Episode 160: Decades In The Making: Entrepreneurship Lessons From A 20+ Year Business Journey With Mark Breyer

You might be the best at what you do, but that is not what’s going to grow your business to its greatest potential. For two decades, Mark Breyer and his wife and partner, Alexis, established The Husband & Wife Law Team as successful firm in Arizona. But in many ways, they could have taken it to greater heights. In this conversation, Mark shares how they found the missing piece that would accelerate their growth and give everybody in the firm a purposeful career as opposed to just a job. Tune in and learn powerful entrepreneurial lessons 20 years in the making!

 

What the podcast will teach you:

  • How clarity about your purpose, values, and mission helps accelerate business growth.
  • The benefit of having clear, measurable responsibilities for every role in the business.
  • The art of getting the right leaders in place and becoming less of a bottleneck in your business.

 

Resources:

https://growwithelite.com/

https://www.breyerlaw.com/

Watch the episode here

 

Listen to the podcast here

 

Welcome, everyone, to this episode of the show. Every single week that I get to do one of these episodes, I have amazing guests. I have somebody that I’ve known for several years. In fact, it’s at least 7 or it might be 8. He and his wife own a personal injury law firm. His name is Mark Breyer. His wife is Alexis. Mark and I are talking. We decided to leave Alexis out of it.

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Thanks for being on the show, Mark. I am glad to have you here. I t’s great that you guys have such a fantastic relationship as you unitedly lead this firm of yours that you’ve built over the years.

We started on November 4th, 1996. It’s been going on for a minute.

20 Years In The Making

That’s fantastic. Your business is called The Husband & Wife Law Team or The Breyer Law Firm. Sometimes, you get called two different things there. You’re in the greater Phoenix area. I’d like for you to go back, not all the way back to November 1996. I would like you to go back to describe what it was like for the first twenty years of making that go, getting that off the ground, and growing it to a place. We’ll then get into talking about the last couple of years.

When we started, Alexis and I, the two employees of the law firm were Alexis and I. We had no money. We had no clients. Some circumstances came together. I loved the job. I had some things come up and we decided to start our own firm. We had no idea at the time. Alexis is from a family of entrepreneurs. She was much more business-savvy. I had these wonderful dreams. What we were thinking was trying to be the best lawyers. Business was the thing that had to happen so we could try to be the best lawyers. That’s really where our hearts and our minds were and our effort went.

A lot of people out there who are technicians and have grown know this journey because you keep hitting your head against the ceiling, but you don’t want to do the business end. The business end isn’t exciting or fun. We started getting exposed to some business concepts and got a little bit better. We got about, give or take, close to twenty years into building a business. It had grown significantly. We did have some tough hurdles along the way like anyone else who grows.

We hit a point where we were looking for something, not a new marketing idea. We had people who helped us with that and a lot of ideas. We needed to find a way to make the business reflect us better. I’ve heard it said by many speakers much smarter than me, probably including you. In fact, you have a great line on this that the business is a perfect reflection of you and your choices. What is that line? I can’t remember it.

The business is a perfect reflection of you. Share on X

That’s good enough for this episode.

We were at that point. I’m sure it was an accurate reflection of the choices we had made. However, it was not the reflection of who we were and wanted to be. It wasn’t quite working. I don’t know if you want me to go there, but it wasn’t like we were nowhere. We probably had 24-ish team members. We had great relationships with our clients. We had really grown in a lot of ways in terms of the people we were touching and revenue. Things were going well, but we felt like there was more there and we couldn’t put our finger on it.

As personal injury firms go, for whatever reason, the lawyers who try cases, generally, don’t advertise. We were advertising, so that made us a little bit different to be both of, “I try a lot of cases. We’re a trial lawyer firm and yet we advertise.” There are also small firms. A lot of them are the mavericks. They do it on their own or they do it with 2 or 3 people. Even at that point in the low twenties, we were not a mid-sized business, but a mid-sized or maybe even a little bit more injury firm as they’re generally built. We then bumped into you.

