You're listening to the Uncommon Life Podcast. Whether you're a startup or you've been in business for 10 years, this show is for you. Each week, you'll get mentored by business leaders who deliver valuable strategies, tactics and tips on how you can pursue your passion without compromise. We’ll show you how to achieve balance while sticking to your core values, so you can have an uncommon life.
Now, here's your host, Jimmy Fullerton.
Jimmy Fullerton: Okay, so today I'm talking with John McLemore, the former CEO of Masterbuilt and currently on the board. John, thank you for coming up. Appreciate it, man. It’s always nice.
John McLemore: Yeah, it's always … it's a pleasure, man. Look forward to talking with you and simply can help.
Jimmy: Absolutely. Let's just start off by talking about your background.
John: So, that's kind of a nice little journey that my wife and I have going on.
Jimmy: Let's take it.
John: Yeah. We started back when I was eight years old. My dad started this company that we're still in today called Masterbuilt. He started it in our backyard, and I'll never forget coming home, literally, from the third grade—you’ve heard the story—walking home in the snow and uphill, and all these challenges we had as little kids.
John: But, yeah, I just walked home from school one day in the afternoon and my dad had taken a day off work, and he was playing with steel in the backyard and twisting it, making these designs with small strips of steel, and he made a fern stand. And it was, basically, for my mom to have the ability to water her plants.
Jimmy: Wow. I’ve never heard this story.
John: Yeah, the very first product that Masterbuilt came out with was a fern stand, a plant stand. And, at the time, being just a little backyard hobby business, my dad called it M&M Welding. We did that for about two or three years and went from the backyard to our first rented building in about ’76, and in the process, we went from plant stands to a furniture product called a baker's rack. And then, in the late-70s, came out with our very first fish cooker.
And, through this process, my dad realized that he had to have a, a brand more than M&M Welding. That was good for just a local welding shop, but not good for a product that we could have a brand name or consumer goods.
Jimmy: What did the M&M stand for?
John: McLemore & McLemore.
John: Welding. It’s very creative.
John: Yeah, father and son.
John: So, he is driving home one day, he tells the story. My dad's a great storyteller. But he's driving home one day from [03:00] Montgomery, Alabama, and he paints this kind of a picture—he’s got the sunset and in his rearview mirror, because he's driving east and sunset and in the West. It’s near late afternoon. And he's trying to make a decision to quit his job at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, and go full-time with Masterbuilt. And, at the same time, he's needing to come up with this brand name, and he says a prayer to God.
He says, “Look, I need your help to run this company, to go from a secure job at Goodyear, to going out on my own and running this family business. And I'm looking for a name to call the company.” So, he said a prayer. He said, “God, if you will help me run the company, I'll be the builder. You'll be the master. And if you'll help me run this thing, I'll name it after you,” which is where the name Masterbuilt came from.
Jimmy: Wow. I never knew the details of that story.
Jimmy: So, how did he get that final conviction that he needed to move forward, quit his job? And this was back in the day when it was hard to kind of start a side hustle. He had to make a commitment.
John: Yeah. He did it for three years kind of as a hobby and it grew well enough that he could, on the weekends, load up his truck and deliver products. And he knew he had enough of an established business to where he could make it on his own. There was still all the risk and challenges of going from having insurance and having a stable job, and having just that secure income on a week to week basis, to going it on his own his own, and he just had to take that leap of faith.
And at that particular time, it was my dad who owned the company by himself and my brothers, and I with my dad, ran the company. So, that was Bubba, my oldest brother, Bill, my next brother, Don, than myself, then my dad. So, all five of us ran it, and we did that from, basically, ’76 when my dad went full-time with the business, and it went from the backyard to renting our first building, went from fern stands to baker’s racks to fish cookers to expanding our product line.
