I hate business fables. You know the ones… the fish mongers slinging salmons back and forth, the rookie executive who gets leadership advice from the janitor, and so on. And yet, it just happened to me. I met an extraordinary individual, in an unlikely place, who had lots of solid advice.
I was walking quickly to my gate at McCarran airport in Las Vegas, oblivious to most of my surroundings, when I heard someone shout, “Hey, Allen Edmonds!” The older gentleman was looking straight at me, and he had a passing resemblance to Morgan Freeman.
Now my first name isn’t “Allen” and my last name isn’t “Edmonds”, so I almost replied, “No, I’m Kevin Kruse.” Then I realized he was talking about my shoes.
I was wearing Allen Edmonds loafers—black Maxfields to be exact.
The shoeshine guy, standing 50 feet away, had called out the brand of my shoes. I’ve walked through hundreds of airports, and frequently do get my shoes shined, but nobody has ever called out to me this way. Despite my plane’s looming departure time, I couldn’t help but hop onto the shoe shine stand and start up a conversation.
“Wow, you sure know your shoes—even Allen Edmonds,” I started.
“Of course I do. I lived in Wisconsin most of my life. Their factory was down the road. It’s the last great shoe company in America. More people should buy them. We used to always shop in the corner store to support our community, and we should buy stuff made from American companies.”
“I agree,” I said. “That’s part of why I get them. Great shoes and I love supporting an American manufacturer.” I saw from his name tag that his name was Ramone. “Do you know other brands, Ramone, or just Allen Edmonds?”
He smiled broadly, “I know them all…Cole Haan, Ferragamo, Johnston & Murphy, Florsheim. I have to know them all. Customers buy from people who are experts in what they do.”
“True that,” I agreed. “You know, in all the years of travel, I’ve never had a shoe shine guy yell out the name of my shoe before. You’re quite the salesman.”
“I learned from my Dad,” he replied. “He used to tell me, ‘A closed mouth doesn’t get fed.’ Not everybody responds, but I was selling stuff door to door when I was a kid. Knock on 100 doors and 95 will tell you no. But each ‘no’ gets you closer to the five who say ‘yes. It’s just a numbers game.”
“So how long have you been doing this?” I asked.
“I’ve been shining for 40 years. There’s no such thing as unemployment in this line of work. I’ve traveled around the world shining shoes–it’s a dying art. Young people don’t realize the power in having a personal service job. Nobody can outsource you. You can’t get someone in China to fix your plumbing, you know?”
Ramone’s hands moved fast—the cloth snapping and popping against my shoes.
He went on to describe his goals. “I’m saving up for the day when I’m going to go out on my own.”
“Going to buy your own shoeshine stand?,” I asked. “Rent space here in the airport?”
“No way. I’m not going to wait for customers to come to me. I’m going to go them. Think about it…people spend big money on their shoes, and they want to take care of them and look good, but nobody has any time. I’m going setup scheduled times to visit all the big companies in their offices. People will know they can find me in their lobby the same time each week and they’ll come down for a shine. I’m bringing the service to them.”
Wow, that’s actually a really good idea. I’d get my shoes shined a lot more often if it was that easy.
Ramone finished the job and my shoes didn’t just shine, they positively glowed.
I got up and paid Ramone for the shine, and tipped him well for the conversation, too. I rushed off to catch my plane with a little extra pep in my step and a smile on my face. It was great to be reminded of so many classic business success principles and great to see that American entrepreneurship is alive and well.
If you ever find yourself in Las Vegas McCarren airport, head over to the shoeshine stand next to Applebees. Tell Ramone a stranger named Allen Edmonds sent you.
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Kevin Kruse is a NY Times bestselling author and keynote speaker. Get more success and tips from his newsletter at kevinkruse.com and check out keynote video clips. His new book, Employee Engagement 2.0, teaches managers how to turn apathetic groups into emotionally committed teams.