Mar 20, 2024

153: Discovering The Hidden Secrets Behind A $37 Million Exit, Max Lewis

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Host Laurie Barkman welcomes Max Lewis, entrepreneur and author of “Who Is Max Lewis?” Max shares what led to the eventual sale of his company for $37 million. 


From selling mangos as a child to amassing millions by exchanging propane tanks, Max beat the odds and became one of America’s ultra-high net-worth individuals by 36 years old. Through persistence, hard work, and a willingness to learn from mistakes, he tactfully planned for nothing less than success.

It’s also about a family in business that fell apart as a family business. For 18 months, Max was literally locked out of his business by his brother.


Max’s story is about forgiveness, resilience, and the power of faith. There are lots of pivotal moments in our lives. Which ones will stand out to transform your entrepreneurial journey? 

His message is that extraordinary success is within your reach—when you’re willing to put in the work. 

Enjoy this Succession Stories episode about discovering the secrets behind a $37 million exit with Max Lewis.

Find Max Lewis Here: https://whoismaxlewis.com/

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SHOW TRANSCRIPT

Laurie Barkman
Thank you. Max Lewis, welcome to Succession Stories. I am so excited to be with you and reunited with you because we met recently. It’s always best when friends come together on Zoom. Don’t you think?

Max Lewis
Agreed, Laurie. You look great.

Laurie Barkman
Thank you. I really enjoyed reading your book and of course, meeting the author is always special. You sent me this amazing sermon when anyone watching on YouTube is gonna see this beautiful gold box. The title of the book is “Who is Max Lewis?” Why did you write the book? And why did you call it that?

Max Lewis
It’s interesting because a lot of people assume that I had like this goal of writing a book and it was like a bucket list item but actually, it wasn’t. I wrote the book, because a lot of people kept suggesting that I write a book about my journey. That’s the simple truth. A lot of friends and family, they knew about my story and sometimes I would just tell them what happened. They’d say, man, you know, you should really write a book, you should read it, write a book. Then after hearing that about a dozen times, I was in the middle of COVID and I said, Well, I’m really bored, I guess I should write a book. I started writing the book. Quickly, maybe about, I don’t know, maybe like five chapters in, I started to feel like man, I really want to give back and teach people and that’s kind of where it shifted. It was a good idea to write the book.

Laurie Barkman
I think the positioning it as a question of who is the author, who, of course, is you. But I think thematically what you’re getting at with the chapters and how you lead, and we’ll talk about it, of course, which is 37 chapters, 37 lessons, and the big reveal of $37 million. Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about your family business, which I’ll call family in business. That’s a good description.

Max Lewis
The family business and by the way, real quick, the name, who is Max Lewis, the name Max Lewis. The reason I use that pseudonym, there are many parts to it. Mainly, I didn’t want the book to be about me. I wanted it to be about the reader. I wanted the reader to have takeaways and not make it about the author. Sorry. Sorry about.

Laurie Barkman
No, that’s great. Thank you for sharing that.

Max Lewis
You’re welcome. So the family business, what would you like to know about the family?

Laurie Barkman
There was a dynamic, so your father had a business and your brother was a part of it, and then you were part of it. Maybe share a little bit about that background.

Max Lewis
My father had a propane station, where he refilled the barbecue tanks. He also delivered some propane to homes, trailer parks, and small restaurants. He had just started his business. He actually got two delivery trucks that he owned at that time. He got them for free friend of of his gave them to him so he could start his company. My brother was actually a mechanic at Ford. I was freshly out of high school and I was planning on being a chef.

My dad got a little busy. My brother quit, his job was mechanical work with him. I started working with my father on the weekends because he figured it’d be better for me to work with him than wash cars, which was what I was doing at the time to make some extra money. I kind of just stayed there. Then a guy came in one day and wanted some barbecue tanks delivered to his hotel in South Beach, which no one really did that. Long story short, I took a leap of faith, and that eventually turned into a business. I was trying to make it my own business. Paperwork-wise and I made some mistakes there, which I know you’ve read about. I teach the readers hopefully to try to avoid some of those mistakes.

Laurie Barkman
It was fascinating for me to read it because there were so many different turning points where you did make a mistake or there was a success, and it didn’t come easily to you. You were definitely learning as you went and I think that was one of the things I really appreciated about the book. As I work with clients and I do this show, it’s all about education is trying to help people proactively from making some of these mistakes. I hope you don’t mind if we do talk about some of them because I do think people can really learn from him. This one particular example of the the business structure right and creating a new business within the existing versus a separate business? Can we talk about that for a minute? Can you rewind about what you did? And then what you would have done differently?

