Harvard University yesterday announced three new members to its governing Corporation, the small, secretive, and important self-perpetuating group that runs what the press release describes as "the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere." The one of the three that caught my eye was Joseph J. O'Donnell. There's a transcript of an interview that Harvard Business School's Amy Blitz did with him in June 2001 for its entrepreneurs program that is wonderful in the way it captures the entrepreneurial spirit of a guy who started and ran a concessions company (food service at ski areas, movie theaters, convention centers) with 11,000 employees in 40 states that "makes about a billion dollars a year." [It's not clear from the interview if that is gross revenue or net profit.] Highlights:
Controlling my own destiny is a big theme in my life. Even as a kid, I always wanted to be more independent than I would be if I relied on an allowance for doing chores around the house. I had a paper route when I was young. In high school, I actually created a tuxedo concession. I went to the local tuxedo vendor and told him that during our prom I could rent 100 tuxedos for him. God only knows how I came up with this idea. Anyway, he threw me out of his store. As I left, I said, "Well, I'll just bring my business to Lee Elliot." Lee Elliot was a competitor in the next town over, Malden. And this guy turned me around in the street and brought me back in. For two years after that, I had a tuxedo concession in my high school—Malden Catholic. I got a free tuxedo and a couple hundred bucks.
I have a very pronounced philosophy about how to manage people and do the work, and that is to operate in as decentralized a way as possible....The first thing I did was to get rid of all the supervisors. I gave everyone out in the field responsibility....I don't have a human resources department or a general counsel and we don't have meetings. Once a year I bring all the managers together with their spouses for three or four days and we have a get-together, but that's all....The second thing I did to implement my ideas was encourage my managers to work with their spouses. We have probably fifty teams of men and women who work sixty, seventy, or eighty hours a week when their business is in season, in a ski area for example. If they're in a business with steady, year-round work, they work weekends and nights. It's tough. Almost all the other companies in this industry prohibit spouses from working together because of a control problem, such as the couple conspiring to steal the company's money. We think, instead, that if couples work together they'll be more likely to stay with us.
My definition of personal success is that I don't have to set the alarm clock in the morning. I have total control over what I do. I've told my two daughters that I don't care what they do as long as they can control their environment. I think that no matter how hard you work, if you control your environment and love what you do, you'll have less stress.
I have no idea whether this guy will be a good member of the Harvard Corporation, but these themes of control, of decentralization, and of dislike for meetings and for the bureaucracy represented by a general counsel or human resources department are things that will be familiar to a lot of entrepreneurs.