Mentorship Matters: An Interview with Sonny Balani, CEO of Balani Custom Clothiers

Sonny Balani, CEO of Balani Custom Clothiers

We’re Celebrating Small Business Saturday with Sonny Balani, CEO of Balani Customer Clothiers. Adam and Sonny discuss mentorship, when to hire a President, a rapidly expanding business, and core values on this week’s episode of The Best Team Wins Podcast.



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Adam Robinson: Welcome to The Best Team Wins podcast where we feature entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson. For the next 25 minutes, I’ll be your host as we explore how to build your business through better hiring.
Today’s guest, Sonny Balani is the CEO of Balani Custom Clothiers, a bootstrap company which was founded in 1961 by his father. Sonny has catapulted the company into the national market and has grown up to 35 employees in seven locations throughout the United States. Sonny, we’re pumped to have you here on The Best Team Wins where we know that the best learning happens through real experiences shared by fellow entrepreneurs. Sonny, welcome to the program.
Sonny Balani: Thank you, Adam. Pleasure to be here and it’s a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you for having me on the show.
Adam Robinson: Absolutely. Well, listen, your company has achieved well over 30% growth over the last 12 months and was just featured on the prestigious Inc. 5000 list for the third time in a row. Congratulations.
Sonny Balani: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Adam Robinson: That’s big growth. I know we’re going to learn a lot from you today. First, as is the tradition here on The Best Team Wins podcast, we always start off on the right foot which, Sonny, as you know is the best business news or personal news that happened to you in the last seven days. Kick us off. What’s your right foot for the last week?
Sonny Balani: I’ve actually got accommodation here because I was able to combine a few things. I had an employee I was working with in LA. It was wonderful because they got to make some great strides with him in LA while I was there, but I also got to take the family to Disney World and visit with some friends, with the wife and kids. That was a great trip when you can combine all those things that have great results.
Adam Robinson: That’s awesome. You did the Disney World trip, took the plunge.
Sonny Balani: Yeah, actually I love it. I can’t get tired of Disney World. Not only do I appreciate what they do, but also how they do it. Their employee practices are remarkable as well so I learn something when I’m there.
Adam Robinson: Very cool. Well, that’s the right approach for going to Disney World with the family. Absolutely. Give the 30 second elevator pitch on Balani Custom Clothiers.
Sonny Balani: I’ll tell you. It’s funny, Adam. In the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to pull away from the elevator pitch, and I try and make things more conversational. I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you a little bit about our core purpose of who we are as a company, as an organization and what we’ve got on our flow charts and et cetera. I think that will be a sufficient elevator pitch. Then maybe I’ll tell you a little bit about what we’re doing instead of the elevator pitch. Sounds great?
Adam Robinson: That sounds great. Go for it.
Sonny Balani: Cool. Our core purpose is to enhance our clients’ lives through well-tailored clothing to help them look great, instill confidence and lead more successful lives. Part of that, too, is when we do these core purpose documents and et cetera, I always try and be able to substitute the word “client” with employee. I could read the exact same phrase for my employee. I try and think about that when I think about clients and employees. I think that resonates better with a pitch about the business and helps them think about it from more of a theme rather than an elevator pitch. That seems a little bit more rehearsed to me.
Adam Robinson: Very good. Have you always been in that business or is this been the result of a pivot since the inception which was sometime ago?
Sonny Balani: My father actually started the business in 1961. I candidly had no interest in going into the business at all. I actually wanted to go into investment banking and trading. That’s exactly what I did. I did that for a number of years. It was a successful career. I ended my career at William Blair in Chicago, which is one of the most prestigious firms in the Midwest. That was a great experience for me to have. Then in 2002, I got let go and laid off because recession, economy, and et cetera. Good or bad, I was the youngest trader on the desk by seven years. The bad news was I the youngest trader on the desk by seven years. In that type of environment, seniority definitely matters.
