THIS YEAR’S BRAVO LEADERSHIP AWARD was given to Rolf Sorg, Founder and CEO of PM-International in honor of the visionary leadership and strategic direction he has always displayed throughout the 30-year history of the company.
When asked to explain his thoughts on leadership, Rolf shared that he believes there are no born leaders. Becoming a leader requires overcoming obstacles; learning how to build relationships and teams; and developing behaviors that inspire others to grow.
“Whenever you face a challenge, it’s like resistance,” Rolf explained. “You have to work against resistance and learn from your mistakes. No pain; no gain.”
Rolf has had plenty of opportunities to grow through challenges. As a young man, he was in an apprenticeship to become a car mechanic, repairing cars in his spare time to earn extra money with the motto of “Twice as good at half the price.” Before long, he had a long list of loyal customers and a healthy income, but a severe injury during a repair that crushed his jaw sent him in a new direction.
Working as a car mechanic wasn’t his future, he decided, and he chose to devote himself to his studies in order to take over the family business from his father one day instead. But life was a far cry from his previously elevated standard of living. While his in-demand car repair side hustle had provided spending cash before university, he lived in cramped quarters in student housing and had little extra money as soon as he started his studies. This downsized lifestyle made him especially eager to find new income opportunities.
So, when he had a chance encounter with a tradesman who was driving his dream car, Rolf couldn’t help but ask him how he could afford such a luxury item on a meager paycheck. His answer: direct sales.
“I was a shy guy, but I had a burning desire to change something in my life. There’s nothing you’re willing to work harder for than a lifestyle you’ve already experienced.”
Plan A with No Plan B
Rolf describes the decision to become a distributor as an easy one. While he was excited for the opportunity, it didn’t change the fact that he struggled with self-confidence in the fledgling years of his career.
“No one likes to hear ‘no.’ Psychologically it takes a piece of your self-confidence. In the end, it’s about how big your vision, goals and desire are and your willingness to overcome the obstacles. Those can make you do something, even if you know in the first moments it will be painful.”
Through perseverance, Rolf became the top earner in his company, personally driving roughly half of the company’s revenue. This success built his confidence and the experience gave him new skill sets as a leader and entrepreneur. After a company he was working for went bankrupt, Rolf purchased their remaining stock and launched his own venture which ultimately became PM-International.
The decisions that followed would not be quite as simple. Launching PM-International required a sizable investment. And while he had socked away about $500,000, launching correctly would require his entire life savings, plus another $500,000 loan.
“I was willing to take the risk,” Rolf remembered. “If it didn’t work out, that would be it. I would be done. I started with Plan A with zero space for Plan B.”
Helping Others Learn from Your Mistakes
PM-International was taking shape, and the numbers looked incredibly profitable on paper. But in reality, the company had almost no liquidity. And Rolf was having to negotiate with banks to help stay afloat. It was a challenge he spent months trying to hash out in solitude, until he finally called his father, who determined the problem within four hours.
Rolf had a receivables issue. Bills that weren’t being paid were still showing up in the books, which meant that even though Rolf was not receiving money, he was paying taxes as though he had. “I learned a lesson and changed everything. Twelve months later we were debt free and that has never changed.”
PM-International quickly implemented a strict no-debt policy, and Rolf’s father was brought on as a mentor. Rolf also reorganized the structure of his workdays. Instead of focusing all his attention on what he calls the fun factor—sales and marketing tasks he loves to do, he splits his days in half, devoting 50 percent of his attention to the tedium of financial controlling, purchasing and logistics.
While these changes may have been prompted by errors in the past, Rolf views this learning process as an integral part of being an authentic and powerful leader. Perfection is never the goal, in his opinion, but rather a constant pursuit of doing his best.
“Sharing my own mistakes makes it easier for people to understand and draws them closer,” Rolf shared. “If I presented myself as a hero, that’s not reality, and it’s not true. Others would get nothing out of that.”
Taking the Bull by the Horns
Rolf’s big risk has paid off. PM-International is now ranked #8 on the DSN Global 100 list with $2.55 billion in 2022 revenue and a presence in 45 countries. Operating as subsidiaries in these markets, PM-International takes the steps to register their products with each country, making sure they operate legally and have a physical warehouse footprint. “That takes principles, values and ethics. We believe if you are trading products there, you should be present,” Rolf explained.
There would be less risk involved with keeping some distance from these new markets, but Rolf is, of course, not one to shy away from risk. Running towards challenges when necessary has become a theme of his leadership style. It’s an approach that was potentially best exemplified during a legal battle he took on against the digital goliath Google—and won.
“Success happens outside of our comfort zones, and I’m just a guy who takes the bull by the horns, never out of fear,” Rolf said. “My lawyers told me it was like the mouse and the elephant, but no one else was doing it. If I believed that what they were doing was not OK, and was not only hurting me but others all over the world, then I had to stand up for our rights. At the end of the day—if I’m serving, that’s why I’m earning.”
DSN congratulates Rolf on 30 years of visionary leadership and continuous growth.
From the June 2023 issue of Direct Selling News magazine.