Back in 2004 when Donald Trump was considered wise and "The Apprentice" reality show was all the rage, The Bee sponsored its own minicompetition for aspiring business leaders.
Modesto's entrepreneurial guru, Dan Costa, filled the Trump role, and three young businessmen -- Derek Rey, Joe Muratore and Todd Steck -- vied to win his favor.
Initially, the prize was a private mentoring session with Costa, but Costa didn't think that was enough. He upped the ante by offering to give the winner an insider's view of what it takes to launch a company, develop a product line and create a marketing strategy. Costa promised to take the winner on an expenses-paid trip to Asia, where his new Modesto clothing company, 5.11 Tactical, was manufacturing its products, plus a trip to the Los Angeles trade show where the clothing line would be introduced.
To win, Costa made the contestants hustle: He had them sell 5.11 Tactical polo shirts, made of no-iron, no-shrink, no-fade cotton with collars that wouldn't curl and hidden pockets for pencils.
They were given 22 hours and allowed to sell the shirts for $25 to $40 each. Only paid-in-full orders would count.
"I have 75,000 of these shirts in stock," Costa quipped. "If you guys wipe us out, I'll hire all three of you."
Quick thinking put to test
Costa told them he wanted to see how fast they could think, how much they could sell and what price they could get.
"You're all good guys and very aggressive," Costa said. "But we need to get down to who is really the thinker here."
At the time, Rey was a senior finishing up his business marketing degree at California State University, Stanislaus. Muratore was a shift manager for Pacific Southwest Container. Steck was a Clark Pest Control sales director.
By the competition deadline, Rey had sold 218 shirts for $6,271, an average price of $28.77 a shirt. Muratore had sold 141 shirts for $5,151, an average price of $36.53. Steck had sold 268 shirts for $6,845, an average price of $25.54 a shirt.
Costa was impressed by the one-day effort, which generated more than $18,000 in sales. But he noted that not all the sales were of equal value to his company.
While Steck sold the most shirts, collected the most money and attracted the most customers, Costa said those sales were the least profitable. Steck's average sales price was the lowest, and Costa's company had to ship orders to more than 30 locations.
Rey's orders were more profitable, but Costa was most impressed with Muratore. Though he sold the fewest shirts to the fewest customers, Muratore's average sales price was the highest and his clients were most likely to become repeat buyers.
"Joe took a very long-term approach to the business," Costa explained. "If I were a banker and I had to say who I would loan money to, I'd have to say that Joe thought most about the bottom line."
So Costa named Muratore the winner, but he never did take Muratore to Asia. Instead, Costa hired Muratore full time.
"It was a great experience," Muratore recalled this week. "I worked for Dan for 1½ years, and I learned a lot about salesmanship and product development."
Muratore now is on the Modesto City Council and owns Sentinel Rock Realty Trust, a commercial real estate asset management and brokerage firm. He praises Costa as a visionary who provided him "a world of knowledge about entrepreneurship."
Steck started his own Modesto company, Rhino Pest Services.
In September, Rey launched his latest business, Adly Inc., which sells ads via Twitter messages. He, too, speaks fondly of Costa, who he said taught him that "no matter where you come from, you can achieve anything."
Rey said he still wears one of those 5.11 Tactical polo shirts from the competition: "It's my dedicated golf shirt."
Costa, meanwhile, sold 5.11 Tactical for $305 million in December 2007, but he remains its chief executive officer.