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The Return of the Prophet of Profit

Considering his wide portfolio of businesses—from RV dealerships to fashionable women’s shoes—it’s astonishing that Marcus Lemonis has also found time to helm one of the most popular reality shows on television, The Profit. Amazing, too, is the fact that now, as the show enters its fourth season on CNBC, he’s also presenting a new documentary on Cuba and beginning production on The Partner—a competition show to determine who will join him as an equity partner. It should be interesting, to say the least, to see who can keep up with this fast-moving “King of Entrepreneurs.” 

Entrepreneur and TV star Marcus Lemonis is expanding his reach yet again. Leather jacket by Cucinelli, shirt and belt by Tom Ford, jeans by DL 1961.  

You’re filming in California today?
Yes. The Profit is shot wherever the business we profile is, so yesterday I was in Tucson and Phoenix. Later this week I’ll be in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The Profit
takes a long time to produce, doesn’t it?
Other shows can film a couple of episodes in a day or a couple of episodes in a week. It’s eight to 10 days, soup to nuts, for each one of our episodes, which is a lot more grueling. But that’s part of the authenticity of it all, and I think that’s ultimately what people like.

No doubt. And you’ve just hit the three-year mark.
Yesterday we finished our 55th episode. So, yeah, it’s been a good run—and a big run.

It’s truly successful. Can you explain it?
I met somebody in Los Angeles who told me that it was the worst-shot, most poorly lit show that they’ve ever seen in their life. Terrible editing. Oh, and by the way, they said, it’s their favorite show. They said we don’t waste time and energy and money to make it look pretty, we just put a lot of substance in it. 

A number of people who have been part of reality shows tell me that they’ve never seen something more real. Think back to the days of Extreme Home Makeover where you found a family, and you rebuilt the house, and it all ends beautifully, and the bus moves, and everyone’s happy, and everyone’s crying. It’s really sort of a beautiful ending. But half of our shows end, and they’re train wrecks, and I’m not sure what people like more, the train wreck or the happy ending. 

A little of both, probably.
Yeah, probably—but the train wrecks aren’t good for me because, in some cases, I’ve lost significant money. I’ve invested almost $40 million since I started and, well, 4 million of it is gone. I mean, literally, it’s just gone. So, not good.

Perhaps the new show, The Partner, will help with your results.
I’ve been through 55 episodes and acquired a number of businesses, and there are so many needs and only one of me and a bunch of everyone else. I realized that I was running out of gas and running out of time, and what was suffering were the businesses. They weren’t getting as much attention as they deserved, as much attention as they expected, as much attention as they needed. It ended up creating a lot of consternation, to be honest with you. So I needed to do two things: I needed to start promoting people from within the organization, which I’ve done, and I needed to bring in some outside help.

So is this your Celebrity Apprentice show?
In this political environment, you listen to all the stuff about job creation and finding jobs. ... I just felt like there was nobody putting a display on for people to learn how to get a job. In the old days, you’d fill out your résumé, and you’d send it around, and you’d make phone calls. Then you started using things like LinkedIn and social media. I wanted to create a platform on the show that not only solved my problem but gave people a roadmap on new and innovative ways to apply for a job and insight about what employers were looking for—and what they weren’t looking for. Ultimately, employers are looking for character first, skills second. You can teach skill, you can’t teach character. And everybody deserves a chance. You have a lot of people today who are unemployed, and they don’t know where to start, and so I wanted to create a show that allowed people to understand that you can apply for a job very differently today, and the way you get hired can be very different, and some of your qualifications are important, and some are not.

Can you give us an example?
I have a couple of people with Harvard MBAs, and I have a couple of people who didn’t go to college. I want to show that it doesn’t really matter what your background is; it matters who you are today. And it doesn’t matter if you had hard luck before; it matters who you are today. And it doesn’t matter if you got fired from three jobs; it matters who you are today. I want to give people the chance to say, ‘You know what, I can get that job. I need to get off my fanny and get going.’

What’s the timing on this next project?
I finished shooting The Profit this summer, and we’ll [soon] start filming The Partner in Chicago. Between The Partner and The Profit, I’m airing a one-hour documentary on a recent trip that I took to Cuba.

Did you find some investment opportunities there?
It was a bit of an underground visit to Cuba, an unsupervised visit. If you think it’s hard in America just to start a business, to own a business, let me take you to a communist country. Let me show you what that looks like, so the next time you tell me how hard your life is, you can see what it’s really like.

What’s your prognosis for Cuba?
I feel like it’s making progress, but because it has to, not because it wants to. They like to call it a socialist place; it’s a communist place. It’s communism, not socialism. Canada’s got some socialism; Norway’s got some socialism; Cuba is communism. The idea of paying for everybody’s healthcare and paying for everybody’s education is noble, except for the fact that it comes with a catch, and the catch is that you work for the government and, after that, you basically make $30 per month in wage. I think what the Cuban government is finally realizing is that, as the population continues to age down there—and it’s aging dramatically—it couldn’t just keep everyone on its payroll. 

