Alan Feldman

College of Business, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

May 14, 2005

 

 

Thank you, Dean Ghosh, and good morning to all of you.

 

I want to begin by saying congratulations to the graduates.  Today is a momentous day … it’s a mile marker that signifies the end of one phase of your life and the beginning of a new journey.

 

Because of that, I feel very fortunate to be here with you today.  Returning to my alma mater always brings back a flood of great memories.  There also are some things I wish I could remember … and actually some things I wish I could forget!

 

But really it’s the thrill of sharing this moment with you right now that means so much to all of us.

 

You represent some of the brightest minds coming out of business school today – you’re talented, experienced, diverse, and ambitious.  It is an honor … and it’s incredibly energizing just being here with you.

 

Now, you may have heard this before … studies show that the number one fear in America is having to give a speech.

 

The number two fear is having to listen to one.

 

So I’ll try to keep my remarks interesting, entertaining, and brief.

 

Plus, I have an added incentive … my wife and daughters are in the audience today, and if my remarks become tiresome, I’ll have to listen to their feedback all the way back to Chicago.

 

So, if the #1 fear is giving a speech, and the #2 fear is listening to one, then the #3 fear must be interviewing for a job. 

 

Since most of you have probably completed or in the process of job interviews at the moment, I thought you might appreciate hearing about my first interview after grad school.

 

The interview was for a company headquartered in Providence, Rhode Island.  I was so nervous when I was leaving, that I forgot to pack a tie.  Of course, I didn’t realize this until I landed after midnight on a Sunday night, which made trying to find a tie for my interview the next morning a huge challenge.  I went back to the airport, the stores were closed.  I went to the bus station, everything was closed.

 

I walked back into the hotel about 1:15 in the morning and I see the bus boy wearing this black tie … you know, those ties that are big enough to be a napkin … and it had a big tomato stain on it.

 

I said, “I’ll give you five bucks for the tie.”  He said, “You can have it for three.”   So I gave him five bucks anyway, and I actually got the job the next morning.

 

You know … I’ve never forgotten to pack a tie since then.

 

I wish I could give you some great advice for surviving the next couple of months as you transition back into the work world … something more inspiring than what to pack in your suitcase …

 

But what I really want to accomplish today is to provide you with meaningful advice that I hope you can carry with you throughout your career … perhaps throughout your life.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about what’s important to me … and what I look for in the people I hire.  There are a few key things that I believe make all the difference … and that help open the door to a successful, rewarding career.

 

In my mind, success, and more importantly, happiness come from three things … having Passion for what you do, taking Pride in yourself and your work, and caring about the People around you.  The three “Ps” … passion, pride and people.

 

First, Passion

Simply stated … you have to love what you do. 

 

It doesn’t matter what your major is, or what you’ve studied, or what you think you might like to do.  If you end up in a job, and you don’t have a passion for it … if you’re not excited about going to work each day …  then maybe it’s not the right thing for you.

 

This room … and rooms like this at business schools across the country … are full of smart, qualified, experienced people.

 

But the people who will rise to the top are the ones who go after their jobs with energy, excitement and passion.

 

Jack Welch said passion is that illusive, intangible ingredient that separates the achievers from the over achievers.

 

Think about it … if your heart is totally into it, you really cannot lose.

 

Now, I realize that passion does not always come automatically.  Sometimes, you need to find a way to get excited about your work.

 

I’ll give you an example.  At one point in my career, I was asked to run the Corporate Tax department at Frito-Lay.

 

Now ... no offense to the Accountants in the room, but I was having a really hard time getting fired up about this job.

 

So, when I was offered the Corporate Tax job, I made a conscious decision … even though I didn’t think it was going to be fun, I was going to make it fun.

 

I did everything I could with that team to make taxes new and exciting.  We found different ways to work together, we got creative (within the law), we thought differently, and we had fun!

 

That’s what Jack Welch was saying … it’s all in your attitude.

 

(pause)

In the years ahead, you’ll hear about people who jump from job to job, never finding the “one” job that is right for them.  It makes you wonder, is it the job, or is it their attitude about the job?  We spend so much time in life searching for solutions, but so often all we need to do is look inside ourselves for the answer.

 

Remember … Life is not about finding yourself.  Life is about creating yourself.

 

Ray Kroc used to say, “When you are green, you are growing.”

 

So keep creating and recreating yourself, and keep growing.

 

I learned that in my first job after grad school (a job, by the way, my professor here helped me get).  He was doing some consulting work for a company, and they needed someone to help their smaller subsidiary company expand their business.

I had a lot of good job offers with big companies, but my professor said, “Alan, this is a great chance for you to put everything you’ve learned to work right away.”  And it was true.

 

In less than nine months, I was running the company.   I was negotiating deals with foreign governments.  I even negotiated a deal with the mayor of Moscow and the Deputy Secretary of Interior for the Soviet Union.

 

I was 22 years old, and the only word in Russian I knew was Vodka.

 

(After laughter)  Ah … I see many of you also speak Russian!

 

During that time, I learned a heck of a lot really fast, and I grew up in a hurry.  It’s one thing to face deadlines, it’s another thing entirely to be responsible for making payroll every Friday.  It was a great experience, and I loved what I was doing.

A question you might be asking is, “How do I know if I have it?”  The “Passion”?

 

I’m sure you probably know it, but my test is simple.  Am I excited enough to find myself running from the car to the office because I can’t wait to get at what I do?

 

To this day, I make sure I go to work every day with a passion for what I do, and I expect it from every one of my employees, at every level.  

