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The CEO Who Grew Up Without Running Water

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 5, 2023 3:00 am

The CEO Who Grew Up Without Running Water

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 5, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, he grew up in poverty; His first job was at McDonalds... And he would work his way up to become the CEO of 7-Eleven. Here's the story of Jim Keyes, in his own words. 

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Listen to find strength and community on the MG journey on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. MUSIC This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories and today, all show long, we're celebrating Labor Day. Stories about work, stories about first jobs, and stories about the people who create work, who create jobs.

They don't just come from nowhere. Up next, a story from Jim Keyes. Jim was the CEO of 7-Eleven and Blockbuster, but he certainly didn't start out that way. Let's get into the story.

Take it away, Jim. So, wow, it's an interesting, I think an interesting American tale. In many ways, I guess you could say I'm the classic definition of the American dream because I grew up in a challenging environment, too many children, not enough money, three room house, six children, two parents all squeezed into this one building literally with no running water and no modern conveniences like a thermostat. We had a wood burning stove that would stop burning in the middle of the night if someone didn't get up to replenish the wood and it would get so cold in the house that literally the galvanized buckets that we used for water. We had an outdoor pump would freeze over and we'd have to break the ice to get to the water in the morning if it wasn't cold enough to freeze the whole bucket during the night. Cleanest, freshest water in the world. Literally that was the environment that I grew up in, which interestingly never occurred to me was a situation of poverty. Until one day I believe the church came with a basket of food and I remember asking my mother at the time, why are they giving us this food?

And she said, well, we need it. We're kind of poor. And I still remember trying to understand why they would think we were poor because I didn't feel like we were poor, never did. But that situation is tough on any family in any situation. So my mother at the time I was about five years old was probably pretty tired of that situation.

No running water, no indoor plumbing and found a relationship with another person. And my dad found out about it and created quite a scene and she ended up leaving. And so she left home when I was only about five years old.

Interestingly, they gave me the choice. Would you like to live with mom or dad? And apparently, I don't remember this part, but apparently I went in and put all of the things I owned into a little paper sack and came out and said, I'm not going to stay with either of you until you figure out what you want to do. And I went to live with my older sister who had just become, just gotten married. My mom had moved away to a trailer park.

My dad was still living in this house without running water. So I decided to go back and stay with my dad until one day, literally walking home from school, saw a red sign on the house. And the red sign said, condemned. And I didn't know what that word was. And I went to my grandmother and said, what does condemned mean?

I think I was probably 10 years old or 11 years old at the time. What does condemned mean? And she tried to explain it to me and it just didn't register. Why would they condemn our house? And it turned out that the visiting nurses who had come and take care of my dad from the town went back and reported on the conditions basically being no running water, no heat. And it certainly wasn't an adequate environment for someone dying of cancer. And I didn't realize he was that bad off at the time.

But they ended up putting him in a VA hospital for the remaining year or two of his life. And I got shuffled off to one of my brothers. I ended up with my eldest brother, living with him for a while. Until my father finally passed when I was 12 and I had an opportunity to go in and live with my mom at that point. So my mom, she knew that the trailer park wasn't a good environment.

So she moved in with someone who could better provide for us with a home and that sort of thing. And that environment was not a very healthy environment. So the gentleman was a bit volatile. And as I became a little bit older, we would have natural teenager conflict that you have over music or the length of your hair or whatever it is.

But his volatility got to the point that caused him to take some extreme actions. And then in one circumstance I was in a situation where he and my mom had gotten into a fight and we wondered what he was going to do. He went to the garage, we thought he was going to leave the house, heard the car start in the garage. And I went down outside, it was in the middle of winter in Massachusetts, went out to the outside of the garage and found that it was locked.

And the car was running inside. I had to kick open a panel of the garage and got the door unlocked finally. By the time I was able to kick through a panel and unlock the door. By the time I got the door open, I literally had to pull him from the car in the garage full of smoke. And he was passed out and I had to lay him down in the snow and thankfully he was able to come back out of it. We moved shortly after that.

That was about enough. That triggered my mom to then find another place on her own and she got me out of that environment. But you think at the time, why am I going through this?

I'm 14 years old, why should I have to deal with this sort of situation? But again, you do. You deal with it. You get through it, you get to the other side. It's not fun, but you learn from that adversity that everyone has issues.

And you say a little prayer of gratitude that you're not as volatile as that. And it makes you go forward and be thankful for what you do have rather than sad about what you don't. In many ways, you look at it and you say, wow, those were tough times. But that adversity that I dealt with made me the person I am today. Gave me the confidence, gave me the strength, forced me to be self-sufficient, forced me to realize at a very early age that I was going to survive.

I had to do it on my own. And I wouldn't trade that for anything today. Looking back, I was very fortunate to have had that adversity and to come out favorably from it, which some people don't. But I think there's a huge lesson there that I love to share with young people today. That adversity gave me strength that others don't have the opportunity to get. And you've been listening to Jim Keys tell the story of his youth and not an easy story, but it shaped the man he is. As he put it, adversity made me into who I am today. And he loves telling that story to young people because it's just too easy to conceive of life in terms of being a victim.

That doesn't mean bad things don't happen, but in the end, you're still in control of your own narrative, of your own history. When we return, more of Jim Keys for our Labor Day special here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country.

Stories from our big cities and small towns. But we truly can't do the show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot.

