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148: A Walk Down Memory Lane with NMG’s Rick Weinberg

Written by Rob Stott

December 6, 2022

Rick Weinberg nationwide marketing group independent thinking podcast

As he prepares to retire at the end of 2022, Nationwide Marketing Group SVP of Business Services Rick Weinberg recaps a 30-plus-year career with the organization — and an even longer stint serving the independent retail community. Weinberg, a major proponent of and reason for Nationwide’s efforts to support the EPA’s ENERGY STAR program, dives into has path through the channel, the evolution of the industry and much more.


 

Rob Stott: All right, we are back on the Independent Thinking podcast, and today’s episode, it’s everyone’s favorite, right? You like talking about yourself, Mr. Weinberg. Isn’t that the case? Everyone loves talking about themselves.

Rick Weinberg: I think if you are going to have a career in retail, you have to be okay talking about yourself, be okay talking about the things you do. Because if you can’t communicate with other people, then I don’t know how good a retail career you can really have.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Well, I appreciate that answer. That’s a great answer to that question, and it sets up what we got to do. And this is a special one for a number of reasons, and one being we’re sitting here December 1st as we’re recording this so it’s winding down the final month of your official, I say career, but you’re moving into another career that’s going to be a lot of fun and that’s being able to spend time with the family. So we appreciate you as the days wind down on your nationwide career, taking the time to jump on a measly little podcast with us and talk about your time and career.

Rick Weinberg: Well, thank you for your interest and thank you for your time.

Rob Stott: No, absolutely. Well, let’s start with today before we jump back into kind of your start and how you got introduced to this business, talk about what your current role at Nationwide. You’re the Senior Vice President of Business Services for Nationwide Mr. Rick Weinberg. And what does that mean? What do you do on the day-to-day right now for Nationwide Marketing Group?

Rick Weinberg: Well, my primary responsibilities today are to really assist the Nationwide members, our vendor partners, our merchants, our staff, all of the members, our utility partners and contractors to increase and showcase our Energy Star certified product sales. For the last 30 years Nationwide has been an Energy Star stakeholder and partner. We recognized early in the early nineties when Energy Star first became a brand, a technology, the biggest public-private partnership that the US presented that most of our manufacturers were going to build the Energy Star products and our members would want and need to sell the Energy Star products. And today consumers want to have the Energy Star products. So the more effective we are at bringing that all to market, the more effective everyone is at driving revenues but also doing good things to fight climate change, decarbonization, electrification. So every day, including today and yesterday we’re making sure that we’re on message there. And today Nationwide is just really beginning it’s 2023 Energy Star Year and we’re well over 50% of the appliances that Nationwide members sell that could be Energy Star, are Energy Star and working every day to take that to the next level.

Rob Stott: If you can’t tell listening to this that you’re passionate about the Energy Star program, I don’t know what else you could do to get that message across, but I think anyone that meets you knows that this is something that you are passionate about and it’s shown through the success of the program too. And the success of Nationwide working with the EPA and Energy Star because what’s the streak at now? Well, I know the partner of the year Sustained excellence I think is eight years. Is that right? Eight years running?

Rick Weinberg: It may be eight, let’s say eight but could be nine.

Rob Stott: Gotcha.

Rick Weinberg: But it’s about 16 or 17 years we’ve given awards and national recognition but this recognition for the last eight or nine years of Energy Star Partner of the Year, sustained excellence is their highest recognition. It’s not something you get and then you hold onto, you can’t buy this award. They really are looking for lots of content and qualified and quantified data showing that we’re really doing the things to help all of our member dealers help the utilities in the markets that where we do business help our vendor partners increase sales of Energy Star and fight climate change. And frankly we do it because it’s great for the environment and great for the industry, but we also do it because it’s great for business and Nationwide members have to be profitable. They can’t just sell, they have to be profitable.

So we’ve been able to find the way to create the common win where everybody wins with Energy Star is something you hear me say a lot, but we really mean it. The vendors win because they’re building the products. The members win because we negotiate special deals on those models. The consumers and the sales associates win when the consumers save on them and the sales associates sell them and then the environment and the community wins. So everybody wins with Energy Star. And so it’s really a labor of love in addition to a mission because it really does work and we go to market that way.