I tried to figure out what I want to do next. I had a really fun career doing that. I decided to help my dad when I was trying to figure out what I want to do next. Eventually, I grew to love it and figure out that maybe I can scale this business. At the time when I joined it, it was just my father, and so it was a very small sole proprietorship. I realized there was a lot of difficulties in scaling from a marketing, branding standpoint for obviously the people side of it, the finance, et cetera. A lot of challenges ahead. It got me juiced. It got me juiced to try and take the small one person organization and try and build it into something that was larger than that, et cetera. My dad never anticipated I would go in the business. Of course, he couldn’t be prouder and more happier now that we’ve got the national expansion going as well.
Adam Robinson: That’s very cool. Well, the company’s self-funded. It’s bootstrap. You have 35 employees which is incredible. Let’s start with the top. Walk us through the leadership team. When you look around your leadership table, who do you have sitting with you?
Sonny Balani: It’s changed a lot in the last few years. Actually, we’ve added some components. Even now, we’re still relatively flat. I do have a president who I hired three and a half years ago. That’s worked out very well. Then I’ve got a director of operations who runs a few different hats in terms of the operations and merchandising side. I’ve got one person in our finance department who I work with very closely on a day-to-day basis, as well as a couple of people on the marketing side. Then after that, it’s candidly mostly just sales. We’re really relatively flat. I have touch points with a lot of these guys on a very regular basis.
Adam Robinson: You brought in a president three and a half years ago which, on this program, lots of entrepreneurs talk about the decision pending to do that or whether they’ve made to do that. Talk about the moment you knew it was time to do that?
Sonny Balani: It was more opportunity-driven for me. I did not go out looking for a president. It just happened that there was a gentleman, the guy I hired, who we connected on LinkedIn. I brought him in to do some consulting with us. He had a magnitude of experience. He was with the largest custom clothing company prior to … After that, he jumped in, went to a private-equity backed firm that grew a custom clothing company to a national scale as well. Great dynamics and we’ve gotten along really well.
I didn’t go into the relationship thinking that he would join our firm. It was more of a consulting opportunity for us but we clicked. The benefit was he got an opportunity to know us, and I got an opportunity to know him and the team as well. We really enjoyed each other’s companies. We start to figure out each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Then I started to think more and more that he could really add a lot to our organization.
Adam Robinson: That sounds like a perfect match. That’s a specialized business to find some of those credentials. You had to be feeling pretty good about that.
Sonny Balani: Ups and downs. I will tell you that it did not come without its challenges as well. A lot of learning experience with him coming from the team and et cetera. It was the first time also that I hired somebody from the outside at a senior level. Prior to that, we basically grown everyone through the organization. That came with new challenges both from a team aspect, as well as my own. I’m trying to figure out what responsibilities I was going to give up, what I was going to keep for myself and et cetera. I can’t say it didn’t go without some mistakes because I changed a lot throughout that last year or so with the support of a lot of mentors who helped me advise and get through that. Now, it’s become very successful so it’s a great learning experience. I know a lot of these relationships don’t work out, so it was good that this one did because it was a very critical hire for me at the time.
Adam Robinson: Congratulations on the transition. How would you describe your job now? What’s the CEO’s job description at your business?
Sonny Balani: I would honestly say, in the last couple of years, I’m actually what we describe as a CEO. Prior to that, I think a lot of people have the title of CEO because they’re the founder or et cetera, but they’re not doing what a traditional CEO job would be. Nowadays, it is really just strategy. I’m calling direction in terms of where we’re going to make investments in different cities or new hires, et cetera. I do tend to have a lot of touch points with a lot of the sales people and et cetera just because I want to keep a pulse in the business, and I want them to know that we’ve got an open door to any issues and et cetera.
Every now and again, I’ll just jump into a problem that they’ve got with a particular client, or particular garment, or situation just to make sure that they feel connected. Frankly, I’ve got a lot of experiences so I can solve a lot of problems quicker and teach them throughout the way. I’ve got a lot of mentorship style in me in terms of helping these guys, so I like to impart that as part of my style of managing.
Adam Robinson: Let’s transition then to talking about how you bring people into the organization. Let’s say I’m a prospective employee for Balani. I know you’re not into quick pitches. What’s your sell to me? Why join you and not the other team?
