By Al Shams
I recently had the great pleasure of meeting with Michael Coles and gained some insight into the events and attitudes that shaped and guided his business and personal life.
After a successful 20-year career in the clothing business, he decided while still a young man in his 30s to embark on a new career that would demand less travel away from his family.
In 1977, after much thought and effort, he opened the Great American Cookie Co. at Perimeter Mall. He was joined by a friend, Arthur Karp, and the two remained partners until they sold the company in 1998.
The cookie company was modestly capitalized and encountered numerous challenges during its early years. But a combination of tremendous effort, dedication and hard work made the venture a great business success.
In 2003, Coles became a co-owner and CEO of Caribou Coffee. He had some involvement with the company previously and was familiar with its weak operations. He immediately began an extensive transformation of the company, which became a viable, profitable business employing thousands of people.
Coles offered the following insights into his business and life successes:
- Only associate with people of integrity. Those lacking integrity, regardless of their appearance of success, can be harmful to your career.
- Find a mentor to guide your career, or be a mentor to someone starting a career.
- In the retail business, customer engagement and a quality customer experience are crucial.
- Even in the age of Internet shopping, customers still seek and will respond to the personal touch. In the final analysis, we are all human beings and social creatures and seek meaningful experiences with others.
- Retail companies do not have a contract with their customers; they must earn the customers’ business each day.
- There is an ongoing revolution in the world of customer service. Providers need to listen, connect and converse with their customers. Customers now have a voice through social media.
- When told that Caribou could not compete with Starbucks and its 5,000 locations, Coles responded that the customer is not impressed by the 5,000 stores; he is impressed by the quality of his experience.
- Have a business vision you can articulate and share with your sales associates; incorporate them into your dream.
- In the cookie company, Coles’ goal was to deliver to the average consumer a cookie that was as good as what a millionaire could buy.
- Be totally committed to the business and the vision. If you are concerned about how much effort will be required, how long it will take or how profitable the venture will be, you are not totally committed.
- Continue to adapt to changing circumstances because change over time is inevitable in our business and personal lives.
- Do not be afraid to fail.
- By empowering others, such as employees and associates, and helping them succeed, you empower your own success.
- As a result of a motorcycle accident and hospital confinement, Coles came to believe that the biggest handicap we all face is the limitations we place on our vision and imagination.
- He believes that the most effective customer survey effort is to speak directly with the customer while he is in the store.
- He believes that David can defeat Goliath, but David must know his strengths, be totally committed, develop a good plan of attack, have tremendous courage, study his opponent and exploit the opponent’s weaknesses.
- Important People
During our visit, Coles mentioned three people whose confidence in him during difficult times had a big positive impact on his life:
- Irving Settler was a Miami businessman who owned and managed a clothing company. At age 13, Coles began working for Settler and learned some important life lessons, such as deal only with people of integrity because those lacking integrity can be harmful to you personally and financially; work hard and do not expect a handout, but do your best for your employer; and be humble and treat all you meet with respect and courtesy.
- As a teenager, Coles worked three jobs in high school. As a consequence he had little time for homework; his grades suffered. Because of family circumstances, he decided to live with his older brother in Rockport, Mass., for his senior year in high school. Unknowingly, he registered for all advanced college prep classes. After becoming aware of his error, he became distressed and overwhelmed, not knowing how he could complete the course work.
His brother, nine years older, said, “I will help you focus, do your best, and you will be amazed at what you can accomplish.” The confidence his brother expressed helped Coles earn all A’s that senior year.
- By 1972, Coles was a successful man in the clothing business. He was married, a father of two, making good money, but he made some poor choices and let his material success dominate his thinking. He got divorced and entered a period of self-review. During that turbulent time he met his current wife, Donna. She restored his confidence, and they have been happily married for more than 40 years.
Three people entering Coles’ life at important times had a big impact on shaping his life in a positive direction.
Coles, in turn, is using his skills, knowledge and insight to act as a mentor to others, creating a chain reaction of good. As adults, we forget what a huge positive impact we can have on young people with kind words, confidence, compassion and understanding, as well as being positive role models.
We can all tap in to the tremendous talents young people have to improve our society by being supportive of their efforts
Six weeks after starting the cookie company, Coles was involved in a horrific accident while riding his motorcycle. Upon waking up in the recovery room, he was told by the surgeon that he was lucky to be alive but might never walk unaided.
After being confined in the hospital for a few weeks, Coles arrived at a mental point where he was determined to walk and enjoy his three children and a normal life. Walking with assistance led to walking alone, which led to cycling. Over time, cycling became a passion, and Coles participated in a number of long-distance events.
From 1984 to 1989, he cycled across the country on four occasions. In 1984 he cycled from Savannah to San Diego in 11 days, eight hours. In 1989, as part of a four-man team, he cycled from Los Angeles to New York in five days, one hour and eight minutes.
Those record times stand to this day. That’s amazing when you think they were set more than 25 years ago, and there have been tremendous upgrades in equipment technology and training procedures.
I do not believe that Coles set out to become a long-distance cyclist, but he became good at one activity, then said to himself, “Hey, maybe I can do more.”
That attitude built on itself. He was a person who would not become complacent or reach a point of comfort. He had a need and desire to continue to take risks and push for more accomplishments.
An Important Job
On several occasions, Coles mentioned that being the president of Hillels of Georgia is the most important task he has ever had.
Hillel’s goals are to engage and enrich the lives of Jewish students and to promote Jewish values by offering a welcoming and inclusive environment in which a variety of programs can be offered. Hillel also seeks to assist students in the many challenges they face in college.
Jewish students nationwide, and consequently the American Jewish community, face a new threat by well-funded, well-organized anti-Israel groups.
These hateful groups seek to spread false information about Israel to uninformed students. Their approach is known as the BDS movement:
- Boycott Israel in every way possible.
- Divest from any interaction with Israel at any level.
- Sanction to impose controls on Israel.
All of those actions seek to delegitimize Israel and isolate it and its people from the community of nations.
An effective step we can all take is to learn the facts, challenge the false information and help educate the uninformed.
Public Service and Philanthropy
Coles has served the community and his fellow man on many levels:
- He made a large financial contribution to Kennesaw State University to create the Coles College of Business.
- In 1995 he received the Georgia Philanthropy award.
- He served on the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.
- He served as a mentor to numerous students to empower their dreams.
- He has taught many courses on entrepreneurship and leadership.
- In 1998, Coles was an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate. While I respect his desire to serve in government, one could argue that he could be far more effective as an informed, dedicated private citizen. I believe he has taken the latter approach.
Michael Coles is an amazing individual who, through tremendous energy, effort and determination, achieved great business and personal success. He is a person who has given back much to society.