Think Like a Brand

Spring15Mag_Washington

With Gerald Washington '04 in the role of corporate matchmaker, Steve Harvey's global visibility is spreading faster than kudzu. And Washington's personal journey from financial ruin to the executive suite mirrors Harvey's amazing rise

By Dick Anderson | Photos by Bryan Meltz

"I'm going to show you a picture and tell you a story," Gerald Washington '04 begins. He brings out an oversized frame with a fast-food uniform under glass. "The name tag fell off, but this is my Taco Bell uniform," he says. But it's not a reminder of his first job, or even a part-time position he might have had while at Oxy. For nearly two years after the stock market crash and ensuing recession wiped out his resources in 2008, Washington was "slinging lettuce out of a drive-thru window," as he puts it, to feed his wife and young daughter. At the bottom of it, a plaque reads, "This time in my life is called humility."

Like a museum piece, it's a reminder of the journey he's taken to get to where he is—to get back to where he had been. "I was used to wearing custom suits and this lifestyle that I had," he says. "My daughter would say, 'Daddy, you smell like tacos when you come home.' And these little things break you down. I was bringing lettuce and beans home at night. I learned how to make my own enchiladas using tortillas and tomatoes. I cut up Mexican pizzas that weren't sold and made cheese bread for my daughter."

These days, Washington is back to wearing custom suits—but he has some stiff competition at work in the Best Dressed category.

"He can dress sharp," says Steve Harvey, the hardest-working man this side of Ryan Seacrest and Washington's boss since 2010. But who dresses better? "Oh, me without a doubt. When he's making $5 million, $8 million a year, he can come over here and start bumping up against me," Harvey says.

As senior vice president of Steve Harvey World Group, Washington is charged with identifying and negotiating new business relationships—from a popcorn producer in Chicago to a credit-processing company in Africa. And in his latest role as a co-owner and partner in East 112th Street, Harvey's new production arm, Washington sold their first series to NBC, with Harvey (naturally) attached to host.

Among the many things about Washington that impressed him, "Gerald really thinks and is very thorough. He really knows how to present himself," Harvey says. "Anything he doesn't know he goes out and researches. And by the time he comes to me, he has the answers to all my questions."

Once he earned Harvey's trust, "We were able to have some very intimate conversations, and he began to understand who I am and what I did," Washington says. "I was able to read his contracts and grow his businesses. And then he put me on projects that I was able to govern on my own." 

By any measure, Harvey is having a very good year—a very good decade, really, one that kicked off with him taking the mantle of "Family Feud" 12 seasons into its syndicated run and decades removed from the height of its popularity under original host Richard Dawson. Harvey's quick wit refueled "Feud."

"'Family Feud' turned the corner," Washington says. "It took us from an African-American brand to a general market." He suggests that Harvey may be the only man on TV right now to bridge the divide of color lines. "You'll have contestants on both sides of the stage on 'Family Feud,' and he'll put his arm around the Caucasian woman and make her laugh—and then he'll put his arm around the Asian man and do the exact same thing. Comedy is what allows Steve to do that, because he only sees the funny."

Harvey's success hosting "Family Feud" kicked down the door for him to land his own daytime talk show (which picked up its second consecutive Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show/Informative in April). Meanwhile, his 2009 surprise best-seller Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man launched another career as a self-help author and motivational speaker. To that end, he staged his first Act Like a Success conference in Washington, D.C., in March.

All of this makes it easy for forget that Harvey lived out of his car for three years while struggling to make it as a comedian. "I know what it is to have no money. I know what it is to start at the bottom. I know what it is to get back up. I know what it is to overcome. I know what it is to win." Harvey told his role model, Oprah Winfrey, in an interview for her series "Oprah's Master Class."

As Harvey got to know Washington—to hear about the hardships and determination that brought him to his door—"I said, 'Wow. I have found this guy who is just like me,'" he says. "I'm a better entertainer, but he has the better business acumen." And Harvey attributes that to Washington's education.

Long before he set foot on the Oxy campus, Washington was already an entrepreneur.  He made around $7,000 a year selling candy at high school and bought his first car with that money. As a college student at Oxy, he grew a marketing company (212 Enterprises) that went from producing parties for high school- and college-age kids to promoting national concert tours. Armed with a fat contract from Coca-Cola, he dispatched seven trucks around L.A. passing out Coke products to inner-city students (today "Sodas have come out of the schools," he notes).

And while his extracurricular activities took a backseat to business—he played a year of varsity football under Coach Dale Widolff before hanging up his jersey—he and several of his peers took it upon themselves to revive Oxy's dormant Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity chapter. "That changed my scope of college life," he says, "because now I had four brothers to go through college with."

