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Masters of the Turnaround: “Why you should take risks early in your career” With Author Michael J. Coles and Jason Crowley

Take risks early in your career. When I was twenty-two years old, I struck up a conversation with a businessman on a flight from New York to Detroit. As we made our initial descent to the airport, I asked him what kind of advice he would give someone my age. After thinking for a moment, […]

Take risks early in your career. When I was twenty-two years old, I struck up a conversation with a businessman on a flight from New York to Detroit. As we made our initial descent to the airport, I asked him what kind of advice he would give someone my age. After thinking for a moment, he said: Take most of your risks in business while you’re young, for you can more easily recover if things go badly. The older you get, the more complicated life gets, and risk becomes much harder to stomach. It was great advice, which I still share with young entrepreneurs who ask me for help today. You are going to have setbacks at some point in your business or in your life. In the final analysis, though, failure is not about the falling down but about the staying down. The ability to get back up over and over again will set you apart from those who doubt your abilities or tell you that your ideas are unsound. My feeling has always been that these are the same people who don’t understand risk, courage, and the power of doing more than is expected of you.


I had the pleasure to interview Michael J. Coles. Co-founder of Great American Cookie Company and former CEO of Caribou Coffee, Michael J. Coles is a business expert, serial entrepreneur, education advocate, and well-known public speaker. From starting three businesses, setting transcontinental world cycling records, making two bids for U.S. Congress, and writing legislation for Georgia film tax credit that changed an industry, Coles’ story is one of true grit and perseverance. In his recently-released memoir, Time to Get Tough: How Cookies, Coffee, and a Crash Led to Success in Business in Life, Coles’ reflects on his notable life and shares a wealth of knowledge and tips that he has gathered over the years as a business leader. In the memoir, he recounts the failures and successes that led him from poverty and a near-fatal motorcycle accident to founding a $100-million company and becoming the namesake of the business school at Georgia’s third largest university — despite never having attended college himself.

After almost two decades in the clothing business, he cofounded Great American Cookies in Atlanta in 1977 and grew it into the largest cookie store franchise in the United States.

Coles’ story of personal perseverance is as impressive as his business acumen. Following a near-fatal motorcycle accident six weeks after founding the cookie company, he recovered through a self-designed rehabilitation program and went on to set world records in three coast-to-coast bicycle races. Coles’ commitment to community service led him to run for the House of Representatives against Newt Gingrich in 1996 and for the U.S. Senate against Paul Coverdell in 1998, the same year he sold Great American Cookies. For the next four years he chaired the Georgia Film Commission and served on the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents, the Kennesaw State University Foundation board, and the Walker School board.

In 2003 he took the helm at Caribou Coffee, where he more than doubled the size of the company, opened a commercial sales division and an international market, and took the company public on Nasdaq under the symbol CBOU in 2005. Today, he serves as chairman of Brand Holding Company and BrandBank and actively lectures about business, giving more than seventy-five talks a year at universities and corporate events nationwide.


Jason Crowley: Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

Michael J. Coles: My career path might seem unconventional, but there are some important themes that run through it. I began my career in the clothing industry, first working for Irving Settler at the age of 13 in Miami Beach. He became a very important mentor and set me on the road to success. That was followed by several sales jobs in the Midwest that finally culminated in my establishing two clothing companies in Atlanta. Interested in trying something new, I saw a cookie store in a mall in San Diego in 1977 and decided to try to build one in Atlanta with my partner, Arthur Karp. Six weeks after our first store opened, I was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident. I was forced to slow down, and this helped me transform the cookie company from a single store to the largest national cookie store franchise in the United States. Motivated to give back to my community, I ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives against Newt Gingrich in 1996 and then for U.S. Senate in 1998, the same year we sold the company. For the first time in my life, I had time to really ponder what I wanted to do next. I also had time to focus on community building, and chaired the Georgia Film Commission and served on the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents, the Kennesaw State University Foundation board, and the Walker School board. The right opportunity presented itself, and my wife, Donna, and I relocated to Minneapolis to lead Caribou Coffee where I more than doubled the size of the company, opened a commercial sales division and took the company into the international market. In 2005, I took Caribou public on NASDAQ under the symbol CBOU. After stepping down from Caribou, I served as chairman of Brand Holding Company and BrandBank. So you might wonder what links clothing, cookies, public service, coffee, and banking. I would say it is my willingness to take risks and to understand that success depends not upon getting everything right or luck; it depends on your ability to respond to the unexpected. You’re going to have setbacks. You’re going to get knocked down. The question is how many times are you willing to get back up, dust yourself off, and try again.