Rob Stott: No, I mean it’s an incredible thing that you’re doing and obviously that our members are doing as well to be so ingrained with that program and I mean it’s recognizable. You see it and I think even just in my own shopping for appliances and other consumer electronics these days, it’s a market that’s very recognizable and it’s everywhere. So the fact that we’re able to lean into it and our members are able to lean into it, I think speaks to not only the program itself but the work that we’ve been doing and you specifically have been doing at Nationwide over the years to make it something that is to quote the little guy next to you top of mind to all of our retailers and what they’re doing. So if you’re not watching the video versions a very awesome logo that Rick has floating next to him.

But it’s true, it’s a funny little graphic but it’s something that you’ve been working towards and I think is so ingrained in what we do that it is top of mind. The Energy Star logo is top of mind and I mean it’s something that since you’ve been involved with it basically since the beginning, is it something that you see… Is it second nature at this point to retailers when they’re talking about Energy Star? Or what are the hurdles they still have to overcome in having those conversations with their consumers or with their customers as they come in?

Rick Weinberg: It’s still a people business so it depends on who you’re talking to, but it is in our industry a little bit of second nature. But the truth of the matter is it’s actually becoming more and more prominent. Energy Star is not just in appliances, Nationwides members largest category energy efficiency, fighting climate change and Energy Star qualified are certified products exist in I think it’s 70 different product categories these days including homes. And while energy efficiency started 30 years ago as a way for the government and utilities to optimize the grid. Today, while it’s all of that, it’s really about climate change, clean water, clean air and really optimizing the planet’s resources for the betterment of all of us. So there’s a lot of reasons. So in fact you’re going to see it actually gain more momentum in 2023 and beyond with new things that are going to impact our industry and including all of our member retailers and the consumers like incentives come to market from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, affordability programs and new technologies and new products that our merchants are working actively to bring to our member dealers to drive their business.

Rob Stott: And the first thing that comes to mind, I know we’re not too far removed from… Energy Star day was back in October, right? And I think they made a big push at that time for this new program they’re sort of pushing a lot of momentum behind and that’s the Energy Star, the home upgrade and you that’s six or seven areas of the home, whether it’s the water heaters like you mentioned or the HVAC systems and obviously appliances and I think Connected Home Smart Home technology’s a part of that as well with the thermostats and everything there. So clear that it’s obviously, I think when people think about it, appliances might come top of mind to consumers as they’re shopping, but like you mentioned it’s something that has very much spread throughout the entire home and touches not just the whole home for our consumers but obviously Nationwide members and the products we sell as well.

Rick Weinberg: Not only are you spot on, but I would suspect, and I’m not making any predictions here, but I would suspect in the next few years you’re going to see different Nationwide members in different niches within their retail businesses in things like EV chargers or getting into things like other… Well, look at just the recent acquisition and merger with FEI. There’s other home products. Will energy efficiency play a role in windows and in doors and in other things like that? So you’re going to see more members and more divisions of Nationwide with more energy efficiency, not just Energy Star certified products but other energy efficient products. And I think that this is going to be a good opportunity for our member dealers and the consumers that shop their stores. So back to everybody wins with Energy Star. There you go.

Rob Stott: And I don’t want to speak for the program but it almost feels like we’re getting to a point where you could have essentially the real estate market out there, Energy Star certified homes before we know it, that are sort of ranked based on how energy efficient they are with all of those things that we’re talking about from the-

Rick Weinberg: Well, actually you not only do, but they’re talking about reevaluating how they profile homes, how they profile businesses. Today Nationwide measures what they call their scope three performance, how efficient the mix of appliances are that we sell. In the years ahead we’ll all be not only measuring how efficient are the products that we’re selling and what can we do to sell a more efficient mix. We call that scope three. But there’s other scope one, scope two, things I won’t even try to define, but talking about how efficiently can we run our business, how good of a local steward am I in my community? How much am I lowering my carbon footprint in getting close to? How much am I using renewable? All these things will play roles in the years ahead for Nationwide member dealers and new Nationwide member dealers that will be joining Nationwide in the years ahead.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome. And I know you’ve got a team there behind you that is ready to take that baton and run forward with it and obviously something you’re still excited about and I know they are just as well. So I look forward to continuing to follow that Energy Star story as we get into 23 and beyond.