What did you see in the business arena?
They decided to self-righteously allow people to open up small businesses, as long as they were on the list that was approved and it was done exactly the way they wanted. And people paid a heavy tax to start the business, and a heavy tax to run the business. And so, instead of having them on their payroll, they reversed the cash flow, took them off their payroll and put them on the tax-paying system. Some would say that’s capitalism; I would say that’s communism disguised as something else short term.

You don’t sound as optimistic as some.
In terms of the borders opening up, it’s clear that tourism is alive and well there, and it was people from all over the world spending money. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people—really, genuinely, the nicest people that I’ve met in a long time. They’ll give you the shirt off their back, and they don’t even have a nice shirt—and that’s their only shirt.

Speaking of garments—you wear a lot of hats, so to speak, and those hats require different outfits. Where are you sartorially these days?
It’s funny—as I got into a denim business, I became slightly more casual. And I wear jeans almost all of the time, and I wear sneakers because I’m in that business. Any business that I’m in, I tend to be in. But I still dress with gumption. I wear a lot of Tom Ford.

And you seem to be focusing lately on the fashion business in general—both retail and design.
Most of the things I design are for the female consumer because I know where the bulk of the market is, right? The male consumer’s important to me, but the female consumer on the fashion side is far more important. In fact, I’m buying a business called Susana Monaco, which is a women’s fashion company that’s been out there for 20 years. When I combine that with retail stores I own and the shoe collection I started, the cashmere collection, it’s very heavily skewed toward female. It’s a more honest customer, a more difficult customer and a more loyal customer, all in the same breath.

Are you literally sitting there with a sketchpad?
No, I don’t sketch anything. I’m not that sophisticated, and I don’t claim to be that sophisticated. I know what I like, and I usually take a prototype and I tweak it. I feel strongly about color palettes, and I’m a big believer in fit-testing and seeing things on people and making adjustments live.

You have so many different projects going. How do you keep track of results?
All of the different segments, whether it’s the food group or the retail group or the candy group or the manufacturing group, they all have group-specific dashboards where we find what the key metrics are in that business. Luckily, we have a good amount of technology so that, in a matter of a minutes, you can get a quick health report on a business.

You’ve got to be able to take a quick look.
You know what, though? I’ll tell you: I use them to a degree, but I can walk into a store without a dashboard and tell you what’s happening. You can tell from the way the product’s merchandised; you can tell from knowing what you bought and how fresh it is; and you can get a pretty good sense of how the store’s doing by just walking in. And when you get the dashboard, it usually lines up.

You often talk about your three P’s—people, process, product. Those sound like people-related results.
Always. No matter how good the buyer is, no matter how good the merchandise is, no matter how good the process is... if the people are wrong, it’s a disaster. And, conversely, you can have an average product with a broken process with amazing people, and you can survive.

This matters to you a great deal.
I love my businesses. They are pretty much my life, and the people that are connected to them are my friends, and I’m not advocating that it’s good or bad—it’s probably not great—but that’s the life that I’ve chosen.

True. But you have made substantial commitments to philanthropy.

What have you got going on in that arena right now?
You know, it’s funny, and I hope this answer is sufficient—I rarely talk about it. I talk about it when I get pinned into it. I think philanthropy is a very personal and private thing, and I’m involved in a number of different things, some that are very odd and kind of obtuse, and others that are very clear. I always tell people that philanthropy is not the size of your check; it’s not the magnitude of what you do; it’s the fact that you do it. It’s a soul-cleansing thing. I started a thing inside of our businesses years ago that, in order to work for the company and be on the team, you have to volunteer 32 hours a year. And you do it on company time, so you get paid, but I remember when I first did it, I had a number of people tell me that they were not OK with it. They didn’t want to be forced to volunteer. And my response was, ‘Listen, it’s been great having you work here, but it’s a condition of employment.’ And those same people a year later came back and said that it changed their life, and that it helped their marriage; it helped their relationship with their children; it helped their relationship with their co-workers. 

The impact goes both ways…
Philanthropy, to me, is a high-brow word that wealthy people like to use and, for me, ‘giving’ is a more appropriate word. And it can be done in different forms. Sometimes, oddly enough, it’s harder for a wealthy person to give their time and their hands and their ear than it is their money, and I much prefer that people give what’s hard, not what’s easy.

You are a very busy person. Do you ever find time to get away?
I don’t. I really don’t. My downtime is making the show. I don’t vacation. I’m not a person who would lay on the beach, and I’m not a person that would travel the world looking for the best olive oil that I could find. It’s just not who I am. I enjoy meeting people; I enjoy investing in businesses, and that’s my hobby—I don’t golf; I don’t play tennis. Someone asked me: Would you wanna be the governor of a state, or would you wanna have a television show? I would say that I can impact more change as a person with a television show because it gives you a real platform to deliver a message and affect change. And do things.

Lemonis’ new program, "The Partner," is designed to find him help in running his numerous businesses. Jacket by Thom Browne, jeans by DL 1961, shoes by Valentino.