 

 

OK, the next “P” … Pride

It was almost 30 years ago to the day that I got my MBA.  I never would have thought 30 years ago, I’d be standing here talking to you all of you today.  It seems like it was just weeks ago when I was wearing my orange and blue cheering on Illinois.  Oh, actually, it was just a few weeks ago in St. Louis.

 

I have to say … I’ve been to several “Final 4s” over the years, but that tournament made me incredibly proud to be an Illini.

 

And I can’t think of anyone who embodies the three “Ps” more than Coach Weber.  By practicing the 3 “Ps,” he got the most out of his players and himself.  And clearly there is no debate, he loves what he does.

 

So make sure that whatever leadership role you’re in … you stand tall and you’re proud of who you are, your heritage and the organization you work for.  And never, ever, do something you’re not proud to put your name on.

 

Unfortunately today, too much of what we read and see in the news is about a lack of pride and integrity.

 

Some people are taking short cuts, and they’re not setting high enough standards for themselves, or their companies.

 

If all those accused cared more about pride in a job well done than greed for a job well paid, we wouldn’t be reading the headlines we see today.

 

I agree with the philosopher who once said that money can vanish overnight, power can disappear, even your reputation can evaporate, but character … personal integrity … is a rock that is secure and no one can take that away from you.

 

Another thing I tell my people, and my family, is … Be proud out loud.

 

Make sure you infect the people around you with your sense of pride.  Because, ultimately, leadership isn’t only about making the right decisions, it’s about making sure people feel great about who they are and what they’re doing.

When people are proud of their work, they demand more of themselves, and they take accountability for results.

 

Over the last couple of years at Midas, we’ve transformed practically every element of the company … the business model, the strategy, the marketing plan, you name it.

 

As a result, we’ve returned to profitability, cut our debt by more than half, and delivered consistent sales growth.  And our shareholders are happy, because our stock price has nearly quadrupled.

 

One of the things that I believe is helping to drive our recovery is the fact that Midas dealers around the world are, once again, feeling proud to be part of our organization.

 

In fact, I’ve asked each one of our dealers to hang a sign in the lobby of their shop with their picture and their phone number on it …

so everyone knows who stands for quality, and our dealers can be proud … out loud … of their affiliation with Midas.

 

Sometimes I think pride is a lot like rabbits.  Sounds funny, I know, but think about it.  You know, you put two rabbits together, what do you get?  All of sudden you get a lot of rabbits!

 

People who are proud breathe pride into a company, a community, or a family.  Whatever you do, if you’ve got your name on it … Be proud.

 

The third “P” … People

All of you have different specialties, and will be heading in different directions with your careers.  But no matter what you do, I believe your job will be about people.

 

When I look back at my career so far, I don’t think about pizza, cheeseburgers, and mufflers … maybe because no one likes to mix exhaust fumes with food … but really it’s because that’s not what my work has been about.

 

It’s been about the people.

 

When I was with McDonald’s Corporation, we always had to remind ourselves that we weren’t in the hamburger business … we were in the people business.  We worked hard to shift our mindset from thinking we were a hamburger company serving people ... to a people company serving hamburgers. 

 

Because, as Walt Disney once said: “You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality.”   If you learn how to be a good leader, coach and friend to the people around you, you will go far.

 

And, you’ll get so much more out of your work.  So make sure you surround yourself with people you like and admire.

 

It starts today – look around you right now … who has made a difference in your life?  Who might you still know 30 years from now?

 

Of course, family members.  Probably also a teacher, a coach, or a boss who, at some time, reached out and said, “Come on, I’m going to help you with this.”

 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and accept it when people are willing to provide it.

 

And when that happens, make a mental note about how someone’s effort benefited you.  And then someday, along the way, remember to “pay it forward.”

 

That’s part of why I’m here today … I’m paying it forward for the help I was given when I was here.

 

Every good thing that’s happened to me came as a result of good advice from a friend, a strong relationship, or a role model who inspired me.

 

In the years ahead, you’ll probably hold many positions and work at a variety of places.

But what will mean the most to you along the way are the people who share that journey with you.

On a final note, I want to comment on something we all struggle with – and that’s work-life balance.  How do you make time for all the things expected of you … work, family, community service, even maintaining your own physical and mental health?

 

Your generation will probably be better at it than my generation.  If you ask my family, they’ll tell you that I’ve had varying levels of success with balance.  And, while my wife has been amazingly tolerant of this, my children have not.

 

I’ll never forget my youngest daughter’s 5th birthday.  I was having a really busy year, or should I say life, and as usual I was traveling a lot.  The night before Lisa’s 5th birthday … I’m in New York, and I call home.  Katie, her 12-year-old sister gets on the phone and asks why I’m not going to be home for her little sister’s birthday.

 

I said, “Well, I’ve already missed your birthday, and your sister Allie’s birthday this year, so if I miss this one we’re all even.”  She responds in this adult voice, “Dad, that’s about the lamest excuse I’ve ever heard.” 

 

So I got on a plane the next day to be home with her, and I really have made every effort since then to be there for special days, and baseball games, and dance recitals.  OK … maybe I’ve missed a couple of dance recitals.

 

But there’s one thing for sure …  I’m a better husband, father, leader and person when I have a passion for my job … when I’m proud of what I’m doing … and when I care about the people around me.

 

And so will you.

 

In closing, I just want to say congratulations again and good luck.  And if any of you ever need your car repaired, you know you can Trust the Midas Touch.  Never miss an opportunity to sell!

 

I told you that I have a passion for what I do! 

 

Thanks everyone, and enjoy the day.