Menu for success in the fast lane

Fast food baron Jack Cowin’s top takeaways for running a successful business empire include good health, integrity, surrounding yourself with smart people and knowing when to fold ‘em when it comes to taking risks.

The 74-year-old, who said after almost a half century in business he’s in the last quarter of the football match, was speaking to more than 130 business leaders at the CCI Lighthouse Leadership lunch at the Hyatt Regency on May 18.

Once a grid-iron player and wrestler, Cowin learnt early that business was a team sport after burning his hand on hot oil during his one-week training session to run the KFC store he’d bought on the corner of Canning Highway and North Lake Road in December 1969.

“My job was to build and expand,” he said.

While many of Cowin’s employees have gone on to do great things, including Dominoes CEO Don Meij, who Cowin picked to lead the brand after his success as a franchisee, his wife Sharon didn’t fare so well.

Cowin said Sharon came to work in one of his first KFC restaurants in Perth in 1969 but was fired at the end of the day.

“We had to sack her because her idea of the business was that the people behind the counter should have stools to sit on and secondly they should have longer breaks. So, her career was relatively short lived,” he said.

He attributes a rock solid family as a key to success and, despite sacking his wife, their marriage is still ticking after 50 years.

Needing 30 people to lend him $10,000 each to buy that first KFC, Cowin says they all got their money back.

“If you still had those original shares, that $10,000 is worth $25m now, so the people have done well and they got their money back. Some have died, some wanted the money and that’s kind of the story of the business.”

Cowin went on to own the Hungry Jack’s franchise, with the first store opening on Scarborough Beach Road in 1971. It now has more than 420 stores across Australia.

Investing $400,000 into a QLD pizza chain called Sylvio’s Dial-A-Pizza in 1986 and growing it from four to 70 stores led to a merger with Domino’s, which had 50 stores and had gone broke three times, in 1992. Cowin said the business struggled and he probably should have given up on it but brought in new management in 2001.

“The company went public in 2005 at $2.20 and today it’s worth $60, so the business went from a market cap of $120m from when it went public to today’s $5.5b. I’m fortunate enough I’ve never sold a share in the business during that time period,” Cowin said.

Domino’s now has more than 2000 stores across the world.

Jack Cowin’s top 12 life’s lessons

  1. Stay healthy: If you lose your health nothing else matters. How much money would Kerry Packer have paid for a new kidney? Lots. Even though we don’t always practice it, you have to maintain a physical and mental health and both of those are connected.
  2. Integrity: If you lose your integrity, no amount of success will be meaningful and it will produce a hollow feeling when you look in the mirror. What would the Alan Bonds, Laurie Connells, Rodney Adlers say was important to them if they were still alive or able to return the clock? Integrity is really important
  3. Control your own destiny: How many people are in jobs because they have to meet the necessities, don’t have any sort of passion towards what they’re doing? When you can’t tell the difference between work and play, you’re probably in the right place.
  4. Take risks: Life is an adventure and a challenge. When you’re young you can afford to fail because you can start over again. When you’re old you need the stimulation.
  5. Caveats to risk: There’s a difference between smart risk and foolish risk. Number one, don’t bet the farm. You don’t have to hit a six every time you swing the bat. Singles and doubles will get you there. Don’t underestimate the power of compound interest and don’t fall in love with a business as there are no shortage of good deals. Consider what threats can you take out of the game. Don’t wait until the dogs are barking at the door to do things. Banks don’t give out loans or umbrellas when it’s raining.
  6. Counter balance: Get some money out of the business that is at risk or market adverse. Counter balance the investment and you’ll sleep better at night.
  7. Keep some powder dry: Have an opportunity fund for when the right deal knocks at your door. Be prepared to test and prove things with real money. Spread the risk and take a step-by-step approach rather than putting it all on the nose to win.
  8. Family: Find a tolerant wife or husband that appreciates your search for success and fulfillment. Be good to your kids as they’ll be the ones checking you into the nursing home. It can be very unfulfilling trying to enjoy yourself when nobody else likes your company.
  9. Never give up if you think you’re right: A lot of people fold too easily without putting up a real fight. The flipside is, don’t die on your sword in pursuit of mission impossible. Be prepared to cut your losses, as the old Kenny Rogers song goes, you have to know when to hold them and when to fold them.
  10. Don’t get caught up in your own self-importance: Try to be humble, even if you don’t believe it. Be able to laugh at yourself.
  11. Life is about dealing with people: You can solve your biggest problems if you maintain a smile and a sense of humour. Surround yourself with smart people who complement your skills. Pay attention to the big stuff, delegate the mundane, but don’t abdicate.
  12. Focus. You have to have the ability to focus in on what is really important and not get caught up in the various pressures.

►Missed out on hearing from Jack Cowin? Join us at CCI’s next Lighthouse Leadership Series event featuring Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston AK, AFC (Ret’d)

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