Rick Weinberg: And not only are you right, I have to tell you that Energy Star and Nationwide have not just been Rick for years. Whether it’s been Sanner or Caleb Bain or Ellen or whether it’s the merchants or whether it’s the MSMs that help us deploy these programs or whether it’s the executive leadership team that keeps it front and center and part of our ESG goals, a lot of people are now really putting the shoulder to the wheel to drive our Energy Star certified products. But overall our ESG being good stewards of the communities in which we live and the businesses we do. So you’re going to see even more and more people and I’m really quite proud of whatever I did to help contribute to that. But I’m even prouder of the things I know they’re going to be doing in the future and a little jealous that I won’t be around to do some of them because they sound like an awful lot of fun.

Rob Stott: Hey listen, if you’re going to bring that candy claw machine to primetime, I’ll let you in any show no matter how far into the future it is. So I just want to make sure I get my sugar rush in the morning to get me going.

Rick Weinberg: How far I’ll go to try and sell a little bit more Energy Star.

Rob Stott: We love it man. It’s been awesome to see. And like you said, you got a great team behind you that’s going to drive this thing forward and we’re looking forward to seeing what they do. But I want to jump back to your early career. Obviously we talked a lot about what you’re doing right now and what you’ve done for the last couple of years for Nationwide. But jump back to your introduction to independent retail, what got you into this business and what can you tell us about those early days of Rick Weinberg’s career in independent retail?

Rick Weinberg: Well, I grew up in a retail family and one of the things I say when I’m canvasing with folks is my earliest childhood memories are if you behave at the store, we’ll get to go to the zoo. Now that’s about as early as you’re going to get. I don’t think we always got to go to the zoo and I would like to think it’s because they forgot to go to the zoo. Not that I didn’t behave, but I think it was a little blend of both. So I grew up in a retail family, so I was always in a retail store and one of my earliest memories are as soon as I could count above three, I got to be part of the Sunday morning inventory. You’d be surprised how many transistors are in a handful or how many resistors, et cetera. So anyway, to make a long story short, I grew up in a retail family so I don’t recall ever making the decision what day I wanted to be a retailer, but that’s what it was. I grew up in a retail family, it came naturally and when I started my college days, I joined a retailer that was in the local market where I was going to school and been in retail ever since.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And now you mentioned that that local retail, Pittsburgh was the community, am I right?

Rick Weinberg: Well no, Pittsburgh was a little bit later. I actually was in the Detroit area. Grew up in the Detroit area and the local retailer there that I thought might not know who I was and would hire me for me instead of that retailer’s kid. My father Harvey was a retailer, pretty well known in the market there. And so I went to a interview at Frederick and somebody came along around the corner during the end of the in interview and said, “Are you Harvey’s kid?” I got hired, I’m still riding on his coattail. How’s that sound?

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Well, and then so out of Detroit, what brought you to Pittsburgh? Because I know that that’s obviously where you come in contact with the Nationwide family in sort of the early days of Nationwide. But what brought you to Pittsburgh and then within working for a Nationwide member?

Rick Weinberg: So Frederick Appliance actually was the Detroit area regional retailer. And they were a founding member of the seven member retailers that were Nationwide Marketing group. And I had joined them and spent 20 years and over those 20 years went from sales associate on the floor to manager, regional manager, merchant and had many great experiences. And so naturally 20 years later I had had opportunities to interface with the leadership and the executives at this group called Nationwide Television and Appliance Associates Inc. And their corporate headquarters, one of them was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Rob Stott: Gotcha, gotcha.

Rick Weinberg: Well, there was a short stint between my departure from Frederick and joining Nationwide. Nationwide and I had a relationship and they offered me an opportunity and I’ve been with Nationwide Marketing Group for the roughly 30 years since.

Rob Stott: You mentioned the kind of path through Fredericks and the different roles there. What were some of the day-to-day challenges for you in those roles as a retailer in those days?