Max Lewis
When I had my business concept, I made a delivery to this gentleman, I made some money. I went home, I said, I have this idea with my girlfriend, and I shared that with my girlfriend, and she says, you know, make a business card and go into business for yourself. I said, Okay, I’m gonna do that. That’s all I knew, right? Business card, and how to make a transaction, I’ll give you this, you give me some money. When I started researching and speaking to friends and family, I’ve heard that I could do a DBA, have a DBA of my father’s business, which was, we call it local propane in the book. If I did, so, I could essentially piggyback off of his insurance and corporate structure, and have a free trial attempt at running my own business without doing all the legwork. The mistake there was by doing so, I’m giving them ownership of my business. It was never really my business. It was their business, doing business. The DBA is doing business as that’s what it stands for. It was my company doing business as their company. It helped me not spend any money, but also gave away my company in the process.

Laurie Barkman
It was a way to sit, get synergy from costs, and save money. And it was easy. It was, and I’m sure many companies have done that where they’ve started something new within an existing entity, and then all of a sudden, that new startup right within the enterprise is all of a sudden, doing so much better. That’s what happened with you. Can you flash forward and talk a little bit about what happened and the dynamics with your family when you wanted to split out? What happened there?

Max Lewis
Sure. To your point, no one does all the correct paperwork, not I shouldn’t say no one does very few people do all the correct paperwork when they’re starting out because there’s nothing to fight about. There’s no money, we haven’t done anything, it’s just an idea. But good ideas and good businesses quickly become valuable. Then when you want to rewind the tape and say, Hey, by the way, given that paper saying that I own this place. Well, now that there are maybe millions of dollars on the table, people are not going to be so willing to you know, maybe sign over the business. Something to keep in mind, just always do the right thing, from the beginning from the onset. The challenges were essentially, my little business ideas quickly became extremely profitable, very, very profitable. Again, I didn’t own my business, they owned my business, and we had an agreement. Let’s say, a handshake agreement, but it really didn’t, didn’t really work out too well, primarily, because I didn’t have my paperwork in order. Also, I was dealing with a sibling and family.

In my experience, and I’ve seen in many other people’s experience when you work with family, there’s not a lot of respect, it’s like, that’s Laurie, who cares? No, it’s a big deal. It’s Max, whatever, He’ll get over it. Usually don’t find that in business when you’re the owner and they’re your employees or vice versa. People usually have a little bit more respect. I don’t know, is just in our dynamic, there was a lot of, you know, I’m the younger brother, too, right? I’m the youngest of three brothers. Having a good idea and making a lot of money making more money than the rest of my entire family. Then being in a position where they had, it’s really was my brother who had control over me. It’s like getting your brother in a headlock and getting a Minogue. That’s kind of like what he did to me, but a lot worse, unfortunately. But it was a good learning experience. Didn’t feel like a good teachable moment when I was going through that process but it looking back on it today. Even a few years ago, it was great, because that’s how you learn these are part of life’s lessons. I even mentioned to a buddy of mine the other day, we’re talking about I said, there wouldn’t even be a book by God that go through all those things. You got to be thankful, effective blaming, they call it.

Laurie Barkman
Think you are humbly summarizing for our audience because this particular chapter, what I thought was a very it could have been a very explosive chapter in the way that you handled it, I think now that you were able to look back with a certain forgiveness towards your brother that at the time, I’m sure it was very, very difficult. We should probably share just a little bit more about the story for everyone but I do want everyone to read the book. This is not going to be a replacement. Go get this book, it’s definitely worth a read. Can you share a little bit about what happened specifically towards the end of that situation with you and your brother?

Max Lewis
I’ll provide some color and then tell you what happened towards the end. Essentially, what he was able to do with control of the business was lock me out of my own business. When I say lock me out of my own business, I mean, literally locked me out of my own business, he hired armed security guards to keep me off the premises, stopped paying me my salary, and cut my medical cell phone. There was a lot of things that were done that I think most people would have, I don’t know, run them over with their car. I definitely thought that during that time, I’ll tell you that at that time, basically, challenging for me to navigate through that. But that’s essentially what he did. He basically took over the business and locked me out of it. I was and at that time, I already had maybe 40 or so employees, so it was already a pretty good-sized business. What was the second part of your question?

Laurie Barkman
How do you forgive? How do you move on?

