By Richard Helling
Many volumes have been written about the two presidential candidates over the past few months and as the election grows closer there will undoubtedly be many more volumes written. While there is much to say about both candidates, Donald Trump provides an interesting example of what most small business owners should try to avoid.
I can already hear some of you sharpening your verbal machetes to provide full-throated defenses for or against him becoming president, but I promise this is not that type of article. Let me explain.
Generally speaking, every president (with the exception of Barack Obama, because of the nature of his assets) since Lyndon Johnson in 1963 has placed his assets in a blind trust to avoid even the appearance of impropriety by using the enormous powers of the presidency to gain personal financial advantage. Actually, when you think about it, this makes good sense. I believe we all can agree that a president is supposed to represent the United States and do what is best for the country, not what is best for his bank account.
This is what makes Donald Trump (and to a lesser extent Hillary Clinton) such an interesting case study.
Whether you love him or hate him, Donald Trump is a master at branding and his biggest and most successful brand is himself. As has been noted by countless news organizations, he has “Trump” branded everything from casinos and golf courses to a university, steaks and bottled water. The Trump brands include clothing, publications, TV shows, fragrances, restaurants and, yes, even ice skating rinks.
So what’s the problem? He has generally done quite well for himself with his branding ability.
The trouble arises for him when he has to remove the most important piece of his brand from the brand itself. And clearly the most important part of his brand is the man himself. No doubt, he has countless talented individuals working for him and I’m sure they are excellent at their jobs. But people are not buying Trump products because of highly skilled workers in a high rise building in Manhattan. They are buying these products because they believe in the Trump brand and the success that they believe it represents.
So the question is this: Can the brand stay strong if the man who is the brand is no longer in control of the business that bears his name? The answer, of course, will only become completely apparent if and when he is elected president. Should that happen, it will certainly be interesting to see how he untangles himself from any conflicts of interest that could arise if he is elected president.
While this question of untangling potential presidential conflicts of interests is an interesting mental exercise, it also has serious implications for small business owners as well. Given the scenario presented above, small business owners should absolutely consider whether their brand is tied directly to their name and personal relationships with clients, or if the reputation or brand of the business is independent of any one person and can continue with any competent leader at the helm.
As with many nuanced situations, the answer is probably “A little bit of both.” It is unlikely that a person who has built any successful business has done so without having a strong reputation that has been developed and hard-won through years of professionalism and hard work. No doubt many of your clients know you personally and they know that if you give your word, the job is taken care of and they don’t have to worry about it. This is how many successful businesses have been built. However, this type of structure begs a question that many business owners do not fully appreciate and it is this: “If you wanted or had to sell your business tomorrow, would someone buy it? How much is your business worth without you? Have you built a brand that revolves almost entirely around you and your personal reputation?”
These are difficult questions and unfortunately there are no simple answers. However, like most difficult or complex situations, there are strategies that can be implemented that can help mitigate some of the pitfalls and allow you to not be boxed in by what has made your business most valuable.
We would welcome a chance to discuss these complex issues with you and we promise not to discuss politics!