Les Gold is the star of the truTV reality show "Hardcore Pawn."
When I wished Les Gold a happy belated birthday, the 64-year-old star of the show “Hardcore Pawn” jokingly retorted: “What’d you get me?”
I quickly responded, “It’s in the mail,” which got a laugh, but what I should have said is: “Like you of all people need more stuff!”
Anyone who has watched the reality show on truTV knows Gold — a lifelong pawnbroker who runs American Jewelry and Loan in Detroit with his children, Ashley Broad and Seth Gold — has purchased and pawned everything from electronics to jewelry to sports memorabilia to the infamous van once owned by Dr. Jack Kevorkian. The show is known for the wheeling and dealing, testy exchanges and unruly customers who sometimes come into the store and then get shown out the door.
Gold has been in the pawn business since he was kid. He used to go into his grandfather’s pawnshop where he learned the business. His grandfather, who he called “Popsie,” was Gold’s greatest mentor. His father also worked at the store, but they had a rocky relationship.
Occasionally Gold’s cantankerous side comes out on TV when he’s dealing with customers, but he says he can always control his temper, something he attributes to astrology. Well, almost always. One customer, Gold said, got “moved into a planter” when that person acted inappropriately toward his daughter.
Gold answered a range of questions on management, business issues and the reality of reality TV, but the one question he had the most trouble answering was what his title is. He had to confer with his daughter who was in the car with him, and then he finally came back with “owner.” Hey, he’s the boss.
An edited transcript of our talk follows.
Whatever Works: I just read your book over the weekend and I was fascinated by your relationship with your grandfather, who you called 'Popsie.' How important do you think mentors are in the workplace, and what constitutes a great mentor? It seems like a lot of companies don’t really take into account the importance of mentoring and what it means for succession planning.
Gold: You know one of the things that people don’t understand is you can come out of college and be book smart, but until you really get into the workplace, you don’t really know how to perform. And my theory is that somebody teaching you and taking you under their wing is probably the most important thing anybody could ever have. And the gratitude that you get, once you do that, speaks volumes. I can only speak about a young man that works for me. His name is Brian Lattin. And when Brian Lattin was 17, he was a stock clerk at [Arbor Drugs]. It was taken over by CVS. And throughout his tenure, he went to college, and … he wanted to work part time at American Jewelry and Loan, and I took him under my wing and I groomed him into the type of employee that could run the operation. And I said, ‘If you listen to what I have to say and if you listen to the wisdom that I give you, you will have a beautiful life, a beautiful house, a wonderful experience.’ And right now, 18 years later, he runs my business.
WW: What was the greatest ‘gift’ you received from your grandfather in terms of mentoring?
Gold: Being a pawnbroker’s a little different industry. There was so much advice that he gave me about negotiating and selling that there was [not] one specific idea that he gave me. It was a multitude of ideas. And any mentor’s going to give you a multitude of ideas. There’s not one specific item. Taking care of the customers is very important, but because of the pawnshop, there’s different areas that you have to be an expert in.
Dealing on Detroit
Whatever Works: So you’re a big supporter of the Detroit area.
Les Gold: I am.
WW: I recently came across a study from a website called WalletHub.com, and it listed the 150 best cities to start a career, and Detroit came in at No. 145 on that list. What do you make of that?
Gold: I think that’s low on that scale. I think that it should have been much higher. Right now we’re having a resurgence in Detroit. Dan Gilbert [of] Detroit Venture Partners is doing a lot of investing in Midtown Detroit with a lot of startup companies. You can’t get a loft in Detroit right now because all these new entrepreneurs are moving to the city. There’s a big resurgence in technology development. We are moving away, too bad to say, from the old era of car manufacturing. So the manufacturing industry in Detroit is diminishing, but the technology portions are coming in strong. And there’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of labor needed in Detroit. It’s a great place to put a startup company.
WW: So the bankruptcy is obviously not behind Detroit, but you think it’s going in the right direction?
Gold: You know, it’s been a while. You don’t just get bankrupt overnight, and it’s not going to be an overnight recovery, but the way it’s going right now, it’s going to be a much faster recovery than anybody could have ever imagined.
