Walking the Walk

The Seminar Center's Eli and Elsie Marcus don't just talk the talk. Their actions--compared to their shady competitors'--speak volumes.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the August 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Brian L. Weiss, M.D., author of famed past-life therapy accounts like Many Lives, Many Masters (Simon & Schuster) and Messages From the Masters (Warner Books) comes quickly to Eli Marcus' mind when pressed about who has moved him to strive for self-betterment. Able to emit more positive energy across a telephone line than most, Eli, co-founder with his wife, Elsie, of adult-education organization The Seminar Center Inc., says he's continually awed by Weiss' genuine soul. "He's not out there tooting his own horn," says Eli, 42. "He lets the world do that for him. He's become renowned and accomplished without having to get on the pulpit and say, 'Look at me; buy my products.'" With The Seminar Center a virtual David pitted against a Goliath of a national competitor, Eli hopes his own and compassion will lure attendees who are weary of being merely another number at larger institutions. But equally as essential, he hopes to prove that clean rivalry and running an honest business can prevail.

"We believe if you put good things out there, good things will come back to you. And you should concentrate on your own house and make sure that's in order-not squash your competitor," says Eli, who started The Seminar Center in 1997 to enlighten fellow New Yorkers.

Too bad the didn't feel the same way. After investing hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into something that would "resonate with [his] soul," and embarking on a startup process that required him and Elsie to fill hundreds of seminars with no reputation to back them, he was awarded with . Plastic boxes filled with free Seminar Center magazines that they'd placed around New York City were spray-painted. For good measure, says Eli, the doors were unhinged and the self-published magazines met their doom in city garbage cans "on a daily basis."

Eli can't say for certain whether his competitor was responsible for all the vandalism of The Seminar Center's boxes. But because the vandalism ceased after the founder of the competing company was arrested when Eli caught him trashing a corner box a block from The Seminar Center's office, he maintains his theories. "We were just devastated because we faced a situation where no one could get our materials," says Eli, who employs a press agent but relies on the publication, which contains event schedules and a registration form, to build attendance. But by working every day around the for a full year, the small Seminar Center team was able to re-establish distribution in "as many places as humanly possible."

Down But Not Out

Although some entrepreneurs new to the vicious game of fold under such pressure, Eli didn't. "I think we came to our senses immediately and decided bully tactics were the last reason we were going to [fold]," he says. "The only reasons to close anything are 1) you don't have any money left and 2) it no longer resonates with your soul. But if it [does], it's important to continue to manifest and grow it." And for Eli, a major in college who admittedly "has lived in the self-help section of bookstores" and has always been fascinated by the mind's capabilities, offering an estimated 1,500 seminars per year on everything from alien abduction to becoming a stock day trader is a personal mission.

Throughout a nearly three-year whirlwind, The Seminar Center has enjoyed constant growth, despite continued blows dealt by the competition, which has gone so far (vandalism wasn't enough?) as to blacklist speakers from lecturing in other metropolitan locations if they talk before a Seminar Center audience. Imagine trying to build a positive, dependable reputation when a house-filling, world-renowned speaker reneges on a seminar engagement twice in two years because of pressure from the other guy. It's only happened a few times, according to Eli, but when you've booked the venue, and people have paid anywhere from $28 to $45 for their spots, get ready to see red. Staying out of the bitter zone seems unavoidable, but the founders manage to stay positive. "That is our way of being," says Eli.

While sometimes working 22-hour days and constantly feeding money into The Seminar Center to sustain growth could induce marital squabbling, Eli says the chaos would be a lot less tolerable if it weren't for Elsie. He says her decision to volunteer at hospices for a couple years following a 12-year stint as a computer network operator at a law firm exhibits her phenomenal will to help-which extends far beyond the office. Once, when the couple's regular stroll through Central Park was interrupted by a horse trotting off with an unmanned carriage attached, Elsie caught up to it, jumped on board, and returned it to its owner. "She's not one to hesitate," says Eli. "She's the one who handles most of the pressures, but she comes forth with great understanding, and is someone people love to be around. She's a role model for anybody."

Together, Eli and Elsie weather the storm that is running a mini-university without a staff of thousands-with a staff of eight, to be exact. But Eli won't lie: It's not a walk in the park...it's even harder than stopping an escaped horse. "This business takes a lot more than your average business because you're dealing with hundreds of speakers, hundreds of classes, and you're always looking to make sure all the details are done properly," he says. Then tack on the lack of time in any given day.

Reasons their tremendous effort is worth it abound, however. Attendees regularly say they feel an overwhelming sense of caring from Seminar Center employees-probably because Eli and Elsie make it a point to treat each and every person of the thousands they encounter as they would hope to be treated...like part of the family. And the image of two individuals who'd lost loved ones standing up during a Betty Eadie (author of former best-seller Embraced by the Light [Bantam Books]) seminar to confess they were going to commit suicide before finding solace in Eadie's words will never leave Eli's mind. "Literally everybody who comes my way gets something out of it and becomes a better person," he says.

Fearing his competitor will use it against him, Eli is leery of releasing hard sales figures, but says that, fueled by a 25 percent increase in sales, The Seminar Center should reach profitability this year. Membership is expected to grow 50 percent by next year. With speakers ranging from unknown experts in various fields to Gloria Steinem, and a country "starving" for their services, Eli says the future looks luminous. Of course, to expand out of New York, the help of an investor or partner is probably necessary. But the founders of The Seminar Center are just patting themselves on the back for what they've already accomplished. As for that pesky competitor, Eli says, "We didn't go into business to compete with them-we welcome anyone who wants to make a difference in the world." Don't mistake their good-heartedness for passiveness, however. Telemarketing, infiltrating the press, and "going neck and neck" to persuade a speaker to come their way (like Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt in the fall) are all strategies The Seminar Center has employed.

"The key is to believe what you're doing is making a difference to others," says Eli. "When [we're] ready to move into the next world, [Elsie and I] want people to recognize we had a passion for things. It wasn't just about us."


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