Five Professional Lessons from Colonel Sanders’s Entrepreneurial Career

“YOU’LL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING!”, said the mother to her eldest son. Her frustration was explicable. Widowed at twenty-nine, the young mother of three had to work hard to earn little; and with needy toddlers in tow, she had no option but to count on her eldest son, Harland. While she labored for long hours in a tomato canning factory, six years old Harland was assigned to take care and cook meals for his younger siblings. 

As he turned ten, Harland’s mother sent him to work on their neighbor’s farm. The job paid two dollars a month plus meals. The farmer asked young Harland to clear bush from the field; the boy got distracted by nature and spent time loafing, watching squirrels and birds. The farmer fired him from the job.

It was one of the numerous jobs he would lose or quit during his career; nevertheless, Harland hated the sight of despair it brought on his mother’s face. Harland David Sanders, who later became Colonel Sanders— and still remains the icon of world’s second largest fast food chain— would recall during his later years how that singular moment transformed him into a self-motivated, customer-oriented service provider.

Lesson One: Give yourself a second chance in life. All of us make mistakes as youngsters/newbies, and so often our elders/superiors scold us for those. Some people misconstrue those scolds as the end of the world; they react by being rebellious to their parents/bosses and end up ruining—gulp, ending— their lives. Do not define such moments as the epilogue of your life; rather, identify them as fresh beginnings, just like Harland Sanders took his mother’s admonishment as a source of positive transformation.

When he was twelve, Harland’s mother married for a second time. As it happens in most cases, he and his stepfather didn’t get along well. Within a year, Sanders moved out. Having dropped out of school, he was on his own. He needed a job, but it seemed hard for him to stick to a single job.

During next decade or so, he would switch several jobs including a couple of farm jobs, a fare collector, a paint worker, a blacksmith’s assistant, a coal loader, an insurance salesman, and a brief stint with US Army expedition to Cuba. He even practiced law for a couple of years before being dismissed when he brawled with an opponent in the courtroom.

One day, while still looking for a job, Sanders got a ride with a general manager of Standard Oil Company of Kentucky who hired him as a service station operator. As an operator, while he filled cars with gasoline, he started cleaning and inflating tires for no charge. He began early in the morning and kept the station open till late night. With such excellent service, his service station became the best in the neighborhood; he sold more gas than any other station in the area.

Lesson Two: Offer something extra if you wish to stand out in your profession. The lesson from his childhood had taught Harland to deliver his best, however, he went a step ahead and started offering extended services, and for longer hours. Those exceptional services made his station the best in the area. 

Like many others, Sanders could not survive the great depression— a period of worst economic downturn that affected almost every business.  In 1929, his gas station closed; however, his excellent repute in the area did not let him remain out of work for long. A year after, Shell Oil Company gave him a new station to run in Corbin, Kentucky.

Sanders ran the new gas station as well as the first one. In addition, he launched a side business: he started offering meals to travelers who stopped by. It wasn’t fancy restaurant food but something more like you may cook at home. It was nothing new to Harland; he had been cooking it since he was a child.

Selling hot meals started as a side business, yet over the years, Sanders saw more success in it. He opened a new restaurant with a seating capacity of 140 people. In 1937, he added a motel. No sooner, Sander’s restaurant became a source of pride for the state of Kentucky. In 1936, Governor Ruby Laffoon named him to the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels; from then on, he dressed like a gentleman and went by Colonel Sanders. 

Lesson Three: Develop your reputation as a professional. Whether it is a new job or a business opportunity, a good repute will enhance the chances of your acceptance. On the contrary, a bad reputation can easily tarnish your achievements. Though Sanders had failed with most of his professional pursuits, his excellent repute with the service station opened a new opportunity for him.

During 1930s, Colonel had perfected his “perfect eleven”: eleven herbs that concocted together to make his perfect meat recipe. In addition, he converted a pressure cooker into a pressure fryer, thereby devising a method to prepare tender, juicy chicken in just a few minutes. His wonderful recipe with faster cooking times enabled Sanders to find Franchisees for his chicken; for every chicken they sold, restaurants paid Sanders five cents.

Lesson Four: Keep looking for improvements in your area of expertise. Seek better avenues for your business. Harland knew how to cook tasty meals, yet he kept striving for reducing the cooking time; his conversion of a pressure cooker into a pressure fryer proved critical for expanding his business base.

In November 1939, a fire destroyed Sanders’s cafe. However, this did not break his courage; he built a bigger and better restaurant and motel. Nonetheless, it was not the end of his hitches. In 1955, when Highway 25 was rerouted, the new road bypassed Corbin. Sanders’s business died off. He had to sell his property to pay taxes and remaining bills. Besides a modest saving, he received a mocking $105 monthly allowance from Social Security. He was back to square one.

With no money to build another food business, Sanders made a brave choice: he decided to expand his chicken franchise operation i.e. he allowed more restaurants to sell chicken using his original recipe. Along with his second wife, a 65 years old Colonel Sanders started preparing and delivering fried chicken to restaurants who chose to be his franchisees. While his wife stayed at home to fill the orders, Colonel often slept in the car to save money.

His tireless efforts bore fruit and by July 1959, the couple had bought a property in Shelbyville, which became the Kentucky Fried Chicken headquarters. By 1960, more than 200 restaurants were selling Kentucky Fried Chicken in the United States and Canada. By 1964, the company had grown too big for Sanders; consequently, he sold it in $2million. Not bad for a man who was broke just a decade ago!

Lesson Five: Never think it is too late to start something afresh. It would be hard to think of anyone other than Colonel Sanders to personify the cliché “never give up!”. Colonel’s life was full of ups and downs, yet, after each fall, he exhibited a unique ability to rise again. That is precisely why, he is still an icon.

Until his death in 1980, Colonel Sanders kept visiting Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants all around the world. Despite having sold most of his business, he was still a public figure. Kentucky Fried Chicken, now called KFC, has more than 22,000 restaurants in around 150 countries. Colonel’s image still appears on KFC packaging, reminding us how a man can become an icon through hard work, honesty, and a sense of giving back.

4 thoughts on “Five Professional Lessons from Colonel Sanders’s Entrepreneurial Career

  1. Reblogged this on CRAIN'S COMMENTS and commented:
    He was a local hero, as was Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) in the Louisviile in which I grew up. When I saw the Colonel, he actually dressed in that white three piece suit pictured in the KFC logo. Needless to say, Louisville isn’t want it was, and neither is the state.

    Liked by 1 person

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