Even if you don’t run a business, you will find the book a compelling read. It is full of life lessons that will encourage and challenge you.
Having lived in Nashville for a number of years, I can vouch for the fact that the Turner family is well-known for their philanthropic work and for living out their servant leadership values. I’m not going to pretend that I’m not a raving fan of his philosophy, his giving, and his leadership. I have been for years. So, it was a great honor for me to talk with Cal Turner, Jr. about his family, his business, and about his leadership.
I hope you enjoy our conversation which spanned all of these topics. His book is proudly within grasp on my bookshelf.
Cal Turner, Jr. grew up in Scottsville, Kentucy. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, he served for three years in the United States Navy before beginning a career at Dollar General. He served as CEO for 37 years. In that time, stores rose from 150 to over 6,000 and sales from $40 million to more than $6 billion. He has served on numerous boards and has received more awards than can be listed here. He is a shining example of servant leadership long after his retirement.
“A leader inspires someone to go for his or her best.” -Cal Turner, Jr.
Lightning strikes a tree and alters the course of a stream causing two rivers to join.
You’ve heard of the butterfly effect, where one small creature flapping its wings and creating a small wind current causes a chain reaction that alters hemispheric weather patterns half a world away.
When I think back on my own life, there are a few of those major moments that changed my life. Had just one person, one event, one little part of the equation been altered, even the slightest bit, who knows how different my own life would be.
“A good life is a collection of happy moments.” -Denis Waitley
One of those moments happened in 1990. I walked into a crowded room, looked up, and met eyes with the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Everything slowed down for a moment, the world tipping on its axis, freezing time long
enough to suspend us for a few seconds. It was immediate. It was intense. It was like nothing I’d known before.
Only a short time later, this week in 1992, she stood in the back of a church, the light flooding in through a stained-glass window behind her. She seemed to almost float there, as if she were an angel who was given the option to become fully human and was making her choice by joining her life with mine. From the front of the church, I sang to her, and she walked up the aisle and then we sang a duet together. Our lives forever changed. Yes, it was exactly like one of those Hallmark movies, the story line either inspiring or sickeningly sweet, depending on your perspective.
Others are gone, too: aunts, friends, my other grandparents, who were so gracious that day. My grandmother looked in the camera and thanked my wife “for being one of us now.”
Time marches forward. I’m now that guy that can tell others how to make a marriage last twenty-five years.
There are other moments that stand out:
Buying our first home together. How we managed, I’m not sure, but we did on a shoestring budget. We remember our near panic when we received that first utility bill, wondering how we would pay it.
The birth of our daughter in 1997. We recall every single minute. My wife’s elated cry out to me when her water broke. Hours later, my daughter surprising the nurses by tracking me by my voice.
A health scare. Only months afterward, we were surprised again with another altering moment. I’ll never forget the doctor coming out, telling me that my wife had breast cancer, and that she was about to come out of anesthesia. We would have to tell her together. It was advanced enough to require radiation and chemotherapy. She lost her hair but never her spirit. In a few months’ time, her faith began to sprout faster than her hair, and she has never wavered in her belief.
“It is in our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” -Aristotle Onassis
Life-threatening disease. Years later, we learned she had another cancer. This one even more insidious, threatening once again to steal her away, to shatter the glass of our lives. We’ve learned to pray more in these moments. No one prays in good times quite the same as in challenging times. We don’t know the why behind them. Perhaps God uses them to get our attention, perhaps because we’re finally still enough to see what is always there, and yet we miss it as we race by the important on the way to the meaningless.
Then there are the career moments. When she left hers to fight cancer and stay home to raise our daughter. When my promotions started. Her belief in me fueled my success. From the outside, my job promotions looked miraculous. The truth behind them was more struggle, political battles, and more work than you’d want to know. Nothing came easy. And it seems we moved so often that my wife put our furniture on wheels. In fact, it was our move to Columbus from Nashville that opened our eyes into how much junk we were carting around, stuff from decades ago, some of it in boxes not opened in several moves.
How old I was, I don’t know. Probably around four or five years old, give or take, though my father will likely correct the number with his own memory of the same event. It was a typical hot summer day, and my family was enjoying a day at the beach. We were in Ocean City, New Jersey, to be specific. At that time, the beach seemed to stretch on forever, which I now realize was a function of my age more than the actual distance of the sand. We brought food to the beach, which was typical because there was no way my father would pay Boardwalk prices for anything.
As usual, I was in the water. Somehow I lost track of my brother, Jack, who was with me. When I pulled myself out, exhausted, I scanned the crowd, looking for someone I recognized. I started walking, dodging people, umbrellas, walking around towels, sunbathers, and family tents. After what seemed like a few hours, which likely meant twenty minutes, I realized I was completely, utterly lost.
No matter where I looked, I didn’t see a single person I recognized. I was just short of panic. It’s a feeling I can recall to this day. I had never been lost before, uncertain about what to do or where to go.
Then, I spotted my dad. Where I was stressed, he was as calm as could be. My heart rate may have been spiking, but not his. He was scanning the area, his eyes making a mechanical sweep of everything. As soon as I saw him, I felt a flood of relief as if one of the waves washed all of the worry away in an instant.
