If you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly!

This saying is one of my earliest learnings on how to be successful. It was during my early years at United Supermarkets of Oklahoma where I spent the first 27 years of my career. I went from being a produce manager, assistant manager, store manager, and director of I.T. systems to head buyer and got to work for some of the finest people on this planet.

After graduating high school at Arapaho, Oklahoma (1977), I enrolled at SWOSU in Weatherford planning to get a degree in business management. Since my first job in a grocery store at the age of twelve, I wanted to run a store. I found out that you didn’t need a degree at United for that, so I accepted a full-time job at the store in Weatherford. My new goal was to be a store manager by the time my class graduated from college. I made store manager in October of 1981, and my class graduated earlier that year in May.

I remember some of the giants of those early days. Perry Snell, Jimmy Carder, Ken Gracey, Bob Phillips, Jim Walls, Delbert Mosley, Jerry Looper, Wade Ridley, Byron Ford, Keith Kirby, Pat Blevins, Bryce Wiginton, Jim Crossland – to name a few. But what I remember most about all of them are their sayings, teachings and their character.

We didn’t have any formal leadership training in those days, it was all on-the-job training. Day by day we were groomed for what today we’d call succession planning.

Each generation of leadership would build into the lives of the younger group that would someday take their place. And build into our lives they did. One golden nugget at a time

This is true intentional legacy building.

There is no way that I can do justice to my 27-year career at United Supermarkets by hitting the highlights, but here are a few that I’d like to share:

Jimmy Carder had the biggest influence on me in my early years with the company. He knew that I’d grown up without a dad active in my life, and he took it upon himself to try to mold me into a good business man. He was ‘firm but fair‘. This was one of my favorite learnings from him.

He also taught me (and many others) about “Message to Garcia” which was a simple story about just doing your job. To be the guy that takes the message and delivers it, no questions asked.

In those days, our dress code was white shirts and ties. Jimmy was very strict on this part. His nickname to his peer group was ‘Sporty’ because he had all his white long sleeve dress shirts custom made and he didn’t mind spending a lot of money on his ties. This was my first introduction to ‘dress for success‘.

Delbert Mosley was the former Altus District Manager and retired as the store manager of the Elk City store. Delbert was a celebrity in the Elk City area. One of my earliest memories of him was when I was converting his store from non-scanning to scanning. Anytime we’d go to the bank or to lunch, it was impossible for me to have a conversation with him because of all the town people who would come up and talk to him. He had the most contagious laugh and was always positive. His example taught me that the ‘secret to success is people and how we treat them’. My favorite saying of his was ‘potential is a heavy burden to bear’. He also taught me that ‘confidence is very fragile’, saying you could spend years getting it and lose it almost overnight.

In the business, there are a lot of ‘gotcha’s’ that we all learned to pull on each other. For example, anytime a new team member came onboard, one of their first tasks was to mop the freezer floor. We’d all have a good laugh with that one.

Perry Snell (CEO and son of founders H.D. & Faye Snell) got me one time with Pat Blevins (who was the manager of the Enid West store). Perry visited my store in Weatherford once and we had a gigantic Charmin display in the front lobby. Pricing was very important to Perry so he told me to call Pat and ask him what they were getting on Charmin in Enid. So of course, being a young ‘grizzly’, and nervous about the owner questioning our pricing, I practically ran to the phone to call Pat. “Hey Pat, Perry is here and wanted me to call you and see what you were getting on Charmin.” Pat busted out laughing, and replied, “Black, we’re getting the same thing here as everyone gets ‘on’ Charmin!” Perry had a sense of humor for sure!

H.D. Snell, 1st store in Sayre, OK, and Jack Snell (Perry’s brother)

Ken Gracey was one of the finest men I’ve ever known. Not once did I ever see him out of control. He was a gentle giant in the business. Family was everything to him. His dad, brothers and children all worked for the company and he was proud of every one of them. He was especially proud of his two children and was an avid Oklahoma Sooner fan. And of course, his wife Joan was the light of his life. They made the sweetest couple and we immensely enjoyed our many business trips with them. Ken’s legacy teaching to me was that as a leader, ‘you should always be the calm voice in the room.’ He also had a great sense of humor. One of leaderships top five qualities for successful leaders.

Jim Walls, our meat manager at Weatherford taught me all about ‘gross profit’ and how to be ‘financially successful’ in the business. He understood cross merchandising to a tee and he grew the business and made money at the same time. He passed away last year and I’ll forever be grateful for the investment he made in me.

Keith Kirby was Perry’s right hand man. We didn’t have an executive team, per se, but if we would have had one, Keith would have been the CFO. Keith’s integrity was second to none. He taught me that even if it cost us profit, we should always ‘do the right thing.’ Perry knew that Keith’s integrity was critical for the role he had in the company and he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, he could trust Keith. Again – from a leadership perspective, ‘integrity and trust’ are two of the top five qualities necessary for success.

Bob Phillips was one of the best pure operators that I’ve known in my career. He was the district manager for the Woodward group. His stores had the best conditions and produced the most consistent numbers than any other group in the chain. What I learned from Bob is that you have to ‘take care of the business’. He knew details that most others didn’t know and he was highly respected by his store managers.

As you can see, from every single person, they left their legacy as a part of me. Sadly, several are no longer with us physically. But make no mistake, they are still with me and several others that I know they had an impact on. It is now my responsibility to build into the lives of the next generation of leaders in my life.

Being a 21-year old store manager in 1981, I have to admit that I tended to be a boss. Through the years and with many mentors building into my life, I do believe that over time, I became a leader. It wasn’t an easy journey, and I’ve probably learned more from the bad bosses than the good ones. But one thing I do know; I’ll pick being a leader over a boss 100% of the time.

Becoming a leader involves paying it forward to those who are looking to you for wisdom and guidance. I have no doubt that several of my teachings will not be my originals, but will be valuable nuggets from those who have been influential leaders in my life.

So, as you go through your career and build your own legacy, remember this:

If you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly

Be afraid of nothing, be confident, be aggressive, and most importantly – give it all you have!