by Jon W. Sparks
Founded in 1991 to recognize the contribution of business owners and key executives to the Memphis community, and to foster the development of the entrepreneurial spirit that makes this city great, the Society of Entrepreneurs each year welcomes new inductees into its fold.
The honor of inclusion is significant because it is one bestowed by peers to established and proven businessmen and women. In the process of consideration, it has been determined that each has exhibited the following characteristics and successes: personal business achievement, self-direction, leadership, personal integrity, determination, creativity, and the ability to transform a vision into a dynamic business achievement. This year's three inductees have indeed transformed their visions to realize impressive goals. Along with the annual inductees, the Society of Entrepreneurs and Junior Achievement of Memphis honor a Master Entrepreneur, one who best exemplifies what it means to work within this community. On behalf of all of us at Inside Memphis Business, congratulations to this year's honorees.
by Jon W. Sparks
Nat Landau is modest and not given to bragging about his achievements even though he had enough savvy to take a small retail uniform shop to the big time as one of the world’s leading quality healthcare apparel manufacturers.
Landau Uniforms has come a long way since Rudolph Landau started selling workman’s uniforms in 1938, traveling from one garage to another in his Model A Ford. Eventually he opened a retail store in Memphis’ medical center and focused on providing uniforms for the healthcare community.
Rudolph died in 1957 and Nat, just coming out of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, started helping his mother with the business. As Nat puts it, “I was headed to Wall Street but I haven’t gotten there yet.”
He and his brother, Ferdinand, decided to expand the business to include manufacturing. “We did it with five people in the basement of our little store,” he says. “I must admit I liked manufacturing — I loved equipment and I love to make things, so that was fun for me.”
And, he says, “We’ve grown since then.”
True enough — he took the enterprise from the store to a group of buildings, then later to Brooks Road and when it grew out of that, to Olive Branch. Landau Uniforms had manufacturing plants in Mississippi and Tennessee, but eventually those would close and now it has facilities around the globe.
The company makes and sells some related items, but the largest part of its sales and manufacturing going to some 20 countries is healthcare apparel with an emphasis on top-quality goods. (Its slogan: “Landau. Made Better.”).
While Nat is modest about himself, he sings the praises of his wife Leslie and sons Bruce and Gregg, who have been a key part of Landau Uniforms.
“I had some extremely loyal and very, very good associates who worked with me,” he says, “but I have to give my wife credit. She put up with me and my constant travel and she was my original designer. We introduced colors and that was mostly her doing. We were also the first people to introduce prints.”
Nat says that his sons taught him an essential lesson in entrepreneurship. “My sons are both attorneys, who came back at different times to Memphis. They’ve built what I believe is an extremely good management team. I think I was rather slow in doing that and missed some good opportunities. I was, for the most part, a one-man business until they built a team.”
If he were advising aspiring entrepreneurs, Nat says he’d ask them first if they were sure that being successful is a priority and if they’re comfortable with risk. “When something doesn’t work out, you don’t worry about it, you go on to the next thing,” he says. “I don’t like to lose, but believe me, I’ve had my share of losses.”
He says he’s always worked to put himself in the place of the customer. “We’ve always tried to help our customer grow and become more sophisticated,” he says.
As for the workplace, Nat says it’s essential to cultivate it as a place that people want to come to. “When I started, we had benefits and salaries that were more than competitive. We’ve had health insurance since the 1960s when it really wasn’t required. I started a profit-sharing plan in the late 1970s and we’ve never missed a year that we didn’t contribute. But I also had an environment where people were not afraid to take on responsibility. If they made a mistake, that was okay and they got the confidence to make decisions. We’re a good place to work. We allow people to grow.”
At 80, Nat has nearly six decades of helming Landau Uniforms, taking it from a retail shop to a leading manufacturer and seller on a global scale. That gives him a keen take on what works and what doesn’t, but also a perspective on how business has changed.
“Knowing what I know now, I guess I didn’t really have any capital and I did things you do when you don’t have capital — you put off doing things,” he says. “The smarter people today find a way to get capital so you can do it right the first time. Times have changed so much I don’t think you could do it anymore. I thought I had a hard time building the business. Some of my biggest competitors could just sell something below my cost. Today it’s even more difficult and more challenging. I’m not talking about technology, but a basic company like this I don’t know that you could do it the way I did it anymore. And I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”
Nat’s modesty notwithstanding, he does have a way of assessing his own abilities in his own somewhat self-deprecating way. During the course of the interview he said these three things: “If I have any ability at all, it’s that I know how to take risks. Risk doesn’t bother me.” And: “If I had any ability at all, and there’s a lot of doubt about that, it was taking people who might have been not quite up to the job and teaching them how to move up.” And: “I didn’t micromanage. If I have an ability that’s it.”
