Business

The Curious Case of SuperFrank Maine

People often talk about the elusive work-life balance that is supposed to be key to one’s happiness. SuperFrank – who has an absolutely incredible life and business story to tell (owning a jet company and being James Brown‘s Manager to name a few) with just one (long) conversation has turned my work-life world around. Read on to know more.

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SuperFranks backstage with Justing Timberlake in London in 2013

He dropped out of college to set up a school bus company in NYC that then became #23 largest school-bus company in America. He has owned and managed a jet aircraft charter operation, an internet service provider and software development company, a real estate development company, two restaurants, and a bottled water company. He had 14 radio stations that he revamped and sold. He was James Brown’s Manager working hand-in-hand with the ‘Godfather of Soul’ who was world-famous not only for his outstanding talent but also for his demanding temper. Frank is now CEO and publisher of kNow Media in Maine, Portland, publisher of Dispatch Magazine and CEO of Intrigue Music, a music publisher and artist management company, as well as a partner in GuestyPR, a London-based music and entertainment Public Relations company. He is also on the Board of the Portland Music Foundation. Referring to himself as ‘SuperFrank’, Frank is a serial entrepreneur who lives up to his ‘Keep Smiling’ mantra that I can totally relate to. The day I spent a few hours chatting to SuperFrank in the artistic Groucho Club in Soho about his business and life journey, has been an eye-opener for me, and I am happy to share the insights with you (and the Imperial College Business School whom I have made this interview for, as a part of my studies). One can write a book about SuperFrank’s business story and should leave a few hundred empty pages as it still goes on at a speed of light. I was fascinated about the number and types of businesses SuperFrank has managed so far (school bus company, private jet company, radio stations, PR and events agencies, bottled water company, being a talent manager and much more). What I can see as something that is consistent across all these businesses is SuperFrank’s approach to running the business and leading the way. Specifically: Know your business. SuperFrank says ‘don’t be afraid to do the job yourself in order to understand how it works. Be involved!’ This doesn’t mean though that a leader should be a one-man band. It means that in order to be a great manager and really make a difference, one has to get to the roots of the business and know the key principles. He would then hire the best people who share the passion about the goal of the business and are great at what they do. What does he have to say about people? Read on. It’s all about people. SuperFrank is convinced that his successes, among the rest, are due to his ability to hire the best people and build the relationships to understand where they are coming from, what their personal needs and motivations are and where and how they tap into the business objectives. SuperFrank says he doesn’t care what’s written in one’s resume and people show their true colours in approximately 6 months of work. First 3 months, he says, everyone is brilliant, in 6 months you see what people are really worth. Those who ‘pass the test’ and stay are rewarded with SuperFrank’s genuine approach to understanding people. He invests his time into spending time with employees to get to know them better and see where they are coming from and what’s in it for them. He then applies this knowledge in structuring the work and setting up routines and targets. And, of course, he says, people love fun and it’s great to enjoy the work environment. With SuperFrank’s quirky and eccentric personality there is no shortage of fun in his companies! Understand the underlying drivers. Understanding people is important not only for managing relationships with employees but also for the essence of successful businesses – connecting with customers and serving their needs. One can often see SuperFrank making ‘the customer journey’ himself not only at the beginning of business turnaround but also throughout the business management. Why? Because understanding customers and knowing what they want means one can work on their product offering and business processes to provide the product or service that customer will love and buy. And that means profit. Quite a lot of lessons can be learnt looking at the time when SuperFrank was James Brown’s Manager. And the key one is being honest and developing trust. SuperFrank first met James Brown in 1992 when the ‘Godfather of Soul’ came to SuperFrank’s radio station that was playing alternative music, in support of the new single that the singer released at that time. When after the interview James Brown asked SuperFrank if he would play Mr Brown’s new single again, SuperFrank honestly said that they wouldn’t – they were honoured to have Mr Brown at the show and play his song as people were interested in what the singer was up to however as the radio station had a certain format (alternative music) and the song just does not fit it. ‘So you are not playing my music!’ – exclaimed James Brown. ‘No sir, I’m not’ – said SuperFrank. ‘Thank you for telling me the truth’ – concluded James Brown. That was the turning point since which SuperFrank’s relationship with James Brown has started. The singer then came to SuperFrank’s radio station a few times for free while he was charging every other station for the appearances. When SuperFrank a few years later received a call with an offer to become James Brown’s Manager, he said he absolutely would not do so. James Brown had a bad reputation, he just came of 10 years of bad drugs and he was irrelevant for at least two generations of people. Getting him to earn more than $2 mln a year on tours was unrealistic if not impossible. Having been beaten up by so many people for not accepting the offer of becoming James Brown’s Manager, SuperFrank then gave in and started working with the singer. After a year and a half of hard job and dealing with James Brown’s ‘diva behaviour’ SuperFrank was ready to quit. However the honesty and trust he developed with Mr Brown made him stay and re-launch James Brown’s career successfully making $7mln a year on touring only (against the previous $2 mln). ‘Being honest in management is crucial’ – says SuperFrank. ‘Everyone tells artists how good they are. As a manager you have to be the person with credibility and keep it no matter how hard it is. And James Brown would test it hard’.

Do you like my records? – once James Brown asked SuperFrank. No sir I don’t. I never liked your records but I love your shows. – SuperFrank responded. I understand that. – responded James Brown.

‘You have to be THE person to explain it. Some artists don’t want to hear it and they loose their management but that’s the way it is. I am brutally honest with the artists that we sign up. I always tell them my prospective of how the things are’ – says SuperFrank.