Sonny Balani: One of the things I think we do really well, which I talk about extensively during the interview process, is we’ve got a very collaborative sales team. A lot of organizations that I’ve seen in the past in the sales side, they’ve got a couple of people at the top that hoard information or hoard clients and et cetera. They don’t really allow others to excel and teach. We’ve got a very … Probably candidly from my style, we’ve got a very strong mentorship philosophy. Everybody has a Balani buddy when they first start. It’s a very collaborative teaching style method. Then, in our sales calls, we talk about key wins and losses. I make sure that they’re authentic. They are not… when people just talk about key wins and not key losses. It’s encourage to talk about losses because that’s how we learn. Even the senior guys on our team will talk about mistakes they made and different opportunities that other people can learn from those.
It’s a very collaborative sales process. It’s true. I mean, we’ve got the team that does that, and so I think people also sense that authenticity when I’m talking about it. Then I make sure they always talk to one or two other people on our team. They get that consensus from other people. As well as one of the other things that I know how do people do know is they check our Glassdoor reviews. We’ve got a five star rating on there and it talks a lot about their collaborative sales team, and the approach, and the management style we’ve got as an organization. All these things go together to really help refine the recruiting process.
Adam Robinson: Absolutely. You mentioned some things that could be core values for the company. Why don’t you walk us through Balani Custom Clothiers core values? What are they and what do they mean in principle?
Sonny Balani: Not coincidentally the first one at the top is “win as a team and lose as a team.” This speaks that collaborative sales environment that if we all help each other, when we all continue to build on each other’s strengths and weaknesses, that we’ll be more successful as an organization. There’s plenty of businesses out there in terms of what we do. My feeling is why not make each other better at what we do on a daily basis? That has helped the team get a lot stronger as well.
“Seek results the right way.” This speaks to the obvious which is ethics and making sure that we’re taking care of clients and solving problems the right way instead of taking shortcuts.

“Elevate those around you.” This speaks quite a bit to the mentorship side of the philosophy we’ve got in the organization which is we’re out here, similar to the core purpose, trying to elevate the lives or enhance the lives of other people, as well as the members of the team as well.

This is one of my favorites here which is “challenges, not problems.” A lot of people say, “Challenges and problems, it’s almost the same thing.” In my mind, it’s not because when you think of a problem, a problem, to me, is something that you want to complain about, or talk about, or et cetera. A challenge is something that gets you out of bed. It’s something that you want to solve, and you want to work together, and make sure that you solve it. Really, it speaks the mindset. If you look at things that we have, lots of obstacles in any business, especially with custom clothing, there’s so many details and things that can go wrong, and so if you look at those things as challenges, it makes it a lot easier to digest and then move forward and solve those issues.
Adam Robinson: Absolutely.
Sonny Balani: Another one we have here is “leverage unique personalities and backgrounds.” Somewhat atypical to a lot of sales cultures is a lot of sales cultures want to have a very homogeneous sales team, and they want people to think the same. They want them to have a very rehearsed sales pitch. Well, we have some continuity within our sales process and sales pitch. We also want you to be yourself. We want you to have that personality. At the end of the day, people are buying from people. If we try and make it too homogeneous, they don’t feel like they’re having that personal experience. I actually try and hire people with really interesting backgrounds that aren’t afraid to talk about them, aren’t afraid to bring them up. I don’t care how quirky it is and what it is. I just like that personality out there because that’s what people will remember about you.
The last thing I’ve got as a core value here is “make success a habit.” The reason I’ve got that at the bottom of the list is it’s basically everything above this entire list, but you got to do it everyday. It’s not just a one-off thing. It’s got to happen everyday.
Adam Robinson: Sonny, you know your core values. How do you make them real in the organization? How do you communicate and promote those values to the team that you have?
Sonny Balani: Well, the first thing that I do to make this real is I start our presentation the first day of new hiring, and I go through a presentation where we talk about what we do, why we do it and we spend a lot of time talking about the core values. Similar to how I just explained to you what the core values that we have in the organization, and what they mean to me and why they are, I do exact same thing with the sales team. I usually tell a story around each and every one of them and really try and resonate it. I make sure that these guys always see it. They hear it. They feel it.
