THE BLOG

The Great Trader Joe

09/23/2011 04:54 pm ET | Updated Nov 23, 2011

Creating your own business is the latest slogan in this unemployment quagmire. But even if we want to, we don't know how to switch from being an employee to an instant entrepreneur. Made by many, this transition is often deceptively easy, like any great art. Let me share the back story of one of our most beloved.

I invited Joe Coulombe on to my KABC TalkRadio Show in the mid-'80s after the success of his first store, years before, in Pasadena, which led to many more in Los Angeles. I remember asking him about his own career after his Stanford MBA days and his beginnings at Kraft Foods. When they were about to sell the mid-western convenience chain, Pronto Markets, he bought them and cut his teeth as an entrepreneur. By the late '60s with the markets carefully managed, he noticed that many college graduates were going to Europe, discovering cheeses other than Velveeta and wines other than Gallo Chablis. He recognized a growing market niche for this newly educated group and prepared to meet it with his Trader Joe's store. He found local producers who would sell him excellent local produce for cash, thereby lowering his own price. He developed an informative and delicious newsletter to educate his customers. He carefully trained his employees, using the orchestra model of management; he was the conductor and his staff his musicians who had to be prepared to play together from the same page of intention. That total commitment was critical. He hired his staff carefully, educating them, and promoting only from within.

I asked about the surprises and disappointments that arose from that distinct management style of training and trusting his employees. At that question, we locked eyes across the open mike, tears spurting in his, then in mine. He answered, softly, that it hurt him so deeply when he invited his staff to his home for frequent parties and found that one or two had stolen some of his crystal wine goblets. The pain of such theft from what he considered to be his extended family led to his only thoughts of suicide. I could not respond. We sat still, silently, for about 30 seconds, a lifetime on radio.

Suddenly the phones lit up, every single button. People called not only to thank him for his courage to train and love his employees but also to commiserate on the devastation of being betrayed. That hour was not long enough.

Afterward, I thought that interviews like this should become part of a regular career segment on The Today Show where I was a frequent career expert. I pitched the idea to the executive producer who agreed to a pilot giving me a camera crew for a few weeks to make it happen. But when he saw Trader Joe standing at a table in his store with a vintner and some staffers sampling wines, he threw his hands up in the air, shouting that I was crazy if I thought he would put a liquor salesman on national television. I couldn't save the project, no matter how I tried.

Stories of people like Joe Coulombe who perceive a need, get the requisite experience, and then go on to pursue their own passions are just what we want and need now more than ever. They inspire and teach us through their back stories of accomplishment so much more than the obvious success in lining up at the Trader Joe's stores in so many cities. Joe started his and then sold it to a German company. Who knows, he might be in heaven tempting the angels to try the new tomatoes and goat-cheese ravioli. And we, through his example, might start channeling our own dreams.

Make your luck happen.