This is one of the first memories I have of my father, and one that’s fitting to remember on Father’s Day. A few years ago, I wrote about 9 Leadership Lessons from Mom. It was so popular that I was interviewed numerous times about my childhood. Today I want to turn that spotlight onto my dad and share some of that fatherly wisdom. Because that day on the beach, I had a realization: when I was lost, I wasn’t really on my own. Dad was looking for me. And he wouldn’t give up until he found me. Still to this day, when I hear a sermon about God leaving the flock of sheep to look for a single lost lamb (Matthew 18:12), I think of my own dad doing that very thing.
1. Leaders never stop learning.
My dad loves to learn. His degrees range from electrical engineering to operations research (and many others). He went to seminary and then got an MBA. Even now, he is finishing a doctorate in business. My siblings know that our family was able to “Google” something long before the search engine was even formed. We simply found Dad, inputted the question, and out would come the answer. When the internet first started, I would often find he was faster. And, when we took a family trip, we would have to stop and read every plaque and see more historical sites than anyone else I knew.
Leaders have an insatiable curiosity. The more you learn to ask questions, the more you will learn information that may change the future.
“Leaders have insatiable curiosity.” -Skip Prichard
When my wife and I were first married, we moved quite a bit. Guess who helped us move? Painted? Took down or put up wallpaper? How about fixing the leaky sinks? Inspecting the house? You’d think he was a contractor until I add that he did our taxes, analyzed the best mortgages, and told us about the history of the area.
That’s another way of saying my dad is uh…cheap. And you’d have to be with only a government salary to raise six kids and numerous others we would take into the family home. The lesson, though, is to look for the value in everything. Don’t overpay. Realize that we need to be good stewards of what we have. Don’t waste anything.
Leaders don’t wish for the impossible; they create results with what they have.
“Leaders create results with what they have, not what they wish they had.” -Skip Prichard
Yes, he had an important job. He dutifully gave his time and talent to his employer. However, my father didn’t lead at work and then fail at home. He spent time with us. He was loyal to his family, and in particular, to my mom. None of us ever questioned his devotion. And that taught me a powerful lesson about leadership: it isn’t defined by a job.
Leadership is defined by character, not position.
“Leadership is defined by character, not position.” -Skip Prichard
5. Leaders appreciate the uniqueness of each individual.
My childhood home was a bit unusual. Somehow people found their way to our home when they were in trouble. If you were abused, our home was a place of refuge. We had our share of rather strange people stopping over. I never recall my father judging any of them. They were in need, and so they were welcome. And that was it.
Leaders don’t judge. Leaders appreciate each individual for who they are.
“Leaders appreciate each individual for who they are.” -Skip Prichard
If I came home with a 93% on a paper, I don’t recall a celebration. Instead, I was asked what I got wrong, why, and did I understand what I did wrong. The focus wasn’t on the criticism, but on learning and on striving to be better. My parents required each of us to learn a musical instrument, too, simply because of the benefits we would accrue by doing that.
Leaders raise the bar. Leaders push those around them to reach for more.
“Leaders push those around them to reach for more.” -Skip Prichard
He entered many of our homes via television, winning our hearts with his clever ads about his chicken. Appearing in hundreds of ads, Frank Perdue turned Perdue chicken into a national brand. “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” the ads touted.
Frank Perdue was a visionary business leader. He focused on culture, leadership development, packaging, promotion, and operational excellence perhaps years before others.
There are so many business and life lessons in this book. Let me just ask about a few areas.
One story you tell was about packaging. It grabbed my attention because he wanted better packaging, but his team said no. They said it was too expensive. I know he was frugal, so his commitment to make it happen speaks volumes. That little story says so much about his style and determination. Would you help us understand why this was so important to him?
Funny you picked on that story because it happens that I’m (I think) unusually qualified to comment on it. My master’s thesis from George Washington University was on the importance of packaging. I felt that the packaging of an idea or a product wasn’t as important as the content, but it was way up high as a consideration. Frank intuitively understood this concept without having to get a master’s degree! In the cases of the cartons that chicken was delivered in back in the late 1960s, it was pretty much industry standard to have flimsy boxes that might leave someone’s processing plant looking fine, but by the time they arrived at the distributor’s loading dock in a big city, the box might be crushed and leaking. Crushed and leaking boxes were a mega-headache for the distributor because it’s hard to handle them on a forklift, and it’s unsanitary. Frank realized that if he could create boxes that wouldn’t crush or leak, he’d be solving one of the distributors’ major problems. His attitude was that as long as his goal was to be the best, the price almost didn’t matter, he had to fix the fragile boxes because, “We can’t afford not to.” It fit in with his motto of, “Take care of the customer,” and the result was that when a distributor wanted chicken, he probably had Perdue on his speed dial. Packaging was an extraordinary competitive edge for us.
Mitzi Perdue, Used by Permission
“A business that doesn’t change is a business that is going to die.” –Frank Perdue
Take us into the culture of the company. It tolerated disagreement and strong opinions. As you say it tolerated “really forceful disagreement.” How did Frank encourage this? When did he, as a leader, stop the argument and unify the team?