This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?”
The stories couldn’t be completely true. After all, stories have a habit of running away from us. They start small, but as they are told and retold, they build a life of their own. Certainly, the house, the parties, and the man behind both couldn’t be as large as reported.
I was about to find out. I was in an Uber making my way through the far west Chicago suburb of Barrington to the Billagio, the good-humored nickname of the home of Bill Weiland, founder and CEO of Presence Marketing, the largest independent natural and specialty food broker in the US.
The house stood on a top of a slight hill. It was beautiful and big. We were shown in and were escorted through the house out back via a pool area that would rival any resort. We first met Bill in the pool house. A pool house unlike any I had seen including a meeting room, a hot yoga studio, a large gym, and a full court indoor basket court complete with a batting cage that dropped from the ceiling.
After visiting there for a bit, Bill took us to his bar. Something he was excited to show us, come on, how many in-home bars are staffed by their own mixologist? He took us there via the tunnel that connected the pool house to the main residence. We made a stop off at the movie theater complete with fiber optic stars embedded in the ceiling and its own flashing marquee.
At the bar, which made me feel as if I were waiting for my table at the finest steakhouse in Chicago, Bill, with great showmanship, made me arguably the best drink I’ve ever had. It was a bacon maple old fashion.
I was at the Billagio with my client, The Good Crisp Co. Presence represents the brand and their vice president of sales, Steve Wangler, had set this day up with Bill and his team as a strategy session.
Bill shared his thoughts on how to build a brand, the trends he sees as sure things in the industry and his passion for what he does and has built. I knew then that I had to interview him for this series. I asked and, fortunately, he was more than willing to participate. We set up a time a few weeks later.
I had a blast with this interview. I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it. We talked about his passion, the fact that he learned at an early age that he would need to be resolute, and his belief in the importance of kindness. But it was his big personality and accompanying swagger that made this one so fun.
Why do you do what you do?
“I had an awakening when I was in my mid-teens. When I was 16 years old. My sister Mary had suggested that I may have some blood sugar issues. She said that I was cranky until I ate a snickers bar or something similar.” He said with a full laugh.
Weiland is the 13th kid in his family. He jokes that he was “raised by wolves.”
“She bet me 10-bucks that I couldn’t go a day without eating candy. I thought that was ridiculous so I took the bet and sure enough the next day, at like three in the afternoon, I got the shakes, Elliot, and I broke down and ate a Jolly Rancher. You know the long strip Jolly Rancher?”
“And I came to her and I said ‘Jesus you know maybe you’re right, I’ve got an issue here.’”
That was the point that he started leaning about the natural products industry.
“I have only had jobs in the natural products industry since and really became a crusader regarding the message of living well, health, wellness, and sustainability. And then along the way found that I had the entrepreneurial gene.”
Who do you think with?
“I value everybody’s contributions, every human. I look forward to spending time and seeing how people respond in certain situations.”
“I do a high percentage of my conversing with a skinny handful. People I speak with pretty much multiple times weekly and sometimes on a daily basis. I think it’s important that people don’t stray far from the point — that everybody brings a perspective that’s valuable and contributes to life. People have often pointed out to me that, ‘wow, you treat everybody the same,’ and it’s true. I recommend that to leaders. I mean, you talk to people about different issues depending on the space they hold in your life personally and professionally, but I treat everybody the same, Elliot. I treat everybody with kindness and respect, and I receive information well from people because they sense that about me.
“I’ve set up a force field, people don’t talk to me about nonsense. I believe it’s a posture that I have developed. There’s people that will burn a lot of daylight in the margins talking about stuff. People just drone on about stuff and it just doesn’t contribute anything valuable in getting over a hurdle or attacking a challenge. It just drives them further into the quagmire.”
“People just literally do not come and talk to me about nonsense and even when they don’t know that I’m the president or CEO of a company, you know I’m out and about traveling. I have high-value interactions with people, whether it’s a brief chat or deep dive into business or philosophy of life. I feel like I have figured a way subtly to bring out the best in people.”
What have you learned about connecting with and motivating people?
“It starts with treating everybody with great reverence, great respect, and putting people in a position to be successful. That means the right job, right person. They must have all the requisite tools to go and do their job. I motivate people by the teachings of the pursuit of excellence … Building a framework of conscious language so that everything about the way you approach things comes from a solution-oriented productive frame of mind. Your thought process, your conscious vocal expression and language are the most important tools in your life, in business, for sure.”
Weiland went on to add, “If everything you say is powerful and on-point and useful, you start to see people respond to you in a different way. I put numbers to it for people. I say, look, most people cannot even identify ‘great’ based on the true dictionary definition. ‘Great’ to me is 1 in 10 and ‘world class’ is 1 in 100. I say I cannot only identify both, I can deliver both, and I can teach you exactly how to do it. I wake up every day knowing I’m going to be coaching people, as I call it, I’m totally comfortable as I expect it, and I see the look in people’s eyes. They appreciate the way that I cut through all the haze. I’m very direct.”
What would your current self tell your former self?
“Reinforcement, Elliot. I’m a scrappy Irish kid with a week of college under my belt and I heard ‘no, that can’t be done.’ I’ve heard people say it to my face. The winds would carry their voices as they walked away from me and they would share such non-motivating phrases. I heard a lot of, my whole life and career, ‘that’s not going to work,’ or ‘that’s impossible,’ or ‘I doubt it.’ I was resolute. Even before I had this, even before we had crossed over and clearly become successful, I was steeped in confidence to do the right thing. I was clear as to what was the best decision.”
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Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on accelerating the growth of emerging food and beverage brands. He helps clients gain distribution, build velocity, and win share of stomach. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and Food Dive.
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