In a white sports coat and dark sunglasses, Rudy Cervantes is Joe Cool. The same Joe Cool, a.k.a Snoopy, that decorates the tie he's wearing.
"In general, people are shy, but if you are going to make it in business, you have to take that first step," advises Cervantes, founder and president of Cervantes Neckwear Inc. in downtown Los Angeles.
After 30-plus years in sales, Cervantes, 58, has developed a witty, aggressive sales approach, including sending celebrities novelty ties and presenting potential customers with color mock-ups of what their ties would look like.
"You have to have ideas, you can't just walk in and show them ties or whatever it is that you make," Cervantes said. "And you don't need to have an appointment. Just drop in, because a potential customer is always interested in something different."
Persistence is an essential quality for a salesman, Cervantes explained. He said that just this week, after five years of sales calls, he finally landed an order from Magic Mountain for Bugs Bunny ties.
Although Cervantes offers a standard line of men's neckwear, his passion and profits stem from novelty ties. His showroom is filled with Bicentennial ties, Olympics ties, Mickey Mouse ties, Dodger ties and McDonald's ties, among others.
"A tie ends up in the closet because it doesn't make a statement," said Cervantes, whose personal favorites are Mickey Mouse, Joe Cool and Dodgers ties.
He said he chose Mickey Mouse to decorate his earliest novelty ties, because, "I worshiped Mickey Mouse--I grew up with him."
Cervantes laughs when he remembers his accountant calling him "nuts" for spending $5,000 for the licensing rights to make Mickey Mouse ties. Today, those ties continue to be one of Cervantes' best sellers.
"Next to Disneyland, I think I sell more of his Mickey Mouse ties than anyone," said Barbara Williams, owner of a fashion accessories shop in the Los Angeles Farmer's Market. Williams, who has known Cervantes for more than 30 years, said his products and enthusiasm for them is unmatched. "In the novelty tie field, I don't think anyone can touch him," she said.
Other customers interviewed said Cervantes makes such a positive impression, they never forget him, even if they never buy a tie.
"I used to wear a black silk suit, a black shirt, a derby and a white tie," Cervantes said. "Some people didn't remember my name, but they remembered me as the guy with the derby."
Even when he gave up the black suit, he said he always traveled with two suits in his car--a conservative one for visiting stores like Bullock's, and a more hip model for show business-oriented Hollywood men's shops.
"Everything is merchandising," Cervantes said. "You have to ask yourself, 'where is the market for my product?' There has to be a reason why you are making the item."
His secret to landing a new customer is to have a graphic artist make a sample pattern using the customer's company logo or other design. This helps a potential buyer visualize exactly how the finished ties will look.
After he showed McDonald's what he had done for other large corporations, Cervantes persuaded the hamburger chain to purchase thousands of corporate logo ties. The first McDonald's order was for $12,616 worth of ties; the second for $300,000, Cervantes said, proudly displaying the invoices.
"If I call on a customer, I am well prepared," Cervantes said. He advises any salesperson to take the time to analyze a potential customer's needs and then offer the right product at the right price.
"Sometimes, I tell the customer, 'My ties are not for you,' " Cervantes said. "Why show a customer something they can't afford and make them feel bad?" he asks. Most of his novelty ties retail for about $15.
Cervantes continues to dream up novel ways to promote his ties. When he heard that Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner was a devoted Goofy fan, he created a Goofy tie and a matching formal cummerbund for him. Eisner responded with a friendly thank-you letter.
As soon as Cervantes learned that Mayor Tom Bradley was going to appear on the "Tonight Show" to promote the Los Angeles Bicentennial, "I ran out to the mayor's office with two bicentennial ties and he wore one on the Carson show that night."
Cervantes doesn't stop with mayors. He has sent ties to Elvis Presley, Govs. Jerry Brown and George Deukmejian, and Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. And, he has their thank-you letters and photographs of himself with some of them as proof of their appreciation.
The youngest son of Mexican parents, Cervantes was born in Escondido. He originally wanted to be an actor, which explains his theatrical style.
He joined the Army as a teen-ager, using the military as a way out of the barrio. When he returned home, he worked in a men's store, and eventually talked a tie manufacturer into hiring him as a salesman.