Now’s The Time0
By Frank J. Rich
At the age of 65, a smallish, bespectacled and white-haired gentleman with a goatee started a company. Today, it has grown to be one of the largest quick-service food systems in the world. And its founder, a quick-service restaurant pioneer, has become a symbol of entrepreneurial spirit. More than a billion of the Colonel’s “finger lickin’ good” chicken dinners are served annually in 80 countries and territories around the world.
The Colonel, so anointed by Governor Ruby Laffoon of Kentucky in 1935, was so honored in recognition of his contributions to the state’s cuisine. It was during this period of his life that he perfected his secret blend of 11 herbs and spices and the basic cooking technique that is still used today. But it wasn’t until 1952, after he learned that a planned interstate would bypass his restaurant, that he auctioned off his operations, paid his bills and began to live off his $105 monthly Social Security check. Confident in his product and his ability to succeed, the Colonel set off around the country to franchise his wonderful chicken. The terms were simple. He’d cook up some chicken, and if the restaurant owner liked it he entered into a handshake agreement with the Colonel that required a nickel to him for every chicken sold. Twelve years later there were 600 franchise stores around the country and the Colonel sold the company for $2 million and entered into a contract to be its spokesman.
His success was no accident. At age 10, he got his first job working on a nearby farm for $2 a month. At 12, he left his home for a job on another farm. He held a series of jobs over the next few years, first as a 15-year-old streetcar conductor and then as a 16-year-old private, soldiering for six months in Cuba. After that he was a railroad fireman, studied law by correspondence, practiced in justice of the peace courts, sold insurance, operated an Ohio River steamboat ferry, sold tires, and operated service stations. When he was 40, the Colonel began cooking for hungry travelers who stopped at his service station in Corbin, Kentucky. He didn’t have a restaurant then, but served folks on his own dining table in the living quarters of his service station.
In working with over 200 companies over the years, I have known a number of Colonel Sanderses, a select wizened few who had the perspicacity to see opportunity in the ordinary, the courage to take necessary risks, the tenacity to stay the course through troubled waters, and the discipline to practice what works. It’s the stuff that seems to grow easiest in those with a little gray around the temples. “Wisdom” is what we call it when objectivity replaces the prejudice against age that often keeps seasoned people from consideration for the best jobs. For most, an alignment with the principles of success in organizations made it possible for my company to contribute to their growth in some small way. I’m grateful for that and the opportunity to learn from those who have earned their stripes by spending time in the bottle; the kind of aging that great wines enjoy.
Not all relationships start well. The mention is instructive inasmuch as it takes more than functional skills to gain the confidence and partnership of seasoned self-starters. It was the case when I met John Brown, a pioneer in the semiconductor business (along with Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove, Jerry Sanders, etc.). John was a physicist by training, but every bone in his body had an entrepreneurial root. More than anything else, John was born to do business and to create new entities, of all kinds. He started and managed successful operations in the chip business, commercial furniture, collateral design, and advertising and public relations. Most were built after the age of fifty. Gruff on the outside, and given to an incisive wit that meant no harm to the insecure, John had a clear view of mission and the practice that produces results. Allow me to illustrate. Not unlike most of John’s ilk he regularly attended the following principles:
- Develop, practice, perfect.
- Focus on a clear direction.
- View mistakes as feedback; learn from them, don’t fear them.
- Believe in yourself and your ability to achieve results.
- Take small steps, one step at a time—the Kaizen way.
These are well-worn principles, but few have chosen to make them work. Those that do most often succeed, as John Brown did. His acerbic wit notwithstanding, I deigned to learn what I could while working with him. It was a good decision on my part; the lessons from him have stayed with me.
In my most recent experience, I have come across another of this rare breed of late starters. Like the others, he too had been fashioned by a number of disparate occupations along the way to extraordinary success. Not an exemplary student, he found opportunity in the military during the Great War as an interpreter and liaison of sorts. Of Russian decent, he grew up with his ancestral language, a currency that increased in value during a war in which Russia figured prominently. His penchant for adventure usually passed a litmus test that girded his entire life: “Give people what they need and have fun at it.” While he credits “good luck” in his life and success (common among this brand of superstars), he practiced an incisive brand of method business that corresponds closely with the view of many management gurus. In summary, it reads as follows:
- Find the capital to start up.
- Create a favorable environment in which to employ it.
- Hire key people.
- Then, get out of the way and let them do what they know.
After the war, he worked in sales for Hearst Publications, Newsweek, and Women’s Wear Daily. He also joined the Apple Commission in Washington state before founding a little publishing company in his home state of New York. It wasn’t much more than a mimeographed sell sheet containing ads from local merchants, but it was something of value that was missing in the market. John Chase, founder of the Yorktown PennySaver, took some money from his pocket, found a partner, and borrowed several hundred dollars to begin operations with his wife in the basement of their home, at the age of 41. You’ve heard the story before, but it’s no less compelling in the retelling of it.
For these wizened few, and many like them, life is an adventure that “starting old” never seems to diminish. It’s the one thing that never changes for them; it’s why late starts are just “starts” for these folks, and the adventure continues. In tough economic times this is never more the attitude to take. Now, more than ever, is the time to start.