“If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will take you there.” Lewis Carroll
During my years teaching entrepreneurship in the School of Hospitality and Tourism at the University of Guelph, I often referred to Lewis Carroll’s quote. The context, in most cases, was about the need to plan in all stages of a business. I taught, that one needs to form plans to get somewhere specific… like profitability, as an example. Start by finding your unique selling proposition was my first advice to students, then, as you strategize, try to account for every contingency. My lecture often finished with management guru, Peter Drucker’s famous quote: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Avoidance of failure depends on a carefully constructed plan. It’s necessary to outline the specifics of your plan and the various goals and benchmarks by which you will measure success, step by step. Then organize your efforts accordingly. If it’s a good plan, success will surely follow. That’s what I thought.
I had two businesses early in life. After playing professional golf on the Australian and Canadian PGA tours in the 1970’s, I was hired as a club professional. In preparation for my first season as Head Professional I developed a Business Plan. I bought inventory with the help of a small loan and opened for business in April. Besides a base salary, I sold golf equipment and apparel. During the summer season, I supplemented my income by giving golf lessons and was also paid to manage the affairs of the clubhouse. My Bachelor of Commerce degree served me well as I applied the lessons I had learned from my management courses. Over two years I increased sales, grew membership, improved member participation in social events and sold a lot of merchandise. It was a good experience. It taught me the value of planning in a world of “revenues and expenses.” Although it was rewarding, it wasn’t enough, and not my true calling. In 1981 I headed back to university to pursue a graduate degree in Philosophy.
While studying for my Masters I was asked to teach the course, “Introduction to Hospitality Management”. Time passed and before I knew it ten years as “Professor Desautels”, teaching eight different courses, had elapsed. Along the way I was fortunate to be a founding member of the Green Party of Canada and complete a graduate degree in Philosophy. Academically, I had developed extensive knowledge of foods and beverages, and a considerable understanding of the field of Organizational Behaviour (an area of study that combines the subjects of Business Management, Sociology and Psychology). However, in the middle of my academic career I began to yearn for the world of business. Owning my own restaurant had always been one of my dreams, so, in 1985 I took a leave from my teaching position and opened my second business, La Maison.
I approached this business in the classic fashion. I followed all the stages of planning a “start-up” restaurant. I planned everything in the management areas of marketing, operational systems, human relations, facility layout, maintenance and, of course, accounting. My concept was based on modern French food trends (also known as Nouvelle Cuisine). It was a one-of-a-kind restaurant idea for the Guelph, Ontario market place. My unique selling proposition!
My first step was to flesh out the detailed Business Plan. After securing a location and financing, I hired a chef. We worked out a menu, testing each food item. Then the hard work began: creating the decor; determining the style of service; pricing food and beverages; advertising; hiring staff; training staff; ordering plate ware, glassware and cutlery; installing the sound system; choosing the point of sale system; developing management information systems; purchasing opening food and beverage inventory; and more. After two hectic months, I opened! Then came three years of applying the key management functions of planning, organizing, motivating/leading and controlling in a strategic in a consistent manner. But three years later I had only reached $325,000/year in sales. The business provided me with a mediocre income and a 7-day work week. Although La Maison received some terrific reviews from customers and the press, it certainly wasn’t a raging success. More like a partial failure. So, I sold the business after three years of operations, took a trip to Europe with my wife and returned to full-time teaching at the university.
One of my favourite courses to teach was Beverage Management – it was essentially a History of Wines, Beers and Spirits (with a few management principles thrown in for good measure). During this period, I became fascinated with the emergence of small craft breweries, a trend that was gaining some significant momentum in the late 1980’s. I liked the fact that these businesses were local, which I believed was important for the economy because, among other things, it ensured diversity. These beers were also better than those made by big breweries because they were made with better ingredients and avoided the use of additives. They were also of higher quality than imported beers because they were locally produced - beer, especially on draft, is not like wine – 99% of the time it is much better fresh. I closely watched and researched this growing business sector in my region. It was truly an exciting revolution in the brewing industry.
At the same time, I was reflecting on my two business experiences, and, once again, looking at my life in general. It was clear to me that I wasn’t going to teach in the field of Business for the rest of my life, despite being offered the chance at tenure, twice. If I was going to stay at the university it would only be in the department of Philosophy, for which I’d need a doctorate and that was not going to happen. My Masters thesis had worn me down with the endless research and re-writing. I had realized I was more of a generalist than a specialist. (1.)
During this period of, what I now call, discontent, the university had become bureaucratic and predictable. I also felt that the students lacked the fire and conviction of my generation. Many were only concerned with earning a degree, getting a job and they questioned very little. For young folk, they seemed strangely complacent. I felt that I needed something far more meaningful and vibrant. That “something” fell into my lap.
The people who had bought my restaurant, La Maison, went bankrupt and lost their liquor licence in January of 1990. The sale contract had involved a vendor take-back and they still owed me a substantial amount of money. To get full return on my original investment I had no choice but to take over the business. I decided to “throw” the French restaurant idea out the window and set out on a new course of action for the business. This was an approach that was based more on instinct than good planning.
La Maison became The Woolwich Arms Pub. A place that specialized in craft beer on tap and local foods. The “Wooly” (its current name), as it was affectionately known, was one of Canada’s first gastro pubs. It began by serving the freshest natural foods and beverages possible. Soon I focused on making the business “greener” and started compositing food waste, buying recyclable take-out containers and purchasing organic cotton uniforms. Eventually I decided to use green electricity which cost a premium over my base electrical rates. We then pushed our “buy-local” philosophy to our décor decisions and even included car purchases (all company vehicles had to be assembled in Ontario). Soon the pub gained a momentum of its own and sales grew from $350,000 in 1990 to over a million by 2000, and then over two million by 2010. The business had become a virtual “cash cow”!
Looking back to that seminal year (1990), what I now see has a whiff of synchronicity – this is a word from Carl Jung and describes a point in time when you experience a group of meaningful coincidences which, if you’re receptive, seem to give you insights and/or show you a new direction. It all began when I decided to sell only Ontario craft beers. This tactic was based upon my fascination, and belief, in this emerging brewing trend. This soon expanded to a buy-local modus operandi in all our food and beverage purchases. The restaurant sold only local wines and thanks to innovative farmers I could source unique regional foods like grass-fed beef, venison, bison, produce, and herbs. At the same time my Green Party roots had been “bubbling” in my consciousness and soon sustainable business practices followed. All these efforts were slightly ahead of the curve in my industry which led to some good press and customer buy-in. And on a personal level, I felt more satisfied than ever because I was living my values through my business. My life had become authentic. This all occurred because of a confluence of developments, ideas and beliefs: my moment of discontent, a bankrupt business, a trend in the brewing industry, growth in artisanal food suppliers and my green ambitions.
This brings me full circle and back to Lewis Carroll and Peter Drucker’s emphasis on “planning”. I did not have a clear plan when I took over the bankrupt business in 1990; but, I did end up exactly where I wanted to be. This result (virtually) contradicts both of their cautionary quotations re planning. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin offers a clue to my (seemingly) accidental success:
“By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail”.
Sounds like Drucker’s quote? Not quite. As I’ve shown in this example, I was completely prepared but had no clear plan. I had developed a powerful buy-local philosophy and a commitment to sustainability that, in turn, governed all my business decisions. I had prepared for the opportunity well in advance of it ever happening. Call it what you will - serendipity, synchronicity, or whatever - what matters is that it worked.
1. A Generalist knows less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything vs. a Specialist who knows more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.