Crowley: Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.

Coles: My career was not a straight line to success, but has rather been defined by failure, pain, and uncertainty. I write about a number of setbacks in my life in my new book Time to Get Tough, but one story really stands out. In the summer of 1972, after having worked for decades in the clothing business, I left Male Slacks and Jeans to start my first company, a chain of retail stores in Atlanta called Pant-O-Mine. The concept for Pant-O-Mine was that all of the pants in the store were priced at five dollars; some of the belts and shirts cost a little more. We bought end lots of branded merchandise and resold them. We opened four stores on the same day, and the company took off like a rocket ship. We were really successful in the first two years. Then my major investor ended up in financial trouble, and I had to buy him out. So I went from being well capitalized to undercapitalized almost overnight. I had to find a line of credit, in the midst of a banking crisis. Even though I paid our loans on time, our bank eventually withdrew their credit line and the company became insolvent. To complicate matters, I was paying all of my attention to gross sales and not worrying about profitability. By the time I hired a competent financial person to help with the company, it was too late. Donna and I had been married for a couple of years, and we were about to have a baby. I had many sleepless nights, worried that we were going to lose not just the business but our house. In the end, the company failed because I did not heed the advice of my longtime mentor, Irving Settler. He had taught me as a teenager to learn everything you can about your business. I was good at marketing, sales, and merchandising, but I did not pay enough attention to the bottom line, and the company had to file for Chapter 11 reorganization. For the first time in my life, I came to understand the stress my father faced with his bankruptcy, and I gained a new respect for his resilience. I learned that you have to be involved in every aspect of the company and know what is happening in every department. You don’t have to be an expert or know all the answers. But if you are involved in each area, you’ll know the right questions to ask. I also realized that you have to honestly face the role you played in a crisis. Admitting failure requires digging deep to find strength that you may be surprised you have. I left Pant-O-Mine certain of one thing. If I ever went back into business for myself, I would make mistakes — probably a lot more of them — but I would never make the same mistake twice.

Crowley: What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?

Coles: Facing failure at Pant-o-Mine required that I draw upon the skills that I had learned from my teenage mentor, Irving Settler, and my early experiences in the clothing business. I was no stranger to hard work, and knew that I could recover, partly because I had done so before. I recall my first week on the job at H.I.S. Sportswear that helped me push through this latest failure. I was 20 years old and going to work with a man named Jack Uppole. On our first day, he picked me up but never told me where we were going, what we were doing, or why we were doing it. We went from store to store to take inventory, never taking a break to eat or discuss the day’s plan. He just kept issuing demands that did not always make sense. It was horrible. I had never been treated this way in a job. Looking back, it appeared that he had never managed an employee before, and he did not think I was mature enough to do the work. He also seemed to be testing me — much the way junior analysts at a financial firm find themselves tested in their first few years. After that first day, I was about to quit, but Jack called that evening to say I had done a good job and that he would pick me up the same time the next morning. Knowing that he expected me to fail made me more determined to beat him at his own game. I packed my briefcase full of snacks and walked out the door the next morning. Over the next three days, we worked a series of marathons without taking a break or stopping for a hot meal — though I would visit the bathroom and sneak a candy bar to keep myself energized. He finally threw up his hands. He had gotten the point. If you want to work hard, I will work hard, but you are not going to break me. That’s how I learned to overcome adversity, and that strength helped me process the failure at Pant-O-Mine, start the cookie company with only $8,000, race across America four times on a bicycle, and lead Caribou Coffee.

Crowley: Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?

Coles: I believe the failure at Pant-O-Mine made Great American Cookies possible. I had made and owned up to my mistakes and was ready to try again. When you take responsibility for a failure you learn that failing doesn’t make you a failure. After Pant-O-Mine, I partnered with a friend in Atlanta who had been trying to start his own company, and we eventually took on a third partner. We named it the Great American Clothing Company — this was a very patriotic time, with the upcoming 1976 bicentennial, and we wanted our customers to know that our clothes were made in United States and not overseas. We had a good start and were doing well as we approached our first anniversary. By the following year, in 1977, I was having doubts about our future. I did not yet know that a visit to a California mall while attending a clothing show would open the door to my next opportunity. Great American Cookies was not a predictable success. My partner, Arthur Karp, and I had absolutely no experience selling food and only $8,000 to invest in this new enterprise. We were undercapitalized and faced several national competitors selling the same product. Interest rates were high, inflation was soaring, and new businesses were closing in 1977 almost as fast as they could open their doors. We had every reason not to do this, but we did. I tell the story of how we opened the first store at Perimeter in my new book, but the lesson was that I used the failure at Pant-O-Mine as fuel for Great American Cookies. And it made all the difference.

