Officially, Jim Segal ’90 is the CEO and owner of Ax-Man Surplus, but he doesn’t put much stock in titles. “You check your ego at the door when you get into retail,” he said. “There isn’t a job I haven’t done or wouldn’t ask another employee to do, because I wouldn’t mind doing it myself.”
Of course, Segal knows that moving inventory in the warehouse is not the best use of his time, so he focuses on activities that build the business, such as accounting and human resources. His most important duty? Buying inventory, a job he shares with the general manager who has been at Ax-Man for 26 years. “There’s an art to buying,” said Segal, pointing to a talking Donald Trump doll, a dermabrasion kit and a bag of rocks, all under consideration for purchase. “Usually we are on the same page on what we like, the value of an item and what we should sell it for. When we do disagree, we work to convince each other. Two heads are better than one.”
Segal considers himself an entrepreneur who is not creative. He is not interested in starting a company, but he enjoys owning one and using his expertise to make it run well. His approach to owning and running a business is to understand it well before taking on ownership. When the previous owner of Ax-Man, David Gray, began talking about selling the business, Segal heard and got in touch with him. The two men agreed that Segal would work at Ax-Man before purchasing it. Naturally, Gray became Segal’s mentor, and to this day, Segal feels that he can turn to Gray if he has questions about running the business.
Segal’s interest in entrepreneurship began during his college years. “College was important to my family,” he said. “It was not an option.” When he graduated from high school, he immediately enrolled in a university and, following in his brother’s footsteps, began to study accounting. But it was too rigid to suit him.
Then he heard that the University of St. Thomas had started an entrepreneurship major, something his current school didn’t offer. He transferred to St. Thomas and started anew, majoring in entrepreneurship and marketing. “I was at a better time of life to make a decision,” he said. “I was really focused on school and knew more about what I wanted to do.”
Segal held three very different jobs before landing at Ax-Man, and each played a valuable role in his career growth. His first job, selling copiers, developed his tenacity. His second, relocating operations for Carlson Marketing Group, taught him that he didn’t want to work for a large company. His third job, as owner of a GNC franchise, taught him what it was like to create his own destiny as a business owner.
“At Carlson, I could move up, but it was harder to have direct impact on my career. As a franchise owner, I could create and reap rewards.” By the time he had two GNC outlets, he had the understanding of retail that enabled him to analyze Ax-Man when the opportunity came along.
Six years after purchasing Ax-Man, Segal still finds the variety exciting. “My personality is suited to this. Every day is different, and the days go by fast. There is never a dull moment … or there rarely is, and when that happens, I take a few days off. I’m never bored.”
Owning his own retail business also allows Segal the flexibility to take his children to school before going to work, or come in early and then take time off to chaperone a field trip.
Of his goals for Ax-Man he says, “I’d like to keep growing the business. I haven’t achieved all my growth goals. I feel that part of my duty is to keep the business sustainable. I don’t want to mess it up, because Ax-Man provides some of the flavor of the Twin Cities. It’s a special place.”