When the real estate market was booming in the early 2000s, Washington's then-girlfriend, Patrice Cunning­ham, sold him his first home in Lancaster. "I paid her about $10,000 in fees to buy this home," he recalls. That got him to thinking: "If I'm paying $10,000, who else is paying you $10,000?"

So the couple started a mortgage company of their own, utilizing her business acumen and his marketing skills. In addition to his economics major, "I have a psychology minor from Oxy," he says. "So along with the business, if I understand how you think, I can pretty much sell you anything."

At its peak, the couple's company generated revenues of $2 million-plus annually. "I was making a lot of money and bought a house and cars and boats and had all those things that were nice, and I saved a little bit," says Washington, who married Patrice in 2007. "But I didn't study the market." And when the housing industry imploded following the crash of 2008, "I wasn't prepared," he admits.

Washington and his wife had amassed 27 properties in Dallas and another 23 properties in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "We bought them at pennies on the dollar and were going to sell them at a quarter on the dollar after rehabbing them. That was the game plan," he says. But as banks started to close, "I wasn't liquid. I had all these assets I couldn't get rid of. I had to release all my homes back to the lenders that allowed me to purchase them. I had to sell back my Range Rover. I had to foreclose on my own home in Pasadena, Calif. I lost everything."

The couple settled in New Orleans, in a home they had bought for $7,000, because that's where Washington decided to reboot his career. At least, that was Plan B. But nothing came easy in the Big Easy.

"I tried government offices. I tried everywhere," he says. "I had a daughter who was 2 and a wife who was depending on me. We went from a 7,000-square-foot house to a 600-square-foot apartment with a couch and a bed. We were getting notices on the door that the power was going to be turned off, and that we'd be evicted in 15 days. I spent months searching for a job that I felt like was worthy of my level of education. But I was willing to settle at this point because there was nothing coming in. I'd depleted everything, so now I needed something."

Ultimately, Taco Bell gave him a job—and because of his Oxy degree, "I went from the guy at the cash register to participating in their management program," Washington says. "I did everything I could 100 percent to the best of my ability. I looked at it as the potential to own a franchise."

Over the July 4th weekend in 2009, Steve Harvey was coming to New Orleans for the Essence Music Festival—and Washington's wife, who had worked for Harvey and his manager, Rushion McDonald, while she was a student at USC, arranged to see them. ("I met Gerald initially through his wife years ago in Los Angeles," Harvey recalls. "She brought him to me, and I said, 'That's gonna be your husband.' And she just laughed. I was right.")

"I put on the best suit I had left, put my daughter in the car seat between our two seats, and we drove to meet Steve and Rushion," Washington says. "I probably parked our yellow Chevy Astro Van four miles away. But that's how the connection with Steve happened again."

"Nephew Tommy" Miles, a co-host on Harvey's radio show, offered Patrice a job as his assistant. It only paid $1,000 a month, but the family was grateful, Washington says, "because our income was $2,400 a month, and now it was $3,400." (Patrice has put the couple's experiences to good use herself, publishing a series of self-help books titled Real Money Answers and appearing on Harvey's radio and TV shows as the "Money Maven.")

With his wife and daughter now living in Atlanta with her brother, Washington was "dying a dog's death at Taco Bell in New Orleans," and coming home to an empty house. After five long months, he got a transfer to Atlanta and soon picked up a second job—keeping watch on McDonald's 7,000-square-foot house while it was under construction.

After a 12-hour shift at Taco Bell, Washington would show up at McDonald's house by 7:45 p.m., sleeping on the floor and leaving again for his day job at 6:45 a.m. Using an old Blackberry, he would walk around the house at night, taking notes on the construction and sending them to McDonald. "I was just getting paid to be at the house," he says, but those notes got McDonald's attention.

Nine months later, with no exit from the drive-thru in sight, Washington worked up the courage to write Harvey and McDonald. "I simply asked Steve and Rushion, 'Would you mentor me?' Because I realized in the real estate market that by not having a guide is why I failed." A couple of months passed, but McDonald eventually offered Washington a position in Harvey's company, Nu Op, as a production assistant for "The Steve Harvey Project," an hourlong TV show on BET's Centric channel edited down from the morning radio broadcasts. Washington did that for a year and a half, going from production assistant to script supervisor in four weeks.

As Harvey got to know Washington and observe his work ethic, he promoted him into positions with greater responsibilities. In his two years as sponsorship coordinator for the Neighborhood Awards (which recognize local businesses, religious and community leaders, churches, and high schools for their contributions within their own neighborhoods), he boosted revenues while providing sponsors such as Ford and State Farm "a better experience than they'd ever had."