SuperFrank and me in Berners Tavern, May 2014

SuperFrank and me in Berners Tavern, May 2014

Another lesson that SuperFrank has learnt hard way is that the best thing you can do is be there. Every step of SuperFrank’s leadership journey sounds like a win after win after win. And while it’s mostly true, there have been failures, too. Running a hotel in Missouri, says SuperFrank, was a big failure. Having bought this hotel and started the renovation (SuperFrank had to fire a NYC designer who was invited to work on the hotel’s renovation and did not do it well – and took personal ownership of the hotel’s re-design going to interior exhibitions, speaking to suppliers and hand-picking fabrics), SuperFrank (frankly speaking – in his own words!) was not excited about going to Missouri, he just wasn’t spending enough time there. If he spent there a full year taking his time to speak to staff and set up the routines, he could turn the hotel around. He wasn’t doing that – so 5 years after (having given himself quite a few chances) he gave up and sold the hotel.

‘My biggest mistake is not buying a hotel in NYC, the city where I come from and which I adore. If I did that I might still be running it, and it would have been a very successful business’. Lesson learnt – being there matters – to spend time with employees, customers and being hands-on with the business.

And while running the business – one has to keep it simple. Many people over-complicate the business structure and processes and it make a negative impact on the way the business and people are managed. For example, says SuperFrank, when he ran a network of school buses ‘there were 27 manuals on how to run operations and a complicated corporate structure of a business that in a nutshell was a few buses and house-wives that became bus drivers’. SuperFrank’s team revamped the 27 manuals into a 27-page document, spent time with the drivers and local authorities and focus on what really mattered. What’s in it for me (and you)? I have heard many entrepreneurs speaking about leadership and what it takes to be a good manager. I guess there are as many opinions out there as there are entrepreneurs. What was an eye opener for me in SuperFrank’s take on leadership is how simple and yet appealing his leadership principles are. He would probably not even call it ‘leadership principles’, he would not necessarily use ‘leadership style’ phrase in the conversation – but what he does is genuine and indeed focuses on the people driving organic results. SuperFrank is not chasing a big pay check (while obviously his businesses are successful and it’s important) – he follows his curiosity and challenge of fixing the stuff that is broke, turning it around to making it work better than before. Being genuine and putting people first is something I indeed hope to see as a part of my leadership style and approach. One of the important take-aways for me was also understanding that industries and businesses can be different but it is still all about people. Therefore you should not be afraid to open your eyes, look around and see what things you can change. ‘Look around – how many tables are in this restaurant. Can you fit more, or maybe you should have less. Is it busy? Or empty? What can you do about it?’ – says SuperFrank bringing his statements to live in the surroundings of Groucho Club. ‘We once had a night club in Montana which held 220 people. We kept the entrance charge low as we were making our money on the drinks. However we did not make the money we projected? The reason – people couldn’t get to the bar! Bringing the number of people down to 180 completely changed the situation and the revenue from bar sky-rocketed’ – adds SuperFrank. His advice to MBA students is to balance the academic knowledge with common sense – again, open the eyes and look around, there are a lot of opportunities out there that one should not be scared to pursue. Equipped with knowledge and common sense, one can have a very exciting journey. Cultural dimensions of SuperFrank’s leadership style With his business journey starting in USA, SuperFrank has worked across the countries and continents. He now splits his time between America and UK making trips to Europe in the meantime. His leadership style remains consistent no matter where he is or what culture he is dealing with – most likely because he sees people but not the machine, personalities but not ‘employees’, human beings but not ‘the customers’. His genuine approach means that he is successful wherever he goes as fundamentally honesty and trust has the same notion no matter if it’s UK, Australia or Guatemala. There are of course people and situations that try and get you off track, things do not always happen the way you want them to – but that’s the way things are. Life happens – and you should go with it. What’s next? Having had this eye-opening and inspiring conversation with Frank, I feel like I have less borders than I thought I do, when it comes to my career development and opportunities out there. I feel like taking more risks, exploring more opportunities, going out of my comfort zone more and learning about new industries and businesses – as long as my curiosity and interest in people leads the way. In line with his approach to leadership and doing business, SuperFrank believes that best networking is not over LinkedIn: ‘There are a lot of mixers, business-focus meetings and various meet-ups. Even going out with your friends can help – people know people. Network everywhere – and your relationships will expand and you will see how the world collides’ – believes SuperFrank, and I can totally relate to his advice. In a way this gives me an extra push – and my calendar is already filled with networking events, meet-ups and dinner parties. Luckily, London is THE place to make contacts, contrary to popular opinion of London being a place where it’s hard to make friends. And finally…

SuperFrank and myself in the vibrant Soho in London in 2013

SuperFrank and myself in the vibrant Soho in London in 2013

Most importantly, whatever happens – life goes on! ‘There are always new pieces’ – says SuperFrank. ‘I like doing the music publishing, the magazine I enjoy, the water bottle company will be sold to Chinese. I am doing some nation-wide TV shows now, the first will be produced in Boston. There is some work on wireless internet front – I am doing a strategy for a company in this sector. I promote shows and events. I am looking into going into television, buying stations’… There’s no stopping for Frank, and so hopefully there would be no stopping for me. MBA has taught me that the world is much bigger than I thought and there are lots of opportunities. It also gave me tools to explore the opportunities available out there. Having spoken with SuperFrank, I can see that it’s up to me now to make it happen. ‘You have to believe in yourself and your vision. I either see what to do with a business or I don’t. If I don’t I don’t go for it’ – says SuperFrank. And if he does – he gets the world turning. And most importantly – he ‘keeps smiling’!