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A mensch of a leader

"Right or wrong, you'll learn from your mistakes, but waffling and not being decisive can really kill you, especially in business."

6 min read



Stas Ovsky/Unsplash/SmartBrief illustration

SmartBrief illustration by James daSilva

This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?”

I love a good bagel, and moving from Chicago to San Francisco, I found it hard to find one on the West Coast. So, what did I do about it? Nothing!

Noah Alper, unlike me, did. He started Noah’s Bagels in Berkeley, Calif., and grew it from one store to 38 in just seven years, selling it for $100 million. He is a successful serial entrepreneur, author of “Business Mensch” and has been involved in entrepreneurship and the food industry for over 40 years. His core belief is that being a mensch (a Yiddish word for a person of high integrity) is an important key to success.

In this interview, I asked him about the roots of that belief and the other lessons he learned along the way. With wisdom and good humor, he offered some great advice for current leaders and entrepreneurs.

How is being true to oneself critical to success in business?

Photo provided by Noah Alper

“Looking around the landscape of business leaders, it seems like those who are invested in their product in an emotional way, if you will, seem to have a better shot at success than those that are just doing it for the money.”

Alper went on to add, “There are a lot of people that do things that they’re not really invested in personally, but they do it for the money. That was never the way I did things. It was always the idea itself that was a passion for me, and then the next logical step was to monetize it. It’s been the way I’ve done business, and it’s been successful for me.”

What have you learned about connecting with, motivating and engaging people?

“It sounds very elemental, but basically putting yourself in their shoes and trying to understand how they’re looking at the enterprise instead of how you’re looking at them looking at the enterprise. Feel their emotion, their pain, their interest, their needs, their wants and try to meet them and serve them as you would a customer or a vendor or anybody else that you’re doing business with.”

“At Noah’s, I would go around to the stores and ask the employees how they liked the store and what improvements they thought could be made.”

“They were shocked when I did that. What they thought about and what mattered to them was very important because they were living the business day to day on the front lines and I wasn’t, so I could learn from them. But moreover, giving them that kind of respect and honor resulted in tremendous loyalty.”

How did you deal with doubt?

“If it was a major decision, I’d want to speak to a lot of people before I would make a decision. That would sometimes result in delaying the decision longer than it really should’ve been delayed. That can be a real serious problem, but at the end of the day, once the decision was decided upon, then I didn’t go back.

That’s something I learned from my dad, who told me, ‘Make the decision. That’s the important thing.’ Right or wrong, you’ll learn from your mistakes, but waffling and not being decisive can really kill you, especially in business.”

What advice would you offer young leaders and entrepreneurs?

“Get input from others at every step in the path and not to try to do everything themselves and to really try to bring in the best talent they can.

“I’d also advise them that talent can take the form of hiring individuals, but often, especially for the small and the undercapitalized, that’s a luxury that they can’t quite afford. But, for the price of a lunch, you can take out some pretty smart people and pick their brains and really learn a ton. If you’re willing to put yourself out there and learn from others who know more than you.”

When did you start to sense it was time to go and what did you start doing?

“Well, we didn’t do anything. What happened was that a company called Einstein Bros. Bagels, which is now quite well known, was rolling up independently operated bagel chains across the country. They were offering them a piece of this big pie if you will. I was realizing, look, I love to start businesses and I love to critique businesses, but being involved in an ongoing day to day role was not something that I loved. I was feeling a little bit restless.

“Einstein Bros. came along and offered to buy our company. The first offer was just stock, and we rejected the offer. We weren’t confident that these guys were going to be successful. They were moving fast, and they just did not have the same business philosophy that we did. We rejected the offer, and what we decided to do was to take them on and to expand at a more rapid pace than we had intended to.”

“That plan was on the drawing boards when less than a year later they came back to us and offered us a very good price. It was an all-cash offer, and we took it, and we were out. We weren’t really intending to do it, to sell that fast.”

Any regrets?

“No, no, no. I certainly don’t have a regret about holding on that extra year, although I must say, it was a white knuckles year because this was a big, big company that was very well funded. It was going to put us into a very high-risk situation to take them on. We had had very little competition opening on the West Coast, and taking on a national competitor was a whole different league. That was a source of some nervousness but we felt, myself included, we could handle it. So, no regrets.


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Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on accelerating the growth of emerging food and beverage brands. He helps clients gain distribution, build velocity, and win share of stomach. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and Food Dive.

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