WW: How important is it for a business to innovate during those hard times?
Gold: We are in an industry [pawnbroking] that’s 3,000 years old. … Within the past 40 years that I’ve been in the business, there’s been such a swing every single day, and especially in 2008 when the economy went bad. I had to make sure that I had enough money to support the needs of my customers. … In the downturn, when the economy went south, I started selling little diamonds, which are called ‘melee,’ to Israel and to India to remanufacture jewelry, because I needed to keep an influx of money. … To answer your question, innovation in any industry is most important. If you have blinders on and all you’re looking for is the end of the road, you’re never going to be innovative. You’re never going to be successful.
WW: So let’s talk about running a family business. It’s got to be pretty tricky to run a family business.
Gold: One of the things that I’ve always been an advocate of is: Family’s most important. And when Ashley and Seth came to work in the business, one of the things I said is, ‘I’m your boss from 9:30 to 6. I’m still your father, but I’m the boss of the business.’ And one of the things that I have to make sure of is whoever has the best idea, we’re going to utilize that idea. When one of them is right and one of them is wrong, I don’t have a problem calling them out on that. So that’s one of the things that I have to be is neutral to the point of being their father, but I’m definitely one-sided when it comes to who’s right in the business.
WW: And you win at the end of the day.
Gold: Well, the store wins at the end of the day. … One of the things that I’ve learned when you talk about the next generation is: A lot of times the next generation screws up the business. I have to make sure that when the day comes that I depart this world, that American Jewelry and Loan is run correctly, and I have to make sure that Ashley and Seth know the fundamentals and the things I expect them to do to make sure the business survives after I’m gone.
WW: So how do you balance what’s good for your family, what’s good for your business and what makes good television?
Gold: Television is going to come and go. When we film the show, we film from 9:30 to 6, six days a week. American Jewelry and Loan is in business 9:30 to 6 365 days a year. When the cameras aren’t there, we still know what the importance is of running a pawnshop. The family’s always going to be together, so that’s not even an issue. But what makes good TV is just that the TV cameras are there, and they pick up everything that goes on during the day. We don’t do anything specific to enhance the cameras. When you’ve watched Ashley and Seth argue and you see Ashley cry and run out of the store, she’s not an actor — well, she’s a good actress as far as getting our emotion out, but for the TV cameras, it’s the way it is. We give the cameras the real feelings that we possess. One of the things that I did specifically when we signed our deal with the production company is, I said, ‘Listen, we’re not make-believe. Every dollar that you see me spend is going to be our money. I don’t want to know what’s coming in. I don’t want to know what the customers are going to do because then it would take away from the most realistic television show on television.'
WW: In your book I found this fascinating, you talked about how you can turn it on and turn it off in terms of when a customer gets unruly with you and you lose your temper. You say that you’re always under control and it’s not an act. How are you able to do that?
Gold: I’m a Gemini. One of the great things about being a Gemini is there’s two of me inside of me. So when I start arguing with a customer or I start getting a little irate, the other person inside of me is still the calm, collected Les Gold that can run a business. I want to make sure that I never overreact to the point of I can’t reel myself back in.
WW: Have you ever gotten to that point?
Gold: Maybe there was a time when somebody did something inappropriate to Ashley that I lost my cool and kind of moved the guy into a planter. But other than that, I always make sure that I have a cool head inside that wild exterior.
WW: When the cameras aren’t rolling, are the customer more easy-going? Is it just because of the cameras that some people feel like they need to do crazy things to get on TV?
Gold: We deal with customers every once in a while that once we say no, they have no options. So their emotions take over. Maybe the cameras heighten it up a little bit, but sometimes people once we say no have this emotional level that they can’t control themself because where are they going to go? Twenty-five million Americans don’t have a bank account or a credit card. Their last resort is coming to the pawnshop. Sometimes when we say no, their emotions take over and they have no other option. They don’t have that cool, calm, collected self-control that Les Gold has.
Note: To read part two of this interview, please click here.