Max Lewis
The forgiveness part? Well, I think Tony Robbins, and going today with STL, that really assisted me in that part of my life, because I did my best to try to control my anger and like, see positive, but when you’re getting kicked while you’re down, it’s very difficult to do that. My faith also, I went to during my sabbatical when I was locked out of my business for 14 months, I went to Israel, I was baptized in the Jordan River, which was amazing. What a profound experience that was, I think those moments really helped me and kept me at peace. Also having the ability to retaliate and not retaliating. I think to me, I was proving to myself that I was more powerful. The things that were being done to me, it was like nothing like okay, yeah, brushed it under the rug. Not a big deal because anyone could have acted out anyone could have done something potentially dangerous or stupid. By kind of, like resisting that, and focusing my energy elsewhere, energy goes where your focus goes, you feel what you focus on. It’s a saying that I love too.

Laurie Barkman
That’s a great saying.

Max Lewis
Yeah, I love it.

Laurie Barkman
There’s an underlying piece of the story, which is about you creating value, you determined through blood, sweat, and tears, how to build this business, you’re this what was initially the startup, which became a much, much bigger company than the original propane business. There were some key aspects to the growth and value creation. I wanted to dive in on a few which ones stand out to you most.

Max Lewis
The culture of the business is something that my whole journey leading up to that which was probably 12 years into running the business. I never really thought about culture. I probably didn’t even know the definition of culture. You know, 10-12 years in. When I study with Keith Cunningham, who is he’s the earpiece, the book that Robert Kiyosaki writes Rich Dad, Poor Dad. The rich dad is modeled after Keith Cunningham and Robert Kiyosaki didn’t really have a rich dad, it was Keith Cunningham, who’s the rich dad, he studied with him. When he wrote his book, he modeled his rich dad after Keith Cunningham. I studied with Keith Cunningham as well. When I learned everything that Keith had to teach on that subject and many other subjects, I tested it, I tested the waters. I was like, o he’s basically saying that you need to put your employees before your customers and create, create a good environment for them, make them happy. Then once that’s taken care of, then we start focusing on customers. If you think about it, and I mean, it makes a lot of sense if they’re happy, and you have the right players on the team. They’re gonna do a great job for you. They’re gonna keep your customers happy. If you have, for example, we had Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark McGwire in their heyday, all on the same team, are they going to hit home runs? Absolutely, they’re going to hit homeruns. Right?

Then what’s another element to that is keeping them happy, They’re gonna want their drinks and their nice cleats and uniforms and things like that, which a lot of companies, especially my company, at the time, prior to study with Keith, I didn’t focus on. I gave him the cheapest shirt, I could give them, the cheapest pants, everything was like the cheapest, whatever we can get away with bare minimum. We’re giving away pens perfect, get the cheapest pens and scribble our name on it. It just sucked and then if you don’t like it, chances are the people you’re trying to impress are not going to like it. If you’re and if you don’t, if you wouldn’t like it as an employee, guess what your employees are probably not going to like what you’re giving them also.

Changing that focus and really walking through the doors every single day. How can I make this place a better environment, a better place to work? The key was asking the employees. One of the first things was the vending machines, which I know you wrote about was the coolest thing was that like, pretty much the first thing I ever tested. I got a meeting together. Hey, everybody, I want to talk about the company. I want to know what you think could make this a better place. You go to work. People started saying all kinds of things but one thing kept coming off more than this vending machine, like vending machine. I mean, how hard is that? Okay, get up and you told my manager, get a vending machine. Put it back there in the corner. What do you guys want? Oh, soda. This is the outtake right, put it there. Screaming cheering yay, no, I’ve never seen the employees that happy. I was like, they’re so happy about a frickin vending machine like this is bizarre but no one had ever listened to their requests before. I had never walked back there and said, What do you guys want? As an exercise, I became very good at that. I ended up creating a beautiful culture toward the end by the time I sold the business. But just using that as a skill, and taking like a survey of what the employees need or want. This went for everything. Clothes that we wore, the paper that we used, everything. I got everybody involved. When we were all involved, it was just like this energy, anything that got in our way, like, we just bulldozed through it. It was so beautiful to see that, like transpire, it was incredible. I think creating a culture and asking your team questions, the right questions, and then giving them what they want is a huge part of business.

Laurie Barkman
One of the other things that struck me in your book was your goal, setting your ability to focus on what it is you wanted to achieve, and why. There’s three questions that you kind of run throughout the book, what do you want? Why do you want it? And what are some of the things you can do to get what you want? How did you come up with the idea to draw out your goals and frame it that way?