This does not need to be an infomercial for Elite, but what we want to do is unpack some of the lessons that you and Alexis learned to be able to take a great business or a great firm. For the first twenty years, you guys built that thing organically. We didn’t get the play-by-play, but you did the thing. You’re at 20 to 30 people. You’re well into seven figures in revenue. This is working, but let’s talk for a minute about what wasn’t working. What was keeping you from getting to that next level? Let’s put it this way. What were some of the pains or frustrations you and Alexis may have been feeling as you were trying to keep that all together?

This was years before we met. I don’t remember exactly, but 3 or 4 years where we were almost exactly hitting our head on $1 million in revenue. It was not necessarily profitable. In one year, we were not profitable, but we had gone past that point. These frustrations, I’m sure, are not unique, but at a certain point, you can only run so fast.

The Elite Entrepreneurs Podcast | Entrepreneurship Lessons

Entrepreneurship Lessons: At a certain point, you can only run so fast. We had brought on good people, but we had not built real leadership.

 

We brought on good people. What we had not done was build real leadership. It’s interesting because I remember this distinctly. You probably won’t because of all the people and teams that you’ve helped. You said to Alexis and me, “How good is the leadership?” the first time we met you. It was called Elite Forum at the time. I can’t remember what it was called, but in any event the first time we met.

Alexis and I have great leaders. What we had were great people doing a generally good job at what we dictated for them to do. I would not call that leadership, but at the time, it meant that they were helping others so we weren’t always dealing with everybody directly on their decisions. We hadn’t built a culture of leadership. We wouldn’t have even known how.

One, we had tried for a lot of years to run faster. We had gone past the point where the two owners were doing everything. We weren’t there anymore. We had gone past that, for sure. We had brought in good people. We had a great team, many of whom, lucky enough, are still with us. The idea of building leadership and then the framework, to be honest with you.

W hat I wanted was nuts and bolts. I am not touchy-feely. It doesn’t resonate with me. I had been exposed to the touchy-feely conceptual world. I want actionable items. One of the biggest impacts on us was one of the first things that we ever talked about in the first day or two when we were there together, which was values. I hated the idea of values. I want to put that in concept because I’m going to sound like some awful, evil person.

One of the things we tell every team member before they’re hired, and we talk about it every time the entire team is together, is that this company was built on two cornerstones. 1 of those 2 is that we want everyone who works at The Husband & Wife law team on the day they retire. When someone says to them, “The cake’s out. Hugs. Where was your favorite place you ever worked?” we want it to be here.

I want them to live their best life, but my hope is that their best life for some period of time, or maybe longer than a little period of time will be here. I wouldn’t have used those words a couple of years ago, but we knew very much that’s what we wanted. We knew we wanted this to be a place that was more than a job. I’m sure we talked about that.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want the things that values-based companies have. In fact, in our mindset, we were values-based. The idea of coming up with values that you put on a wall and pretend to have any impact felt very bank, big business, customer-facing but not real-world, political, Fortune 500 nonsense. That’s how it felt to me, not how it feels now.

How Values Make A Difference

Let’s dig into that a little. You did have a culture already. You hadn’t put words to it and put it out there in a way that we could intentionally live that day in and day out. As a growing team, I remember very distinctly some of the core beliefs that you had or the core concepts about how you thought about your clients and how you thought about wanting this to be the place where they loved working. You were using those words before you ever put any values together.

I do remember as we were teaching you that in order to go from these superhuman entrepreneurial technicians who were really good at doing what they do to a place of building a bigger business, you have to create some shared identity. You have to set a vision with the team. We talked about purpose, values, and mission. On this values point, you got stuck, and you were very vocal about it. You said, “I have a hard time buying into this.” I don’t remember the exact words, but you were stuck. You’ve talked about that a little bit already. What else do you want to say about your thoughts about values then? What made the difference for you? What changed?

Let me share a couple of examples if I can. I don’t know if it was my hatred of the idea of spending time on values. What I wanted was the nuts and bolts. I wanted how to hire. I wanted how to grow people. I wanted how to fire. To me, the values thing seemed very touchy-feely. It was like, “We’re going to write up all this value stuff. When do we get to the real work where you teach me how to find the right people, how to make sure they’re the right people, and when they’re in, how to help people communicate with one another?” Honestly, I didn’t see purpose, values, or mission as things. Those all felt very whatever. I was like, “When are we going to get to the real stuff?”

