Tom Hopkins Knows How to Pool His Resources: He Got Rich Quick Teaching Selling to Salespeople

UPDATED 06/11/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/11/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

For a man of 39 who got off to such a bum start that his own father despaired of him, Tom Hopkins has done awfully well for himself. Every time he gets up on his feet to teach the art of salesmanship, he earns $10,000. Last year alone about 100,000 salespeople in the U.S. and England flocked to 172 such seminars—and that's just for starters. To extend the range of his pitch, Hopkins has made two 12½-hour videotapes of himself in action, which sell for $7,000 each. The basic message of all these talks, Hopkins is the first to admit, is simple. It is that "Money Is Good." Hopkins is in a position to know. This year his small company expects to gross $10 million.

A surprisingly low-key man who deprecatingly calls himself "the mouth" and "the entertainer" when he is offstage, Hopkins is transformed when he's on. He conducts his sales classes like revival meetings, rattling like an auctioneer, whining like a child, whispering like a conspirator and punctuating his act with a roaring call-and-response session. The refrain, of course, is "Money is good," which his audiences yell back at him somewhat sheepishly, hoping to be initiated into the brethren he calls champions. "Champions love people and use money, instead of using people and loving money," Hopkins recently explained to a group of 560 Arizona real estate salespeople. "Have a love affair with your customers, folks." But let the buyer beware: Hopkins' champions also employ a wily blend of sales psych and positive thinking. He urges salespeople to avoid "red-flag words." A down payment is called an "initial investment." Clients are asked not to sign a contract but to "okay the paperwork."

Hopkins fans can also learn such circumlocutions from books and tapes, including the real estate video featuring the guru himself in 28 different suits ("to keep people's attention"). Shot in Hollywood, the production cost about $250,000 (in 1976) and has grossed more than $14 million. Companies like Bell & Howell, Tandy Corporation and New York Life also purchase products from the Hopkins library, such as the video titled "How to Master the Art of Selling Anything."

Hopkins' psychology is not limited to sales. He preaches hard work ("The surest cure for a slump is G.O.Y.A.—Get Off Your Backside") and, most enthusiastically, rails against "negativity" in any form. During a recent seminar for high school students, Hopkins cautioned his audience against "going through the newspapers and listening to all the garbage they heap on us." Finally, along with these pointers, Hopkins offers his students a contemporary Horatio Alger story—his own.

Les Hopkins of Los Angeles—former construction worker, auto and insurance salesman and appraiser—and his wife, Kathy, saved for years to send Tom, the second eldest of their four children, to college. But after three months at California State University at Northridge, Tom dropped out. His father was heartbroken. "He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, 'Son, I want you to know that I'll always love you, even though you'll never amount to anything.' " At the time, Tom recalls, "I was crushed." Now that he dwells in what he calls a "positive shell," he views it as "my first motivational talk."

Hopkins became an ironworker for a year, then enrolled in real estate school. But he failed the state licensing exam twice. With the help of his dad he landed a job with an L.A. realty company, where he made one sale in six months and averaged a $42-a-month income. Growing desperate, he invested "my last $150" in a five-day workshop on sales techniques. Before long he was a convert, and for an assignment to list his goals, wrote: "To be a millionaire by the time I am 30."

The next year he earned $15,600 and bought a Lincoln, although, he admits, "I was embarrassed to drive it." He also started buying heavily mortgaged $16,000 homes in Simi Valley from unemployed owners at $100 to $150 each. "Nobody was buying," he says. "Even the people I gave the $100 to thought I was crazy." But in a few years the houses tripled in value. He moved up to a classier real estate firm and made sales of $1 million, then $2 million a year. By age 27, Hopkins had reached the goal he had set himself in the seminar.

He paid a price. "I was burned out from seven-day weeks of 16 to 18 hours a day," he says. So he quit, took a $75,000 pay cut and in 1972 moved his wife of eight years and his children to Phoenix, where he began his super-teaching career as an instructor at the Cecil Lawter Real Estate School. In the process his marriage fell apart. A messy divorce became final in 1980, and Hopkins married his present wife, Debbie, 26, a year later. They live with Hopkins' children, Tim, 18, Lara, 13, and Tasha, 11, in a 7,200-square-foot, six-bedroom, five-bath, million-dollar house with a pool and gazebo in the Phoenix suburb of—where else?—Paradise Valley. When he isn't traveling the world to give seminars, he usually drives the 10 minutes between home and office in his Rolls. "I'm so darned happy these days it's easy to start relaxing," he says. Coming from a man whose motto is G.O.Y.A., it is one of his less convincing claims.

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