Max Lewis
I initially started that exercise way early on. When I started the business without really knowing what I was doing. I just had a paper. I wrote. I remember one of the first things I wrote down was I wanted $3 million of properties free and clear, I wanted a pickup truck, and I wanted a house. Those are my goals and I taped them on the back of my door in my home. In my efficiency, I should say that’s where I lived, they lived in a vision, taped it on the back of the efficiency. I remember when I was pulling that off the door when I was moving, I was moving into a paid-off house and I bought cash. I had like $5 million and properties paid off at that time. Obviously, I had my nice truck. I said Man, this is crazy. Everything I wrote and I put up here, it’s here like this is kind of nuts. I kind of like took note of that. I was like I should probably continue doing papers like this. Then it kind of fell back you know back in my mind when I got into reading Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich. That’s when I took it to another level. That’s like he gives like very precise exercises, recite it day and night, write the check, tape it on your wall, and I was like oh yeah, you don’t have that done something like this before. This is cool. It’s stuck with me ever since. With Tony Robbins, we did vision boards. That was really cool as well to just have everything that you want like pictures, this was even better than just scribbling it on paper. I would say that it’s something that I just started without really knowing what I was doing. Napoleon Hill and Tony helped cemented in for me.

Laurie Barkman
Tell me about the $37 million, how did you come up with that goal?

Max Lewis
I didn’t come up with it, it was something that I did not come up with, I came up with 25 million. I thought $25 million was like an astronomical number. When I was thinking about what I could do to make my company worth a crazy number, it was actually in date with destiny. I said, $25 million, that’s a crazy number. That’s what I want it to be, what I’m gonna sell it for. Of course, everyone’s scoffed at that, they’re $25 million, you got her frickin mind. Fast forward, maybe a year and a half later, I had already, I was on a phone call with the gentleman that I knew, and told me that your company’s worth $25 million. What he said that I’ll never forget, I was in my room, I had the phone to my ear. I was like, didn’t even think I just was looking. I looked, oh, there’s my board, walked over to my board, wiped off 25 grabbed the expo marker, and just put 37. It just came to me.

Laurie Barkman
I’m trying to remember, was there a significance or just literally came to you?

Max Lewis
Just literally came to me.

Laurie Barkman
They’re guessing and that’s what I loved about your story is you got there and beyond. You took the time to get educated you were learning as as you went, right? This is your first, this is your first business that you were growing and eventually sold it. We don’t have all the answers when we’re doing that, right? We don’t know how it’s going to turn out but I like to see the curiosity that you had, and also how to make things better. Your example with the employees is a great example. Just asking them and then asking different professionals who could help you and understand what is it that I need to do to get to this place and then work backwards from there. Let’s talk about ultimately the sale and the sale process. I think if I recall correctly, you ran the process yourself. What did it entail? What were things that were painful? What worked well?

Max Lewis
It was very similar to the rest of my journey, which was, at first, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing this escape. How do I do this? Everything has been like every step of the journey is like when you get to that next step, you’re like, I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know, well, when you switch it to, what do I need to know? Who do I need to talk to? Whose advice do I need to get? What do I need to learn? Who do I need to learn from, then it gets a lot easier. With a couple of phone calls, you already start to that level of anxiety starts to taper off and you start getting okay, like I might be able to handle this right.

First thing I did was what I was told to do by a couple of people, get yourself a what are these companies called? Basically, a broker, brokers gonna sell your business, they have experience, call them, I call these guys. What I found with the two gentlemen that I spoke to, which they were very nice people, by the way, they didn’t believe my company was worth what I was told it was already worth by a business development professional in this space, who could possibly buy my business? They didn’t believe it was worth that much be out. I found myself educating them on every single piece of the business. I was like, how are you going to sell it if you don’t know anything? Lastly, I would have to pay them 2% of the sale. When I did the math, it was like $175,000 or something. I said, Hold on a second. That’s the restricts. I gotta educate you, you don’t believe in it like I do then I’m gonna have to pay you. I said, You know what? Maybe this is something that I could do myself. I’ve done a lot of other things myself, why not add another one to the list? I approached that within with the knowledge I had. Then I started talking to people in the industry, people that were in business development, ask them questions, what do you look for? It’s funny, because one of the things I did one of the biggest companies in the country, I asked the guy, I reached out to him on LinkedIn, cold call, email, Hey, man, I own this company. I’m looking into buying other small companies. I’m curious, what are the things that you look for when you’re trying to buy companies? The guy’s like, I’ll send you everything I look for. It was I mean, I printed it out. It was like, crazy. It was like reading material. It’s like a book. I couldn’t believe it. Like I said, he emailed it to me and I said, Well, here’s all the stuff that they’re looking at. Now that I say, Okay, this is what they’re looking at. Let me make sure mine is bulletproof. So when I go sell, right, these are just little tactics that I use to sharpen my business to make it better, and more presentable. Going forward, I started those. A lot of people who wanted to buy my business because they got big, real quick, and it continued to grow. Then I use the process of elimination, which is who’s the best buyer for my business, which I think a lot of I know a lot of people waste time in this area because they’re not thinking who is the most most qualified person to buy.