Here’s how it’s impacted me. When I finally came around to doing it with some pressure from those in the room, it was hard for me to do it, but I realized it was the foundation. I heard a statement once from someone that I met through a lead. She said, “Don’t should all over people.” What we, as leaders, owners, and managers, love to do is say, “They should have known. They shouldn’t have done this.” We’ve all found ourselves in that position. We’re like, “They should know not to do that. They should know how to do that.” We all do it. Why does it happen though? Why does it happen so often and why is that with good people? It’s because what’s in our heads is not clear to them.

I am a believer that there is no such thing as common sense. I believe, and I went to believe this a few years ago, is common sense, and no one will agree with me on this probably, is, “This is how I think. Anyone should see it my way is what we call common sense.” Look before you leap and he who hesitates is lost are both common sense.

There is no such thing as common sense. Share on X

There are all these things like you got to do your research but you waited too long. We define it by the outcome. Some have grown up with their own life experiences and worked wherever they’ve worked. What they think they should do may not be clear even if you’ve hired the right person. The values piece is, “Before we get down to the daily shoulds, who are we? Let’s make it as clear as we can, and then let’s use it.”

I was sharing a story with you before we started talking here. There are a couple of things on the values. We were at a presentation, so I had 30 minutes before you and I talked. I used the values 2 or 3 times in emails. Having nothing to do with that, we were going to talk about values. I could use one from the emails, but I’ll use an example of one of my highest-level leaders. That leader is responsible for hitting certain KPIs. One of the KPIs is to make sure that our clients love being a part of this firm.

Understand our clients are hurt. It’s often the worst part of their life. We can’t make it not the worst part of their life, but we can make it where they’re saying to people, “You would not believe how well my lawyer treats me. You would not believe what this lawyer did for me. You would not believe the communication.” We can do that. We can’t fix the underlying issue, but we can do our best to make it not add more stress but in fact, make things clearer.

One of the things we do is measure client happiness, He owns that. We were talking. He had come to his team and said, “Client communication is not optional. It’s a leading indicator. Ultimately, we’re measuring client happiness. Contact with clients is not the KPI, but if you do it enough, you have happier clients. If you don’t do it enough, you don’t.” He decided, and it was his choice, not mine, that he was going to be inflexible on this. He was like, “I don’t care how much your clients love you. I don’t care how well you do. You are never going to skip client communication, being constant, regular, and so forth.”

The Elite Entrepreneurs Podcast | Entrepreneurship Lessons

Entrepreneurship Lessons: Ultimately, we’re measuring client happiness. Contact with clients is not the KPI.

 

When he messaged it, which was his call, Alexis and I, and this is growth, neither of us probably would’ve messaged it or even said that because it’s a leading indicator. I’m holding him accountable. Some of the people he is messaging it to are doing great. Leadership is not him doing what we want. It’s him having clarity on what he needs to do so that we all live what we’re trying to accomplish within our values and so forth.

I did talk to him and said, “When you share that with the team, that’s beautiful. You’re saying, “This is who we are,” but you didn’t include a value. There are a couple of values you could have included. In that particular case, my choice would’ve been that we develop personal relationships with our clients. Empathy and understanding is our foundation. You cannot develop a personal relationship. You cannot show empathy and understanding in someone’s difficult time without regular communication.”

That’s a small tweak. Someone out there may go, “That’s nonsense. How big of a deal does it make?” I would argue since everyone on the team memorizes the values on the way in and they hear them regularly that when the message comes down, they are like, “This must be done because this is who we are.” I’m not saying it’s who we are. It’s not a measurement you have to live up to as a team member. It’s in the core values that we talk about all the time. That’s how those values that I was against doing played directly in the day-to-day progress or growth of the team.

Thank you for that example. It helps those who are trying to figure out what it really does to get a little bit more tangible and a little bit more concrete. We probably should have done this on the front end. Some of those skeptical people would say, “Why should I listen to this guy?” For twenty years, you built this thing. We never quite said the rest of the story. You had 20 or 30 people years ago when you started doing this work. Now, you have roughly how many people?