We were peddling the products off our trucks in about a three-state area and grew the company from ’76 to ’84, until my dad said, “Look, I want to retire,” and at that point he did. He became a silent owner and I was just out of high school, and my brothers and I, with my dad, ran the business. And we did that for about four years until one of my brothers decided to kind of go on his own. That was Bill.
John: And today he still has the Clearview BBQ place, restaurant, here in town.
Jimmy: That’s Bill?
John: That’s [06:00] Bill.
Jimmy: I did not know that.
John: It’s right next to the oldest brother that owns that.
So, in ’88, he decided to go on his own and, at that point, we just split the company from 20 percent owners to 25 percent owners.
Years later, in ’97, my oldest brother, Bubba, decided to kind of go out and do his own thing, so he got out. And we split it three ways, a third, a third and a third between Don, myself and my dad.
And then, one year later, my dad said, “Look, guys, I'll sell you my third of the company, including the real estate, the building that we were in at the time or Brown Avenue, and y'all run it without me.” So, we did that in ’98, and Don and I, who, Don and I sow out our own business more than anybody I'd ever done business with.
So, we became 50-50 owners in the company in ’98. We were starting to expand our product line from those plant stands and burnished baker’s racks and fish cookers into smokers, which is really what put us on the map as a nationwide brand.
Jimmy: The smokers.
John: The smokers did, yeah. And, today, we're the largest vertical smoker brand in, basically, the U.S. and probably in, yeah, the world, globally. We’re now selling products in Europe, Australia, Canada, Mexico and other countries.
And, in 2012, the company was doing really well. My brother Don wanted to get out and just retire. He was in his mid-50s and we were at a point, financially, to where I could buy his 50 percent of the company. So, we did, and, at that point, I became a 100 percent owner for the first time in the company's history.
Through those, the past three decades of running the company when we went from the backyard to growing the company, we separated all of the duties, and for some reason, as the younger of four brothers and with my dad being in the company, I got elected to be the president and CEO when I was in my early-20s.
And it was more of a process, Jimmy, of not necessarily being the best, talented person. I was the only one dumb enough to take that job in a family business, but it worked out great, especially with Don and I0—he always liked being in an operations role. I was more in a leadership role—and when Don retired in 2012, I ran the business for another four years, and then, in 2016, brought on a private equity group to sell part of the company, too.
And it's just been an amazing journey. If I could give probably the biggest advice out there for somebody that's trying to start a business, it’s you’ve just got to surround yourself with people that are more qualified than you are and trust the fact that [09:00] you can let them do what they're best at doing. Great leaders, you manage processes and you lead people.
Jimmy: Right, could not agree more.
Jimmy: So, you had experienced pretty much at all levels of the company, growing up in the company.
John: I did.
Jimmy: And so, y'all went from being a great local company to being a global brand. What would you say some of the key decisions y'all made to do that? What elevated y’all? What were some of the key decisions y’all made, I’d say the top two or three?
John: I would say, innovation within our industry, marketing the product after you get a good innovative product, and building trust with the consumers that you sell your products to. So, at that point, you then put the product in their hands through innovation and marketing, and then customer servicing it and building a community of customers out there that when you come out with the next Masterbuilt product, and now it’s Masterbuilt and Kamado Joe, both of our brands, that people trust the brand, because they not only like it, but they like the company that's supporting the product.
Jimmy: Right. You said, let's go back and start with innovation.
Jimmy: So, what did that look like? I mean, we know what innovation is.
Jimmy: But when you say, oh, we just, you know, innovation, what does that look like? How did you develop that?
John: Right. You either take a product that already exists and make it better, or you do something that's never been done in a product, and I'll go back for an example.
When we first came out in ’78 with our line fish cookers, we fried fish in our backyard. That's how I learned how to cook. It was with my dad and then my mom's recipes, and everybody in the industry had fish cookers with steel pots on them. We were the first company to come out with aluminum cookware in your backyard fish cooker. So, something that simple was just, basically, taking the product that you were frying and boiling in, and giving them up just a different material, better heat distribution, easier to clean up, lasted longer. We had a lifetime warranty on a fish cooker back in the late-70s. And so, we went from taking just a basic fish cooker in your backyard to making it a little bit better.
