I believe in the Golden Ratio. The art of simplicity. And the power of a strong sense of purpose.

These are tools and lessons that I believe make me better at what I do. Definitely more innovative. It didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t come to this point on my own. Instead, I arrived here with the help of several mentors, those who saw something in me and decided that I might be worth the investment. I’ve in turn tried to pay it forward, and I am rewarded when I get a phone call from someone who has achieved something special in his or her life, and I have been fortunate enough to play even a small role.

This week, one of my mentors, Martin Greenfield, released his autobiography, titled “Measure of a Man”. It is the story of “America’s greatest living tailor”, a man now in his late eighties, who was the only member of his family to survive the holocaust, came to this country with nothing in his pocket, and today runs Martin Greenfield Clothiers with his sons, and has made suits for presidents, actors, leaders, and even for me.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to work with Martin. He made production for us while I was at Brooks Brothers and was an integral part of the relaunch of our custom business. I had the opportunity to not only spend time at his factory, but to travel with him from coast to coast. I’ve been both scolded and praised by Martin (both deserved), and along the way, listened to many stories, and learned many lessons.

These are three of my favorites.

(photo credit: Gotham Magazine)

Lesson #1. Technology is good, but respect the hand that builds.

For those of you who don’t know, 99% of all button holes that you see on suit jackets today are cut and stitched by a machine. In fact most, don’t even function as they used to. Martin Greenfield Clothiers’ still stitches every button hole by hand. During a product inspection many years ago, I noted the inconsistency of the button holes from suit to suit. Fascinated even then by ever improving technology, I made the suggestion to Martin that he might want to consider investing in a button hole machine. My position was that it would lead to greater consistency and it would lower the price of the finished garment, better for both Martin and for us. I was right. But that wasn’t the point.

Martin was visibly upset. He asked me “Would you accept a painting with a signature of the artist done by machine? It would make it more consistent.” Of course my answer was no. He finished his point. “To me, the stitching of a button hole is my signature on a suit. If you think I should be more consistent, fine, tell me and I will work with the person who does it to be more consistent. But don’t tell me to sign my art with a machine.” He was right.

In the age of big data and significant breakthroughs in technology, the mistake is believing that the technology always provides the answer. Great customer service begins with the person, not a program. Great marketing begins with the creative mind, not simply mined data. Great product is inspired by those who look forward, not those who look at spreadsheets. And sometimes, a great suit is finished with a hand stitched button hole, not a machine.

(photo credit: Cade McCall)

Lesson #2. If you have the ingredients, there is always a solution.

What does one order for a drink in a fancy steak restaurant in Chicago? When you’re with Martin, not a beer.

Waiter. “Would you like a cocktail before dinner?

Me. “Can I get a beer please?”

Martin. “He’ll have a martini

Me. “I don’t like martinis”

Martin. “Yes, you do. You just haven’t had the right one yet.” To the waiter. “Please bring my friend a martini. Grey Goose. Blue cheese olives. Spill a bit of the juice in the glass.” To me. “Trust me, you’ll like it.”

Waiter (and here commences the lesson): “I’m sorry sir. We don’t have blue cheese olives.

Martin. “Do you have regular olives?” The answer was yes. “Do you have blue cheese?” Again, a yes. “Well, you take the blue cheese, you stuff a little bit into the olive, and now you have blue cheese olives.

This was not uncommon lesson. Different restaurant, different city, Martin ordered a chopped salad. The waiter told him that they didn’t offer a chopped salad. Martin asked “Do you have salads? Do you have a knife? Bring both to me with a cutting board and I will make it myself.” I don’t think Martin ever failed to get a chopped salad after that.

It always amazes me when people don’t utilize the tools at their disposal when trying to solve a problem or seize an opportunity. There is always the want and wish for something that isn’t in our possession, often with good cause or reason. But why should that stop us if we have the ingredients at hand to craft a solution. It is that level of innovation, of making use of what you have, that often is the difference between success and failure. In the case of the waiter, I am pretty sure that he wished that he could have offered us blue cheese olives. I am also pretty sure that he didn’t realize that making them and satisfying a customer was pretty simple. He did make blue cheese olives that night. I’d like to think that going forward, he never answered “no” to the question “do you have blue cheese olives.

And yes, I now appreciate a finely crafted martini. Very cold, a little dirty, and with blue cheese olives on the side. Though I now favor Tito’s over Grey Goose.

(photo credit: Wall Street Journal)

Lesson #3. There is no substitute for a strong work ethic and loving what you do.

Washington DC is, I believe, one of Martin’s favorite cities, especially for business. Martin has made suits for US Presidents from Clinton to Obama. Former majority leader Bill Frist would come by when we were in town and depended on Martin’s advice. Other politicians and leaders would make the trip. My favorite was former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Martin was speaking with a customer who was reluctant to invest in his first custom made suit. In the middle of the conversation, a man stepped into the conversation and said, “Martin, did you show him my favorite suits?” It was Secretary Powell, who didn’t stop by to shop, but instead to say hi to a friend. The reluctant customer? He happily purchased not one but two suits that day.

It was in DC that I recognized the true “measure of a man”. We had worked appointments from 9:00am to 8:00pm and it was time for dinner. I will admit complete exhaustion, and I wasn’t on stage that day. After we had finished for the day and the door was locked, a man came by and knocked on the door, pleading with us to let him see Martin because he needed a suit. I watched Martin, his back to the door, slump ever so slightly. He exhaled, took in a deep breath, turned around with a smile and greeted him as if he was the first customer of the day. He put his arm around him, made him feel welcome, and took the time to take care of his needs.

As expected, those around him simply wanted the day to end. Most saw the customer who came late as the obstacle in their way, not the reason that we were there in the first place. Myself included. But I realized that day that “work” wasn’t a nine to five job, a position with an office, desk or chair, or some title. It was something that you invest your time in not just because of an income, but because you love it. If you are lucky, you are passionate about it. When that happens, you put the time in and it shows.

I could include a fourth lesson. . .but really, it is something that everyone, in every business should remember at every time.

When in doubt, remember, it is ALWAYS about the customer. Start there.

I’ve read the excerpts from Martin’s book and have already ordered mine on Amazon. Shamelessly, I’m going to plug it, and tell you that you should check it out as well. I’m heading to NYC in early December and plan to visit Martin and have him autograph my copy. For those of you who share this post, I’ll pick one of you at random and get him to sign a copy for you as well.


Cover photo credit:  Guy Cookson