Strategies for success: Longtime businessman shares tips at Entrepreneurship Day
A self-described “contrarian and disrupter” who bought and sold hundreds of companies during a 50-year career in business told a standing-room-only crowd at Colorado Mesa University on Wednesday that buying established companies, and discovering and investing in trends, were some of his keys to success.
An amiable, plain-spoken native of Racine, Wisconsin, George Gillett Jr., 77, shared his strategy for success during keynote remarks before a standing-room-only crowd of business owners and college students at the 2016 Entrepreneurship Day luncheon in the Meyer Ballroom.
“I’m a contrarian and a disrupter,” Gillett said. “I love to cause problems. I must have been a tough little kid to raise.”
Such character traits, not universally appreciated, will often succeed in business “because it’s very hard to be successful doing what everybody else does,” he said.
Wasting no time to demonstrate the principle, Gillett discussed at length his investment in nuclear fusion technology. With apologies to the oil and gas interests of Mesa County, he declared nuclear fusion as the clean, inexpensive energy of the future.
Currently the chairman of the Booth Creek Management Corporation, Gillett has owned or been a partner in numerous ventures and companies, including the Miami Dolphins, the Montreal Canadiens, the Liverpool Football Club, the Harlem Globetrotters, NASCAR’s Richard Petty Motorsports, and Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts.
BE A CONTRARIAN
“Think about life in a different way,” he urged the audience. “Be a contrarian and don’t be afraid.”
Using his own life as an example, Gillett told the story of how, early in his career, he took over Packerland Packing Company.
“The beef industry of the late 1970s was plagued by overproduction and a market hampered by increasingly health-conscious Americans, so Gillett shifted the focus of the company toward production of lean, low-cholesterol meats,” according to a profile of Gillett’s holding company in “International Directory of Company Histories.”
Under his leadership, Packerland was the first company to win the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s ‘light’ beef classification, Gillett said.
“The food business is an ugly, ugly business,” he said, “but properly done, it also can be an amazingly healthy business.
“What we did was take a traditional meat company and created natural and organic products because housewives, consumers and restaurants were telling us that natural and organic was the wave of the future. So we started that about 20 years ahead of everyone else.
“(Others in the industry) disliked us greatly, but guess what, we damaged the value of our competitors so much that I ended up buying them all.”
Discovering the trend in healthy, organic produce was another example of Gillett’s keys to success.
SPOT THE TREND
Trends are like waves in the ocean and entrepreneurs are like surfers, he said.
“The single most important thing in surfing is to identify the biggest swell and take two strokes towards it. If you catch the hydraulics of a wave, you’ll ride for a half mile, but if you miss (it), I don’t care how strong you are, you can’t paddle up the backside of a wave.”
Reading is key to finding the biggest swell, he said.
“Identifying the opportunities, I read copiously. I read probably 10 books a week. Probably subscribe or read 50 newspapers or magazines” of widely diverse subject matter. “As part of our family office budget, I spend way over $1 million on market research” looking for the next trend he can connect with to make money, Gillett said.
“I never use investment bankers. That would seem strange for somebody who has bought 225 companies, but frankly, I spend my time traveling and getting to know people. I love people. I ... get to know everybody in the business. Then we ... look at making an acquisition in that field.”
In almost every case, the seller of the business stayed on at Gillett’s request, he said.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
“It’s obvious you have an orientation (at CMU) to starting things,” he said. “There’s a second way to do it. Entrepreneurs don’t always start businesses, they also acquire businesses.
“Since 90 percent of all businesses started fail, I wanted to minimize the risk ... so what we did was keep the people on who had been there before and we bought existing businesses. Honestly, if you do it with people who were there before, if you do your homework and look for trends, I believe you can mitigate most of your risk.
“We weren’t looking to hit home runs. There’s nothing wrong with singles and doubles.”
A 50-YEAR CAREER
Gillett started his career in marketing and management consulting. In 1966, Gillett invested in the Miami Dolphins football franchise and served as the team’s business manager. He also served as CEO of the Harlem Globetrotters and later founded Globetrotter Communications, a national radio group.
During his tenure as CEO, Gillett helped develop an animated children’s TV show, “The Harlem Globetrotters,” which premiered in 1970 and became the most popular children’s show that season.
“The show brought fans back to live Globetrotter appearances, enhanced CBS’s programming schedule, and helped advertisers sell their products,” according to a profile of the holding company in “International Directory of Company Histories.”
Gillett sold out his stake in the Globetrotters for $3 million.
In the 1970s, Gillett entered the meat packing business and also formed a broadcasting company that owned at least two network-affiliated television stations. Later, he added a number of corporate food brands to his ownership portfolio, including Iowa Beef Processors, Swift & Company and Coleman Natural Foods.
In 1985, Gillett Holdings, which owned a meat packing company and two television stations, purchased Vail Associates. By 1991, an ill-advised purchase of a communications company financed with junk bonds forced Gillett’s holding company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a February 1992 report in the New York Times said.
Vail Associates changed its name to Vail Resorts and went public in 1997 following Gillett Holdings’ bankruptcy, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.