In the mid-90s, we developed a line of smokers that had never been done before. At that point, it was called the 7-in-1 smoker. It was one product that allowed you to have a gas smoker, charcoal smoker, gas grill, charcoal grill, camp [12:00] stove, fryer and boiler in one product. So, it was just some neat innovation within that smoker world.
Jimmy: So, you took a product that y'all already used -
Jimmy: - and just figured out a way to build upon that and make it more attractive and innovative.
John: Make it better.
Jimmy: What do you attribute that to? Just built in, just a matter of being able to look at the product and see how it could be improved?
John: Two things. One, the best products that we still have today are products that we personally use, so as users of the product, like the plant stands back in 1973. It met the need of what my mother wanted, so it fulfilled something that she needed to help her water her plants, something so simple. And, today-- Or another product I'll give you an example on was we went from fish cookers to turkey fryers.
Back in the day, turkey fryers got a lot of hype out there in the industry about being dangerous. So, we were the very first company to develop and put on the market the world's first indoor electric turkey fryer, a product that would put the consumer at ease that it was a safer way to fry a turkey. You could do it indoors or outdoors, didn't matter, made it more versatile. So, we looked out there in the industry and said, “Hey, people are having a challenge to have the peace of mind to fry their turkeys,” so we developed something that basically fulfilled that need.
Did the same thing in our smokers. People loved to smoke food in their backyard, but they were intimidated with the process, so we developed an electric smoker that took all of the guesswork and hassle out of cooking in your backyard.
Jimmy: How did you identify that as being a problem? What method did you use?
John: Again, personal use. It was the exact same thing that we were dealing with, but a broader scale to that is we listened to our customers out there that said, “Hey, we love doing this, but we don't want to do fool with charcoal. We don't … we're intimidated by gas. We have …” Here's the concerns that they have, so we wanted to still allow them to cook great food, get great smoked flavor. And it's hard to come out with a product to be both convenient and a great performing product, so you’ve got to develop something that doesn't fulfill just one of those. It’s got to fulfill all of the quality and a great value, good price, fulfill what they want. They want convenience, but they still want to be able to have the food that they take out of the product be amazing. And our products did all of those.
Jimmy: Absolutely. It sure did and still do.
John: Still do, yeah.
Jimmy: So, you’ve got this feedback [15:00], what you're talking about, in addition to your personal use. You got the feedback through customer reviews, your website, that those standard kind of ways.
John: Yeah, customer reviews. Some of our best R&D work can be done by our customer service department and the people that are the frontline of our customers calling in. So, you not only have to listen to the customer and take care of that particular problem, but then it’s basically put within our R&D team to say, Hey, here's what we're hearing from customers. This is what they're wanting. How do we develop something that kind of makes …? Even our own products. I mean, you never want to sit and be comfortable with just … Even the greatest products that we have, we're constantly wanting to try to improve those products by listening, again, to our customers.
Social media is a great thing. Social media is a curse.
John: And in all aspects of that thinking of social media, it can be the greatest thing to help our product and a brand, and it can be very damaging to a product and a brand. And, if you don't listen to the social media, it is a mistake not to listen to social media.
Jimmy: Right. Right. We definitely do that relentlessly here.
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Jimmy: So, what I'm hearing is, basically, what drove your innovation was, in addition to your personal use, your customer feedback.
Jimmy: Drove your innovation and -
Jimmy: - helped you target exactly what improvements you needed to make, what the problems were, and, basically, you were just solving problems.
John: Solving problems. And the other thing, too, is the larger our company got, the more we built relationships with the best customers that we have out there, which is Home Depot, Lowes, Amazon, Walmart, Sam's, Costco, QVC, Bass Pro, Cabela's, Academy. Those type of accounts are who we've got our relationships with, but we got to a point to where do we want to drive our customer or have our customer drive us.