Crowley: Based on your experience, can you share 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Coles: I write about ten life and business lessons in the epilogue of my book, Time to Get Tough, but think that three are really focused on taking risk and overcoming adversity:

#1: Take risks early in your career. When I was twenty-two years old, I struck up a conversation with a businessman on a flight from New York to Detroit. As we made our initial descent to the airport, I asked him what kind of advice he would give someone my age. After thinking for a moment, he said: Take most of your risks in business while you’re young, for you can more easily recover if things go badly. The older you get, the more complicated life gets, and risk becomes much harder to stomach. It was great advice, which I still share with young entrepreneurs who ask me for help today. You are going to have setbacks at some point in your business or in your life. In the final analysis, though, failure is not about the falling down but about the staying down. The ability to get back up over and over again will set you apart from those who doubt your abilities or tell you that your ideas are unsound. My feeling has always been that these are the same people who don’t understand risk, courage, and the power of doing more than is expected of you.

#2: How you respond to the unexpected is the difference between success and failure. Regardless of how well you prepare, you will be confronted with uncertainty, failure, and plenty of surprises. When I told my brother, Gerry, that I was going to go into the cookie business, he said, “You’ve got to remember that success and failure go hand in hand. You cannot predict what will happen, but you have to take the chance. The worst thing that can happen is that you fail, and you go back into the clothing business.” Well, I certainly could not have guessed that my partner, Arthur, and I would forget pot holders on opening day and burn the first batch of cookies so badly that they caught fire in the oven, bringing fire trucks to the mall. Six weeks later, I could not anticipate that I would be nearly killed in a motorcycle accident. And I never expected that during my 1983 bicycle race from Savannah to San Diego that I would be knocked off my bicycle by a dust devil in Arizona and break my collarbone. Instead of giving up or feeling sorry for myself (though I wanted to do both), I learned to anticipate multiple outcomes, remain agile, and keep my sense of humor. To this day, I cannot look at a pot holder without smiling. Facing the unexpected is often a great learning opportunity, even though it may not feel like it at the time. As the noted golfer Bobby Jones once said, “I never learned anything from a match I won.”

#3: Never let someone else tell you what you cannot achieve or put limits on your potential. Do not let people underestimate your abilities because of your youth, and on the opposite end of the spectrum stay sharp, nimble, and relevant. Years ago, I read a great line: “Never rest on your laurels, because the hardest thing on your laurels is resting on them.” We often tell our children they are too young to try something new, and our parents that they are too old. I started my business career at the age of eleven and have worked for more than sixty years, and I do not have any plans to sail off into the sunset anytime soon.

Crowley: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Coles: In my book, Time to Get Tough, I write about four people who saved my life. Elaine Silverman saved me from drowning when I was five. Irving Settler was the first person outside of my family to make me feel that I had any talent or value. My older brother, Gerry, saved my life a third time when I was eighteen. In my senior year of high school, I went to live with him. When I signed up for the trade school curriculum, he took me back to the school and signed me up for the college track. He said you can do this! So for the first time, without having to work full time, I became an honor roll student. And my wife Donna saved me just when I needed it most. She pulled me out of the fast lane of the fashion clothing business and taught me the value of family. All four helped me, but Irving probably had more impact on my career than any other person. He owned Dorwins King of Slacks (later renamed Dorwins Ivy Shop) at 1574 Washington Avenue in Miami Beach, and I started working for him in 1957 at the age of 13. He was a brilliant businessman, but also a difficult and exacting boss. He really took me under his wing and taught me every aspect of the business — from sales to merchandising. But his lessons on customer service had the biggest impact on me. He always believed in giving customers more than was expected. I recall one specific example. Irving had a Polaroid camera to take pictures of his customers sporting their new outfits. He would put them on the wall above the display of shirts such that they lined the store — almost like a neighborhood wall of fame. People used to shop there just to get their picture on the wall. This did not cost him more than twenty dollars a year, but it had a big impact on his customers and his bottom line. It was something extra, and this is something I tried to always do at Great American Cookies. We made sure that we had an appealing product that people could sample, a lot of it on display, and a staff that was as warm as our cookies. Years later, Warren Buffet articulated this philosophy, one that I still embrace: “Your premium brand had better be delivering something special, or it’s not going to get the business.”

