Half Century Man

By John Matthews, founder and president of Gray Cat Enterprises Inc.

Feb. 11 was a milepost of sorts – I turned 50!

As I enter the second half of my life [sic], I look back at the first 50 years with a great sense of pride and exuberance.  I have been blessed with the opportunities afforded me—both personally and in business— have met tremendous high-quality people along the way and have been humbled by the relationships that I have fostered.  In addition, I have had the good fortune of spending some 20 years with leading companies before transcending into owning Gray Cat Enterprises for the last eight years.  I certainly hope that my next 50 years will be as invigorating.

Last week, I had an opportunity to present to the National Honor Society at my son’s high school.  I was asked to present on my business background and what I have learned throughout my career.  In preparing my speech, I had the chance to reflect on a number of items that I have “learned” and how I fortunate my career truly has been.  Here are a few snippets from that presentation:

Life Is Not Fair, But You Own It: You win some, you lose some….sometimes you are just downright screwed.  It happens and there is no way to avoid it entirely—but you can minimize it. Your option is to let fate deal your hand or always be prepared for what may forsake you.  I have always believed that if I had answers to issues in advance of them propagating, I stood a chance to be able to overcome the onslaught.  You may not be able to withstand everything thrown at you, but in most cases, you can protect against the downside.

You Have To Start At The Bottom: Many of today’s college grads are looking for the mid-manager to senior-level jobs on day one.  That expectation in today’s job market will go unfulfilled.  While I am sure there are some insanely talented grads out there, everyone starts at the bottom. The sooner you accept that premise, the faster you can start your career climb.  Besides, you can learn anything in any position; it is you that decides if you are willing to be coachable.

Grab All The Responsibility You Can: Break outside of your comfort zone if you wish to exceed your expectations. I owe a debt of gratitude to my two bosses that I had at Clark Retail Enterprises for what I became in my career.  I was a “marketing guy” when I arrived at Clark and through their consistent confidence in my abilities, they expanded my business acumen—in both breadth and depth—to include real estate, IT, capital and facilities management. Many of the projects I have been involved with at Gray Cat, incorporate some or all of these disciplines.

Network With People: Thankfully, LinkedIn was invented!  I have always been a strong connector and networker but prior to LinkedIn, every contact was tracked manually!  Now with a network north of 13 million on LinkedIn (2,100 1st degree contacts) and a database of 7,500 contacts in my iPhone, I feel confident that I am well informed and connected.  For the students at the high school, this fell into the “it’s not what you know, it’s who know” camp.

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Abyss: Much like grabbing all of the responsibility you can, getting past the “fear factor” is the key to taking on and overcoming immense challenges as they are presented.  Over the years, the fear of the “abyss” has dwindled and, in fact, has made me seek greater and greater challenges.  Desire to succeed is the key ingredient to any successful career.

Everyone Will Have A Lousy Boss: Or bosses. It is the way of the world.  Navigating around or with a lousy boss is not an easy task.  Recognizing that everyone has faced this scenario as well should make the interaction less intrusive.  Take a deep breath, attempt to seek common ground and hope for the best—or a transfer!

You Will Lose One Of Your Jobs:  Layoffs, bankruptcies, acquisitions, mistakes, downsizing, relocations and the list goes on.  So many “out of your control” factors can determine whether you keep your job or not.  Oh yeah, and so does your own performance.  In today’s world, losing your job is the norm—just ask the people that are out of work. As of January 2012, the U.S. is 15.2 million jobs away from full employment (defined as the employment conditions that existed at the peak of the Clinton boom, in April 2000).  That is a lot of “out of work” companions.

Develop An Attitude To Persevere: Your career is yours—own it.  No matter what the circumstances, it comes down to you being the “CEO” of your career.  Accept that mantra and you will persevere.  Your career is a long-steady run—enjoy the work, the sweat and above all, the significant relationships that are built over the years. Here’s to the next 50 years!

John Matthews is the founder and president of Gray Cat Enterprises Inc., a strategic planning and marketing services firm that specializes in helping businesses grow in the restaurant, convenience and general retail industries.  With more than 20 years of senior-level experience in retail and a speaker at retail-group events throughout the U.S., Matthews has recently written two step-by-step manuals, Local Store Marketing Manual for Retailers and Grand Opening Manual for Retailers, which are available at www.graycatenterprises.com.



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