Joseph Appelbaum

Windows of Opportunity

Driving his youngest son to college with his older son in the car, Joe Appelbaum looked at the open road outside the car window and spoke to his boys about opportunity. “Work as hard as you can, but not to make me proud,” he said. “Make yourselves proud. If you can make yourself proud in everything you do in life, you’ll be happy. Look for every opportunity and know it’s a window to your own happiness.”

Joe realized his own first window of opportunity, quite literally, in windows. He was only twelve years old when his mother approached him with a simple proposal that would change his life. She asked him to wash the double-hung windows of their suburban colonial home in New Jersey for $2 each. As Joe calculated the house’s twenty windows, he realized this would earn him $40—not bad for a young boy growing up in the 1970s. Joe quickly accepted his mother’s offer.

As he completed the task over the next two days, he got to thinking. “If I made $20 a day and worked six days a week, I could make $120 a week,” he recalls now. “But if I hired someone else and paid them half of what I made, I could make $180 a week.” With that, Joe started Joe’s Window Washing Service, and by the time he was 18, he was making $1,000 a week after expenses. “That experience showed me that I could do anything,” he says. “My mother gave me a simple task and I turned it into a business, and an industry. It taught me that there are windows of opportunity everywhere—you just have to be willing to pay attention and take action.”

Now the President and founder of Potomac Companies, Inc., an employee benefits consulting practice ranked in the top ten in the mid-Atlantic region, Joe’s entrepreneurial spirit and business efforts are defined by this philosophy of continual growth. “I learn something every single day,” he says. “I take everything I see and experience and put it back into life and business. I take every opportunity to listen, learn, and apply.”

With clients nationwide, Potomac Companies specializes in Helping Employers Manage the Future Cost of Health Care® by establishing, informing, and maintaining employee benefit plans. As this entails human capital costs, their work goes hand in hand with improving the productivity, health, and happiness of a company’s employee base. When Potomac Companies was first launched, its work focused on copays and deductibles. Today, that focus has expanded to include the attrition rates and profitability aspects associated with an organization’s human capital.

“We’re about so much more than just insurance,” Joe affirms. “If a client only wants us to manage their benefits and get them the best deal, then we do that. But we really love when a client wants to take full advantage of our expertise to learn how to improve the productivity and happiness factor of their employees. With this in mind, our company is evolving to create and accommodate total engagements with clients. We consult and coach our clients on instituting wellness programs by providing ideas, and helping bring in the right staff and most suitable vendors. Our goal is to control costs and integrate those services and solutions into each client’s unique culture to ensure ongoing success.”

Joe started in the insurance business on April 1, 1985, and launched Potomac Companies five years later when he realized there was a better way to serve clients. “I didn’t want to be operating like a large insurance company,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to be forced to push a particular product from a particular carrier if it wasn’t in the best interest of an individual client or company. We’re all different people, and we require different care. I founded Potomac Companies so that I could offer independent, client-centric service that takes the individual needs of each company into account.” This fiduciary focus is being cemented as the company changes from a commission-based to a fee-based practice, augmenting its evolution to address broad shifts in the health care space as the Affordable Care Act pushes the national mindset away from crisis management and towards prevention.

Joe’s entrepreneurial spirit and the philosophy behind his work were instilled by his parents during his childhood. His father was a partner at a paper company that operated in New York and New Jersey. He would calculate, without computers, how to best slice and dice each massive roll of paper for newspapers, magazines, and publishers. His mother, who went back to work after the children went to school, worked as a paralegal and opened her own store with a friend.

As the oldest of three children, Joe worked a paper route and loved playing sports. He also got involved in local walkathons as a child, raising money for charity.  He went into his father’s office asking for donations and then went door-to-door along his paper route. In his first year, Joe raised more money than anyone in the state. “As a kid, there was glory in winning anything at all,” he laughs, looking back. “But each year, I wanted to do better than the last year, and it felt good knowing it was all going to a good cause.” Throughout his teenage years, Joe was the highest-sponsored participant in all of New Jersey, and today, he continues in this lifelong tradition of philanthropy by giving to the Brain Tumor Society and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Joe was a decent student who truly excelled when the material interested him, but he was far more excited about running his lucrative window washing business. In the summers, he worked six days a week, and if it rained, he’d work an extra day to make up for it. In the winters, he would clear a neighbor’s driveway with a snow blower, and in exchange for his labor, he was given free reign to use the machine elsewhere. Anytime a big snowstorm hit New Jersey, Joe was out working from dawn to dusk. It was in those backbreaking days that the steel of his work ethic was forged.

Even with his incredible commitment to entrepreneurialism and fundraising for charity, Joe found time to play music and even considered pursuing it full-time after graduating high school. He dreamed of starting a band, but when his parents said they would either pay for instruments or for college, he decided education was the more pragmatic route. Joe chose college and was admitted to Carnegie Melon. He worked hard his first semester, but a severe case of mononucleosis set him far behind his peers. He ended up transferring to Rutgers University, where he discovered a fresh start and a newfound interest in economics. Still, school felt like a hiatus from his real love—business. “I broke out in hives every time I passed the library,” he recalls. “The only thing I was thinking about was not being in school. I wanted to be out in the world, doing and building things.”

