Siggi B. Wilzig was Chairman and CEO of an oil company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. He also grew a small commercial bank in New Jersey into a $4 billion behemoth. But simply surviving remained one of his greatest achievements.
He lived through two years as a prisoner in the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps, two death marches and the pain of losing 59 family members in the Holocaust. When American troops found him, he weighed only 90 pounds.
Against this background, how could Wilzig (1926-2003) progress? “It’s tempting to say that he honed his survival skills and brought those skills to his life and business,” said Joshua M. Greene, author of “Unstoppable: The Unbelievable True Story of Siggi B. Wilzig’s Astonishing Journey from Auschwitz Survivor and.” penniless”. Immigrant Wall Street legend.” “He learned to think like an adult at a very young age,” Greene said.
And to that you could add good instinct and confidence. Surviving the concentration camps convinced him that he could do anything he set his mind to.
Survive difficult situations like Siggi Wilzig
When he arrived in Auschwitz, soldiers asked Wilzig about his age and occupation. He said 18 and master toolmaker. Both lies, but both saved his life. Anyone under the age of 18 was sentenced to death, and toolmaking was a valued profession for an army in need of supplies.
Every time he heard about a job that could potentially make his life easier, he demanded expertise and volunteered. Once when he was working as a male nurse in a prison hospital, he heard that the Nazis wanted to train carpenters. Unsure whether to apply, he asked the inmate doctor he worked with for advice.
‘I can’t tell you what to do. It could be just as bad or worse over there (where the training took place). You are a smart guy. Follow your instincts,’ said the doctor. Wilzig followed this advice for the rest of his life.
Wilzig: Find a way forward
He worked a variety of jobs, starting with shoveling the snow that fell shortly after he arrived. Wilzig also tried his hand at sales. By the early 1960s he was married with children and well enough to invest in the stock market.
At a party he met Sol Diamond, a retired member of the New York Stock Exchange. Diamond took a liking to Wilzig and told him about the Wilshire Oil Company of Texas.
“Wilshire had slipped from its leading position in the mid-20th century to become yet another dormant business run by an aging, all-white, male, non-Jewish board more interested in collecting the revenues from the business than than trying to grow the business,” Greene said.
Wilzig impressed Diamond “that he has a lot of energy and a lot of moxie,” Greene added. Young Wilzig had no experience with oil companies. But Diamond — who felt too old to direct an acquisition himself — told him, “I’ll help you and guide you.”
Wilzig had been waiting for this type of opportunity since arriving in the States — and “he ran with it,” Greene said.
Build your bet aggressively
It took a few years, but by 1965, Wilzig, his family, friends, and Diamond accumulated 20% of the limited stock traded. They eventually won four seats on the board – and the opportunity to present his proposals.
They can be summed up in two words: be aggressive. These ideas were radical, at least for Wilshire Oil. But they made sense. The board was impressed. The company followed his advice. It also appointed him president of the company. And later that year, when the CEO died unexpectedly, Wilzig took over as CEO.
Follow your strategy like Wildig
When Wilzig started, Wilshire was posting a nine-month loss of $500,000 on sales of $1.3 million. He aggressively acquired additional acreage and increased drilling.
By 1970, profits had increased to $700,000 on sales of $9 million. In 1971 sales rose to $13 million. Two years later, Wilshire had interests in 700 wells and 80,000 acres of oil fields. Earnings reached $4 million while sales soared to $22 million. In 1975, the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange with sales of over $29 million.
Part of that increase was due to smart acquisitions.
Ultimately, his largest was from the Trust Company of New Jersey (TCNJ). Wilshire began acquiring the company’s shares in 1968. In many ways it replicated the situation with Wilshire.
TCNJ was a sleepy company that slipped from being the second largest bank in New Jersey in the 1920s to number 21 in 1967. It only had 13 branches. They were old and didn’t have a drive through service. But Wilzig saw his potential.
By 1971, Wilshire had acquired over 50% of TCNJ stock. Wilzig also took over the chairmanship and CEO there. As with the oil company, he launched an aggressive policy of expansion and modernization.
Wilzig liked to call TCNJ the bank with the heart. He changed cumbersome interiors to make them more customer-friendly. He added plush chairs. And he removed bars from the register windows. Store openings became events and customers were welcomed.
“Other banks pay 100 cents on the dollar, just like my bank, and their money is just as green,” Wilzig said. “The only difference between the other banks and my banks is the excellent customer service.”
Put customers first
He treated his customers like royalty. He would visit their office and act more like a management consultant than a banker. He would analyze their business and find ways to improve it. Wilzig had no traditional education. But he was a voracious reader. As a result, he often examined problems from unusual, non-traditional angles and found innovative ways to solve or circumvent them.
His senses, his eldest son Ivan told Investor’s Business Daily, were “so finely tuned that he could tell if a person was telling him the truth when applying for a loan. It only took him five minutes to determine if he was (lying). this has contributed to an extremely low rate of foreclosures.”
There were times when the FDIC wanted TCNJ to write off a loan as an unpaid debt. Wilzig refused, saying, “That’s not bad credit. This is a good customer who had a bad season. The FDIC doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
He expected loyalty from his customers – that is, all of their business – and offered it in return. When the bank opened a new branch, it bought fixtures from companies that had accounts with TCNJ. He referred customers to customers.
Be a good boss like Wilzig
Wilzig got his employees to buy in by being a benevolent — and generous — boss. He gave stock options to entry-level clerks and secretaries.
“After suffering so many terrible humiliations at the hands of the Nazis, he was so grateful to have survived that he made it his mission to treat his employees well. If an employee was unwell, he would have his driver take him to a doctor. When he sold a subsidiary, he made sure none of his people were laid off,” Greene said.
Wilzig looked for other points of view. He once asked his doctor to join the TCNJ board. But he refused, saying he had no expertise. “We already have the guys from Wharton Business School,” Wilzig said. “You have answers for everything. I want someone like you who knows how to ask the questions.”
Back then, non-banks were not allowed to own banks. Therefore, in 1982, Wilshire sold its interest in TCNJ. Wilzig continued to run the bank. During his tenure there (1971-2002), the bank’s assets grew from $181 million to $4 billion. The now-acquired North Fork Bank bought TCNJ in 2003 for $726 million.
Talk about a happy ending.
Siggi B. Wilzig’s key
- Two sleepy companies turned into competitive giants.
- Overcome: Need to grow but satisfy existing customers.
- Lesson: “The best new business is keeping the old business. If you lose your old loyal customers, you will never get it back. You need 30 new customers worth $1 million to make up for the loss of a $30 million customer.”
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