A great example of that, too, is I use it, too, when there’s a client, sorry, a sales person that has a particular issue which is I’ll typically email them the entire set of core values. I’ll say which one of these are you not following right now? I’ll make them think about it for a day or two. Then they’ll have to get back to me. Well, that gives them an opportunity not to just reflect on one of the core values but all of them. Then usually it gives them an opportunity to think about, “Okay, I need to get back in line in terms of what we do and why we do it.” If they can’t, well, then I’ve got some decisions to make.
Adam Robinson: Sure. That is making it real very quickly. Let’s look maybe bigger picture at what I like to call your people model. That’s the business model that governs the people side of your business. For example, are you hiring entry-level, high potential hires and making big investments in training and development so you get to mold the talent, or are you spending more to hire experienced and specialized skills from within the industry or similar industries? Take us through that.
Sonny Balani: Sure. Outside of my president who I referred to earlier where he was a key hire that came from the outside that had many years of experience and changed the business model for us, everybody else I have hired in-house and I’ve grown to them through the ranks. Honestly, it’s one of my skill sets. I love mentoring and bringing out talent within people and pushing them to new areas that they didn’t even know that they could achieve. I’ve often take an interest in something I see in a particular employee. I’m like, “You know what? I think it can be more than that.” I challenge them and push them. It’s a delicate line because you want to set people up for success and not push them too hard where they fall.
I usually do little building blocks where I say, “How about you try this? How about you push yourself out of your comfort zone a little bit? Why don’t you take the lead on this particular project or something that we’ve got going?” I mentor them and I help get to the process to where they build confidence, especially because a lot of the folks we’re hiring are less experienced. Confidence in being able to achieve success early on is critical. As we move that process, they get more and more confident, and they’re willing to take on more and more.
Then what we try and do is I try and promote that. Let them do that with others in our organization and let that foster within the organization. It’s part of the culture of what we do. I’m big on being able to groom in-house talent.
Adam Robinson: Absolutely. Has that changed over time? Have you had moments of trying to hire experienced and see if you can fit them in to the organization?
Sonny Balani: On the sales side, we have. I typically found that if we hire someone with too little experience, it tends not to work out. Candidly, usually it’s because they don’t know how good they’ve got it. When they’re first hired, if it’s their first job out of college, they don’t necessarily have world perspective or perspective of other organizations and see that they’re at an organization they want to stick with. I can’t blame them for that because they don’t have any other experiences to see otherwise. I usually try and hire people that have a little bit more relevant experience and experience working at other organizations.
Then the flip side is also true. Sometimes it’s very difficult to unteach someone that’s got too much experience doing things in a particular different way. Not always the case but it is more challenging to sometimes unteach something and have them come in with a very open mindset to be able to learn how we do things, et cetera. It’s certainly a challenging thing that I debate in my mind often.
Adam Robinson: Sure. What’s the most important thing you do at Balani to ensure that you hire the right people in the first place?
Sonny Balani: It’s something that we implemented recently maybe within the last 18 months which is now we do a personality and sales assessment capability type format. These guys fill out an assessment test. It’s partly personality and partly also what their skill sets are, what they’re best suited for. Now, we honor those results in terms of that. It’s more of a screening out process than it is screening in process. We certainly won’t hire someone just because they score very highly, but we will certainly not hire them if they score very poorly on it.
Adam Robinson: You find that automating top of the funnel of your selection process with the assessment that you believe in is the right approach?
Sonny Balani: It certainly saves a lot of pain because some of the times when I’ve seen that we’ve broken that process when we used to do it very early on, I figured out pretty quickly that the sales assessment was correct, and so we learned our lesson. Now, we tend to stick with it.
Adam Robinson: That’s great.
Sonny Balani: Yeah, it’s been successful so it’s been great.
Adam Robinson: They pass the assessment. They’re coming in to talk with you. You’re sitting down or someone in your team is sitting down and running the interview, for our listeners, what is the … If you pick one favorite interview question, what is your go-to? What do you like to ask and what do you think it tells you?
Sonny Balani: First and foremost, I try and make them feel very comfortable very early on to make sure that I get real answers. Sometimes people are nervous and et cetera, and so they mumble and just run through things. I want to make sure they feel comfortable. Once I’ve got them in that comfort zone and we start asking and I start to dig deep and get a little bit more detail oriented on something. I think a good tone-setter is to verify something and say, “When I talk to your boss, or when I talk to your colleague, or when I talk to your friend about that, what’s the response going to be?” That usually gets them a little bit more honest about their answers. I think I picked that up from one of the Smart books. That was a great technique to be able to just keep people honest and also keep them comfortable at the same time where you’re talking through things is a good tip that I’ve picked up.