We’re at about 145, closing in on 150.

That 5x growth roughly from 20 to 30, how much of that happens without you doing this foundational work of purpose, values, and mission stuff that we’ve been talking about?

I am confident. Alexis and I have had many discussions on this. For every business owner out there, most would agree. For those who started as something that was great at what they did, I am confident our growth would’ve continued. We had some ups and downs. It was not steady without some speed bumps, but generally speaking, we were on steady growth.

We were in the low twenties. It has been eight years. We’re probably in the mid to high 40s. We probably would’ve kept growing. We were doing good things. Our name was getting out there. We believe our reputation was growing. We weren’t going to suddenly stop. However, our revenue is 5x, team members are close to 5x, give or take, and profit is also dramatically different, but there’s more to it than that. We’re impacting our team members more than ever. We’re able to do things for clients. It’s not that we didn’t always do everything we could, but we have the resources to do it even more. Our lives are different. It is no longer a sprint.

My calendar is still not where I want it to be. I’m still staring at a calendar that I’m going, “I’ve brought in so many great people and trained them to be leaders. They’re doing great. Why is my calendar booked for the next three weeks?” I haven’t solved this and I’m still working on it, but the improvement is significant. I do get that more of that calendar, by far, is spent on thinking and planning and meeting with people who are impacting, not me doing.

I am still not there. You know this. I am not where I think I can be and where I will be. I keep climbing towards it. Most of my time is spent in the CEO visionary stuff, but I had almost no time for that. I  would try to block time and plan things, and I had some success with that. Blocking time’s amazing, but there’s a limit. There’s a ceiling I was hitting without getting some of these things. It goes beyond values. I know that’s what we’ve talked about.

Getting Out Of The Bottleneck

I want to talk about another thing that you mentioned already, which was that as you grew to 20 to 30 people, y ou did hire great people. When I asked you about leadership, you said, “We have good leaders.” Looking back, you would say, “We had good people who were doing things that we told them.” I like that distinction.

I still remember that you and Alexis were turned to a lot. Since you two are married and there was a little bit of a family feel to the firm, it was almost like, “Let’s go ask Mom and Dad.” Somebody might ask Mom, and then if they didn’t like that answer, they were like, “Let’s go ask Dad.” There were some of those dynamics in your firm. While you weren’t doing everything, you still had a lot of input in everything. Bottleneck might not be an exaggeration around the important things going on in the firm.

We remain a bottleneck to our firm but far less than we were years ago. Giving up control was very hard. It remains hard, but it has gotten way easier. If I’m looking in the mirror and I’m being honest with myself, there are still things that are, “Come to me and check with me,” stuff that shouldn’t be, “Come to me and check with me,” stuff. It’s a fraction of what it was a few years ago. The reason is the first attempt to grow leadership was very hard. We knew we were the bottleneck. We knew that before a couple of years ago. We thought we had to be. For as good as these people are, we know the answers. We know what we want. You see what you look for. I’m a huge believer in that.

I’ll speak for myself, but I’m pretty sure she would agree, we knew what we wanted. Alexis and I almost never agree on the little stuff. When you work together and live together, and plus, we were married so we probably didn’t start out with opposite values, we’re usually on the same page on the big stuff. When you’re looking for, “Can these people do it our way?” you constantly see them not doing it because you’re looking for that. You don’t know how to grow them and train them in any event. That first pass at leadership was not particularly successful.

There are five leaders in our firm who report directly to Alexis or me. One has been with us for six-plus years and he was the first one in his role. Outside of that, we set our sights too low. What we thought we wanted in a leader was not what I would call a leader now. We didn’t onboard them correctly in any event. That kind of stuff plays such a role.  I had many conversations around leadership that the information was there, but I wasn’t willing to hear it yet. We’re still a bottleneck.

We’ve had to come to terms and had to adjust our org chart a little bit. We tried to set up the org chart with me as the CEO and Alexis as the COO. We did it that way because I am more big-picture, outward-thinking, and, “How do we conquer the world?” Alexis is much more task-oriented day-to-day and is great at leading that part of it. We switched the org chart around because, in effect, there is still this mom and dad piece to it. It’s not literally, but there’s still the number of times I’ll say, “This is my answer, but hold off. I want to check with Alexis.” We play different roles, but there’s a lot of overlap.