For example, I have a buddy of mine who’s got an airline business. He’s like a bunch of people want to buy it, who can buy it cash. Who could buy cash? You want to eliminate half that list right now, who could buy cash? Now, there’s probably only four or five people. It’s almost the same in every case, right? It’s like, oh, there’s only a handful. Okay, great. Who’s the most valuable to? The very question is, who’s it most valuable to out of the people that are left? Who’s the most valuable to? That’s another good way to save yourself a lot of time and energy. Then another tactic that I used was when I bought out a small competitor early on in the book. I said, buying him, there’s a lot of economies of scale for me. A lot of synergies I’m gonna benefit from which are not part of the sale paperwork, right? There’s nowhere does it mention min-max, you’re gonna make an extra $500,000 because you don’t have to add all this extra equipment and employees. It’s not on there, but it’s true. I said, Why don’t I use that, as part of my sales tactic to these big companies say, Listen, you’re not going to pay all this insurance, you’re not going to need all these employees, you’re not going to need all this equipment. If we add that up, how much extra money is that going to be in your pocket apart from this p&l? Which I don’t I don’t write that part in the book. But it was a huge number. It was a huge number. It’s very attractive. They were salivating when they saw that, Oh, my God, he’s right because it’s factual.

Nothing was pie in the sky.I don’t believe in pie in the sky. I’m not gonna say anything. That’s not a fact. Right? Especially when you’re in a negotiation. Using that, and the fact that it’s not even debatable. It’s a fact. They’re like, Well, yeah, we’re gonna make, for example, I can’t remember the numbers right now off the top of my head but let’s say I was making $3.2 million a year, I illustrated to them that they can make closer to seven because they’re not gonna have any of the expenses that I have. They’re gonna have all the economies of scale. That’s extremely attractive. My asking price now doesn’t even look that bad anymore, right? Like, we’re gonna make double what he’s making. That was another tactic that I use. It worked out extremely well.

Laurie Barkman
That’s fantastic. Let’s start to wind down. I know, you have a lot of favorite quotes, things that inspire you. I found the book very inspiring. But if there’s one that stands out that you want to share, what would what would it be? If you’re talking to an entrepreneur, what’s one thing that you’d like to share whether it’s a favorite quote, or something from your experience?

Max Lewis
The one that I always, that I really like, is not now does not mean not ever. I wrote that in one of the reflections of the book. It just meant a lot to me because a lot of times when you’re starting out, when you’re embarking on something, it’s very easy to feel defeated. It’s extremely easy to get discouraged. Even when you’re doing everything, doesn’t mean that you’re going to get rewarded in that instance. You might not get rewarded for another 10 years. We don’t know but that doesn’t mean you should give up. It doesn’t mean you should give up. It doesn’t mean that you should quit. It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to win someday. Is that going to be today? Maybe not next week. It’ll be next month. It’ll be three years from now. But just because you’re not winning right now, doesn’t mean you’re not ever going to win.

Laurie Barkman
I love it. Thank you, Max. If people want to stay in touch with you and learn more, what’s a good way to do that?

Max Lewis
I’m pretty active on Instagram. You could email me at whoismaxlewis.com. Pretty easy to find..

Laurie Barkman
Awesome. Max, thank you so much for coming on the show sharing your story, and talking about the book and your experience. I really appreciate you.

Max Lewis
Anytime. Thanks for having me on. It’s great to see you again.

Laurie Barkman
It’s great to see you. To our listeners. Be sure to follow Succession Stories and your favorite podcast player and on YouTube. And leave us a review five stars five stars helps the show get discovered. To learn more about maximizing the value of your business and planning your transition sign up for our newsletter, and book a complimentary call with me at thebusinesstransitionsherpa.com. Join me next time on Succession Stories for more insights from transition to transaction.

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