Joe filled this need through Joe’s Window Washing Service, which he ran until he was 23. Once he finished college and set his sights on broader horizons, he sold the business to his younger brother, who worked it through his own college career and later sold it to their neighbors. Those neighbors ran it through college as well, eventually moving to California and relocating the business. They continue to operate it today.

As fate would have it, window washing proved to be a window into opportunities beyond Joe’s Window Washing Service, and into other industries. One day, Joe happened to wash windows for the Senior Vice President of Russ Berrie and Company, now known as Kid Brands, Inc. The man was so impressed with his accomplishments that he insisted Joe come work for him, marking his first job out of college. “I was selling little stuffed animals and novelty items to pharmacies and toy stores,” Joe remembers. “It was the most boring job I ever had, so I aimed higher.”

With that, Joe went on to interview for sales positions at 42 different companies, and was offered 40 of those positions over the course of several months. By this time, however, he had learned to be selective. When asked in interviews if he had any questions, Joe developed a short list that he would pose to each employer to gauge whether or not it was the job for him. First, he asked if he would be assigned a territory, and what his base salary would be. He then asked what the top seller was making. Oftentimes, he found he would be restricted to a certain geographic area determined by the employer, and that the highest-paid salespeople were making less than he made in his window washing business. “Most of the companies had specific limits to how much I could succeed, without open-ended possibilities,” Joe explains. “I knew those situations weren’t right for me. I didn’t want any restrictions.”

When Joe posed these questions in an interview with Equitable Life Insurance Company, however, it was a different story. His territory would be the entire United States, and the top seller at the company had made $386,000 the previous year. Furthermore, the top seller in all of Equitable Life had made $22 million the previous year. Joe’s next question was, “When do I start?”

Joe began his tenure at the company making phone calls. But by his third week on the job, his manager asked him to attend a meeting in his place at the Equitable Life headquarters. In a discussion about the company’s large group product, Joe sat amongst the managers that had been working in the business for decades and were at the pinnacle of their careers. “That was another profound window of opportunity, and I was eager to learn,” he says. “I absorbed everything that was said that day and the next day, I started calling big businesses and got a meeting with Pepsi to show them our products. I realized that, to some extent, anyone can get an appointment with anybody. I accomplished that without a title or a reputation.”

Through this experience, Joe began talking to business owners and realized that, on his own and outside the confines of the company, he would have more leeway to sell products and services that brought the most value to his customers. With the vision of starting a one-stop shop that would have a client’s best interests at heart, he started Potomac Companies. Through the past three decades, his clients have remained steadfastly loyal, proclaiming it the best employee benefit brokerage and consulting firm in the area. “I do what I do because it allows me to help people,” Joe affirms. “It helps people protect their families, and it’s my way of changing peoples’ lives for the better.”

Joe is perhaps best equipped to change other peoples’ lives for the better because his was so profoundly and positively changed in 2004. He was sitting alone at a bar, reading a 401(k) manual and drinking a cosmopolitan. “This beautiful woman in a red leather jacket and black slacks came in with her friend, and it was like I was hit over the head with a sledgehammer,” he laughs. “Her name was Pam, and we got married the following year. Since that time, I’ve been so thankful for the joy in my life. The happiness factor is vital to success, and our marriage is a stable balance to the ups and downs that come with each month.” Having grown up exposed to her family’s restaurant business, and now with a real estate business of her own, Pam has incredibly intuitive advice when it comes to people and the unforeseen obstacles that are vital to personal and business growth.

Over the years, and with Pam by his side, Joe has grown from a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants business owner, with no road map and no mentor, into a seasoned entrepreneur who keeps his team streamlined and energized by focusing on the company’s vision. “It used to be that people came in, worked, and got paid, but didn’t have a clear trajectory,” he recalls. “Now, it’s about what we’re building together. Everyone knows the collective goals and what they need to do to achieve them. I’m engaged, asking the right questions, and constantly thinking of ways to improve.”

In advising young people entering the working world today, Joe emphasizes the importance of relationships. “Knowledge is kept once it’s gained, but relationships aren’t done deals once they’re formed,” he says. “They can be lost if you don’t nurture them and make them strong. Focus on growing them, as they will enrich you personally and professionally.”

He was living and breathing this advice that day he drove his son to college, treating that moment in time as an important rite of passage and an opportunity to strengthen the bonds of family. It’s how he approaches all moments—as opportunities to enrich and deepen one’s identity and experience—and the key to building character and expertise from moment to moment. “Every opportunity and every interaction you have, every time you learn or get exposed to something new, contains information that you can build on for the future,” he says. “Take each nugget and use it somewhere. Embrace it, store it, pull it back out later on, perfect it, and make it your own. That’s how you build you.”

Joseph Appelbaum

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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