One More Pump: Giving Clients Extra Value Highlights Alison’s Career
Mark Alison’s business philosophy can be traced back to a teenage love of chocolate milkshakes.
Alison, a marketer, real estate investor and hot sauce entrepreneur, said that when he was 15, his father bought a Mr. Softie ice cream franchise and drafted him to run the truck.
“I ate a lot of the profit,” Alison recalled.
One of his favorite treats was a chocolate milkshake, which according to company standards meant milk, soft serve ice cream and one long pump of chocolate. But to double his pleasure, Alison added a second long pump, which he found greatly enhanced the flavor.
“I asked Dad how much it cost to do another pump and he said it was just pennies,” Alison said.
He convinced his father to let him add a second pump of chocolate to shakes he sold to customers, and the customers agreed with his assessment of the improved taste. Within a few months, the Alison franchise was using more milkshake cups per capita than any other Mr. Softie franchise.
The company wanted to know why, but Alison refused to tell them what made the difference. That experience, though, taught him a valuable lesson about doing a little more to exceed the customer’s expectations.
“Later, when I got into business I thought, if this is the norm, what would it take to give the customer an ‘extra pump of chocolate,’” he said.
It was a philosophy that caught on in his marketing firm, too — “What’s the extra pump we’re going to give this customer?” became a routine question.
Alison merged his marketing firm, Alison Group, with South Company in 2016 to form Alison South Marketing Group. He is mostly on the sidelines now but still represents Queensborough Bank & Trust’s interests. Since 2012, Alison has been a real estate investor through local investment group AORE, where he is also a teacher. And, perhaps most famously in the past few years, he is the developer, marketer and distributor of the hot sauce brand Help Me Jesus.
The hot sauce came about as a result of Alison’s love of Mexican food — developed when he studied at the University of Monterrey in Mexico — a hobby of growing peppers and a quest to develop a hot sauce that wasn’t so hot that it overwhelmed the flavor of a dish.
Once he found the perfect blend, he gave some of his surplus to friends, who urged him to market it. He soon became his own marketer and distributor.
“I take three or four cases with me when I’m traveling and stop at likely places,” he said. “Now I have distribution points up and down I-95.”
Locally, one of his best customers is The Pot Smoker, which uses Help Me Jesus on its hot wings.
Real estate investing also was a bit of an accident. Alison was invited to an AORE meeting and found that investing advice that often cost a substantial amount to obtain was being given out free. He quickly became involved in the group. Not only did it appeal to him as an investment opportunity, but as a chance to teach others.
“Just helping people appealed to me,” he said. “At heart I’m really a teacher. I’ve been a teacher forever, whether in Sunday school or in goal setting. I’m trying to give back because they helped me.”
What is the passion that drives you?
“I didn’t think my hot sauce was that big a deal — I liked it whether or not anyone else did. But one day I came into The Pot Smoker and met a family with a little boy, about 8. Robert (Boggs, manager of the North Augusta restaurant) said, ‘This boy loves your hot sauce.’ I squatted down and shook his hand and he thanked me for making the hot sauce. I didn’t think I needed validation, but that turned my crank.
I feel the same thing in real estate or in weekend goal setting, when people come back and say I opened their eyes to their potential. An entrepreneur will do a lot of stuff for free because what drives them is to do something for others.”
What makes an entrepreneur?
“There’s flexibility; you have to roll with the punches. There’s a good support team, especially from a spouse, although you have to be willing to go it alone if you really believe in the idea. And you have to be an optimist. You’ve got to know the target is going to move and be flexible enough to move with it. An entrepreneur’s mind is always working. I still keep a pad of paper beside the bed to write things down — although I had to learn to turn the light on because I couldn’t read what I’d scribbled in the dark.”
How do you unwind?
“My wife, Melanie, once called my neighbor, Dick Bass, and said, ‘Mark comes home stressed to the max; do you think you could get him out in your boat to go fishing?’ When I came home, Dick had mowed the yard for me, so I thought the least I could do was go fishing with him. Now fishing has become associated with relaxing.
“I also like a great movie. I can disconnect in the movie theater and be in the movie. I’m there — I sit through every credit. I want to absorb it and stay in the moment.”
How do you give back to the community?
“Both Melanie and I are really involved in our church. I’m also on the board of several nonprofits — one is trying to reduce divorce rates. I’m on the Southeast Firefighters Burn Foundation. When I started college at USC-Aiken, I was told I had to declare a major, so I did — business. The first course I took was double-entry accounting and I couldn’t get it. Now, 30 years later, they put me on the board of advisors for the School of Business. I’m also involved with Marriage Helper in Nashville that helps married couples.
“In 2003, I helped our church, Midland Valley Community Church of the Nazarene, put together a 2020 vision, and one part of that was putting a Christian counseling center on the grounds. Now we’ve broken ground for that. It’s so important that if we can help Mom and Dad, then we’ve helped all the kids in that family.”
What does the future hold for you?
“The future holds some of the same, although it’s different now that I don’t have the overhead. It gives me more time to do things when I’m not trying to make a living for another dozen people. I’m already helping my son with his business. A few weeks ago, we were in Scotland, where my daughter and son-in-law live, and I was working with them (on) how to expand their ministry there. Helping is a joy. I hope that lasts as long as I’m alive. It keeps me young and vital.”