And what I mean by that, Jimmy, is if we come up with new [18:00] technology in great innovation, we can take that to our customer and we're driving the direction of the products. But we also had some success to where we were nimble enough to where our customers could say, Hey, guys, we want the following. You've got these products. Can you build us X, or whatever the product is? So, we had the ability to let the customers kind of dictate to what the product could be, but where we've had our most success is being innovative, driving that to the consumer and taking something that they've never seen before that’s not a “me too.”
I hate “me too” products. I hate commodity products. I don’t hate ’em. I just don’t like them as much as I do the products that are more innovative, and you’ve got the ability to market something that's different and unique besides all of your competitors out there.
Jimmy: Right. It appeals to your artistic side.
John: It does. A lot more fun. And it's easier, too. It's not easier. It can be easier and harder to put an innovative product on the market, and what I mean by that is, you can take a basic charcoal grill and everybody understands what a charcoal grill is, so it's easier. You’ve just got to have the price and the value for them to buy your product. The more innovative the product is, the more you've got to tell that story to the customer. So, it could be more expensive, but it's harder to get that story told to the consumer as to what it does, for them to understand it, for them to be able to be willing to pay more money for it.
Jimmy: Yeah, people really respond to a story more than anything else.
John: They do. They do.
Jimmy: Yeah. So, innovation, that was a big driver of your getting to the next level.
Marketing, so marketing, what does that, what did that look like for you? How did you do that?
John: When you start a company, you really need to budget how much money you're going to put into marketing. If the more the product is a commodity out and the less you’ve got to market it. The more it's a price point, the less you’ve got to market it. But the more innovative it is and the higher price points that you have, the more you've got to have a percentage of your sales to market the item.
Perfect world, it'd be like a tithe or savings. If you could put 10 percent of every dollar you earn within your company, and your budget allows you to have 10 percent to put into marketing, your company would have the ability to soar. That's a pretty high percentage, the lower the margins are and the tighter the profit is within any given company.
So, I'd say the minimum you need within a company is 3 percent, but it would be great to have it be as high as 10 percent. So, the average for companies out there [21:00] with consumer goods are going to be 4, 5, 6 percent of their revenue within the product can be put towards advertising.
Our advertising was done in a very creative way. We did the cookbooks, which was actually asked by QVC for us to do, so we developed the first cookbook in 2010.
Jimmy: What was the name of that cookbook?
John: Dadgum That’s Good!
Jimmy: That’s right.
John: Yeah. We had three cookbooks over in 2010, ’12 and ’14 that we came out with, and the first one was Dadgum That’s Good! The second one was Dadgum That’s Good Too! T-O-O, so it’s kind of a play on words and it was our second cookbook. What it was saying [was] that it was also good.
John: And then, the third cookbook was Dadgum That’s Good! And Healthy. The first cookbook that we did told the story in Masterbuilt and it became the biggest PR tool that we had in marketing because, as a cookbook author, people wanted to hear the story and the recipes more than they wanted to hear us try to sell our product. We went to Fox in New York or we went to all the … whether it was Steve Harvey or Rachael Ray or any of these places that we went to, Sean Hannity radio, they were more intrigued with the conversation about food and the recipe than they were with smokers and the turkey fryers and the grills.
So, we would go, do these events and the producers that most of these radio and TV stations would say you need to talk about food, talk about recipe, don't oversell and commercialize it with your product. And they were so intrigued by our products, it turned into one of the best sales tools that we've had out there to talk about it.
Jimmy: It's uncanny how people pick up on when they're being sold to. People have a radar.
John: They do.
Jimmy: Nobody likes to be sold to. They'd much rather hear a story and buy in themselves.
John: Yes, our product was a byproduct of us going on and promoting the cookbook and the recipes. The product just kind of rode the wave of those PR events.
