As the owner of American Jewelry & Loan in Detroit, Michigan, Les Gold is used to making millions of deals. But the star of the hit TruTV reality show Hardcore Pawn scored the best deal of all—working with his kids, Seth and Ashley, in the family pawn business. We spoke exclusively with Les about his love for the pawn industry, how your family can push your buttons more than anyone else, and why he loves waking up in the morning.
Les, what was it like writing your autobiography, For What It’s Worth?
I never thought I would write a book. The experience was absolutely phenomenal. The book talks about my journey, including making my first sale at 7 years old. That ten-dollar deal felt like a million dollar deal to me. You’ll learn the story of Les Gold. I had struggles with my family, especially my father. I won’t call it abusive, but it wasn’t a loving relationship. The book shows people how to fight for themselves. As long as you have a good person behind you, who in my case was my grandfather, you can do it.
The book goes on to talk about building American Jewelry & Loan. The book talks about my life, it talks about Hardcore Pawn, and it also talks about business. It talks about negotiating, and being an employer and developing skills to become a better employee. You’re going to learn the behind the scenes of how you develop a business, take an industry and turn it into something mainstream.
The book talks about the emotional side, too. As a salesperson you want to keep the emotion down, and as a buyer, you want to have zero emotion so you don’t spend too much. You have to remember your bottom line and keep your emotions down.
But on the show, we see that emotions often run high.
We’re in the pawn shop business. People come in with a need. They’re emotionally charged when they walk through the doors. You don’t want to pawn Grandma’s ring, unless you know that you’re going to get it back. There’s a devastation that these people are going through; imagine not being able to put food on the table or put a roof over your children’s head. Those are some of the issues that some of my customers are going through.
So how is that for you, knowing that they are coming with that need? Is it hard sometimes to separate your own emotions?
Being a human being, sure, it can be hard. But if I get emotionally involved with each and every customer’s story, my customers would end up with more money and my employees would end up with nothing because I wouldn’t be able to pay them as much. We have to keep a real balance of how much we spend, because there’s an important little factor there called profit that you have to make on every deal. Ninety percent of people who bring their merchandise in come back to get it; most people don’t know that. That’s the case for pawn shops from California to New York.
But getting back to your question, we often find the sweet spot of giving customers the amount that they actually need. Let’s say you bring in a TV for $100. If I give you $90, you’re probably not going to come back because for the $10, it’s not worth it. But if we give customers between 50-60% of the value, we have found that most people can repay that loan, come back and get their item, and put food on the table.
But speaking of a sweet spot, I know that there was one time that you paid the asking price or more, and it was for a dollhouse.[laughs] Well, that was a different story. That was for my granddaughter, so that was a whole different ballgame. I ended up paying $2200 for it, which is still in my vault waiting for my granddaughter to get a little bigger. It’s a beautiful item.
Let’s talk about working with family.
Let’s not! [laughs] In real reality, I couldn’t be happier that my children chose to be pawnbrokers with me. I never thought Seth was going to come into the business. The reason for that is that in the past, pawn shops had a negative image. And what I’ve done my whole life is to show that the pawn industry is a legitimate, viable industry. It wasn’t until the late 90s that Seth decided that he would come into the business.
Ashley wanted to be in the business her whole life; she made her first loan at 9 years old. She had a passion for it; she is at the forefront, fighting the battles every day. What’s great about her is that she’s a female in a male-dominated field. You have to have that spark in your eye, and both kids have that. It’s so thrilling to me. And as a father, I gave them a clean business. It’s legitimate and legitimized in the American culture now.
Do you see them running the family business in the future?
It’s sad, but we all die, and I need to make sure that American Jewelry & Loan survives. Both Seth and Ashley want to prove to me that they can run the family business. And that drama that you see every Tuesday, it’s real. Both kids are strong willed, strong minded; they can do it but I have to guide them. After all, no one has your back like family but no one can push those buttons to get you out of control like family, too! I think with Ashley and Seth at the helm, though, we can diversify and expand.
What do you see for the future of the business?
Well, the first store I had was 1,500 square feet. It was me in the front with three employees in the back. We were doing five loans a day. I’ve expanded four times in four different locations until we came to this 50,000 square foot facility with two mezzanines. We recently purchased another location, too. I see tremendous growth; we’re very visible now because of the show and because of my book. Seth is doing consulting now, helping other pawn shops develop into other great stores.
What I liked about the book is that it’s full of great business advice, whether you’re an employer or an employee.
You have to love what you do, and more importantly, take pride in your work. For example, Larry was a homeless guy who I gave a job to. He’s my janitorial supervisor. He’s fulfilled his obligation to himself; he’s proud of himself and he goes above and beyond. If I had 50 Larry’s, I would only need 30 employees. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you give it your best shot.
If you had to say the one thing about the pawn business that gets you going, that you absolutely love, what would it be?
Every day when I walk through the door, I never know what’s going to happen. For me, it’s the thrill of the chase. It’s like the hunt every day. As an employer, I have employees who are dependant on me to make the right decisions. If I make the wrong decisions, we don’t make the profit I need. I have never missed a payment for them; in the past, I’ve pawned my own jewelry just to make ends meet. For me, it’s the thrill, every single day. I can’t wait to go to sleep, just so I can wake up the next morning and do it all over again.