My father, Ralph, was an entrepreneur in every sense of the word. But at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I am not necessarily sure that it was a good thing when it comes down to balance and fulfillment. I remain a little more calculated than he was, a little more conservative when it comes to financing. I hope not to be a knee jerker, ever, for good reasons.
Reasons like keeping the family together, wanting to keep my home and the things in it, reasons like not having to start over three and four times from nothing. I want to stay married, secure a retirement strategy, stay on track with a master plan, that which I can define a beginning a middle and an exit for the end. While I feel it important to honor my father by starting an endowed scholarship in entrepreneurial studies at Lindenwood University in St. Charles MO, it is important that I study his tribulations, the process by which he became who he was, using my own method of achievement in contrast. Understanding of course that without his influence, I would not have achieved much of anything at all.
My father chased the game, that which was the big swing of the baseball bat. There was no base hitting, no incremental process to speak of when working his way through the businesses that he owned. In hindsight, he turned out quite the winning season and his spirit will live on if I have anything to do with it, and I will. I appreciate what he taught myself and others. Life lessons learned--what it is like to risk and lose everything, the auction and the last family chair from the dining room table sold, in order to cover whatever debt was due on any number of failed businesses throughout the years--what it is like to rebuild after such adversity, to fall back and regroup a, march forward and try again, never giving up, seeking that which could be the mother payload.
There came a time when I was pretty much disgusted, feeling a little short changed on my upbringing, too much negativity. This after I left home and started my own quest for, whatever it was that was in front of me. I was a terrible student in high school, maybe I would have been diagnosed with one of those fancy new terms, ADD, or something like that. I had to adapt to the way they were learning at my school, I wasn't getting it. I learned to deal with patterns and relationships, connections to experiences that were either good or bad and began to shape an understanding of the world around me. I knew that I didn't learn the way the other kids did. I had to experience things in order to categorize and relate. It was a system that I became very good at. Always remembering a situation good or bad and how it played out. I reference things now, in relationship to experiences though the years and apply what has become my intuitive logic in all of my decision making. I have been called a visionary by my staff. A title that I take pretty seriously because visionaries have always been my heroes. I think most entrepreneurs have vision. For me it is simply remembering the pain and/or pleasure of things from my past combined with my discipline to pursue the more positive of the two.
As high school came to an end, and as a result of a fractured family life, I put very little effort into anything other than sandlot sports and working in restaurants. I barely graduated from High School and shutter to think of my GPA. I was on an early release work program and left school at noon in order to do what I did best, adapting to what would be come a lifelong learning process through practical experiences, I had a lot of catching up to do.
With the restaurant work, I liked the people the most--the way groups came together for food and drink. I liked the togetherness of the way people entered a restaurant, sat down and experienced that which the proprietor would purvey. I got a face full of this from my fathers restaurants, a cross section of fast food joints, discotheques, fine dining steakhouses, and high volume cafeterias. He developed brands in his sleep and would slap a sign on a door, often before he had a clear plan. He was always the front guy, at the door with the menus, at the bar with a drink, a firm handshake and a smile. He was nicknamed Friendly Ralph. To him, the nuts and bolts of the business was somebody else's job. He was what I now call a top liner.
So I learned to lean up against a bar pretty early in life. Especially due to the fact that college wasn't in my near future. I figured that the best thing that I could come up with was to emulate whomever I found my hero's to be. There was no better a person than my own father and a group of cronies whom were his close friends and business partners. They were prominently displayed throughout the community, those statuesque businessmen who seem to walk on water. Due to my process of collecting experiences, I would certainly form opinions, good and bad in relationship to their actions. It was the seventies, after all.
During those dark years, my fathers exterior showed pretty well, but there were things that would be discounted. There were elements of his life that he kept from the community. The stress and burdensome workload, his struggle to make ends meet. He saved the frustrations for the family, which virtually disbanded when I was around 16 years old. My mother packed what she could get in to her Mustang II and moved to Los Angeles, my father later moved to Jefferson City in an attempt to rebuild after a restaurant in Rochester Minnesota folded. My sister Kathryn and I stayed back and prepared the home for sale, eventually moving to a duplex while she attended the University of Missouri, me to continue to struggle in school. I eventually found my way to graduation and began immediately what has now become a 27 year career in the restaurant business. I eventually attended St. Louis Community College at Forest Park, studying Hospitality and Culinary Arts, later in life I attended Lindenwood University studying communications.
Funny thing, I didn't really come into intellectual maturity until I was thirty something, not until after getting married and having a kid. My wife was a huge motivator, one of enormous help in my finding self-actualization. It wasn't until after years of apprenticing, practical experiential stuff, working for chain restaurants, private clubs, catering companies and other related hospitality industry situations. Not until after not "getting" anywhere for so long did it occur to me what I had been chasing. I had also become indulgent, nearly succumbing to a the demons so commonly found in the hospitality industry, something that my father showed had also shown me first hand as he fought to keep them at bay too.
The years turned out to be just the right amount of training. I began to emerge as a commodity in the business for restaurant openings, event planning and management. There was a standard that I could be held accountable to and people wanted it. It has always with the help of others whom I have known through the years. The professionals who choose to have me as their leader in the beginning and even now. It's as if we've been able to break through the ground using out-of-the-box thinking, using what we know from our experience in infrastructure and how start up businesses in the food industry can benefit from the processes within.
While I admired my father immensely and consider him my number one hero, I admire him the most for the things that we ultimately would contrast. Because I had collected other heroes as well, big company executives with 600 restaurants to manage, Fridays, Bennigan's, Houlihans, Chile's, all emerging chains from the 80's that I found to be a good study, corporate restaurant chains, making decisions on market penetration and brand ideology, big stuff. There was psychology behind each endeavor, huge resources used for research and development, training techniques, philosophies on business that I would consume before entering the arena myself.
These styles of entrepreneurship and the applicable combinations of process is what the new generations need to understand. A big picture approach to the industry is necessary, understanding that many businesses fail, particularly in the food business, because of lack of clear strategy, too many big swings of the bat, and not enough incremental process. Mixed together with a clear understanding of personal communication will lead to uncommonly positive results.