By Bob Bahr
Michael Coles has had a bumpy ride on his way to great wealth and great success as an entrepreneur and business leader. When he was a child, his family was forced out of their home after a bankruptcy.
When he started the Great American Cookie Company, a mishap almost ended the business before it began. Today, he is a prominent philanthropist who has served for the last six years as president of the Hillels of Georgia. The Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University is named after him.
Last Saturday night he spoke about success and adversity at The Temple’s Selichot service, which kicks off the high holidays with prayers of forgiveness. His talk was based on his book “Time to Get Tough: How Cookies, Coffee and a Crash Led to Success in Business and Life.”
The Temple’s Senior Rabbi Peter Berg called the program, “a master class in the liturgy of the High Holy Days.” The AJT spoke with Coles after the Selichot service.
AJT: What lessons have you learned from all that you have had to overcome?
Coles: There are a lot of lessons throughout my book that come out of adversity. Two of those lessons I talked about at the Selichot service. One of them had to do with the first day of the Great American Cookie Company at our first location at Perimeter Mall.
We had to personally guarantee the $25,000 we borrowed to start the business, and we had taken a 10-year lease that obligated us for another $250,000. The first day of business, when we were ready to take the first batch of 300 cookies out of the oven at the mall, we found that we had forgotten to buy a $3 pair of oven mitts. The cookies caught fire and we almost got thrown out of the mall. It was disaster. And to me, it’s one of the classic examples that the difference between success and failure is never what you plan for; it’s how you deal with the unexpected.
AJT: What was the second lesson?
Coles: About the same time we were starting the cookie business I was badly hurt in a motorcycle accident. I was told I would never walk again. So I had to contend with that while we built the business. Eventually I recovered enough to start riding a bicycle and eventually set several world records on a cross country ride in 1984. Toward the end of that bicycle ride in San Diego I was so tired I didn’t think I could finish.
What I learned in those final few hours is that even if things are not going the way you want, you still have to move. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of miles you ride. It doesn’t matter how many hours or weeks you put into a project or a process. None of that matters. You’ve got to finish.
Because if you don’t get it done, even if it doesn’t work out the way you intended, you will not be prepared for what’s next. It’s the most important lesson I’ve learned in my life. From these experiences we were able to build the Great American Cookie Company into a $100 million business. It’s not all about how you get to a place of success but where are you going next.
AJT: Jews are no strangers to adversity. What do you think is the lesson we have to teach the world?
Coles: I have often said this, that my ability to overcome adversity is not something that I think was somehow unique to me. I have said this publicly so I’m happy to say it again. There is an inner strength in me that goes back 4,000 years, and I think that the one thing that Jews, by example, can teach people is the amount of internal and personal strength people have to overcome what life throws in front of them.
Faced with that kind of adversity, they just keep walking forward and try to make the world a better place. It’s had a lot to do with what I’ve been able to accomplish after my motorcycle accident
AJT: What’s your goal for 5780?
Coles: I want to help young people even more next year. I met a mentor at the age of 13 that stepped in and made a huge difference in my life and I’ve got several people that I am mentoring. Every year I try to look back and ask myself if I’ve been OK. I want to make sure that I never get carried away with myself, which I have done in the past. That’s why I play golf. It’s a very humbling experience.