#150: ‘be part of something great and unique’

“The future is a fantasy that shapes our present”  
– Stephen Grosz
Good morning

It was a busy February in Cape Town. There was the Investec Cape Town Art Fair (I loved Ayogu Kingsley’s jubilant portrait of Steve Biko), Formula E came to our city and was a success, we hosted the women’s T20 Cricket World (South Africa was a finalist) and we again hosted some of the world’s bravest sailors, participants in the grueling Ocean Race. Along the way, The New York Times’s Style Magazine showcased Peter Tempelhoff and Ashley’s Moss’ Ramenhead, and podcaster, investor, and best-selling author, Tim Ferris got excited about Rozendal’s Fynbos Botanical Vinegar. If you’re reading this in another part of the world, you should come and visit, it is a special place made special by its people and its businesses, which takes us to today’s letter.

/ strategy – vision forms the basis for extraordinary effort

Business writing almost exclusively celebrates those that have had global impact. The result is that we often develop a misshapen view of what our strategies should be. We all know that for every Apple there are thousands of businesses and leaders making their way in the world, but their stories aren’t told.

I love the Zingerman’s story because it reminds us that we don’t need to follow the next big thing and that powerful strategy should always start with where and what you are.

In 1982, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw founded Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Today, the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses consists of ten unique businesses, with 700+ employees and over $65+ million in annual revenue. And, they’re all in Ann Arbor.

As you can imagine, there wasn’t a straight line between two people making great corned beef on rye sandwiches and what they are today.

After launch, with dedication, Zingerman’s Deli grew in reputation and success. By 1992, they had been featured in the New York Times and Esquire and were doing $5 million dollars in revenue. They were a success, and they were a mature business, starting to stagnate, with seemingly nowhere to go.

Talented people were becoming frustrated. Their frustrated energy was in turn making the business more complicated – unable to grow, they started devising more and more detailed processes strangling the business.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Weinzweig and Saginaw had a choice. They could leave it as it was, but they sensed that would lead to atrophy, or they could create a vision for what was next.

Saginaw’s instinct was to franchise the business. It was a known business model.

Weinzweig opposed the idea. He says “I didn’t want to spend my time flying to Kansas City to see some mediocre Zingerman’s. For me, it was important to be part of something great and unique”.

He told Saginaw to go ahead on his own. Saginaw declined.

Weinzweig’s resistance provided the friction necessary for creative exploration. Equally, Saginaw stayed committed.

The honesty and commitment provided the basis for a deepening exploration of another way. What that was, they didn’t know. They set two principles. They wanted to stay in Ann Arbor, and they wanted to keep alive their small business spirit. Those parameters provided the framework for creative exploration.

Over the next two years, they did a lot of reading, thinking, and talking and in 1994, they eventually shared their vision for the future entitled, “Zingerman’s 2009: A Food Odyssey.”

Intriguingly, it wasn’t a few cleverly copywritten sentences. It was a long open letter describing their vision. It was a statement of intent. It was specific, detailed, and inspiring.

The Food Odyssey envisioned a company composed of 12 to 15 separate businesses by 2009. They would all be small, located in the Ann Arbor area and whilst not every new company would be a food business, they would all be designed to enhance the quality of food and service offered to the Zingerman’s customer.

Importantly each new business would have its own specialty and identity and would have at least one managing partner who would work in the business and be a part-owner.

Saginaw and Weinzweig decided that they would grow, but they’d do so locally, related to food and with partners who were invested – both in time and money – in the business.

In The Coolest Small Company in America, Bo Burlingham describes how tough the next period was.

The founders and their employees had to manage the tension between figuring out processes that would be run centrally and principles that would apply to each business, whilst simultaneously leaving space for each business to develop its own identity.

Requests for information were perceived as Trojan Horses for control, and some people left, but over the next two years, Zingerman’s found their way. As the journey unfolded, they launched Zingtrain, a company dedicated to training all Zingerman’s staff in their core principles. Today, they offer courses to the world.

They didn’t start twelve businesses, they started ten, and they have inspired thousands of others.

In 2020, Zingerman’s published their 2032 Vision. They have kept evolving.

Jim Collins and Bill Lazier remind us that a powerful vision “forms the basis of extraordinary human effort, provides a context for strategic and tactical decisions, shared vision creates cohesion, teamwork, and community and lays the groundwork for the company to evolve past dependence on a few key individuals.”

Vision statements have gotten a bad reputation, often deservedly so, but Zingerman’s shows us their power.

Weinzweig set clear intentions about what he wanted. Saginaw didn’t dismiss him. Instead, they entered into a systematic dialogue – over two years! – to explore what was possible.

They embraced the “genius of AND” – they would create a community of businesses that had the benefit of some central functions and each would be unique. Each business would be part of Zingerman’s AND it would have a co-owner working in it.

By pausing to set a vision based on their learning of the previous decade, by giving it time, and then being rigorous in implementation, they created something unique and powerful.

(To discover more businesses like this read Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big. Ari Weinzweig has written a number of books about the Zingerman’s approach to business. I haven’t read them, but I liked the sound of A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business)

// self – if you have trust, you can fight

In a study entitled, Task conflict and relationship conflict in top management teams: The pivotal role of intragroup trust, Cornell University’s Tony Simons and Randall Peterson concluded that “Task conflict is usually associated with effective decisions and relationship conflict with poor decisions”.

Weinzweig and Saginaw’s 1992 disagreement is a beautiful illustration of the principle.
They had built deep trust. That trust gave them a context in which they could hold their differing views. By trusting and disagreeing, they were able to get to much more powerful answers. The trust enabled the disagreement which enabled more effective decision-making.

The business cliché is “I am not here to make friends”. The Zingerman’s founders teach us that making friends, makes it a lot easier.

// soul –the future creates the now

Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw’s commitment to envisaging the future reminded me of one my favourite quotations, “The future is not some place we’re going to, but an idea in our mind now. It is something we’re creating, that in turn creates us. The future is a fantasy that shapes our present” (Stephen Grosz The Examined Life).

Today is the 150th edition of strategy, soul, and self.  I’m quite proud of that little fact. Thank you for being here.


PS: If you’d like to work with me, you can find out more here and subscribe to this letter here. I occasionally share extra snippets on Instagram and LinkedIn.