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Stanley Reeg is a millionaire. Not by birth, but by dint of hard work.

Born into poverty in rural Iowa, Reeg got his start in the 1960s working on the factory floor at International Harvester. Then the Farm Crisis hit, and 38-year-old Reeg was laid off. With nothing to lose, he took a U-turn and became a private wealth manager to chase his dream of wealth.

Reeg’s rags-to-riches story has the hallmarks of a parable. A Dewitt resident and financial advisor at Robert W. Baird & Co., Reeg worked harder than most — 60 hour weeks, with rare vacations — and his success was the product of singular focus and sacrifice.

But unlike the archetypal “self-made man,” Reeg’s success had everything to do with his community. In fact, his success would never have been possible without the help of complete strangers.

That’s because Reeg made his wealth by cold-calling. If telephoning strangers were an art, Stan Reeg would be its Donatello.

Over a single five-year period in the 1980s, he called more than 31,250 people across eastern Iowa and western Illinois. That’s 25 different people a day.

Public speaking is the most common fear in America. Calling up strangers was never a favorite pastime of Reeg’s. But for an Iowa boy who grew up poor and didn’t have connections, it was his only shot to meet the affluent.

“It was the only conduit I knew to get from where I was to building a large client base of successful, wealthy individuals,” Reeg said. “So I was hellbent on doing it.”

Now Reeg’s written a book, “Take This Job and Love It,” a memoir filled with bits of wisdom and motivation about how to turn your life around in any career, at any age.

“It gets people thinking of the possibility that this doesn’t need to be the end,” Reeg said. “It can be the start of something great.”

An Iowa story: Rags to riches

If Stan Reeg sounds obsessed with getting rich, that’s because he knew deprivation.

Reeg was born in 1946, the oldest child of an alcoholic father and a mother who suffered from bouts of mental illness. He grew up in St. Donatus, outside Dubuque. In 1950, the town had just 436 residents, according to the U.S. Census.

Early memories involved “struggle,” Reeg said. His family was dirt-poor. Their little home had no running water, plumbing or bathrooms. One of his brothers was born stillborn. His mother suffered from paranoid breakdowns. His father drank incessantly.

Reeg earned money at a young age working on farms. After high school, he enlisted in the Army Reserves. In 1965, he and his brother found jobs at the International Harvester Farmall Works, in Rock Island. Around that time he met his future wife, Betty McCarthy, a nursing student at St. Anthony’s in Rock Island.

Reeg worked at IH for 21 years until 1985, when the plant in Rock Island was closed. It was the height of the Farm Crisis. Reeg, then 38, had no college degree and no skills outside factory work. “It was pretty scary,” he wrote. His oldest son, Todd, was bound for a four-year college. But the Reegs had no college savings.

Betty went back to work as a full-time nurse. Reeg was lost. He enrolled at a free week-long career class at Clinton Community College. The class changed his life. (Proceeds from the book will be donated to a foundation at the school.) An aptitude survey he took told him he’d be best suited to be a securities analyst or broker. He didn’t want to be an analyst, so his choice was made.

The rest, as Reeg likes to say, is history. Though he lacked much knowledge of the industry, he eventually found a job at Dain Bosworth, where he immediately began the hunt for clients.

“I did not know anyone of significant net worth,” Reeg wrote in his memoir, “so I had no choice but to cold call, and that I did.”

His goal was to earn $100,000 in yearly income. To do so, he made about 25 cold calls every day for five years. Some days were disspiriting, and he’d slouch home and fall asleep for 12 hours.

But every day, rain or shine, he woke up in the morning and went back to it.

“I knew it was a numbers game and what the odds were,” Reeg wrote. “It’s just like turning over stones in a goldmine — sooner or later, you are going to find some gold!”

Advice to the young

Reeg is the first to admit that his path to wealth could never happen today. Cold-calling is now more difficult, thanks to caller ID and call-blocking software, not to mention broad cultural shifts against picking up calls from strangers.

Still, Reeg has expert tips on the art of the cold call. The advice has broad lessons for workers of all kinds.

First, before he dialed a number, Reeg would also force a smile on his face. Even unconsciously, it made him more affable and, therefore, more likely to have a positive interaction.

Reeg was also patient. Most calls did not end with success. Even when chats went well, deals almost never happened on the first call. Strangers wanted to get to know him first, a process that required in-person visits and follow-up chats.

Reeg was persistent and followed up on calls with handwritten notes. He organized scrupulously and kept close tabs on all of his interactions. 

He also dreamed big. His goals changed over the years, but they were always ambitious. At one point, he even sent his son to a Mercedes dealer in Clinton so he could pin a brochure over his desk as inspiration. Big goals beget big payoffs — but only when you’re passionate about the work.

“I was so driven and enthusiastic about what I was doing,” Reeg said. “If it fits your personality and you really enjoy what you’re doing for a livelihood, you’re going to do much better than the average person in that field because you love what you’re doing.”

And, of course, it’s never too late to turn your life around. Reeg was nearing 40 years old when he became an investment advisor. His transition from blue-collar to white-collar wasn’t easy. But he refused to accept failure.

“There is no shortcut to success. It just takes a lot of work,” Reeg said. “But people can grasp onto my story and think, ‘if he did it, maybe I can be successful at something else.’ ”

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