Five Practical Lessons for Business Leadership from Michael Coles

print November , 2019

Michael J. Coles is one of Atlanta’s best-known business success stories. The poor kid from Buffalo, New York, who started working at the age of 11 to help support his family while still in school, went on to co-found the $100 million Great American Cookie Company (eventually renamed Great American Cookies), led a turnaround as CEO of Caribou Coffee and endowed a business school at Kennesaw State University.

Even with an impressive list of achievements behind him, including world records in transcontinental bicycle races, Coles is far from done. He recently co-authored a book, Time to Get Tough, about his life and business experiences. At Smith & Howard’s Vision 2019 event, he delivered the closing keynote speech and offered 5 common-sense lessons to help business leaders at every stage of their careers.

Lesson 1: The difference between success and failure does not lie in your preparation. It lies in how you deal with the unexpected

In 1977, Coles left the clothing industry to launch a new-concept cookie store in Atlanta with his business partner, Arthur Karp. They pooled $8,000 of start-up money and spent 10 months studying the cookie business and refining business and marketing plans. They sat in the reception office of a north Atlanta mall until the manager agreed to meet, then lobbied the skeptical manager until he granted them a 10-year lease (secured by their homes) for the first store. A local bank would not lend $25,000 to get the company going until its forensic accountant inventoried their personal assets as security.

Coles, Karp and their wives scrambled to set up the first Original Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Company store (the name was shortened later) in 19 days. They printed flyers offering a free cookie on opening morning and passed them out to mall employees and neighbors. On that first morning, a crowd of nearly 100 gathered outside the store window and watched hungrily as the first batch of 300 cookies gradually turned nut-brown and chewy in the revolving oven.

At that moment, the seemingly well-prepared team realized they had forgotten to bring oven mitts with them and there were no open stores around so they couldn’t buy any. They lacked even towels to remove the piping hot cookies from the oven. As they wrung their hands, that first batch caught fire. Smoke seeped through a combined HVAC system into a nearby hosiery store, whose employees ran out the door yelling, “Fire!” Firefighters were summoned. The mall manager made his way through the crowd and asked Coles and his partner, “Is this the way it’s going to be every day, guys?”

Faced with the imperative to sell at least $12,000 worth of 30-cent cookies in the first month, the team could not dwell on their mistakes for long. They worked like dervishes that day to clean up the store and hand out new flyers. The next morning, the crowd outside the store window was closer to 500, “and they were not there to get free cookies. They were there to see us do something disastrous,” Coles laughed. Instead, they sampled a gratis cookie and bought more. The Perimeter Mall store did $30,000 of business in the first month and $600,000 its first year. The company was off and running.

Lesson 2: No matter how brilliantly you start the journey, it means nothing if you don’t finish strong

Coles took up long-distance cycling in 1978, riding fanatically to rehabilitate after a near-fatal motorcycling accident the previous year. He became an accomplished distance cyclist; in 1984, he organized a crew to break his own speed record crossing the southern U.S. from Savannah, Georgia, to San Diego, California. Even though Coles had to fight headwinds for practically the entire 2,800 miles, the record was in the bag when he approached downtown San Diego for the last 5 miles to the courthouse steps.

Suddenly, however, his legs gave out with severe cramps. He felt utterly depleted and unable to turn the pedals again. Coles slumped on his bike against a mailbox, desperate for sleep. His cycling escort urged him to just try a few more blocks. Coles mustered the energy to do that, then kept telling himself, “I can make it another block or two.” That was how he eventually staggered to the finish in just over 11 days and 8 hours, during which time he slept only 21 hours.

“The lesson was simple,” Coles said. “It doesn’t matter how many thousands of miles you ride, how many hours, days or months you put into something. It’s the last 5 miles that count. You’ve got to be able to finish. If you can’t, then you will not prepare yourself for the 5 miles that come after that.”

Lesson 3: You don’t have to be the best at every aspect of your business, but you must know every aspect of your business

As a teenager in Miami Beach, FL., Coles got an after-school job at a men’s clothing store. The owner became a mentor and tried to teach him everything he could about the business. Coles became functional with patterns and hemming but no expert. So, he was stunned by the owner’s reply when the regular tailor insisted he could not handle the Labor Day crunch without being paid a higher rate: “I had a tailor come in the other day who would love to have my business.” That tailor was Coles.

Coles and the owner worked from 7 a.m. until long after midnight the entire holiday weekend, and all tailoring jobs were finished when the store opened after Labor Day. “This is why I wanted you to learn everything,” the owner told Coles.

Lesson 4: Be careful how you talk to your team. Poorly chosen words can really set you back

Coles and his business partner sold the Great American Cookie Company in the mid-1990s. He started thinking about coffee shops as a next business venture. The investment fund that owned the Minneapolis-based Caribou Coffee chain asked him to consult on the company’s viability. Coles was so taken with the chain’s evangelistic customer loyalty that he persuaded the owners to let him invest and become interim CEO.

Coles thought a lot about an inspirational message for his first leadership team meeting. Unfortunately, what he said was, “I’ve been to more than 50 Caribou stores and I have yet to have a great experience.” What he meant to convey was that he occasionally encountered great customer service, but it wasn’t consistently delivered. Thanks to his careless words, “it took the team about two months to buy into the vision. Instead of motivating them, I alienated them.”

Lesson 5: Don’t ever think your business is in such great shape that you can coast

The second Great American Cookie Company store was in a southwest Atlanta mall. Foot traffic there was four times what the first store experienced, so the site seemed like a no-brainer. However, the company had failed to research disposable income in that area, so the store struggled mightily. Coles decided the store would have to cost-cut its way to profitability. Efficiency became his top priority. He figured out ways to streamline shifts, cross-train employees and cut down on waste in the baking process. He also hired a store manager who was a talented artist. That artist transformed their cookie cake business by creating beautiful designs with clever messages that were a hit with customers. Then, the company applied lessons learned at that store to its other outlets.

“If the second store had gone as smoothly as the first, the company never would have grown as fast,” Coles said. “We would have become a sloppy operator and probably gone out of business.”

Courage to Take the First Step

Coles has one major theme running throughout his life and in his book, which he emphasized at Vision 2019 – standing up to and fighting the giants in life, the challenges that sometimes seem insurmountable. Almost every time he tried something new, there was a mountain to climb or more distance to cover.  When every muscle in his body wanted to stop, he never gave up. Even when there were losses, he learned from these losses and used those experiences to soar to greater heights. That is the main message he hopes to convey – that people need to get out of their safe spaces and take that first step into the unknown.

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