Jimmy: That's telling the story. That’s a big part of marketing. So, anything else about marketing that you did to help elevate your business?
John: I would say, you’ve got to be careful as you grow a company because the first thing that will be cut is the marketing budget when your company starts getting into financial trouble. And you’ve just got to be careful with that because it is one of the most powerful tools you can do and have to grow a company, but you’ve also got to have the people within your company.
I mean, marketing is not just buying a radio ad or TV ad or buying a spot in a magazine, or nowadays digital in the digital world. But the team that you have within your company is [24:00] your marketing, so customer service was next on our list to talk about, and that is a form of marketing when you build a relationship with your customers out there and you build that trust.
You can have the best, most innovative product, unmarket it and not customer service, and the products going to struggle. I mean, you can take some of the most least desirable products and market them right and customer service them right, and there's just tons of stories out there about how successful they are. When you put them all together, that's when you’ve really got a brilliant product.
Jimmy: Right. So, don't sacrifice the marketing, boys and girls. That's the moral of the story, because, yes, so many people -
John: Mhm, they do.
Jimmy: - when they start struggling, the first thing they cut is the marketing budget.
John: Yeah, they cut. They cut. Giving to charity and they cut marketing. And you’ve got to be careful with that because you can’t market something when you can’t pay your light bills, understand. I mean, you've got to make that choice.
Jimmy: You’ve got to be strategic how you do it.
John: Yeah, but just be super careful not being able to continue to build and grow your brand. And, to me, there is no cap that you could put on when you start out, for an example, a brand new companies starting out in their first year, they do a very small volume, couple of hundred thousand dollars, and you put advertising towards it. This is a small amount and then you grow to whatever that level is. And they say, well, the larger we grow our company, the larger the dollar amount is going to get, so we could actually start cutting that percentage within that marketing. If you can keep the percentage the same, just continue to build your brand, and it does coincide with the ability to grow a company and raise that revenue, the more you expose your brand to the consumer.
Jimmy: Right. Something you mentioned that I noticed was very key here as far as your customer service was, you focus on community building, which kind of had a community of followers, basically, from Masterbuilt. How did you do that?
John: Draw them out [crosstalk].
Jimmy: In addition? Well, I mean, in general.
John: Oh, the overall community.
Jimmy: Yes, yes, consumers.
John: It’s having the ability to be available for the consumers out there, which is pretty difficult the larger you grow. Social media helps with that. The videos that we do and the content that we build helps with that. But just being able to have the community that you're building out there, the consumers that like to be Masterbuilt fans and customers, they want to learn how to cook and be creative with the product.
So, we put the product in their hands is the first thing, and then being able to supply them with video and content out there in the social [27:00] media world, that allows them to kind of be a part of what you're doing. So, when we share recipes, they love to cook them, and if there's opportunities that we can be available at trade shows and live Facebook events or just exposing our content to the consumer out there, they love using that for building and developing their own recipes.
Jimmy: Right. So, let's talk for a minute about your leadership. You touched on this earlier. You seem to be more of a put the right people. We’d like to say put the aces in their places.
Jimmy: Get the right people, put them in their place and let them do their job, and just kind of try to manage and oversee the process.
Jimmy: Is that how you describe your style?
John: Yes. When I first became a titled president and a CEO, we were a very, very small company, so we were doing a lot of different jobs, and as the company grew, you cannot grow a company if you're going to, basically, do and touch everything. You're going to, basically, stymie the growth of the business.
So, as we grew and we had to go from hiring more people to come in and do the jobs that we were doing, you don't need to hire the talent to come in and do it, and then continue to do it for them. You need to lead the person that's going to be managing that division or department, and let them succeed and fail.
Now, you’ve got to balance them failing, obviously, but if you're going to put somebody in a position and always only do it your way, then the company is only going to grow in one direction. But if you're going to have a great team that's got talent, and the best thing to do is to be not afraid of hiring somebody better than you.