Rick Weinberg: Well, one of our founders, may he rest in peace, blessed memories, his name was Lee Guttman, he was one of the original founders, there were several. He would say, and I’m sure this was true, that there’s a reason we’re retailers. If our mothers and our fathers thought we were doctor or lawyer material, we probably wouldn’t be here at the retail store. So I never fashioned myself, nor did I ever hear anybody use my name next to the word scholarly in the same sentence. But as retailers it’s all about being hands-on and starting as a sales associate on floors, working with customers, understanding their products and making the presentation. But over a period of time you learn how to help other people learn how to make a living in retail. And then you help the companies that you’re with learn how to get into new categories in retail and how to expand their business, how to open new stores and some of those experiences ahead like helping Frederick open new stores or helping them get into a product category like cellular phones where it really didn’t exist at retailer, there was only one retailer in the country even doing it.

They only had them in one market or getting into personal computer business. Laid the groundwork for learning how to create opportunities and paid dividends later when I had the opportunity to come and do some of those kind of things and help Nationwide Marketing grow, there was a lot of people on the Nationwide Marketing group team over the years. When I started there was 140 member dealers and as you know, many of the listeners know there’s more than 5,000 today, so what a ride. But what a great opportunity to see some opportunities and try to figure out how to seize them whether they were marketing or whether they were merchandising or whether they were membership. But everybody had their hand one way or the other in an opportunity.

Rob Stott: Now do you remember or do you recall the impact that… Was there a pre Nationwide time where you were involved with Fredericks and then the group started and you kind of see the benefits of what that had to do or was Nationwide established at that point?

Rick Weinberg: No, actually I don’t know the exact dynamics, but keep in mind when I joined Frederick, I was literally a young person. So I think there were a few years in the early ’70s is when I joined Nationwide, or I’m sorry, when I joined Frederick. And of course as the early ’70s is when Nationwide was formed. So somewhere in there, they may have been a few years, but recently I was at a primetime, one of the member meetings as you know and sitting with one of our other founders and he confirmed for me that the way he recalls it is Fredericks was one of the original seven members. So there may have been a few years where Frederick Leadership, while I was still a sales associate in the stores, was working with Nationwide. But somewhere along the line Frederick connected with Nationwide. And later in as my tenure with Frederick, I worked my way to the back office as a merchant and others and that gave me opportunities to interface with the Nationwide leadership in new and exciting categories like computers and cell phones and other products.

Rob Stott: Now talk about that, being on the member side. What was that like for you in those roles and aside from getting access to and meeting the team and that sort of thing, what did it do for you on a day-to-day?

Rick Weinberg: Well, actually being there in Nationwide’s youth as well as in Fredericks youth and my own youth, I can remember a time where a Nationwide Marketing Group had a small group of retailers in a meeting and we would go to one of the retailers offices and have a member meeting and there might only be six or seven retailers or eight retailers in the room. I remember in my youth going to a meeting at Best Buy’s offices when Best Buy was a member of Nationwide Marketing Group and being in the room with myself and the Best Buy team and Campos and some of the Nationwide leadership and some of the other retailers and we would go around and look at these products, look at these opportunities and try to put together sales and marketing plans and learn together how to participate successfully as a group in some new categories.

Rob Stott: Well, I think you mentioned some of them from whether it was PCs and phones and things like that, but what are some of those that got you excited, some of those categories that as you were being introduced to them that you were like, oh well this is obviously something? Is there anything that you thought of, and not to put you on the spot, but that you fizzled out or those technologies that were being pushed like this is it and this is the next big thing only to whether you bought into them or not that you kind of saw go by the wayside over the years?

Rick Weinberg: Well, if you’re asking me did I get the really great training or did I make any really bad gut decisions on product. You were really going ask me to confess that I bought 200 Sony Boodo Khan Walkman’s that were supposed to sell for $200 a piece and a year later we still had 193 in stock? I guess I’m old enough now that I can be honest and reflect upon maybe that wasn’t my best buy if that wasn’t my smartest merchandising decision. So yeah, there were a few of those.

In the computer business you know your members love you when you actually go to them and say, remember all the success we had together? Well, I’m really sorry but these last four you have, they can you put them in a dumpster because we really can’t sell anymore. So it was not always perfect but we did so many right things that the member dealers or the retailers said, “Hey, in the scheme of things, this is how you grow and we need to work together and seize those successful opportunities and hopefully make them successful enough that when we make one or two or three boo boos that the mask still works.” Everybody still says, “Okay let’s get up the next and do it again.” So we had all kinds of experiences that when you’re getting into new categories that happens. It happened in computers, it happened in cell phones, it happened in fax machines. I don’t think it ever happened in flat panel televisions, but maybe some of my colleagues would tell me yes it did.

