: Successfully Leading the High Growth Company,” is part of the second North Jersey Innovates Conference.
It will also include Jay Kulkarni, CEO and co-founder of Theorem Inc. in Chatham; and Marc Lore, co-founder of Diapers.com in Montclair.
J.J. Ramberg, host of MSNBC’s “Your Business,” will moderate.
The conference also includes a second panel, “Blazing New Trails: Pioneering Entrepreneurs,” and three workshops: “Five Deadly Sins CEOs Make in Sales,” “Social Digital Media Strategies,” and “Finding the Money,” Cost: $45. Visit www.njinnovates.com.
Keil earned a bachelor’s in business administration from Boston University and followed in his older brother’s footsteps by earning an M.B.A. from Harvard. Following graduation, he worked as a merchandise manager at Cole National in Cleveland, and was eventually recruited by JB Robinson Jewelers, where he worked as vice president of store operations. A few years later, he was recruited by Pathmark supermarket, where he became director of non-foods.
From 1987 to 1996 he owned and operated Gordon’s Deep Discount store, which had three locations in Linden, the Ironbound section of Newark, and Staten Island. However, throughout his career, Keil also found he had a real knack for franchising and specialty retailing.
“My real claim to fame is that I’ve turned around entrepreneurial companies that have had growing pains, and they happen to have been in the world of franchising,” he says. “So I have unique experience in dealing with hundreds of entrepreneurs who have invested their life savings in a concept.”
In recent years he has worked as COO of Party City and CEO of Huntington Learning Center, where he helped the educational and tutoring company boost business. Most recently he worked as president and CEO of the Pump It Up franchise.
For now he’s contemplating retirement, but he’s unsure if he could ever completely stop working. In the meantime, he says, he enjoys spending time with his wife, Wendy, a campaign executive for the Jewish National Fund, and their four children: Noah, 22, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who is just starting out in the music industry; Heather, 25, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who is a consultant in Washington, D.C.; Sarah Keil-Chernoff, 28, a Brown University graduate who is a speech pathologist; and Adam, 31, an investment banker who graduated from Penn.
Find your secret to success. Finding your secret to success typically comes as you gain work experience, Keil says, but it begins with tapping into your best skills playing up your strengths. That means if you’re good at delegating, form committees to complete assignments; if you’re good at communication, take the lead when discussing complex topics during meetings.
“I’m very good at explaining to people and communicating to people what the game plan is in a very calm and logical way,” Keil says, highlighting his secret to success. “The franchise owners want to be helpful and they want to cooperate because they have a vested interest in the business. I respected them, communicated with them, and involved them in the process.”
The makings of a successful CEO. The most successful CEOs know how to check their egos at the door and trust people to do their jobs.
They’re also good listeners, unafraid to ask questions, and are willing to accept advice and help, Keil says.
“It’s great to be confident and you have to be confident to be successful, but don’t be cocky,” he says. “In my view, the difference between entrepreneurs who transition to professional management and the ones who struggle, a lot of it has to do with ego.”
Successful CEOs also have to be willing to work hard and remain tenacious, even in high-stakes or pressure-cooker situations. “You just have to keep driving and pushing,” he says. “You have to be smart and have a very organized mind. You have to have the ability to not only create a strategic plan or a business plan, you have to have the ability to involve others in the process and get their buy-in. They have to feel like they have ownership in the plan, and frankly, by involving them in the process, people gain confidence and business improves.”
Plan. Organize. Control. This is Keil’s three-step advice for CEOs building their business. First, create a strategic plan, and then organize your needs.
“A lot of entrepreneurs are really, really good at something. They either make great ice cream or they’re great at tutoring, and that’s wonderful and that’s the start,” Keil says. “But if you want to have a successful business, you have to plan and lay it all out on paper in an organized way. Organized means you have to figure out the kind of people you need, the kind of the money you need, and the kind of equipment you need.”
Finally, once you get the ball rolling, make sure you retain control of the business, meaning don’t get overwhelmed to the point where tasks are not getting accomplished in an efficient way.
“I didn’t invent this, and I wouldn’t change the mantra,” he says. “It’s the same thing you would say to anyone in business.”