The famous, rich man from television drove into this prairie town — a pass-through hamlet 75 miles northwest of Kansas City — because the mayor all but beseeched him to come.
Help, the mayor of Horton, population 1,776, essentially said, because he had seen the rich man on cable TV. Can you help save a dying downtown in small-town America like you help save small businesses?
So Marcus Lemonis, the host since 2013 of a CNBC reality series called “The Profit,” in which the millionaire Lemonis uses his own money and business savvy to invest in and overhaul small businesses in need, arrived in town by himself for one day in January 2014 to see what he could do.
Eighteen months later?
“I think Marcus Lemonis was a big hit for this community,” the mayor, Tim Lentz, 43, declared last week, before setting out on a tour of downtown changes: new curbs, sidewalks, light poles and more.
“Some may not think so,” Lentz said, “but if you look at where we were in December 2013 and where we are now, we’re a heck of a lot better.”
Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Miranda and Layne Coggins, the married owners of a financially successful lip-balm and cosmetics business called the Lano Co., nervously hope that Lemonis will be making their lives better, too.
Since late April, a film crew from CNBC and Lemonis have been flying in and out of town shooting some 70 hours of footage for an hourlong episode in which Lemonis attempts to improve their family business. That episode of “The Profit” is scheduled to air July 7.
“It has been a roller coaster,” said Coggins, 41, who 10 years ago began her lanolin-based lip balm business by experimenting with ingredients on her kitchen stove. Expected revenue this year: $3.5 million.
She called Lemonis a “brilliant business guy,” but one who can also be “very intimidating.” The decision was wrenching, she said, to give an outsider control of the business she built and that supports her family.
“Because my heart and soul and 10 years worth of my life are invested in those products,” Coggins said. “Now I’m having an outside source come in and say, ‘Oh, this is great,’ or ‘It’s terrible,’ or ‘This is awful’ … . I cried a couple of times.”
The foundation of “The Profit” is that Lemonis — who, at 41, is a self-made millionaire and chief executive of Good Sam Enterprises and Camping World, a recreational vehicle club and RV parts supplier — finds a struggling small business, frequently one owned by a family or an individual.
If he judges the business is one he can improve, build and make more profitable, he writes a personal check, often rising into the many hundreds of thousands of dollars, to buy into the business as a large equity stakeholder. The drama usually occurs when he then takes full control of the business to work to improve upon what he considers the bedrock of any successful business, its “people, products or process.”
Of course, reality TV is hardly the same as reality. Nor is changing a town the same as changing a business.
“I can go into a business and write a check,” Lemonis said in a telephone interview. “But you can’t buy a town. You can’t write a check and tell them how it’s going to be. It doesn’t work that way.”
He didn’t venture to Horton for his TV show. It was for himself, a personal social experiment for a guy who had spent summers with relatives in a similar small town, one in Ohio that had been left to languish after the steel industry withered.
He wanted to now if he could effect real change.
Looking at garbage on Horton’s sleepy streets, overgrown lawns, the crumbling mortar and empty storefronts along the two-block stretch of downtown, his prognosis for the entire town was grim.
“If you don’t fix downtown,” he told 300 residents gathered that evening 18 months ago at Horton High School in a talk later posted on YouTube, “you will not have a town. You will not.”
When he toured Horton, Lemonis said, he thought he saw some of the same aspects that often plague what he calls a “sick business.”
“It looked very similar to me,” he said, “where the shareholders just didn’t care any more.”
The historic two-block downtown, centered at Eighth Street and Commerce Avenue, lacked care. Grass and weeds grew up from the sidewalks, and empty lots were sometimes strewn with debris. Dead plants were left in planters. Storefronts lacked fresh paint, sat in disrepair and were left unsafe.
That January 2014 evening, Lemonis offered a “tough love” bargain with the town: Raise $1 million and begin fixing the place up, and he’d pitch in $150,000 and support the downtown’s rebirth, even try to attract new businesses.
In the end, the town barely raised a fraction.
Instead, they began a “Reinvent Horton” campaign. School kids began cleaning up the town on Saturdays. This year, the Horton City Council spent $240,000 to replace curbs and sidewalks in downtown, the last of which were poured only weeks ago.
Some 18 residents and merchants donated close to $60,000 to add new decorative lampposts. Elsewhere around town, Horton and the county worked to raze 13 “derelict” homes that marred the community. The civic center was upgraded.
In June 2014, long before the most recent curb and sidewalk effort, Lemonis had already visited the town a second time.
“I actually think they made more of an effort than I would have imagined,” he said. “I did not expect them to wake up the next morning and start cleaning the streets. I did not expect them to rally around each other and be supportive. I did not expect the kids from the high school to take an active role in what was happening. … I did not expect them to actually follow through on any of it.”
Though the town did not fulfill its side of the bargain, Lemonis nonetheless has become a major landlord, paying about $150,000 to buy seven downtown buildings, including one that was dangerous that he paid to have torn down.
Tourism has not increased, Lentz concedes, nor have the changes so far attracted an influx of new business to town. In fact, of the 27 stores on Eighth Street, a third remain empty, including some owned by Lemonis.
“We’re at the point where, for me, Phase 2 begins, which is really looking for people living in that community, or people living outside that community, who want to open up small businesses on that street,” Lemonis said.
A coffee shop may soon open. But Carol Schuetz — who with her husband, Dale, has owned an appliance sales and repair store, Appliance Plus, on the block for 20 years — said it’s possible that their storefront may end up being empty. The couple, she said, are likely to retire at the end of the year.
Still, Schuetz supports Lemonis.
“He’s the one who got everything going,” she said. “We want to keep our town. We don’t want it to just die away.”
Lentz concedes that not everyone is happy about the changes, or how they’ve been spurred.
“We still fight negativity,” he said.
Some think it’s ridiculous, he said, that an outside businessman with a TV show is setting the agenda. Others complain that money should be spent differently, like on a better town swimming pool. Some people, although not Lentz, still question the TV celebrity’s motivation.
“His return on investment is zero,” Lentz defends. “I have to say that. But he has never forgotten about us. He’s never, ever just said, ‘Hey, go away.’”
Lemonis is less laudatory about himself. He is, after all, a businessman, and now one with a stake in Horton.
“Do I expect to make money?” he said. “Do I expect to sell the buildings that I bought in the future for more than what I paid for them?”
Yes, he said. Horton, he thinks, will “evolve and and get better.”
“Could I get a better return if I invested in something else?” he said. “Sure, 100 percent. But I’m not going to lose money. I’m going to make a modest return on my money. And I’m going to do something, something I actually believe in.”