Rob Stott: Might depend on who you talk to. No.

Rick Weinberg: Might depend on who you talk to.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Well, you mentioned that obviously that’s how you got introduced to Nationwide. What convinced you to make the jump from the retail side, the member side to the group side and being a part of this organization that you’ve spent the last three decades with?

Rick Weinberg: See, I got to tell you the truth, I don’t think I made any jump at all. I don’t see Nationwide Marketing Group as anything but a retail organization. I have never felt disconnected. And I think that’s one of the things that made it so I can have some longevity. I never stopped thinking about what are our member dealers? What are the consumers that shop their store? What are the sales associates in store going to do with these products, these programs? So I don’t see that I really left retail. Now, it’s true, I didn’t have to work as many nights with Nationwide Marketing Group. Sometimes we did.

Rob Stott: Black Fridays look a little different.

Rick Weinberg: Black Friday looked a little different. But the truth is, I think even our current leadership today under our president Tom Hickman would tell you we are still a retailing group connected to our members and while we have greater more worldly terms like helping entrepreneurs thrive on their own terms, at the end of the day I think our whole team stays as connected to our retail members. So I don’t really see us as a non-retail organization. I see us as a retail organization.

Rob Stott: No, I love that. And I mean obviously the work day-to-day is a little bit different, but I like that mindset that we’re still in it. That is absolutely the case and you could talk to many different people across Nationwide today and there is that retail background that drives what we’re doing and it sort of fizzles down to the members or I shouldn’t say down to, but out to the members and what they’re doing and it’s a very connected organization and cool to see how those mindset… I think that’s why it works. The mindset we’re very similar in how we think and it’s a very much a two-way street with the members and figuring out where their challenges are, where their areas of need are and making sure they have the solutions that can fulfill those needs or help them to quote our own terms thrive on their own terms.

Rick Weinberg: I agree with that. I think that’s an essential ingredient in the magic pixie dust that makes this all work. Everyone went through this two and a half, three year pandemic. And at the same time Nationwide Marketing Group has been growing for years and continued to grow right up to the doorstep of the pandemic and in its own way grow through the pandemic. And those members who joined our Nationwide team as employees and staff during the pandemic for a short window there didn’t necessarily get an opportunity to go to what as our Nationwide primetime member meeting where right then and there you are immersed in what is this all about? Here are our vendors, here are our members, here are the programs we need to help them connect the dots on. And so the more we can make sure we immerse our colleagues in the worlds of our member dealers and make sure we’re delivering not only getting the insights from our member dealers what they need but delivering them the programs of services and the touchpoints they need to go win in the marketplace, the more effective we will be and the more our members will say, “Wow, this Nationwide thing’s been great for me.” And that’s why I say I don’t feel like I ever left retail.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And I mean aside, I think the easiest answer to my next question’s going to be the size of the group obviously, but you know, think about when you officially joined the Nationwide team and how the path you’ve been on the last three decades, biggest differences you’ve seen in the business and it could be Nationwide or retail in general. What are those biggest differences or evolution in the space that you kind of look at and think, wow, that’s not the way it was before?

Rick Weinberg: Well, I got to tell you, first of all, it’s not true that the business has recently changed. The business has been changing. When I started in the business that was still this undercurrent, or not undercurrent but grouping of post-World War II retailers that had opened up a first or second generation business and they were very hands-on. There was no digital, there were no websites, there was no internet there. But yet the business was already changing the products they needed to sell, the way they needed to sell, the government intervention, the things that they needed to learn how to manage. So change has been a constant and the changes in Nationwide have also been a constant. I have never seen a Nationwide weekday or month where something didn’t change. And so what I learned over the years was change is going to be perpetual and we needed to make sure that as we’re growing with this rapid change, I mean think about it went from 140 member dealers at Nationwide, the 30 years I’ve been here to more than 5,000 of course lots of other people made that happen.

