Bill Geist Has a Special ‘Eye’ for the Outre : Entrepreneurs: Red-haired TV host and author, an astute observer of business trends, spreads message that there is wisdom in the weird.
It’s said that behind every joke and funny story there’s a ring of truth. And so it is with Bill Geist.
Geist is known to viewers of the CBS programs “Sunday Morning” and “Eye to Eye” for his red hair, wry humor and knack for finding the oddball and outrageous things that people do, like pose for romance novel covers or go to the U.S. Tennis Open and drop $500 on food, clothes and souvenirs.
He’s also, perhaps unconsciously, an astute observer of business trends. Several years ago, he was ahead of the pack in uncovering the espresso and caffe latte boom in Seattle that’s now spread across the country. In his fourth book, “Monster Trucks & Hair-in-a-Can,” a compilation of stories about people in strange businesses, he unwittingly uncovers principles that any would-be entrepreneur would want to know.
The message: There is wisdom in the weird.
One of Geist’s stories is about Jim Reid, who dove into a water hazard on a Florida golf course one day and came out with 2,000 golf balls. Reid quit his $250-a-week job at Disney World and started a million-dollar company that recovers, washes and sells used balls.
Then there’s Rick Clunn, an erstwhile systems analyst at Exxon who became a bass fisherman and made $1.5 million in prize money on the pro fishing tour.
And Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, who made millions from doodles of four reptiles that turned into the Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Many of the people Geist profiles have jobs or own companies that might seem offbeat or inconsequential. A closer look shows some of the entrepreneurs have as much business acumen as the CEO of a Fortune 500 firm.
In a piece about nail salons (including one in Dallas with 68 manicurists caring for 1,500 people a week), Geist talked to Kym Lee, a nail technician (not manicurist) and nail products marketer, who reveals the secret of success in her business--just listening to clients as they unburden themselves while having their nails done.
“They sit down, relax and tell us everything that’s happened to them since they were 3 years old,” she told Geist. And we thought nail salons made money by just filing, buffing and applying polish.
Geist also tells of a miniature golf course operator in Myrtle Beach, S.C., who knows his business so well he can tell you to the second how often people tee off and how many sodas they buy. His computer helps him keep track.
Geist’s entrepreneurs have succeeded by keeping their eyes open and going for the unusual (actually, that’s also how Geist put his book together).
Gary Calvert figured out that Chestnut, Ill., is the geographical center of the state and decided to turn the town into a tourist attraction. The general store in town is now selling T-shirts, bumper stickers, pins, mugs and caps.
The author observes: “It’s the perfect industry for the ‘90s: Doesn’t make a thing but money. All you have to do is think up some reason--just about any old reason will do--to attract people to your town.”
As the book title suggests, Geist’s subjects also include Bob Chandler, who became a millionaire after putting oversized tires on a truck, crushing a car and then doing it at a tractor pull. Monster truck shows were born.
“It’s sort of facetious,” Geist said in a recent interview. But “monster trucks create jobs--new jobs that were never there before.”
Geist noted that many of these business people found their niche in the growing entertainment industry.
“Most of these people in this book do not manufacture or make anything that you would call socially redeeming or necessary products,” he said. They’re trying to “make the best of what’s around today and bring an element of individuality to it.”
Geist even sees his own place in this new age.
In an essay in which he kids himself for flying cross-country to interview “Entertainment Tonight” host Mary Hart about her legs, Geist notes, “It’s not just the occupations that are changing in the ‘90s, it’s the jobs themselves.” Instead of writing down what the mayor has to say, reporters are now trying to find out what actress Shannen Doherty had for lunch, he said.
Geist, 46, grew up in Champaign, Ill., and went to the University of Illinois there. After serving as a combat photographer in Vietnam, he attended the University of Missouri’s graduate journalism school.
Then for “eight long years,” he worked on the suburban section of the Chicago Tribune. Tiring of that, he applied to several big newspapers including The New York Times, which was intrigued by his stories about things like garage door art contests. He went to the Times in 1980, writing first about the suburbs and then about off-beat subjects in the “About New York” column. Seven years ago he moved to CBS.
“Monster Trucks & Hair-in-a-Can” is Geist’s third compilation of tales. His last book, “Little League Confidential,” dealt with his career as a Little League coach in Ridgewood, N.J., where he lives with his wife and two children.
Geist’s cramped office at the CBS Broadcast Center is exactly what you’d expect from someone who spends his time ferreting out the weird. An Elvis doll and Popeye sculpture, sent by public relations people hoping for a plug, rest in unopened packages, one on a shelf, the other nestled among packing boxes.
Laughing, he showed off mementos--a Christmas fruitcake from a report four years ago and a metal plate from a story marking the 40th anniversary of the TV dinner (“That’s a historic artifact. The Smithsonian has one.”)
Geist said during the interview he often starts out poking fun at his subjects, only to end up liking and even admiring them, often because they have the guts to strike out on their own.
While he didn’t set out to write a book of sage business advice, he acknowledged that some wisdom may find its way into his work.
“Some things I do are are just funny. but I think the ones I like to do the best--writing the ‘About New York’ column--there was always a little bit more to it than that . . . something to think about.”