Outside of the company, Nat enjoys reading history and biographies. For exercise, he walks. He’s actively involved with the Memphis Jewish Home, the Memphis Jewish Federation, and his synagogue. And when he really wants to get away from it all, he goes to work. “I think I must like it here!”
He may just make it to Wall Street yet.
by Jon W. Sparks
Bob Loeb will take a moment to point out who’s who in a series of remarkable images hanging on the walls of Loeb Properties.
The framed newspaper advertisements offer the sort of nostalgia that brings a smile to Memphians of a certain age. Bob and his siblings were prominently featured in the decades-old ads that touted the enterprises of their father, Bill Loeb, who put the entrepreneurial family’s name on stores all over the region, selling, among other things, laundry and dry cleaning services, and Loeb’s Tasty Bar-B-Q (“The Best Little Pig on the Market”).
The family business started almost 130 years ago and would get involved in more than a dozen ventures. In the 1960s and 1970s, Bill Loeb expanded his laundry, convenience store, and barbecue operations into strip center buildings throughout the city.
That was how Bob started, with summer jobs doing whatever needed doing from sales and service to janitorial. But it took a while for him to get into the family business. “After college, my first job was a startup business venture in the then-Memphis State area, a saloon that brother Lou and I ran. That might have been work avoidance,” he jokes, “but we did it for a couple of years and did pretty well.”
He also picked up some real estate experience working for Phillip McNeill and Dan Stewart before going into his father’s business. But he only stayed a year — he still wasn’t committed to being part of the fourth generation to carry on the business. He went to Southern Methodist University to get his MBA and figured he’d stay in Texas. But the 1986 oil crash left Texas limping and Memphis, meanwhile, was looking better and better.
Bill Loeb had essentially retired and Bob’s brother Lou was focusing on the company’s real estate management. “I joined brother Lou and he and I got out of the retail operations and focused on real estate investment and development,” Bob says. “That was a very transformational time in the company.” The retail operations weren’t doing so well, “and the future looked worse than the present, so we figured how to navigate from being a retailer to a real estate investment company. Over a five-year period of time we transitioned and it was a good move.”
Since then, Loeb Properties has continued to make good moves.
“We were generalists, buying up and fixing up old stuff,” Bob says. “The tax code favors exchanging from property to property and deferring your gains, so we played the trading game, trying to upgrade a portfolio of properties and expand into different areas and learn what would be attractive areas to be in.”
One attractive area the company had long been interested in was Overton Square and when it got the opportunity, it grabbed it. Bob’s vision of what it could be was shaped by the notion that, as he says, “Marketing 101 is giving people what they want.” With that, he held community meetings to get those details and determine which ideas were compatible and sustainable.
Bob saw to it that the buildings were fixed up as well as the spaces between buildings. Tenants were carefully chosen and the area was opened up to public events.
Loeb Properties has also committed to being part of the remarkable changes going on around the University of Memphis campus. “My high school classmate Cecil Humphreys drafted us into it saying, ‘Bring some of that Overton Square stuff to the University District,’” Bob says.
The company has joined the nonprofit University Neighborhood Development Corp., acquiring and improving most of the property in the old Highland Strip. But it’s much more than that. “You can’t kid yourself,” Bob says. “The paint-up/fix-up is the easy and fun part. The intensive property management to keep it safe and clean is the important part.” Hence its active role in making it a more livable community with support for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as the commercial development in the area.
Another area Loeb Properties has boosted is along Broad Avenue, where it owns some industrial space. “A group of merchants were redeveloping that place and it was really obvious that we ought to partner with them and support them,” Bob says. It made a loading dock courtyard available which, with a gift from ArtPlace America, has made it a place for hosting public events. Further, it has made possible a redo of the water tower that provides an artistic beacon to the burgeoning arts and business district.
Bob says that the company enjoys doing projects like Overton Square, but as fulfilling as it is, it’s also time consuming. “We want to remain very local, like a 50-mile radius around Memphis, and we need to pursue some profitable lines of business so we can stay alive.”