We had to make the org chart recently. Probably about several months ago, we were like, “We’re going to have to get realistic with this org chart.” That’s how it should be maybe, but that’s not how it is. Even though we have direct reports, and I do get to make a lot of the calls with my direct reports as leaders and she makes the same with her direct reports as leaders, it’s not a traditional CEO and COO role.

There is a very tight collaboration going on. I’d like to underscore what you said about the bottleneck. We all do this in our businesses. We end up being the bottleneck. The question is to what degree? Earlier on, the bottleneck was constricted. It was really tight. That’s loosened up some. I’ve enjoyed watching you get more capable leaders around you who can take some stuff off of your plate.

Even though you still enjoy personally trying a case occasionally, technically, you wouldn’t have to. You do have the team. You do that for enjoyment, not out of necessity. There is an ability for you guys to level up the business when you’ve got capable leaders in place who could take some of that responsibility and ownership off of your shoulders. That’s been fun to watch.

First of all, thank you for that. I’ll add another piece. There were people on my team at the time that I was like, “This person is great.” As you continue your growth and get an idea of what you’re looking for, you realize, “This person is great at certain things.” We were putting people in roles. I’ll give you an example. There was someone on the team who was a great team member. We really needed someone other than me to manage this certain area. We put this team member as the manager because that team member had an interest in management and we needed one.

This time, every position, almost without exception, we open up for internal interviews and external interviews even if it’s the kind of role where it would be better if it was an internal promotion and external promotion. Before we start interviewing, we know exactly what that person’s good at as opposed to going, “I have a need. This person wants to fill the need and this person’s good where they are.” You could get lucky, but you could also have a disaster where you put someone in a position because that’s where they want to be and you have the need. You’re like, “It couldn’t be more perfect.” Are you sure?

Multiple times, we had to learn this lesson. We shouldn’t be designing the perfect company by looking at the people in it. In other words, what does the perfect company look like? There’s a place usually, not always, where sometimes people hit a ceiling. You outgrow them and it’s no longer a great fit. That happens as well. There are too many times that throughout this process, we’re like, “I have a need. It will be great. I’ll move this person.”

The Elite Entrepreneurs Podcast | Entrepreneurship Lessons

Entrepreneurship Lessons: We shouldn’t be designing the perfect company by looking at the people in it. You outgrow them, and it’s no longer the great fit that it was.

 

When we didn’t open it up for interviews, we weren’t clear on, “If that person excels, what are they doing? What are their big three? How are we going to manage their big three? Who are they directly reporting to? How are they going to do their role?” Instead, it was, “Let’s put them there.” You’re sitting there months later and you’re like, “This isn’t working.” It’s because of the lack of clarity. That’s even true, not just for leaders. You have someone on your team like, “This person’s great, but it’s a little bit frustrating.” O ur first pass of the big 3, and you may not remember this, was a big 6. You asked me, “Why big six?” I said, “We’re twice as good as you.”

I remember that. For context, because people might not know what the big three are, quickly, the big 3 are the 3 most important measurable responsibilities of a given role. It’s how we measure the ongoing success in a role. It’s the value exchange. Every two weeks, they get paid. Every two weeks, they deliver these measurable results or activities. Those are the big three. You’re like, “It’s not 3. It’s 6 because we’re twice as good.”

First of all, as I see it, the big three are fundamental to who we are because they’re key performance indicators. No position can have more than three. At the time, I was like, “This is impossible. I’m not working at the stamping plant in Dearborn for a car coming off the line and they have to stamp out quarter panels.” I’m not saying someone who stamps quarter panels only does that. My point is our team members do a lot.

I was coming up with these key performance indicators that were not always measurable. Sometimes, they were measurable and not valid. That’s gone. For it to be a key performance indicator, what we call a big 3, it is 3, 2, or 1. It is never more than three. It is always measurable. There are things that are more important than some of my big three. If I can’t measure it, it doesn’t go on there.