One day, Washington was working at his cubicle downstairs in the midtown Atlanta office building that houses Harvey's various businesses when he was called upstairs for a conversation with Harvey and McDonald. "At that time I was making $40,000 a year, but for me that was like making $40 million," he says. "And now I'm thinking, 'Man, I can't lose this job.'"

His fears were quickly assuaged when Harvey offered him a promotion to become co-executive director of the Steve and Marjorie Harvey Foundation, a position that paid double his salary. "Now I'm crying," he says. "It was overwhelming." The Harvey Foundation provides outreach to fatherless children and young adults with mentoring weekends. Under Washington's leadership, the organization increased the support for its programs while simultaneously reducing the expenses related to its annual fundraising gala.

A subsequent shakeup in the leadership of Harvey's organization, which employs more than two dozen full-time people in its Atlanta headquarters, created an opportunity that Washington had only dreamed about. Not that he was suddenly living large. As senior vice president of Steve Harvey World Group, "I'm carrying Steve's bags, opening his doors, pouring his drinks. But I'm in the room. I'm part of the conversation. And one day they allowed me to read a contract." He was able to zero in on things that he had learned in Econ 101, as well as lessons from Professor Elmer Griffin's sociology classes—"which had nothing to do with economics, but my conversations with Professor Griffin changed my life completely. Once I read the first contract, I immediately kicked doors down."

Four years later, Washington is part of every conversation as it relates to the multimillion-dollar Steve Harvey brand. He has become good friends with Match.com CEO Sam Yagan, "because Sam has the No. 1 dating site in the country and he wants to stay No. 1." (In a 50/50 partnership with Match, Delightful launched last October with Harvey as its spokesman and is now the No. 4 dating site in the country under the Match umbrella.) Back in March, Washington was brokering a deal for a Steve Harvey slot machine similar to the ones that Ellen DeGeneres introduced with much fanfare on her daytime talk show last December.

And then there's sausage. "Steve is a huge barbecuer, and when Hillshire Farms first came to us, they wanted to sell 60,000 pounds of sausage," Washington says. When they let Harvey sell sausage his way—"how you grab a piece of white bread with the sausage and squeeze it in your hand and put the mustard on it and eat it"—they moved 190,000 pounds. Consequently, Walmart is about to roll out a Steve Harvey brand sausage line, and Washington inked a deal for his boss to be the face of Walmart in a forthcoming ad campaign.

Building on his syndicated series' hot streak, "Celebrity Family Feud," with Harvey as host, will begin a six-episode prime-time run on ABC on June 21. Meanwhile, NBC has placed an eight-episode order of "Little Big Shots," a child-centric talent show, with Harvey hosting and Washington attached as an executive producer through East 112th Street in partnership with DeGeneres' production company. "We're very good friends with Ellen," Washington says.

"Now we're producing TV," says Washington, who is setting up a production office in Los Angeles and developing what he calls "the Oprah effect. I'm identifying our Rachael Ray, our Dr. Oz, our Dr. Phil. And we're going to create television that builds off of Steve's talk show. Steve is 58 now. It's time to think about his legacy, and I'm using where I failed in my own business—by not looking at the future—to now look at Steve's future. How do we create amazing content that lives on TV and radio without Steve being present? We take advantage of our current brand."

"Oprah" went off the air four years now, Washington notes, "but Rachael Ray's still on, Dr. Phil's still on, and she has her OWN network. Oprah's the goal. And why not?"

It's Good to Be Steve

Steve Harvey parlayed his growing success as a standup comedian into a hosting gig on "Showtime at the Apollo" and a pair of sitcoms: "Me and the Boys" (ABC, 1994–95) and "The Steve Harvey Show" (the WB, 1996–2002). He toured with Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley, and Bernie Mac as the Kings of Comedy in the 1990s, and retired his standup act after 27 years on the road with a live pay-per-view show in 2012. But he's anything but idle these days.

"The Steve Harvey Morning Show," which originated in 2000, airs on 75 radio stations with a weekly audience of about 5.9 million listeners.

"Family Feud," which Harvey took over as host in 2010, has more than tripled its ratings since then and is the No. 5 show in syndication, with numbers in advertiser-friendly demographics rivaling "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!"

"The Steve Harvey Show," which premiered in 2012, is the fastest-growing talk show since "Ellen" debuted nearly a decade ago and currently ranks fourth among all daytime talk shows.

Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, published in 2009, has sold more than 2.8 million copies worldwide thus far, was translated into more than 30 languages, and spawned a pair of motion pictures (Think Like a Man, Think Like a Man Too) that have grossed more than $166 million in theaters worldwide. His most recent motivational book, Act Like a Success, Think Like a Success, spent two weeks at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list following its publication last fall.