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‘Hardcore Pawn’s’ Les Gold: The Motor City’s Wheeler-Dealer Dishes on Management, Part Two

Les Gold is the patriarch of a family-owned pawnshop, American Jewelry and Loan in the Motor City. He recently talked to “Whatever Works” about raising the minimum wage, reality TV, knee-jerk reactions, the Affordable Care Act and more.

June 30, 2014

Ashley Broad, Les and Seth Gold are the stars of the truTV reality show "Hardcore Pawn."

In part one of my interview with Les Gold, I mentioned that the “Hardcore Pawn” star had a little difficulty answering the question of what his title is. That was only partially true. While he had to confer to come up with his actual title, “owner” of Detroit’s American Jewelry and Loan, he was quick to add that, at home, his title is “garbage taker-outer.” Some titles we don’t get to pick.

In the second part of our interview, Gold discusses his thoughts on minimum wage, knee-jerk reactions on television and what drives him to succeed.

I did ask him about his falling out with a former employee, Rich Pyle, who he had a heated exchange with a couple of years ago, but he declined to address the topic, saying only: “I wish him the best, and I know he’s done very well for himself, and I’m glad for that.”

About the leather jacket and white sweater Gold wears on the show, I’m sorry to inform you there’s no interesting story behind them. He simply wears them for continuity on television, he said.

An edited transcript of our talk follows.

WW: What are your thoughts on raising the minimum wage? I know that Michigan has recently decided to raise the minimum wage to $9.25 by 2018. There’s been a push, especially in the fast-food industry saying that they need to raise minimum wage. What are your thoughts as an employer?

Les Gold: The fast-food industry is changing. Once you bring up the minimum wage for them, that dollar hamburger’s going to be $1.25, which is going to affect everybody. I’m not against raising the minimum wage, not by a long shot. But we have to be very careful because it’s going to cost everybody money. It’s not just the business owner who’s going to be affected. It’s going to be everybody down the line. I think people need to make more money, no question, but we have to be very careful about how it’s going to be effective for everyone concerned.

I was just reading — was it Washington? — where they want to raise the minimum wage to $15?

WW: Yes.

Gold: Which is going to make that dollar hamburger $2. … Let me be honest with you, at American Jewelry and Loan, nobody makes minimum wage, so I’ve been a big advocate of that for a long time.

WW: Do most of the employees work on commission?

Gold: I have nobody that works on commission. Everybody is hourly, so everybody makes a lot more than minimum wage.

WW: OK, back to the show: Do you ever feel like when you’re watching episodes of the show, you look back on it and say, ‘I made a knee-jerk reaction?’ I think of a time, especially with your son, Seth, when an employee was caught stealing and he wanted to start frisking all the employees, are those knee-jerk reactions based on what’s good for television? Where do those come from?

Gold: To say the least. Seth has been in the business for 10 years. Ashley has been in it for 20 years. I’ve been in it my whole life, and once you see, you were talking about thievery, it affects you emotionally. So you’re going to make some decisions maybe hastily that you’ll regret, but one of the things that [is] important to me is you learn by your mistakes. Mistakes teach you what not to do again.

When people make a knee-jerk reaction, sometimes it’s in the worst interest of the business, but occasionally it’s in the best interest of the business. Like I said about mistakes, sometimes you’re going to make mistakes. No question. But in the long term, once you’ve been trained to understand the industry you’re in, sometimes a knee-jerk reaction is the way to go.

WW: In your book, ‘For What It’s Worth,’ you talk a lot about how fear of failure drives you, and it was instilled in you as a child in your dealings with your father, so at this point in your career, what do you have to strive for and why do you keep pushing yourself the way you do?

Gold: That’s a very good question. I do a lot of speeches, and during my speeches, I come out on stage and I say to the audience, ‘I have a question for you.’ And the question is: ‘How bad do you want it?’ I just turned 64 the other day, and I want it just as bad today as I did when I was 24, and the reason for that is you have to strive for something. You have to have meaning in your life each and every day when you wake up. When you’ve accomplished everything that you think you want to accomplish in life, you don’t want it bad enough and all you do is shrivel up and die. …  That’s something that I don’t want to do. I work out seven days a week because I want to have that mental and physical ability each and every day. I look in the mirror in the morning and I go, ‘Hey, old man, I’ve got a question for you: How bad do you want it?’ [Laughs]

WW: You want it bad, but working in a pawn store isn’t necessarily the safest career choice. And you’ve had some experience firsthand with workplace violence, especially back in the early 1970s [Editor’s note: In 1971 there was a robbery at Gold’s grandfather’s story where two people got killed]. Can you tell me a little bit about what you learned from that experience?

Gold: I learned how to be safe. One of the things that we make sure of nowadays is our security force. Our security force is trained in all aspects of security. I need to make sure that my customers are safe, my employees are safe and most importantly my family is safe. I learned a lot during my tenure of being a pawnbroker. Safety is one of those issues, and we make sure of it.

WW: Let’s talk about employees. How quickly when you’re hiring can you size up a potential employee?

Gold: I can size them up relatively quickly. Doesn’t mean that people don’t surprise you. People have an ability to pull the wool over your eyes, but it’s very rare that someone can with me, but in the big picture, it doesn’t take long once I sit down with an employee. For example, I had a person come in with an application who wanted to have a sales position. And so we’re sitting and talking, and … the person across from me is into jewelry sales, and I pull out a pen. And I go to them, ‘Sell me this pen.’ Well, it puts them right off-guard, and the way to put a potential sales clerk off-guard is to give them something that they’re not used to selling. And giving them the pen gives me the opportunity to see how fast they can think on their feet.

WW: You have about 55 employees, right?

Gold: Yes, I do.

WW: So how is the Affordable Care Act going to affect your business?

Gold: Well, it’s something that we have to deal with. It’s something that we’ve started looking into about a year ago. Right now we’ve begun offering health care to my employees. We began offering them positions of being able to get money from our profit margins, and we have 401(k)s, so we’ve really looked into it to make sure that our employees are taken care of as they get older. That’s very important to us.

WW: I have to ask you this: When my wife and I watch the show, we’re constantly dumbfounded when people come in and say, ‘I want $1,000 for this thingamabob.’ And then you give them a look and all of the sudden, they say, ‘Well, I’ll take $500 for it.’ How do you do that? Or is it just on television that it happens that quickly?

Gold:No, it happens consistently. People have this expectation of how much money they think the item is worth, especially when they have this intrinsic value. It was given to them by grandma, their mom passed away or these things mean something to them. Once I give that first comment, ‘How much do you want?’ They come up with some astounding number, then I say, ‘What will you really take?’ it brings them down to a normal idea of how much their item actually is. And then we start wheeling and dealing, and I tell them what their item is worth.