7 Unforgettable (and Unbreakable) Business Lessons I Learned from my Dad

A natural salesman with an entrepreneur’s heart and a curious mind — my father left a legacy and some big shoes to fill.

My father, Pat Armentano, was born in 1929 at the beginning of the Great Depression. He was the youngest of 10, born to Italian immigrants, raised in Mount Vernon, New York during one of the toughest economic periods America has ever known.

He was 8 years old when he made up his mind to buy his mother a refrigerator, something that few households had at the time. He got a shoe shine box and recruited his brother Neil, two years older, to make the nearly two-mile trek with him from home to the bustling street below the train station. Men would get off the train after a long work day, weary and edgy and dusty, and he’d be ready with his box and a smile. He saved up $175.00 which was just enough to buy his mother that refrigerator less than a year later.

He was a natural salesman with an entrepreneur’s heart and a curious mind. He used to call himself a “mind bandit” because he learned something from everyone he met. And we learned from him too.

Here are some lessons that still serve me today, carrying on his legacy.

1. If you want a business that does things the way you think they should be done it has to be your business.

After coming back from the Marines (which he joined at 16 by forging his parents’ signatures, but that’s another story) my father took jobs selling milk, bread, anything that would pay the bills. Then, the same year I was born, he found an opportunity with Forney Industries as a sales representative in the New York City area. He was their star sales guy until they refused to resolve a warranty issue with one of his largest accounts. He took that all the way up to the founder, J.D. Forney himself, who said to him, “Pat, I own the business so I make the rules. If you feel that strongly, why don’t you start your own business?”

So he did. He started Patsems, Inc in 1968 out of a tiny garage in Mount Vernon and in the next 10 years he grew that business to nearly $2 million a year in sales by doing things his way.

2. You can’t sell to the windshield, and if you don’t sell you don’t eat.

My dad learned this one long before he had a car, selling shoe shines to grown men when he was only a boy — if you didn’t talk to people you couldn’t sell to people. Time getting from place to place wasn’t selling. And he applied that concept to more than sales. He believed that products were sold, deals were made, and problems were solved by sitting down with people and talking it out.

3. To make a sale, negotiate a deal, or solve a problem you have to “diagnose the patient.”

This was another lesson that he transferred from sales into everything else he did. When he started Patsems he was going head to head against Forney, selling welding equipment and supplies, and he quickly learned that to compete he had to sell on value, and part of the value he delivered was the ability to connect with anyone he met. He’d drive up to an auto body shop or a fabrication shop, make friends with the guy running it, and really listen as the guy told him about his business. He’d hear what these shop owners were proud of, what they were frustrated by. He’d ask the subtle questions that told him what benefits to focus on to get the attention of his prospect.

He thought of himself as a doctor more than a salesman. He was a master at examining his patient without the patient ever noticing the examination process. Years later he applied that same approach to negotiating one acquisition after another. And there it served him every bit as well.

4. Know what you need. Everything else is gravy and you don’t spend time haggling over the gravy.

In 1979 Patsems was growing, partly because of the construction boom in New York City. They were providing propane in cylinders for temporary heat on job sites and to fuel forklifts and the like. But there were some pretty high costs for getting those cylinders filled. So my dad said, “Hey Joe, let’s buy a propane company.”

Long story short, that’s what we did. Which is how we eventually became Paraco Gas instead of Patsems, Inc. That was our first acquisition — and we’ve made more than 30 of them since then. The lesson here was that we could have lost that deal if we’d gotten hung up on the profit projections for the company we were buying. But he’d done his due diligence on the business enough to know that he could make money off the deal by just cutting out the middleman on the business he was already doing in cylinders. That’s the baseline he used to negotiate that deal, and it paid off.

He didn’t analyze the propane business as a separate entity because he knew that any profit that came from that was essentially gravy. And he wasn’t going to waste time analyzing the gravy. If he had he might have been paralyzed into doing nothing or tried to whittle down the price until the deal went away.

5. You don’t want to sell the razors, you want to sell the razor blades.

When he was repping for Forney he was selling welding machines and supplies. When he started Patsems that was his first focus as well. Then as he got more into industrial gas he began to see the potential of selling something that his customers went through in large quantities. He said it was like razors, a man might buy a new razor every several years, but he’ll buy razor blades many times a year. We fell in love with propane as a business because in our industry it was the quintessential razor blade.

6. Problems are opportunities in disguise.

To my dad, a problem always represented an opportunity. He had an almost uncanny ability to calculate the hidden possibilities in any situation. For him, the value of an acquisition wasn’t just in taking over what the business had been producing, but in applying efficiencies and strategies that leveraged what was already there to make it so much more.

This philosophy was one of the reasons we acquired the Long Island locations of Suburban Propane in 1985. Suburban needed to sell those locations quickly because they were facing another contract renewal with Local Union 282. And this union had been going on strike almost every time they came up for contract renewal. So they had a problem that was more trouble than it was worth to solve. Suburban’s sales were then over $570 million and they were owned by National Distilleries which was doing about $2.2 billion. These two locations on Long Island weren’t even a rounding error for them, but they’d become a thorn in their side because of frequent union strikes. We believed that Paraco, being smaller and family owned, could do things that Suburban couldn’t do to work within the framework of the Union. Of course, no one knew then that Local 282 was mob operated, or that their president, Bobby Sasso (if the testimony of Michael DiLeonardo against John Gotti can be believed) was answering directly to Sammy “the Bull” Gravano.

But being small and agile did give us an advantage and we weathered a hostile strike to break, and eventually decertify, that union and from that acquisition we’ve expanded our Long Island operations, added locations, and taken over that regional market.

7. Take care of the company and the company will take care of you.

In a way, all of these lessons come down to this one and my father lived this rule until the day he died. His first thought was always how any decision would affect the business. His loyalties to individuals, including himself, were second to his care for the integrity of the business because he knew if the business was put at risk in any way it would damage everyone, but if it succeeded it would benefit everyone.

My father made me the CEO of Paraco Gas in 1988. I’d worked hard for that opportunity and I had to prove myself to him every day to keep that opportunity. But more than 7 years after his passing, holding the reins of a business now generating over $150 million a year, I’m still using these lessons to take care of the company and everyone in it.

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