Joe Herring, 52, CEO at Covance, started out selling a $55.95, 2,500-page encyclopedia/homework manual. He was paid entirely on commission, and his daily goal was 60 calls, 20 to 30 demonstrations and four or five sales. That usually required 14-hour days that often ended at 10 p.m. as the invited dinner guest of a customer. "My customers ranged from the blissfully happy to the divorced and depressed," Herring says. "Having 10 or 15 doors slammed in your face each day teaches about handling adversity and disappointment with a positive attitude. No matter how mean one family, the next could be a real gem," he says, adding that his success led to job offers at 10 other companies.
Outback Steakhouse founder Tim Gannon, 59, says he has yet to meet a successful person who didn't have a great story about starting at the ground floor. "Great success comes from overcoming adversity," Gannon says. "Without desire, you can't get to ambition."
Not the sons and daughters
Yet, even as today's leaders like to reminisce about their dreary beginnings, the Labor Department says the teenage children of these most highly educated are least likely to be in the labor force.
Dylan Jones, the 17-year-old son of Borders Group CEO George Jones, has not worked except briefly at a Borders bookstore, although the elder Jones, 57, tells him that it would give him a work ethic and a greater appreciation of money. However, Dylan has visited more than 30 countries. "Travel is a learning experience that benefits kids greatly, and in all fairness to my son, we have made travel a higher priority than his having a job," the elder Jones says.
Contrast that with George Jones' upbringing. He was 3 when his father died in a car accident. His mother provided basic needs working two jobs as a bookkeeper. But he learned that if he wanted anything extra, he would have to work, which he did, starting in 1961 as a 10-year-old cleaning the heavy dirt from peanuts for a nickel a pound at his neighbor's farm near Little Rock. That came to 25 to 30 cents for an afternoon's work. Half of the dozen kids who took the job quit within a few days.
It would be unfair to say that every person of consequence indulged in hard labor. Keith Wyche, 48, now president of U.S. operations for Pitney Bowes Management Services, worked two summers at minimum wage selling women's shoes at a Thom McAn in Cleveland. He liked selling enough to major in marketing and started his career selling for AT&T and IBM.
Perhaps the most successful, Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, 77, developed a newspaper route at apartment houses with an effective sales-to-step ratio. Robbie Bach, 46 and president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, worked at the local tennis club's pro shop, which afforded him personal practice time. Hormel Foods CEO Jeff Ettinger, 49, sold souvenirs and ushered for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He ate many a Dodger Dog made by Farmer John, a company Hormel acquired under Ettinger in 2004.
JP Garnier, 60, who retired last month from GlaxoSmithKline, played bridge for money. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, 72, once caddied for tips, as did Steve Harman, 51, president of Shell Lubricants. But Harman says that was his weekend job. Weekdays, he was underground in British coal mines.