Russ Solomon: An Unconventional Business Plan.

Russ Solomon sat in his California home ranting to his wife about the horrible fashion choices of the stars.

He had been around a long time. Ninety-two years to be exact. And he had opinions about everything.

So his red carpet review with accompanying whiskey was to be expected.

Russ handed his empty whiskey glass to his wife and asked for a refill. She left the room for just a few minutes and came back with full glass in hand.  

He was sitting exactly where she left him watching the Academy Awards. In his favorite chair.

He had quietly passed away.  

It didn’t take long for the news to hit. And for the world to mourn.  

Russ Solomon wasn't just a husband and a father and an entrepreneur and an art collector. He was something more.

He wasn't just a fan of music or the founder of an empire. He was something more.

Russ Solomon was a trailblazer for business relationships. And he was loved by all.  

He opened his first record store as a teen -- inside his father’s drug store -- selling used jukebox records to the locals.  

Nobody would have guessed that the boy who went to school late, left early, and eventually got kicked out of high school would eventually own hundreds of stores worldwide. Nor would they have guessed that Russ Solomon was any different from any other business owner at the time.

He just loved music and wanted to share his love. But history would prove otherwise. 

When he branched out and started opening freestanding stores, Russ Solomon wanted something different.

He wanted a “superstore” for music lovers. A place where musicians, local and celebrity, could come and enjoy the atmosphere. Where they could talk to other music lovers. A place where they could stay for hours on end -- delighting in the ambiance of the record store. 

Like most of your favorite places, Tower Records had its own vibe. Its own atmosphere. Even its own smell.

When you walked in you were hit with the aroma of plastic wrap, fast food from hungry patrons, and laminated cardboard. And the carpet was reminiscent of a toddler’s well-loved blanket. Worn, full of stains, and full of life. 

You could walk up and down more than 39 aisles of records and grab a pile of free discarded magazines on the way out the door

Clearly, Tower Records was an experience. 

And it was crazy unique for the employees as well. Each person that had the pleasure of working at Tower Records also had the pleasure of maintaining their individuality.

There was no dress code. If you wanted to dye your hair blue tomorrow, you could and it wouldn’t matter. The atmosphere was laid back.

There were no rules, except for one: “you must wear shoes.” But in the 60’s and 70’s that was not a realistic goal -- so that rule went out the window, too.

People enjoyed coming to work because there was trust from upper management and especially from Russ Solomon. 

Russ Solomon took a different approach to running a business.

Despite having stores in many different states, Russ didn’t feel the need to have a “corporate” location that made all the rules for each store. 

Instead, Russ let each manager of each location order records and run the business in a way that would be conducive to the neighborhood and city the store was housed in.

He knew that the people he hired loved rock n’ roll. He also knew that most of them partied like they were rock n’ roll stars.

He couldn’t get mad. He liked to party the same way. So instead of worrying about what his staff were doing on their own free time, he took a different approach. 

Trust. When Russ handed over the keys to the people who would be running his stores he simply said, “Don’t lie, cheat, steal, or embarrass me. I trust you to do the right thing.” 

That “thing” was showing up at 10 am when the doors opened and working until midnight when they closed.

Doing that without having to take time off to recover from the night before. The employees respected his request. 

Russ trusted his employees wouldn’t let him down. And they didn’t. 

“People, when you leave ‘em alone and put them in charge of something, however small, gives them a sense of pride in what they are doing.”  

And it seemed that every Tower Records employee was proud to be there. And Russ was proud to have them.

He tried to make it a point to meet every one of the thousands of people who worked for Tower. Whatever town he was in, he wanted to know who was who in his stores all the way down to the clerks. 

And despite the low pay for the time, those people proved him right again and again.

They loved the culture Russ was allowing them to create in the stores. And the perks of meeting famous people and going to free concerts made up for the low pay. 

It wasn’t just the culture and freedom that kept people there. Tower was a family. They took care of each other. They supported each other. 

Russ helped and supported his employees at every turn. In the 70’s, he allowed his employees time off to protest the Vietnam war. In the 80’s, when the AIDS epidemic was running rampant, Russ continued to pay his infected employees long after they could no longer work. Usually up until their early deaths. 

Taking such a risk in business and on people may have been considered a terrible, but to Russ Solomon, it turned out to be the key to his success. By 1990, Tower Records had $1.1 billion in revenue. 

It seemed he was doing something right. 

And Tower Records had a cult following that extended far beyond the neighborhood music junkies.

Bruce Springsteen, Carlos Santana, and Robin Williams were often seen in the local stores. Bette Midler once walked in and picked up all of her records and moved them from one section to another because she thought her music was better suited elsewhere.

Russ Solomon applauded her and left her records exactly where she put them -- because he wanted everyone to feel like they had a say in things. He wanted Tower Records to be “their” store. Not his. It was a collective effort. 

Elton John claims he spent more money at Tower Records than any other person in the world while it was open.

He and Michael Jackson used to get let in early before the general public so they could shop.

Sometimes, Michael Jackson would hang around and watch as the “normal” people came in to shop. He would hide in a back room and peer out at the locals. 

Tower Records was the heartbeat of its community. The place where locals congregated and music lived. 

And it had a good forty year run. 

By the early 2000’s, the company was still privately held and had extended itself beyond its means. It took on $110 million dollars in new debt and couldn’t keep up with the new and ever-changing digital industry.

With file sharing and download stores such as iTunes on the horizon, there wasn’t much need for a music store anymore.

A person could get whatever they needed from the comfort of home in less than five minutes. 

By 2006, the superstore hangout for music lovers was forced to liquidate all its assets and close. 

The employees were heartbroken and the marquee at the Sunset Boulevard store simply said, “It’s the end of the world as we know it. Thanks for your loyalty.” 

But the relationships that formed at Tower Records lived on long after the doors closed. 

A week before his death, Russ had lunch with five friends that started as employees in their early twenties. Business relationships turned into personal friendships -- from a culture of mutual respect, trust, responsibility, and common goals. 

A culture that Russ Solomon nurtured and encouraged throughout his life. 

A combination that doesn’t happen near as often as we’d like. 

Relationships are tough. Not just personal. Maintaining healthy relationships in business that last can be monumental.

But some people make it look easy. Some people go against the grain.

They do what feels right to them in their business. They don’t worry about mainstream logistics, tactics, and procedures. They just trust and care and love and try.

Russ Solomon was one of those people. And he made a difference in thousands of lives. 

Which begs the question: "What are you doing to improve the relationships in your business world?"

What are you doing to better those that come into contact with you?

Maybe you need a bit of "unconventional love" in your business plan too.

Dan Waldschmidt