Always Learning

photo courtesy of Gary Kusin
photo courtesy of Gary Kusin

Gary Kusin was born a third generation Texarkanian. His grandfather immigrated to Texarkana on his way to Monroe, Louisiana, to join his brother’s highly successful mattress manufacturing business. “The train stopped in Texarkana on a Saturday at lunch and all the farmers were in town selling their produce,” he said. “My grandfather, David Kusin, got off the train to stretch his legs, took in the hustle and bustle and said, ‘Why would I go anywhere else?’” After winning a good bit of money on a troopship coming home from World War I, he started Texas Furniture, which successfully stayed in business for 70 years.

“My time in Texarkana was very formative, which I talk about in my new book (coming out April 30), but my parents put me to work at the furniture store warehouse to unload boxes and trucks in seventh grade to help straighten out my problem-child ways. It only moderately worked,” Kusin said jokingly. Later, Kusin’s dad and uncle, Leo Bishkin, went on to open up the iconic Holiday Bowl. “Every kid in our family became big bowlers, because we were dropped off there after school each day.”

A proud alumnus of Texas High School, Kusin was in his element being voted “most active” and also being the student body president his senior year. “The school district means a lot to me,” said Kusin, “because being student body president my senior year led to a lot of fortuitous things in my life.” That role landed him in the chair next to Ross Perot at graduation, which catapulted him into a lifelong mentorship and friendship with one of the great businessmen of our time.

After graduating from The University of Texas at Austin, Kusin headed back to Texarkana to work in the family furniture business during the day and at Holiday Bowl each night. “I got very frustrated when I was accepted to Harvard Business School, because they told me I had to work for two more years before starting school.
I had already been working since I was 11, so I got in my car, drove to Boston, and marched right into the office of the Director of Admissions of the business school and told them they made a mistake.” Charmed by his bravado, the school challenged him to prove to them why he should receive special consideration, and Kusin gladly rose to the challenge. “Long story short, I generated more profits in the next 12 months than there were revenues in the previous 12 months, said Kusin.” It should come as no surprise to anyone that Harvard Business School took Kusin after only one year, and the rest is history.

One leadership principle that Kusin was born understanding is the mantra that you don’t quit a job until it’s done. “You don’t need to go to Harvard Business School for that. You do need to have a deep reserve of energy, a passion for whatever it is you are doing, and a belief that no one—and I mean no one—is going to beat you or outwork you,” said Kusin.

In 2001, Kusin was tasked with turning around Kinkos, one of the biggest chains of document copying and business service stores in the world. If you ask him his favorite job he’s ever had, this monstrous task tops the list. “When the equity firm was negotiating my contract, they put a clause in that would give me a bonus if I told them to shut the company down after nine months. When I took over, profits were negative $11 million. After the first year, profits were $120 million, then $180 million in year two. Kinkos was heading toward $240 million when Fred Smith of FedEx walked in and bought Kinkos for $2.4 billion dollars. It was the peak of my career, and it was the most fun thing of my career,” said Kusin.

Forever the consummate mentor and people developer, Kusin would tell you the measure of his success when hiring for his businesses is to find people eager to take his own job. “There were 13 on my Kinkos turnaround team who went on to become CEOs. That’s probably one of my most proud moments in business,” he said, “because it’s the leadership principles in action. It’s people being a part of a team and leaving their ego at the door. It worked through incredible hard work and working together as a team.”

Kusin never moved back to Texarkana after graduating from Harvard Business School, but always felt a pull to give back to the school district where it all started. Never one to waste his gifts, he generously gave his time to the students of Texas High. “I started meeting eighth and ninth graders in the district who showed potential, and it worked swimmingly for many years. There are students from that program who I still keep intouch with who are now in their 30s and are doing very well in their careers. With the help of Paul Norton, we developed a scholarship program where I aggressively taught students how to pursue the schools with the biggest endowments for scholarships.” With Kusin’s insight and help, Texas High students went from earning $3 million dollars in scholarships to now reaching upwards of $17.9 million dollars in 2020. “What I’m really proud of,” said Kusin, “is that it kept me connected to Texarkana.”

When Kusin finally set out to write a memoir reflecting on his life’s incredible works, he had a daily ritual that cleared his mind and honed his creativity. Pounding out 45 minutes on the treadmill each day with a playlist stacked with 70s rock tunes, he prepared himself for the task at hand, and his first book, Always Learning—Lessons on Leveling Up, from GameStop to Laura Mercier and Beyond is the glorious result. “The book focuses on the very good experiences, and I was not bashful about putting in the bad experiences either. That’s where you learn the most. Over the course of my career, I developed a set of leadership principles for business, and you can see how they built over time,” said Kusin. His goal for his book was to provide a road map to any young person starting out on their journey… one story at a time.

Similar to his book title, Always Learning, Kusin could also be described as continuously innovating, which begs the question... What’s next? “Ross (Perot) was obviously highly important to me as a mentor, which led me to realizing my passion for mentoring. At last check, I believe I’ve mentored close to 1,000 people. I am investigating starting a mentoring certification program, perhaps aligned with a university, that turns best practices in mentoring into a curriculum. I believe a full program would go a long way to weeding out mentors who are doing more harm than good in their mentoring roles. My focus on mentoring and everything I was doing in Texarkana with TISD is focused on paying it forward and leveling the playing field for others who haven’t had the advantages that I’ve had.”

With a bounty of knowledge to impart to the world, Kusin will also be starting a podcast with one of his oldest and dearest friends, Jill Louis, who was his legal advisor at a number of his companies. “We already have a few episodes on the shelf. Her background and my background are very different, but we’ve worked together many times over the years and know each other very well, so that makes the podcast very interesting,” said Kusin.

Even with a life as decorated and dotted by fascinating stories and life lessons as Kusin’s, inevitably we all have things we wish we could do differently. But, with a chuckle, Kusin makes clear, “I have a long fantasy list, but the reality is that if I changed anything, it would likely change everything. So, there is no way I would do anything differently—even the bad stuff!”

Time spent with Kusin has been an invaluable opportunity for those he’s mentored throughout the years. Likewise, his book will be an encyclopedic road map for all who read it for generations to come. “I often do business negotiations with people outside of Texas,” he said, “and I’ll tell them that, ‘back in Texas we have a saying. You don’t have a horse trade unless we don’t both ride off on a horse.’” Kusin is the proud Papa of 11 grandchildren and it’s lessons like this that he’s working hard to bestow on each of them. He will frequently remind them that wishing is futile and ask the simple question, “What are YOU going to do in order to make something that’s important to you happen?” His life and his legacy are true examples of a man who is always learning.

See “TXK Roots” on page 58 for Gary Kusin’s local insites.


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