Company Founders: A Different Breed of Cat
Any entrepreneur willing to tell their story finds a ready audience in me. I’ve always been intrigued by people with an exquisitely well-timed idea, and I interviewed many of the more successful ones during my time as a business journalist.
Take Ed Lowe, the guy who invented Kitty Litter. His invention, initially peddled to pet stores in five-pound bags he filled with absorbent clay, changed lives – human and feline. We once spent a few hours walking atop that clay on his rural Cassopolis, Michigan property, talking about how he went from dirt poor to cat dirt rich.
Or consider Heinz Prechter, who came to the United States as an exchange student from a small town in Germany. At age 23, he set up a one-man shop cutting holes in the roofs of cars in Los Angeles to let in California sunshine. Thus began the American Sunroof Company, which grew up to be a conglomerate that included automotive, real estate and publishing interests. A roof was no ceiling to him.
Mike and Marian Ilitch started selling pizzas in a strip mall in suburban Detroit in 1959. They decided to franchise their Little Caesars Pizza Treat shortly after opening and had great success. What really made their dough rise, though, was a singular idea about doubling their offer: Pizza Pizza – two pies for the price of one. Their concept was hot stuff in a cool economy.
Each of these stories became a company legend – a DNA strand in its brand. Founder stories can be inspiring to people inside and outside a company, offering insight into the original big idea, showing how effort and ingenuity pay off, and humanizing the people on the plaque or statue in the lobby.
To really give the founder story currency, it’s important to incorporate future aspirations into the brand, too. Where does the company want to go now? How can it build on its foundation? How is it applying the characteristics that made the company great to a changing environment and marketplace? And how is it honoring its founders by being just as nimble and perceptive as they were?
I’m a ready audience for those stories, too. As interesting and instructive as the past can be, the future is even more exciting.
– Jon Pepper