I’m just one member of the team. But all of us had to learn to reinvent a little bit of what we do every single day and not fall in love with what we do so much that we wouldn’t change it to improve it. Because what worked on Tuesday may be able to be improved by Thursday and maybe obsolete needed to be replaced on Friday. And that is just how you grow. I remember the very first Nationwide primetime meeting I went to, we showed up in a few things that the hotel had told the meeting planners weren’t as they planned them. And I learned right then and there, we still were going to have prime time the next morning we needed to look at the things that we could do, look at the things we needed to adjust, be nimble and execute well in the environment as it changed. And we had a great prime time. So change has been perpetual, not falling in love with or getting stuck in any one way, but embracing the changes and finding the opportunities for our members and our organization and our vendors is really the way to take change and harness it. I don’t think change is going to stop at all.

Rob Stott: I love that quote too, not falling in love with something so much that you don’t want to change it. Because I mean I think just in business or in life really something that you can live by and it’s easy to become… I don’t know, take ownership might be the wrong way to describe it, but you create something and it feels like it’s such a part of you that you don’t want to change it or hand it off to say the next generation. It could even get to that level of the business itself. But taking that mindset of not being afraid to change something or think about it differently I think is so important. And I love hearing you say that and describe it that way because I think it’s something that should stick

Rick Weinberg: Well, there’s always a few people that don’t want to change and they give authors an opportunity to write books about why doesn’t my business work anymore? Well, let’s see, you’re doing the same thing you did three years ago and I can name 50 things that changed in the last three years and maybe only five would’ve affected you but you didn’t embrace those five, you didn’t even embrace some part of those five. So change is perpetual. Nationwide has a business model that embraces change, finds the opportunity and tries to execute against it. And that’s why I think it works and that’s why I think it’ll continue to work.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Well, that’s awesome and I want to leave you with one more question before we wrap it up because I know you’ve got things to do before, more important than talking on a podcast. But what’s something you’re going to miss about Nationwide and looking ahead to the next couple years or so, I don’t want you to say Energy Star because I think that’s one that I could answer for you that way. But looking at what you’re doing and what you’ve done these last three decades, what’s something that you’re going to miss moving forward about your time here at the group and what we’ve been able to accomplish?

Rick Weinberg: I think I’m going to miss some things, but I think they’re healthy things that you have to learn that comes with change, that you’re going to miss things. When I first was at Frederick the first dozen years or 10 years I was in the stores or affiliated with the stores or store leadership and then I was in the back office and in merchandising and in marketing and other things and I missed being on the selling floor. That’s a natural thing.

So then when I joined Nationwide Marketing Group, I wasn’t in the stores, I was in member stores, but I missed working with consumers then I did merchandising, I did marketing, I did other things. So I think I’m going to miss not having to plan for prime time now there are some people at Nationwide say, let me try that for a month or so, I think there’s going to be some people and I’m going to miss not going to this 4,000 to 5,000 person party. Maybe it’ll be 6,000 in the years ahead that we have. That’s the labor of love to execute. So I’m going to miss some of that, but that’s natural and I’ll find other ways to find those excitements in the moments I’m going to find with family who might not have got as much attention from me and friends that have might not have gotten grandchildren who I want to make sure know who I was before those more opportunity to introduce myself.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And we’re certainly going to miss you and everything you’ve brought to the table over the years and of course the passion and excitement around Energy Star and we’ll make sure that that flame continues to burn and gets carried forward. So we appreciate it and like I said, I appreciate the opportunity here and as the days are winding down for you to jump on and chat with us a little bit, it’s awesome to pick your brain.

Rick Weinberg: No, I actually appreciate not just the Nationwide management and leadership team, but the Nationwide members and my colleagues. They not only allowed me to be part of their life and their family, but they share the opportunity, let me provide for my family and many of them have embraced me and supported me and kept me in the center of the lane, if you will, and let me know when I was getting too close to the edge of the stream to get back in the middle of the deep part of the water. And so I owe them so much thanks and will always remember them fondly with appreciation of love.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Well, we appreciate it and hey, you still got a month left, so get back to it. Get back into that deep end and in the middle of the stream and wind this thing down right.

Rick Weinberg: Thank you, have a great holiday and be well.

Rob Stott: You as well.

Rick Weinberg: Thanks buddy.

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