A Smile of Wisdom That Explained Why He Was CEO

With Memorial Day, this is a short week for many of you, so I’m going to offer a “feel good” blog posting, which has nothing to do with increasing catalog response rates or fighting Amazon. It has everything to do with your personal leadership abilities. And it has to do with a “life lesson” I learned almost 40 years ago. If you are only interested in reading about catalogs, you can skip this week’s posting and I will not mark you as absent.

Every Saturday, our local newspaper features a profile of a local person with an interesting story to tell. Several weeks ago, they profiled the retired CEO of Friendly’s Ice Cream, who had recently turned 100, and who was now living not far from me at a retirement center in New Hampshire.  He was the 3rd employee of Friendly’s, hired in 1945 to wash dishes at the original Friendly’s restaurant.   When he retired in 1982 as CEO, the chain had grown to 500+ restaurants, stretching from Maine to Ohio, and as far south as Virginia, and was then owned by Hershey Chocolate.

I was stunned to realize this man was still alive. After telling my wife and son about my one encounter with him back in 1981, I decided to write him this letter.  The rest is self-explanatory.

“Dear Mr. Gaudrault,

I was delighted to see the article about you in last Saturday’s Keene Sentinel, and to learn of your good health at age 100.  I’m sure that you do not remember me, as we met only once almost 40 years ago, but I wanted to let you know how much that one meeting impacted my work career over the ensuing years.

In 1981, Friendly’s became a national corporate sponsor of the Easter Seal Society. I was about to graduate with my MBA from Clark University in Worcester, and take on the business world. But Friendly’s wanted someone in the Wilbraham headquarters from Easter Seals, to coordinate the Cones-For-Kids project. My father at the time was President of the Massachusetts Easter Seal Society, and I was hired to fill the role in Wilbraham on behalf of Easter Seals.

One Saturday morning, you and I flew to Toledo, Ohio to attend a “PR” event at a local Friendly. I was terrified of being late, and holding everyone else up, so I left Worcester at almost 4 AM to drive to Westfield for 7 AM, where the Hershey corporate jet was awaiting us.  I was early, but I remember you arrived a few minutes late because you had stopped to buy donuts for the pilots.  I was amazed at that.

I had arranged to have several local children who were receiving services from Easter Seals, attend an ice cream sundae party at the restaurant. The local TV station which hosted the Easter Seal telethon sent over a camera crew and the telethon host to film the party and conduct an interview with you. Everything went well, and while the children were finishing their sundaes, you met with every employee, and talked with some of the customers.

But the part of the day which I have remembered all these years came as we were walking back to the parking lot, to go back to the airport.  A customer was having difficulty seeing around another car as they were attempting to back up. You began to guide the driver on backing up, and you were calling the driver by his first name. I realized it was the cameraman from the TV station.

When we got back into our car, I asked how it was that you remembered the cameraman’s name, as I certainly couldn’t.   You simply smiled at me with a wisdom that explained why you were the CEO.

I knew then that you remembered his name because you had taken the time to learn it the first place. That was the sign of a leader that truly cared about people. Your kindness toward me that day was another sign. I was in awe at being just 23, flying on a corporate jet, and traveling with the CEO.  Your kindness helped put me at ease.

I was recently asked by a junior staff member at my company what was the most memorable business lesson I had experienced, and without pause, I told them of your instructions to a driver in a parking lot in Toledo, and your ability to remember their name.   In my business career, I have tried to develop that same sense of warmth which I saw you display that day.

I’m sure that at age 100, you have many pleasant memories of a long and fulfilling life. But I wanted to let you know how your kindness and business acumen had touched me and guided my career as well.

Thanks again.”


NOTE: Two weeks after I sent my letter, I received a very nice thank you note in the mail from Mr. Gaudrault. The hand writing was a little shaky (hey, will any of us have a steady hand at 100?), but he was sincere in his thanks to me for writing to him.

I leave you with this last thought: My father was the biggest mentor in my business career. I never had the chance to thank him. If there is a person in your life that helped your career – even if it was only a one day lesson – take the time to write a note and say thanks. It will be appreciated.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235