Adam Robinson: Rounding out the discussion on people, what is the biggest people related lesson you’ve learned since launching this new phase of the business?
Sonny Balani: I would say the ability to let go of people fairly quickly and not have them linger and use hope as a strategy to try and solve problems because usually if it’s not a good fit, you identify it fairly soon. It’s good to let people do something else that they’re more meant to do and not waste their time or ours because months and months can drag out. It just kills morale and kills culture to see somebody not succeeding and, also for that person, it kills their morale and their self-esteem to be not successful in a position. I’ve gotten much, much better at having really candid, comfortable conversations where most of the time it’s fairly neutral when someone leaves the organization early. I’m like, “Are you feeling great about it? Is this what you want to do?” We have some really good, candid conversations where it unwinds fairly naturally.
Then I’ve had some other situations where it’s just not a good fit. I’ve had to take a little bit harder line and say, “This is not working out,” if they’re not getting it. Then we move on quickly but saving that time and energy I feel like has kept the culture really tight, as well as obviously allowed us to be able to grow faster because we can take the lost dollars that we would have lost on those and reinvest them into new people that are going to work out.
Adam Robinson: Wow, Sonny. I feel like so many entrepreneurs struggle so mightily with unwinding a bad hiring choice. It sounds like your approach, which I would characterize as “let me help you go be a superstar somewhere else,” right? It’s respectful. It’s humane. As you said, when you do it right, people raise their hand and say, “I don’t think this is for me.” Congratulations on turning that corner. I don’t find many people great at that skill and it is a skill.
Sonny Balani: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Adam Robinson: Well done. All right. Now, to our lightning round questions where we’re going to check the barometer on a couple of things rattling around in your head. Question number one: do you think the US economy is going to get better or worse over the next 12 months?
Sonny Balani: I think it will get better. I mean, everything, leading indicators and et cetera seem to continue that way. To be candid, I thought that maybe we’d go through a bit of a recession maybe early in the fall. It seems like we keep pushing through things. Now, after the elections, it seem like the market is still working its way up. I think for at least the next 12 months, I see good things coming.
Adam Robinson: All right. I’m hoping to be agreeing with you there. Do you think it’s going to get harder or easier to find the people you need for your business over the next 12 months?
Sonny Balani: I can tell you wholeheartedly it’s already gotten much more difficult to be able to find talent out there. It’s gotten much more expensive and we’re at a high level of employment, which is great for the economy, but it is challenging for a small business to be able to find great people.
Adam Robinson: For our audience, the best books I’ve ever read always came as a recommendation from a fellow entrepreneur. What book are you reading right now and would you recommend it to our listeners?
Sonny Balani: I just started reading Persuasion by Cialdini. I can’t comment yet but it’s looking good so far. I’ve enjoyed his other works in the past. I resonated very well with that, a lot about human psychology and all interactions. I’ve always enjoyed that.
Adam Robinson: Early returns are good then. That’s good. Final question, Sonny. If you were to come back on this show one year from now and report on whether or not you accomplished what you think today is the most important thing on your plate for the next 12 months, what’s that thing?
Sonny Balani: We’ve got locations now in the Midwest and in the South. Also, we just opened a location in LA. Somehow in this whole process, the East Coast has eluded me. I would love to come back on the show 12 months from now and tell you we’ve got an East Coast location or presence established. That would be probably something I’d be proud of if I was to come back a year from now and be able to shake your hand and say, “We did it.”
Adam Robinson: That’s awesome. That’s the final word. You’ve been learning from Sonny Balani, CEO of Balani Custom Clothiers. Sonny, thank you for being with us on the program, my friend.
Sonny Balani: It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me, Adam.
Adam Robinson: That’s a wrap for this episode of The Best Team Wins podcast where we’re featuring entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. I’m Adam Robinson, author of the book, The Best Team Wins, which you can find online at We will see you next week. Thanks for tuning in.