When he was 18, CEO David Haffner of manufacturer Leggett & Platt worked the graveyard shift at a Hercules explosives plant in Missouri.
Each night, Haffner and two others loaded 200,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate onto a railroad boxcar, one 50-pound bag at a time, hustling to finish early to squeeze in an hour of sleep at 6 a.m. before heading to classes at Missouri Southern State University. Haffner says he developed Popeye forearms making $3.86 an hour in 1971, moving enough explosive each shift to blow up 300 acres in Vietnam.
Today, Haffner, 55, runs a company with 24,000 employees. Long ago, his performance ceased to be measured by the perspiration on his brow. But hard labor was not foreign to him or to many CEOs as teens.
Jeff Rich, 47, the former CEO of Affiliated Computer, was a 13-year-old hay baler making $50 a day moving 2,000 bundles in 110-degree lofts. Tony White, 61, CEO of health care company Applera, says there may still be a footprint stain on his mother's bathtub from his job cleaning the oily soot from oil and coal furnaces in Asheville, N.C. Herman Cain, the 62-year-old former president of Godfather's Pizza, spent a summer operating a jackhammer in Atlanta.
Did they learn important lessons from the drudgery that shapes their leadership style today? Almost all say yes. If nothing else, it taught them to finish college.
"Demanding jobs motivated me to stay in school," says UPS CEO Scott Davis, 56, a former pear picker and lumber mill laborer.
But a large portion of the next generation of corporate leaders is likely to miss potential lessons of a teen's first summer job as they skip flipping burgers, washing cars, waiting tables, bagging groceries or other menial jobs that today's CEOs say had an influence on them.
The percentage of teens working this summer is expected to continue a 40-year slide. Last July, a record low 50% of 16-to-19-year-olds worked or sought jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says, down from 72% in July 1978. Outplacement consultant Challenger Gray & Christmas estimates 1.5 million 16-to-19-year-olds will be hired this summer, down from 2 million in 1999.
It's not that the jobs are drying up. The National Restaurant Association says its industry alone will add 403,000 jobs this summer. The shortfall is in the available teens. Some don't want to work. Others figure it's better to attend summer school, college-prep programs, volunteer or even run their own businesses, CEO John Challenger says.
How the bypassing of summer jobs in the spring of their careers will affect the next generation of leadership is unclear. But Software Spectrum co-founder Judy Odom, 55, all but single-handedly ran a tuxedo rental shop for minimum wage as a 17-year-old in Fort Worth, where the owner showed up at day's end to empty the cash register. She remembers placing cold calls from newspaper engagement announcements and, on weekends, acting as chief troubleshooter as the store turned frenzied with last-minute needs.
"I learned so much about business from that job, both do's and don'ts," Odom says.
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.
Bayer CEO Attila Molnar, 59, says he was excited to land a summer job in the chemical lab of a major company, but they didn't give him meaningful work. "It left me convinced that having a job with nothing to do may be worse than not having a job at all," he says.
USA TODAY reached out to dozens of executives who now run or once ran major corporations. Thirty-two responded, and although their ages range and they grew up diversely in big cities and rural towns, all worked as teens, eight of them before age 11. At USA TODAY's request, RiseSmart, an Internet site for jobs that pay $100,000 and up, surveyed CEOs and former CEOs of smaller companies.
Among the 37 who responded, 32 said their summer jobs were good experience. Only four said their first jobs were awful, and one said it was just a job, neither beneficial nor traumatic. Almost all earned $3 an hour or less.
Patti Moss, the 54-year-old CEO of Cascade Bancorp, picked strawberries and currants as a pre-teen on Vashon Island, Wash. Diane Irvine, 49, CEO of online fine jewelry retailer Blue Nile, grew up on an Illinois farm that raised beef cattle and chickens. Her first "outside" job was at 14 as she stood on a platform pulled by a tractor and detassled rows of corn, pulling tassels to prevent the corn from pollinating itself.
UPS CEO Davis picked pears in Medford, Ore., for $1.25 an hour, and former International Dairy Queen CEO Mike Sullivan, 72, was driven each morning from a Minneapolis YMCA to a farm when he was 12 or 13, where he picked sacks of potatoes for as much as $5 a day. Sullivan remains proud of all the first jobs provided by Dairy Queens in small towns. "Bad-mouthing of food-service jobs for young people does a great disservice," he says.
Jim Skinner, 63, is the most recent of five McDonald's CEOs who once flipped burgers for the company. Blockbuster CEO Jim Keyes, 53, put in 60-plus hours a week at McDonald's, a small sacrifice for someone raised in a home with no heating and indoor plumbing. He was also a church organist.
Ameritrade CEO Joe Moglia, 59, was put to work in his father's produce store at 10, but to keep officials from suspecting child-labor violations, he didn't wear a store apron. By 19, he'd sold magazines door-to-door, driven both a UPS truck and a New York City taxi, and started a career in football coaching.
Of course, CEOs usually developed an early knack for upward mobility. Gary Smith, 47, CEO of communications equipment supplier Ciena, was born in England. His first job was washing dishes, but he was soon a photographer shooting tourists at an English seaside beach resort. Curt Culver, 55, CEO of MGIC Investment, washed root beer mugs at 10 at his parents' A&W. The following year, he had proved himself good with numbers and was helping with payroll.
Chris Kearney, 52 and CEO of industrial products giant SPX, was 13 in 1968 when he made $100 a week loading trucks for the family-owned beer distributorship in Mount Pleasant, Pa., something generations of Kearney boys have done since the end of Prohibition.
Today's teens should think of every job opportunity as an important building block in life, no matter how menial it seems, Kearney says. "A successful career is built incrementally, one step at a time."
Donald Trump, who turns 62 this month, also started out in the family business. He would go to construction sites with his father and watch how he negotiated with contractors. "He was on the sites at 6 a.m. every day," Trump says. "He was a relentless worker, and I was expected to keep up with him."
Loews Hotels CEO Jonathan Tisch, 54, started behind the front desk of the Americana Hotel in New York, where he substituted his middle name for his last name so that customers and co-workers wouldn't know his family owned the hotel. Andrew Cosslett, 53, the British CEO of InterContinental Hotel Group, went to the South of France in 1975 to clean rooms and change beds at a resort in Cap d'Agde. The work was hard and repetitive, but Cosslett says he learned French, and the job was more enjoyable than those he worked later back in England: forklift driver, barman and accounts clerk in a soft-drinks business.
"Looking back, all of them have given me invaluable experience that I have drawn on," says Cosslett, who runs a company in charge of 585,094 guest rooms in 100 countries.
Philadelphia University President Stephen Spinelli, 53, co-founder of Jiffy Lube International, was fired as a bus boy when his boss learned he was underage, but he was given a letter of reference and went on to work several more jobs as a teen, often putting in 80-hour weeks. By the time he was 21, he was a summer police officer in Ocean City, Md., where confiscated beer found its way to the police barracks at night.
"Maybe the most fun I've ever had in a summer job," Spinelli says.
Jim McNerney, 58, CEO of Boeing, may have him beat. McNerney recalls working the usual teen jobs around the Chicago suburbs when, one summer, he called up a Colorado rancher on a whim.
"I'm 6-foot-2, strong, and I like to work," he told the rancher.
"Can you ride?" the rancher asked.
"Not yet," McNerney responded, enthusiastically enough to be hired. He baled hay, cleared land, branded cattle and slept in the bunk house.
He learned to ride at night, and by the end of the summer, entered a local rodeo.