I’ve asked it before, “The way you conduct business—is it meaningful to those left behind?” Is it?
I’m here at the Levy Entrepreneurship Group, talking with some of the most brilliant business minds in Chicago. This group’s been meeting for over 60 years. It’s the genius of Joe Levy, the prolific entrepreneur, investor, philanthropist—the son of a south Michigan Ave car dealer. Joe was an endless entrepreneur—constantly learning, constantly experimenting—the quintessential gentleman who gave everybody an at-bat—who spoke quietly but directly and told the truth as he saw it. He pushed people off the bag. “You’re lousy at this. What are you good at? Contribute. Help somebody.” People found inspiration and hope. Never a disparaging word about Joe. “If you don’t have a satisfied customer, you’re compromising your future.” He was the original automobile mega dealer, angel investor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. “God put me on this earth to produce, not to consume.” Joe Levy is dead at 92.
Joe Levy by Anne Elisabeth Hogh
Now I’m sitting with his group—face to face with his family. We hope to make them understand why we all loved our Saturday morning meetings—why Joe loved them. The moderator opens the meeting: “Welcome to the special clubhouse we’re in. This is a magical place.” Then we each take turns telling stories to the family:
The Levy Group by Joel Berman
- Joe told me, “Take your foot off the bag.” It was a constant voice in my head. Every time I thought, “Should I start this business that I really don’t know much about?” I’d hear that phrase, “Take your foot off the bag.” Sometimes I might take it off a little bit too much. But I would never be able to start what I’ve done multiple times without that voice in my head and without the support I’ve had from the group.
Take your foot off the bag
- Joe and I were at the Bryn Mawr Country Club having lunch. Outside the window was this pond with two swans and during the meal, he made a point of the swans, saying, “Aren’t those swans beautiful?” I said yeah. Then he did it a second time. And a third time. After the meal, we took a walk right up to that pond. And he said it a fourth time, “Aren’t those swans beautiful?” I’m like, “Yeah Joe, they are, but what’s your point?” He said, “Those swans are rental swans. They’re a business. I know this guy. He rents them to all these country clubs. It’s a beautiful business.” So the guy puts them out in the spring and he picks them up in the fall and he takes them somewhere to feed them all winter and breed, and then he brings them back again. It’s got no competition. Who even would know it exists? But his point was not only that it was a great business—it’s that it was a simple business in a niche.
- When Joe found out that I was running my business from my home, he said, “No, you can’t do that.” He said the building next door was empty. He had bought it to store the Levy Center furniture, so we moved in. That was a big help for us. A year later, he sat me down. He said, “Now buy the building.” The timing was right, so we did.
- This is the honorary Joe Levy tie. They named a street after him in Evanston where the dealership was. Following the street dedication, we got ties, and no better day to wear it than today.
The Joe Levy Way Tie – Photo by Rachel Kaberon
- I recall when they named the street after him. As usual, everybody gave elevator pitches at the start of the meeting. When it was time for Joe’s introduction, he said, “I’m Joe Levy and now I’m a street.”
- Twenty years ago Joe wrote a play about internet funerals called Cyber Mourning. It was at the Northlight playhouse in Skokie.
- When I first met Joe, he asked me what I wanted from him. I knew he had so much to offer a guy like me—a poor immigrant from Greece. Knowing that people always ask Joe for investment, I thought about his question for a second or so and responded, “Your friendship.” What I received in return was much more than I could have imagined or hoped for. He became a friend and a mentor—a man who could address any business issue, and some personal ones as well. The other thing that we talked about was Joe’s faith—both of our faiths.
- Not only did Joe teach us the art of being a gentleman—which is very, very hard to do—but he also taught us that entrepreneurship is endless. We took Joe’s words of wisdom, and put them in a placard.”
Plaque presented to the family – Photo by Rachel Kaberon
The Levy Group
- The group to me was a way to get working on Saturday without working on Saturday—to get my mind working as an entrepreneur.
- I remember just 20 years ago coming to the Levy Group and feeling like it was a continuing business education. I call each Saturday a class. In those classes we talked about business but I also learned about life, loving, giving, and family, and sometimes even death.
- The ultimate benefit of this group was becoming a ‘Friend of Joe.’ That meant you were part of a group that spanned many a decade and you became aware of the wisdom that came from the experiences shared through the years.
- I’m having lunch with Joe one day and make a comment to him. And he looks back at me and says, “Do you have a twin brother?” So I say, “No Joe. Why do you think I have a twin brother?” He looks at me and says, “Because no one person could be that f’n stupid.” I use that line all the time today.
Joe in his Flintmobile – Joe Levy Collection
- One Saturday, he brought me into the garage to see his Flintmobile. A full size Flintmobile!
- He was first at multi-dealerships. Back when Joe was in car dealership, he had eighteen. People have one, maybe two. He was the first one to have many. At one time, he owned 18 dealerships.
- Car dealerships wouldn’t give a woman the time of day, even if she was with her husband. If she wasn’t with her husband, they took total advantage of her. Not Joe. Joe was courteous at all times, and he built an incredible business. He became the largest Buick dealer in the world.
- Joe hired a clown for the dealership to entertain the kids. The clown also spied on the spouse. What she wanted was crucial to the deal.
- When Buick sold a model called the Wildcat, Joe made sure the Northwestern coaches all drove them.
Joe Levy – Photo by Nathan Mandell
- One day Joe heard on the radio that they were going to auction off a rare stamp in New York. He gets on a plane, goes to New York, buys the stamp, and before he gets on the plane to come back home, he called Carol and said, “Hey, I’m gonna be late for dinner.”
- The first thing that will come to my mind when I’m at the racetrack or around horses is Joe Levy. He used to take us there as kids. He gave us each an envelope with Win, Place, and Show for every single horse. That was one of Joe’s ways of making sure everybody was a winner.
- At my daughter’s wedding, my father-in-law took a scissors and snipped away Joe’s tie. Joe thought a moment, then went over and he cut my father-in-law’s tie off. It was like a Laurel and Hardy thing. So there they were, the whole evening, with these ties that looked sort of like bow ties without the bows.
- We had a horse race in the parking lot that included questions about Joe that only the regular group could answer. We had them on silks—sewn numbers on the horses.
- He gave me an appreciation that family was not just flesh and blood, and giving was not all about money. Time and caring in helping others were way more important in your life, in your learning.
- Most of the people in cognitive behavior haven’t caught on yet. And all these theorists—they just haven’t caught on to how important kindness and helping and giving are to being able to be an entrepreneur.
- And if I look back at Joe, what I think about is what he left behind, and that is teaching people how to be good human beings.
- My dad loved this group. This group was his favorite thing, I think. All week he looked forward to it—and just so proud of where everybody had come from and gone to. So, I just—I don’t know what to say—this is just so moving. So thanks, everybody.
So I ask you, “The way Joe conducted business—is it meaningful to those left behind?”
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