T. Gary Rogers: Life Lessons Learned in 40 years of Business Building

Former Safeway Chairman and Food Industry Icon Speaks at Peer-to-Pier in San Francisco

T. Gary Rogers

A leader in innovation and entrepreneurship for more than four decades, T. Gary Rogers is an icon in the food industry.

He served as chairman of Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway Inc., with more than 2,400 stores and 250,000 employees, from 2013 until until just a few weeks before he appeared as a Dean’s Distinguished Speaker in February when a monumental deal was completed. Safeway was acquired for $8 billion by a private investment group and combined with Albertson’s to create the nation’s largest grocery retailer.

For 30 years, Rogers grew Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream from a 75-employee company with $6 million in sales to one of the world’s largest ice cream companies with more than 9,000 employees.

At the School’s annual Peer-to-Pier event on February 19, which was hosted by Salesforce.com in San Fransisco, Rogers shared his journey and experiences from a young entrepreneur at Harvard Business School and failing in the restaurant business to buying Dreyer’s for $1 million and selling it to Nestle for $3.2 billion, and topping off his career with the record Safeway deal.

Rogers shared with the capacity audience his eight life lessons learned in 40 years of business building:

Life Lessons Learned in 40 years of Business Building

Prepare to be “lucky”
“Louis Pasteur said it best: ‘Fortune favors only the prepared mind’ … In my experience, people who were considered lucky in retrospect, were those who were prepared see that scene of opportunity we all see everyday and recognize it, act on it and leverage it.”

Find or create sustainable competitive advantage and leverage it
“If you are in any business, you need to be able to offer your customers something that your competitors cannot offer…When I bought Dreyer’s, I didn’t know anything about the ice cream business, but I did my due diligence and I was ready to move forward…Our trucks and distribution became our sustainable competitive advantage…We learned that by having your own people in the stores, it’s amazing what you can do…It increased our efficiency and profitability.”

Be a persistent optimist
“Woody Allen said famously that 80% of success is just showing up, and I subscribe to that. That’s the persistence part. It’s so often true. You show up often enough and something good is going to happen. But I contend that if you add optimism into the mix, it’s more like 90%. I am a great believer in optimism. There’s a famous venture capitalist some of you may have heard of named Reid Dennis, who was an early venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, and he used to say , ‘In all my years of venture capital, I have never met a rich pessimist…My crew coach at Cal used to say, ‘There’s no such thing as can’t, there’s only won’t.’ Those are words to live by.”

From the mud grows the lotus
“You need to look at failure as a learning experience. It is amazing in my career how my biggest disappointments have turned into my biggest successes…Life goes on, get back up and get back on the horse.”

Hire smart
“Very few companies really hire smart. In my experience you have a choice when you put a team together. You can hire smart or you can manage tough. It is a lot easier to hire smart than to manage tough. When recruiting for an executive position, you need to understand what the top 20% of qualified applicants look like…We put people through 10 interviews before we make a decision…It facilitated so much success.”

Respect the individual
“At Dreyer’s we gave you a business card with your name and title on the front and on the back it read: ‘Company Policy: Use your own best judgement at all times.’…If you trust people to do the right thing, they will never let you down…Our goal is to have you lying awake at night worrying about our problems, not yours. We were very explicit about that…The two most important words in the English language are: You decide. It completely changes your mind frame. It is incredibly powerful…There is so much power in trust.”

Enjoy your one trip around the track of life
“My business partner used to say: ‘You only go around the track once, you owe it to yourself to enjoy the journey.’ Those words are so important. There are no mulligans in life…Let’s make it as good as it can be…Life goes by fast. Believe me, I’m 73, I know, and I’ve faced the Grim Reaper a couple of times. I’ve had very serious brain surgery and I recently had lymphoma both of which could very easily have killed me…Life is so precious. I’ve come to the conclusion if you get today right, the weeks, the months and the years will take care of themselves. Don’t plan so specifically for yourself. Make sure today is as good as it possibly could be.”

Be a builder—the joy of life is in the struggle
“I learned this in college on the crew team…You row everyday—sometimes twice a day—for nine months before you have any competition. That’s crazy. Thousands of miles of hard work. Why would you do that? The joy is in the process. You come to appreciate that every workout is an opportunity to be maximized…It’s about the doing, not about the having.”


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