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Published: Tuesday, 1/15/2002

For some, failure is followed by huge success

It's natural to feel sorry for the people who don't quite make it. Try as they might, they fall just short. Call them losers, failures, or simply hapless.

The poor fellow who is No. 51 on the list when a company hires 50 workers falls in that category. So does the entrepreneur who is forced out of business because he loses his biggest contract to a more established, better-financed competitor. The guy who drops out of high school, or is kicked out, and then can't pass the GED test.

But then there are losers like Henry Ford, Charles Darrow, Col. Harland Sanders, and Dave Thomas. All failed or reached a dead end at some point in their lives before achieving great success. They were just temporary losers - losers who found ways to turn their misfortune into fortunes.

Henry Ford is remembered for many things: the moving assembly line, the first $5-a-day-factory wage, the Model T, his giant Ford Motor Co. But long before his success, Mr. Ford was a high school dropout. And his first automotive venture went bankrupt (never mind that Detroit Automobile Co. was reorganized after he left to become the start of Cadillac).

Charles Darrow is not a household name, but almost everybody has played his famous table game - Monopoly. Years before Parker Brothers started selling the game by the millions, Mr. Darrow was an unemployed salesman in Germantown, Pa., struggling to support his family in the Great Depression.

He designed the board game using street names in Atlantic City, N.J., where he spent summers as a youth. At first he sold a few board to friends, for $4 each. But when Parker Brothers rejected his game as too slow and too cumbersome, he commissioned a friend to print 5,000 copies and peddled them to department stores.

A lucky break put Monopoly in the big time. Sally Barton, daughter of George Parker, the game company's founder, saw a Monopoly board and showed it to her husband. Robert Barton just happened to be president of Parker Brothers at the time - and he quickly bought the rights to the once rejected game.

Mr. Darrow's invention and the patent were later challenged by several inventors who said he had incorporated parts of their games into his own, but by that time he was a millionaire.

And that brings us to Colonel Sanders and R. David Thomas, two men with a lot in common: both were high school dropouts who went on to found fast-food empires. Their paths crossed in the late 1950s, and for a time they worked together. Both had to overcome early failures and false starts. And both got fresh starts in the Army.

The Colonel didn't really find himself until he was 40 and didn't start his famous Kentucky Fried Chicken business until he was 65 and retired on a $105-a-month Social Security check. Along the way, he was a railroad fireman, a justice of the peace, a ferry operator, tire salesman, and service station operator. At his service station in Corbin, Ky., in his middle age, he began serving meals to travelers.

Eventually, the Colonel opened a restaurant seating 140, and he developed the "secret blend" of spices and the pressure-cooker technique that years later made his fried chicken commercially. In the 1950s, he had to start all over again: A new interstate highway bypassed Corbin, and he auctioned off his restaurant for just about enough to pay his bills.

Harland Sanders' idea to franchise the fried-chicken operation took off slowly. He traveled far and wide, in his white Cadillac, selling the idea to restaurant owners. In 1956, he met Dave Thomas, then assistant manager of the Hobby Ranch House barbecue restaurant in Fort Wayne, Ind. They didn't know it then, but Mr. Sanders was going to turn Mr. Thomas into a wealthy man, and Mr. Thomas was going to contribute marketing ideas that would propel Kentucky Fried Chicken into a mega-chain.

Mr. Thomas, who died last week at 69, was an adopted child. He was fired from or quit his first six jobs. He had little education. But in the Army, as a cook in Germany during the Korean War, he blossomed as an entrepreneur, running an enlisted men's club.

Within a few years after he met the Colonel, Mr. Thomas was operating four KFC units in Columbus, which he sold for $1.5 million - he was a millionaire at age 35. In 1969, he founded the Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers chain (named for his daughter, Melinda Lou).

For some people, failure is just a lesson, a stepping-off point, a success story waiting to happen.

Homer Brickey is The Blade's senior business writer. E-mail him at homerbrickey@theblade.com.



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