At the age of 12, Marcus Lemonis, star of CNBC’s “The Profit,” owned a lawn cutting business that made $1,000 a week. At 22, without any prior political experience (other than a summer internship on Capitol Hill), Lemonis ran for a state seat in Florida and nearly beat a three-term incumbent. Not long afterward, Lemonis joined AutoNation, the largest car retailer in the country, and quickly rose the corporate ladder.
Then came a pivotal meeting with one of the most famous car men in history.
A family friend named Lee Iacocca—yes, that Lee Iacocca—called Lemonis and wanted to meet him. Lemonis immediately hopped on a plane and flew across the country (“When Lee calls,” says Lemonis, “you go”). During their meeting, the man who resurrected Chrysler recommended that Lemonis quit cars and enter the RV business. Though hesitant to get cozy with recreational vehicles, Lemonis took Iacocca’s advice and, five years later, was running the largest RV firm in the country. Lemonis’s foray into RVs was so impressive that, in 2008, at the age of 34, Lemonis was named Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year.
Today, in addition to serving as chairman and CEO of Camping World, Lemonis is a rising reality-TV star. His CNBC primetime show, “The Profit,” on which he invests in and partners with ailing companies, has just kicked off its second season. And last week, in between CEO and TV duties, Lemonis spoke to me about his career, his show, and his advice for entrepreneurs and jobseekers. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.
VAULT: Where’d you grow up and go to school?
LEMONIS: I was born in Beirut and adopted by an American family in South Florida. I grew up in Miami where I went to an all-boys Catholic high school. For college, I decided to go to Milwaukee. I went to Marquette. At Marquette I studied arts and sciences and worked as a bartender. The only reason I took the job was because I didn’t drink and wanted to be in the social scene. I thought, I’ll serve the drinks. After that I thought, Let’s get organized. I interned in D.C. with Herb Kohl [a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin at the time]. Every summer I had odd jobs.
VAULT: How’d you get into the car business?
LEMONIS: I grew up in the car business but never thought I wanted to get into the business myself. In college, I thought about going to law school but when I called my family to tell them I wasn’t going to into the family business, they said, How do you plan on paying for law school?
VAULT: What’s been your most valuable work experience?
LEMONIS: For me, 2008 and 2009 were the hardest years of my life. The RV business was not the place to be. The automotive business was hurting and the housing market was imploding. Mush the two together and that’s the RV business. So, I learned survival. I learned how to make things work. I really believe I picked up a skill. I learned how to cut things out. I learned how to have the hard conversations. I learned how to save a business.
VAULT: Today you oversee 6,000 employees and $3 billion in annual revenues. What does it take to run a large company?
LEMONIS: My success is 100 percent attributed to the people I surround myself with. I surround myself with people who are smarter than I am and people who are more creative than I am. And I understand that people want to be paid appropriately. People also want recognition.
VAULT: How’d you go from running an RV business to also becoming a turnaround expert?
LEMONIS: I like to buy things. I don’t like to sell. I take pride in fixing things. I don’t do everything for money. I probably should sometimes because sometimes things don’t work out. Fixing businesses—small, medium, or large—is my passion. I love the art of strategy.
VAULT: How’d you get involved in “The Profit”?
LEMONIS: Previously I was on a couple other shows [“Celebrity Apprentice” and “Secret Millionaire”] and I got a call from CNBC telling me they we’re getting into nighttime programming and they wanted to sit down and talk. At first, when the concept was brought up, I didn’t want to do it. I said in order for anybody to effect change [at a struggling company], it has to be for the long term, not the short term. And you have to put money on the table.
VAULT: You actually use your own money to invest in these companies?
LEMONIS: Yes, the check I write is real. In so many instances, reporters have looked under the hood of the show and found, This is legitimate, this really happened. And what I’ve heard, and read in reviews, is that people like the fact that the show is real.
VAULT: On “The Profit” you help struggling business owners. How do you identify a business you want to invest in and partner with?
LEMONIS: They don’t always have to be struggling. But they do have to be in need of something. And I try to deliver tough love. Small businesses are a lot harder to run than large businesses. You have fewer resources, which makes it harder. What I can do is take a small business that’s really struggling to survive and take my resources and my connections and really level the playing field for them.
VAULT: What advice do you have for someone wanting to start their own small business?
LEMONIS: One, you should always work for someone else first. Someone who’s good, someone who knows what they’re doing and you can listen to and learn from. Being an employee and being an owner are two different things. Two, you better have the working capital—the cash—to survive. Expect to lose money for a couple years. A lot of people have good ideas, but you need to realize that idea, you need the cash to survive. And three, you have to surrender to the fact that every idea you have will not be a good one. People fall in love with their ideas. This is a critical mistake.
VAULT: Any advice for young jobseekers?
LEMONIS: If somebody told me they were going on a job interview, my advice would be: Be yourself. Don’t compromise who you are. Learn to adapt to someone else’s environment. And have no fear. And I know it’s not easy today. So to people who do have jobs, and who have a smart-ass attitude and are ungrateful, I’d tell them to remember how hard it is to find a job today. A lot of people are struggling.
“The Profit” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on CNBC.
Follow me @VaultFinance.
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