That's easy to do for owners of companies because they control everything. That gets more difficult when leaders are within departments and they're scared of hiring somebody better than them because it threatens their job. Right? That's not healthy for themselves, for the people that are hiring or for the company. They need to hire people that are better than they are and they just are great at leading them.
The president of any company or anything, or even a country, cannot do all of those jobs. The president has just got to have people that they can trust to do those jobs better than they can do those jobs and let them do it and not hold them back. Don’t micromanage them. Just lead the process that they're doing.
Jimmy: So, the key is, obviously, getting the right people.
Jimmy: What are some--
John: And real quick.
John: If you get what you think is the right person, [30:00] great. If you have made a mistake in the position, you’ve got to make a decision within three to six months.
John: Quick. You can't wait years and realize. A lot of times, people hire somebody and they know they've made a mistake, and they just don't do anything about it. Being a great leader doesn't mean that you don't have to make and be faced with tough decisions. I've been actually guilty in my career of running a business with a little bit too much compassion and not making some tough decisions. It's worked out for us, but that's not always the best thing to do. Even in a family business, even with people that you know that are part of your friends and family, you’ve got to be willing to make those tough decisions if it's not the right hire. So, I didn't mean to interrupt you, but that’s part of the hire.
Jimmy: No, no, no, that’s a good point because they say hire slow and fire fast.
Jimmy: So, what is your process for making hiring decisions? I mean, do you have a process you go through?
John: Yeah, we have an HR department that helps us with that and we do it through referrals. The more the job requires bigger talent and harder talent, sometimes we'll go through a search agency, an agency that will help us go out there, headhunters or agencies that that's what they do, go find you that talent. Some positions we’ll do that with, but for the most part, it's just going through our HR department, referrals and going through a good, extensive interview process.
Jimmy: On a smaller level for people that don't have an HR department, how would you advise them? Because, ultimately, there are times when you have to make the decision. I'm just wondering what your decision-making process looks like as far as making a decision on a person or individual. How do you…? I mean, what are some qualities you look for?
John: I think it's, if at all possible, the people that you're going to hire, especially the ones that are directly reporting to you, you need to find that person that has the same core values that you do. And you can train so often for the details of what the job is going to be, but it's hard to change a person in their core beliefs.
Jimmy: There has to be an alignment in your value system.
John: Yeah, there needs to be an alignment system, if possible. Now, within a company that's got hundreds of employees, the bigger the company gets, the more difficult that can be. And we're a Christian-based company. We have prayer partners every week in Masterbuilt. We have Bible study every month at Masterbuilt. That does not mean that every person that works within our building comes to those things and has those exact beliefs that we do. But I do believe it is very important. [33:00] The closer people are to you and your inner circle …
Jimmy: The closer you get to be in alignment.
John: That you need to be in alignment. Some people say, Oh, well, you can have a company handbook to get you through policies. Yeah, that's accurate and you do need certain things in writing, but when you have to put something in writing about what your just absolute core beliefs are, and you’ve got to train those people that are directly reporting to you or certain values that they've got to uphold, it's typically not going to work. And I'm--
Jimmy: Speaking from experience.
Jimmy: So, that's the end of part 1 of my interview with John McLemore. Coming up in part 2, there's more good information. Some of the things we talk about are the importance of balance and not being consumed by your work, which is something very near and dear to my heart.
We also talk about leading in difficult times and the true value of relationships, and the importance of telling the truth even when it hurts, in some cases, especially when it hurts.
So, once again, a lot of good information from somebody who has a wealth of experience. I think you'll find it time well spent to go check that out, part 2.
And, also, if you enjoyed this content, please share this or leave a comment. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. And you can get more content like this by subscribing to my YouTube channel at Uncommon Life Podcast.
So, once again, thanks for listening, and I'll see you next time.
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