Michael Levine is one of L.A.’s best-known publicists, having represented numerous Hollywood figures over the years. Then, two years ago, he abruptly sold his business, LCO – Levine Communications Office in Beverly Hills. But last year he quietly regained control of the firm. The Business Journal caught up with him recently and asked what that was all about.
Question: Let’s get to the main question: What happened?
Answer: In March 2013, I made the decision to sell my business after 32 years. I thought I had selected the right person. And I hadn’t. He seemed to have all the requisite qualities, the desire, the drive, the experience. But it turned out after 11 months that the person I picked was significantly not ready for prime time.
So how did it play out?
Along about six months in, I had concerns. At nine months in, I knew he was way, way over his head. The contract said that, if for any reason a payment is missed, I had the capacity – not a mandate, the capacity – to take the company back. Eleven months in, we foreclosed on this gentleman. I didn’t think I’d be back, but I am. Then you have to put it all behind you. The well-lived life, I’ve come to understand, requires an almost mystical capacity for selective amnesia.
At the time, the sale price was reported to be in excess of $1 million but paid out over time. How much of that did you actually get?
This contract, had this worked, would have been a rich deal. But it didn’t work. I got a very small amount. And that has to be measured against how much it cost emotionally, spiritually, financially. The answer was it was a significant cost. I hold myself responsible. It wasn’t hard luck. I made a choice. It wasn’t the right choice.
A business like yours – a service business led by a key person – would seem to be hard to sell when the key person leaves. I mean, Levine Communications is not worth as much without Levine, right?
It’s very hard to sell. After representing 58 Academy Award winners, 34 Grammy winners, 43 New York Times best-selling authors, I would like to believe we’d built up a reputation, we had built enough machinery into our process to make it survive. We hadn’t. But I learned a lot. Pain is the ultimate teacher.
Any advice for an owner of a business like yours who’s thinking of exiting?
Date before you marry. And date for a while. Give it a trial run. Minimum of 12 months.
Did you enjoy your “retirement”?
As a man who formed a business and ran it for 32 years and who is unmarried with no children, I found I had an umbilical connection to it that I just couldn’t sever. But I did get a chance to see the world, and the business, differently. When you work every day, you get locked in.
It’s good to pull back. Think anew. No business person I know would be ill advised to call in as a customer and see how you’re treated. Working on it, not in it, is valuable.
I’m curious. What’s harder? Getting clients or keeping them?
Getting to the top of any food chain is really, really, really hard. But staying on top is harder. It’s harder to keep clients over a period of time. Every day you have to bring the same passion that you brought initially, to the sale.
What do clients want today that’s different from, say, five years ago?
They want an easy answer to the digital question. They essentially ask: “How can I use the Internet to make money without working much? … How can I work a few hours and sit on the beach in Hawaii?” There’s just no shortcut to the fire walk.
You have dyslexia. How do you cope with all the text you need to read on small screens today?
With difficulty. I do not text. My dyslexia is quite a disadvantage. On the other hand, there’s an advantage to a disadvantage. It’s given me an ability to see and listen differently. Most people on the planet have fallen into transactional beings. They want to make money immediately and easily. I think relationally.
You’re 60 years old, right? Now that the sale didn’t work out, what’s the plan for the rest of your career?
My decisions are emanating much more from what I don’t want to do. I love working with smart, talented people but don’t have the tolerance to work with people I don’t respect. Never has the phrase “Character is destiny” been so important. But I do want to work with interesting, smart, passionate, intriguing, curious people. Probably for the rest of my life.
So you’re choosier about clients now?
Much choosier. Radically choosier.
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