Creating and sustaining these projects lets him put his entrepreneurial philosophy to work. He says he’d tell up-and-coming entrepreneurs to follow their passions: “Trust your instinct, get good advice, find mentors, take measured risks, prioritize what it is you want to go after; have fun.” Bob also says focus is particularly important. “There’s danger in trying to do too much at once, not prioritizing, and not executing well.”
He says he and brother Lou work well together “because of our different interests. We’ve been involved in different areas of our family business together. We seldom step on each others’ toes because he’s in one area and I’m in another and we trust each other implicitly.”
Bob also cultivates a positive workplace: “I try to create an environment where my employees can thrive, where they can enjoy themselves, express themselves, and be creative.”
The CEO of Youth Villages started out getting it all wrong.
Well, not entirely, since Patrick W. Lawler was a natural as a social worker and knew how to connect to troubled youth and help them out. But he couldn’t have been more of a novice when it came to running an organization.
But as often happens with the best entrepreneurs, he learned what it took to get it right.
“While most of our work in the early years was making decisions from our heart, because we’re social workers and that’s what we do,” he says, “we had to learn to make decisions from our head.”
His success in guiding the nonprofit since he started it in 1980 reflects a gift for making decisions from both the heart and the head.
Youth Villages started with a few dozen young people in the early 1980s in Memphis. It is now in 72 locations in 12 states with some 2,800 employees working with more than 22,000 children and families each year; revenue has ballooned to more than $200 million a year. It’s got a strong board, ongoing recognition, and plenty of praise — including by the White House — for innovation and commitment.
Pretty heady stuff that he couldn’t have imagined 43 years ago.
Back then, Bill Key, Lawler’s football coach at Bishop Byrne High School, was also the executive director of Tall Trees Youth Guidance School. He asked Lawler, a graduating 18-year-old, if he wanted to work there. While his buddies were getting ready to study business in college, Lawler thought there was nothing better he could do than live at the facility and work with some of the most troubled kids in the city. “I was drawn to them, maybe because they demanded so much attention,” he says.
In his mid-20s, he was a probation counselor at Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court and was asked by Judge Kenneth A. Turner to close down a failing residential program. Dogwood Village was a mess with no money, its license in peril, and board members quitting. “I went out there and spent a couple of weeks. I asked Judge Turner if he’d let me be responsible for it and try to keep it going. He said I could go ahead and try.”
It could be characterized as enthusiasm triumphing over common sense.
“I had no idea how to get money for a place like that, or what a budget was,” Lawler says. “I didn’t know you had to have a license. I didn’t know what a board of directors was. I knew a little about taking care of kids. I read a quote once that probably described me: ‘I’m not young enough to know everything anymore.’”
He figured it out along the way, though. With 26 young people and nine on staff, and a budget of $150,000, “We owed everybody in town,” he says. “But we finally grew to serve 40 kids and I worked out some of our financial problems and went to the bank to borrow money.”
Lawler says he wasn’t making much traction since he figured a charity was supposed to scramble from day to day, hoping that food would be donated and the occasional used couch show up from a friend.
That started to change in 1983 when Jim Pickle joined the board and convinced Lawler that it didn’t need to be that way. Lawler grew more savvy about running the organization and in 1986 it merged with Memphis Boys Town to become Youth Villages.
It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s that Youth Villages started collecting outcome data to see how the young people fared after leaving the program. It wasn’t encouraging. Lawler said that prompted something of an epiphany in the mid-1990s — that families weren’t the source of the problems, they were the solution.
“We started over from 1994,” he says. “We changed every job description, we even changed one of our values that we believe young people are raised best by their families.”
Youth Villages started working closely with families trying to come up with sustainable solutions for the young people. Its Evidentiary Family Restoration program involves working with the child and family, measuring outcomes, keeping young people in the community and providing accountability. It claims “success rates twice that of traditional services at one-third the cost of traditional care.”
To pull this off requires more than considerable expertise and devotion to young people. “We also spend as much time with state and federal governments to try to reform the system,” Lawler says. “We believe the child welfare system is broken and in order for us to have the greatest impact, there have to be significant reforms.”
He knows he’s asking a lot: “You must build a strong culture, a culture of caring, a culture of commitment, a culture of people who are going to do whatever it takes every day, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, who are really willing to make a sacrifice in their own lives to benefit the lives of others.”
Lawler believes that everyone with a stake in young people should have a commitment to them that is equal to that of his and Youth Villages’ motto: “We don’t give up on kids.”
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