My first pass at measurement had times where I was like, “It’s close enough.” You don’t have to be perfect, but close enough is a good guidepost. For the team members, it is like, “You’re judging me and saying my job rests on how well I do with these 1, 2, or 3 items.” We all agree that some of this is nonsense. Boiling it down and working hard to pick only things that are measurable and where the measurement is valid has been amazing. It’s been amazing for the team.

Are there people we have lost both when we did it because of them? Yes. Many are because there are people who otherwise would have hidden out and never performed well, but they would’ve been able to fly under the radar. It’s not just that. I understand this. I respect it. I get it. I don’t want to be measured every day with a dashboard. That doesn’t feel right to them. Most high performers love seeing the dashboards every day that are proof positive that they excel. That’s not all of them. You may have a different take on it. Mostly, the A players and game-changers, it’s great for them and for us. We know you’re great. You know you’re great. It’s not even arguable.

I don’t disagree with that at all. You know I like the transparency and visibility of those things. For each individual, it is like, “How are we doing collectively? How do we see that?” That’s great. I have to let you get back to making happy clients in the Phoenix area with their personal injury cases.

It’s because we met you. Years ago, we had the Tucson takeover and strategic initiative because of our annual planning. We’re all over the state and more is coming soon. I’ll leave it at that.

This is awesome. I want to summarize some of the conversations we had. We started with you growing well and you built a successful firm. W e talked about values a lot, but purpose, values, and mission, when you got the time to put that foundational piece in place for your business, you were able to create a shared identity that everybody understood you could hire to, lead to, and fire to. You were able to build something off of that that accelerated your growth. That’s along with getting the right leaders in place that could allow you to be less of a bottleneck.

We then talked about the personal clarity and personal ownership of the big three or having those clear, measurable responsibilities for every role in the business. Those are three of the things. You also alluded to planning. There’s a bunch of business-building work that you guys did. No amount of other people teaching you guys this stuff would’ve meant anything if you hadn’t gone and done it.

All of this business-building work is what allowed you to take a really nice growing firm and turn it into one of the biggest, most successful here in the state, which is awesome to see. Thank you for sharing your insights. If people want to get to know more about The Husband & Wife Law Team, connect with you on social in any way, or go to your website, how would they do that?

It is super easy to find. If you type in Husband & Wife Law Team, anywhere, whether on a social media platform or you can Google it, whatever it is, you’ll find us, for better or worse. If anyone wants to reach out to me directly, I’m at Mark@BreyerLaw.com. I am, as the postscript to all this, the lawyer who loves being a trial lawyer and loves to fight. I enjoy trial more than most people will ever like their job. I cannot explain the thrill of standing up to fight for someone who deserves someone to fight for them in court. The jury there, I love it.

What happened along this journey that we were almost forced into is I love small business. I love talking about the ways to grow a business and the work it takes and better ways to build a better mousetrap. If anyone at all heard anything I said and wanted to challenge it, question it, or bounce things around, I’d be happy to do it. I love it, to be honest with you.

We love having you in our community and love having you as a guest on the show. Thank you all for tuning in. Please share, like, and review. Do all those things on whatever platform you’re tuning in so that we can help as many seven-figure business owners as possible with the amazing sharing that goes on with guests like Mark. Tune in next time. We’ll have another great guest. Thanks for tuning in.

 

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About Mark Breyer

The Elite Entrepreneurs Podcast | Entrepreneurship LessonsMark is an Arizona personal injury and wrongful death attorney who started The Husband & Wife Law Team with his wife, Alexis, who is also an attorney, in 1996. Mark grew up in Michigan and went to college at Michigan State University. He always had a passion for the law and followed his dream to be a successful trial lawyer and attended Syracuse University College of Law School. Mark and Alexis then moved to Arizona to begin their legal careers and have been in Arizona nearly two decades.

Mark and Alexis have 8 children together. They joke that when they married it was never planned to have a big family, but one at a time, they now have 8 children. Mark enjoys all college sports, especially football and basketball, and is active in the little leagues. He tries to watch pro football as well. Any and all sports he enjoys. Of course, we cannot forget Mark’s beloved dog, Kenzie.


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