High School Teacher Turned Multi-Millionaire: It Works!

Mark Pentecost just wanted to make another $500 a month to support his family. He wound up getting bitten by the entrepreneur bug and becoming a millionaire. Pentecost’s company, It Works!, is a direct sales enterprise that sells body contouring wraps, health foods and personal care products. Cloth wraps that promise to tighten and tone skin may seem a bit odd to some consumers but numbers do not lie: It Works! is expecting to close out 2013 with about $500 million in total sales. The husband and father of three had been a math teacher and varsity basketball coach in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the early 1990s and the idea of having a few more dollars at the end of each month moved him to look for sources of revenue beyond his teacher’s paycheck.  “We were dreaming. There were more things we wanted,” says Pentecost, now 56. “I was one of those guys that always read the books on how to get ahead. I loved reading biographies of other people that had done it and I was always trying to look out for how we could make extra money. I enjoyed teaching, I enjoyed coaching, but the income wasn’t enough to raise a family on.” In 1993 Pentecost joined up with Excel Telecommunications, a reseller of long distance deals for landline phones. Up until that point his only real experience as an entrepreneur had been acquiring fixer-upper houses to renovate and then reselling them. But in the direct sales environment – having home parties where he showed how guests could save money on calls – he found he had a knack for sales and soon became one of the company’s top aces, earning $300,000 to $500,000 per year at his peak. He quit his teaching gig around 1995. As landline long distance costs shrank and mobile phones began taking over, Pentecost found his industry forever altered and, by 1999, his position unnecessary. He left the company but took with him an enthusiasm for the direct sales industry. “At that point I said that if I ever do this again I’m going to do it as the owner of the company so that I could control my destiny.” Pentecost filled the void investing in commercial real estate. “I thought I was going to be the Donald Trump of Grand Rapids.” But the pull of direct sales persisted and he searched for something to sell that could provide the foundation for a new company. The product – the toning wraps – came to his attention in late 2000 as a way of riding the fitness craze of baby boomers. “People were starting to be more concerned about how we are going to stay younger.” After visiting a manufacturer in Mexico, Pentecost secured the exclusive rights to sell it, bootstrapping It Works! in 2001 with money he’d made in his reselling days and through real estate. Leveraging a network of close friends he’d made while at Excel – as well as co-ownership help from wife, Cindy – Pentecost and co. began doing in-home and hotel demonstrations in Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina, and later other locations. It was slow to catch on: in 2002 the company saw sales of $431,000 and was not profitable. By Christmas of 2004, the company had yet to get any real traction and Pentecost spent more of his own capital to keep the enterprise afloat. Several months later it took off, with pockets of interest springing up in various states thanks to hard-working sales personnel. They hit profitability in 2005. By 2008 It Works! had paid all its debts and broke into Canada the following year. In 2010 the company earned sales of $27 million. A year later, $46 million, and in 2012 the company surpassed the $200 million mark. Today It Works! is headquartered in Bradenton, Florida, and sells in twelve countries. Its 60,000 employees and sales operatives include Pentecost’s children: Kami, 34; Kindsey, 31; and Kyler, 29, who are involved in both sales and philanthropic aspects of the company. On the horizon, It Works! is building a new headquarters on the Florida coast of the Gulf of Mexico and is about to break into eight more countries. It sees new college grads as a resource for its sales teams, as that is a group that shoulders a mountain of debt it can unburden through direct sales commissions. “I love teaching them leadership,” says Pentecost. “I tell people I’m a little more Jimmy Buffet than Warren Buffet. I like being laid back down here, I like being in sandals and shorts. To me it’s not how high your IQ is, it’s your grit. I call it your ‘grit-Q’, how high is your grit?’ If you’ve got that you’ll stick to it and get it through and you can be successful at this.” For inspiration, check out Pentecost’s favorite entrepreneurial books: Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad; Greg Norman’s The Way of the Shark; and Donald Trump’s oeuvre. Follow me on Twitter @KarstenStrauss

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