An Interview with Steve Pearl
An Interview with Steve Pearl

The Oak Group was founded in 1975, and Steve Pearl, its president, joined in 1985. The original mission of the company was to improve dealer profits through consulting and quality products, and Pearl says that's still the company's primary goal today. What began as a consulting firm has grown to an organization that administers products on a national scale, with a mix of both a direct sales force and independent agent network.

Pearl himself brings that mix of skills and talents to the company, with a career that extends beyond the automotive industry. At one time he was a market maker at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), and his first accounting job was in the audit and tax department of Price Waterhouse Coopers. "Our industry is a combination of sales, risk control and accountability," Pearl said. "The sales strength comes from my auto background, risk control comes from my time spent as a member of the CBOE and accountability comes from my background as a CPA with Prices Waterhouse Coopers. In life’s journey we are all a sum of our experiences, both our failures and our successes. I really can’t point to any one defining moment but I have had plenty of both success and failure."

Pearl says he strives to be the kind of leader he wants his people to emulate. He works, he noted, seven days a week, since as a business owner, there is no such thing as a day off — clients, suppliers and employees are always counting on him. "I try to lead from the front by living up to the ideals that we expect from all in the company," he noted. "If there is bad news to deliver, you do it yourself. Never be afraid of a challenge."

Finding Success

Part of Oak Group's longevity comes from always being willing to look into new products. "Product ideas are brought to our attention through our clients' requests for new products, supplier solicitation and our own imagination," Pearl said. "We then have the products vetted for salability, profitability for the client and then safety and stability of the suppliers. The client and end consumer establish the ultimate success of any product."

He went on to say that most of The Oak Groups's best ideas and new product additions come from client requests. "If someone wants a product and coverage and we can find a profitable way to satisfy their need, we will do it." He attributes the company's long-term growth as a testament to that philosophy, of always putting the clients first. "Growth is certainly influenced by the cyclical nature of the auto, financial and insurance industries. To grow at a faster rate than these industries requires imagination in product development and delivery, as well as continued excellence in performance of client profit improvement."

His recipe for success isn't difficult, he noted, it just requires being willing to stick with it. "The hardest part of starting in our industry is staying power. Because so much of the industry is based on relationship and stability, the client needs to know that you are going to be there for them. So many people start and give up when success could be right around the corner. Our experience is that it could take a year to become established. Obviously you also have to have talent to assist the client obtain the goal of increased profitability, and the ego to withstand the constant rejection until a base of business is built. So staying power is both financial and emotional. The rewards are great though in both areas. Clients properly serviced do not leave. The Oak Group has clients that have been with us from 1975, and the vast majority have been with us for decades.

"Never leave someone hanging," he continued. "If someone asks for something, be it a product or a favor, get back to them promptly, even if it isn’t the answer they want to hear. When I am asked 'what should I tell the client' when there is a problem, I always reply 'when in doubt tell the truth. If you try and make something up it doesn’t work.' When trading options on the CBOE you had to live by your word. We would trade millions of dollars of contracts on your word, no written contracts. Lie once and you were done, no one would trade with you. One of the primary rules we have in our company is that everyone knows it’s okay to make a mistake, but it isn’t okay to hide it. We want to know about everyone’s mistakes so we can help train, but, just as important, so we can install internal controls so it will not happen again."