Crowley: Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Coles: I most recently have been Chairman of BrandBank Holding Company and BrandBank. We sold the bank this past September, and I remain active in a number of community projects and initiatives, supporting Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the Kennesaw State University Foundation, where I regularly mentor business students and entrepreneurs interested in starting their own companies. It is really exciting to see what kind of innovative products, projects, and ideas will come from this millennial generation. I’m also at a point in my career where I can focus on work that really matters. When I was CEO at Caribou, Donna and I wrote Land of the Caring Bou, a children’s book about tolerance and kindness. We used to regularly read to children in our stores, and I loved passing on that kind of wisdom. I often joke that I’m in my sixth year of a two year terms as president of Hillels of Georgia, but my work there is just an extension of my belief that education, diversity, and acceptance can help counter some of the toxicity in our culture today. All of these efforts reflect my belief in the Three W’s — Work, Wisdom, and Wealth. Nonprofits and charitable organizations need community members to donate all three. The most important contributions that I have made as a philanthropist have been donations of work and wisdom; the easiest thing I have ever done is write a check.

Crowley: You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Coles: I think one area where I can have some influence is to help counter some of the negative stereotypes about the next generation of business leaders. I’m mentoring an entrepreneur who is developing a disruptive app in an industry that hasn’t changed or had much innovation. He and I have been working on an article called, “The Misunderstood Millennial.” In it, we discuss how new school is old school. New companies and technologies s cannot survive without pursuing some old school wisdom, especially about customer service. This is one of the ten lessons in my book. Even in a digital age, customers respond to, respect, and remember the personal touch. Technology is one of the most effective ways to reach customers, and if used wisely, it can replicate the warmth of face-to-face contact that has defined exemplary customer service over the past century. The companies that have used technology in thoughtful and creative ways to serve their customers will continue to thrive in the digital marketplace. IKEA, the Swedish furniture company, created a mobile app that uses augmented reality to allow consumers to preview a rug, table, or bed in a room before buying it, saving them time and money. Rackspace, the managed cloud and hosting computer company known for its “fanatically helpful” customer service, had an employee surprise a customer with a pizza while they were on the phone trying to solve a complicated problem. Companies do not have contracts with their customers; they must earn their business with each transaction. I remember shopping for clothes at the Sample Shop on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo at the age of six, a few years before my father went bankrupt. I was always amazed that the owners knew all of our names, our birthdays and my parents’ anniversary, and what we liked and did not like. Today, Amazon comes the closest to replicating that feeling. Technology does not have to be cold and impersonal. It can bridge divides and make real connections to customers by using old-school techniques in new ways.

Crowley: Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?

Coles: I firmly believe that is never too late to do something bold. In fact, later may be the best time, because the weight of wisdom and experience are on your side. Jezebel magazine once asked me when I knew I was successful. I have avoided that word my entire life, because it suggests that your journey is over. It also distracts you from growing and creating opportunities for the people around you. I know I’m more successful than I used to be, because when I go to hotels, I don’t take the little bars of soap anymore, so I guess I’m somewhat successful. But I do grab all the little shampoos I can get my hands on.

I wrote Time to Get Tough to help you face your own Goliaths, whatever form they might take. Starting a new company, changing jobs, going back to school, surviving a divorce, or just trying to get back in shape are all stressful events that require courage and commitment. They are all Goliath-like challenges, and the hardest part of facing them is often taking the first step. I’ve always liked the 1990s Nike slogan “Just Do It” because it demands action in the face of uncertainty. That is why the David and Goliath story appeals to me. The point of the story is not David’s victory over Goliath in the Valley of Elah; the point is that David was willing to face him in the first place. We all have the ability to battle giants. The challenge is finding courage to step into the valley. I know you can do it, because I did.

Crowley: How can our readers follow you on social media?

Coles: You can also learn more about my book and me on my website www.mcolesbook.com. You can also follow me on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/michael.coles.332

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-coles-24750b13/

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