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Happy streaming. You can't be just forward and being fearless, believing that you can achieve anything you set your mind to. Even though it may be uneasy, the journey ahead will produce great results.

And that's the most thrilling ride, empowering yourself to embrace any new adventure that comes your way. And you can get that same electrifying feeling when driving a Nissan. Nissan is ever-evolving and changing the game through electric vehicle innovation. Because the electricity their cars generate not only moves engines, but it also moves the emotions of those who drive them.

To learn more about Nissan's electric vehicle lineup, visit And we return to Our American Stories and our Labor Day special all show long. We're honoring work, first jobs, the joy of work, and the stories of those who create work. And we also return to our story on Jim Keys. He was the former CEO of 7-Eleven and Blockbuster. When we last left off, he was telling us about his childhood. He grew up without running water, in poverty, with divorced parents.

His later success had a lot to do with this very upbringing. Let's return to the story. My first job, I think I made $1.75 an hour or something. It was McDonald's. McDonald's had just come to town. They were relatively new.

One store on Grafton Street in Worcester. And it was a fabulous experience in so many ways. I can't say enough about it because one, it was money. I needed money for school. Two, I learned very, very quickly that I was a worker.

I learned self-sufficiency at an early age that if I was going to get by, whether it was school work or a job, I had to work twice as hard as anybody else. So I put my head down and said, I'm going to be the best burger flipper that's ever been in this place and literally practice flipping burgers so that I'd be faster than anybody else. Anyone that's ever worked at McDonald's knows that that's a cherished skill. And even something as mundane as cleaning the parking lot, I would run because I knew that if I did it better than somebody else, even though it was the lowliest of tasks, or cleaning the bathrooms, or cleaning them better than anybody else, I would get the attention of the manager who would perhaps give me a raise or give me more hours because hours were precious.

He wanted to work as many hours as he could. And so I did get their attention and literally they rewarded me with the worst job in the store, which was the shift manager, the guy that had to stay and work late into the evening. But I was barely 16 years old and I was able to be a shift manager, which means they trusted me basically to manage the small late night staff to cash out the drawers at night, counting the drawers and filling out the bank statement and the daily financial statement at night. It was a huge breakthrough in confidence because hard work is rewarded, trust is important, and there is virtually unlimited opportunity here because then shortly after they literally came and tried to talk me out of going to college and going instead to Hamburger University and becoming a store manager. Hamburger University is McDonald's internal training program. They send their store managers through.

It's quite an advanced program. It's both academic and practical application of managerial skills and store operator skills, basically to train store operators and future franchisees in the system. You know, I don't know, maybe I could have been CEO of McDonald's through that path, but I'm glad I took the path I did. One other story about McDonald's that was so important is that I got exposure to others in a different environment. My environment was one that you see so much in schools, particularly in rural areas, almost discouraging me from trying to pursue a career or a college education.

We don't do that here. We go to work for the factory like our parents did, and there's nothing wrong with that, but at McDonald's I had the opportunity to work with a couple of college students, and they told me how easy it was to get into college. Look, you can do this.

We're doing it. That really gave me the confidence that college is an option for me. I would never have even considered it because literally my guidance counselors in school said, you can't afford college. Why would you even think about it?

Don't disappoint yourself. Meanwhile, had I applied to Harvard, I probably could have gotten a full-boat scholarship given my grades and my activities, et cetera, et cetera, but I didn't have that confidence. I just didn't have that exposure to how it works, how the system works. I had no choice but to pay for my own education, so worked not only at McDonald's. I would also part-time driving a truck, and so I worked two jobs at McDonald's at night, and then I'd be up at 4 a.m.

I'd literally work till midnight shift and then close out, and then 4 a.m. be there loading my truck for the next day. But the good thing about those two jobs is I was able to save enough, at least for the first year of college. Decided to apply early admission to Holy Cross because my mother had now been diagnosed with cancer, so she was ill, and I didn't know what I was going to do in terms of being able to try to help take care of her, so I decided to go local. Throughout my career, I've run into these periods of crisis or conflict or issues that occur. The very first job, Gulf Oil, I thought I had made it. Being one of the seven sisters of the big oil companies, I had a fabulous job working for the chief financial officer, doing merger and acquisition work, and really thought that I was on my way.

This was a great career move coming out of graduate school. I had the opportunity to do this, and four years into this, we made an acquisition attempt that failed, and it weakened the company. Even one of the largest oil companies in the world all of a sudden was crippled.

It found itself in trouble because they tried to make an acquisition of city service, and it failed. The stock was pummeled, and we had to figure out what to do next, and right about that time, Boone Pickens, ironically, made a run on Gulf Oil. I still remember the day he came to our shareholder meeting and stood up and gave the Gordon Gekko to read his good speech in front of the staid old Mellon family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at a shareholder meeting. I was a kid at the time, just wide-eyed, thinking, you know, he's right. This place is fat.

I walk around these halls, and people have fallen asleep every day after their three martini lunches and hiding behind the Wall Street Journal. They could make a lot more money, which is exactly what Boone was saying. Well, it turns out Boone's pressure on the company caused them to merge with Chevron, so all of a sudden here I had this great career. Now I was out in, I found myself in San Francisco with Chevron, part of the merger team, and the guys at Chevron were saying, Jim, we don't know how you got here or why to this position, because I was in a relatively senior role on the merger team even, and I was very young at the time. And they said, you're going to have to pay your dues here at Chevron, and that was my opportunity to go to 7-Eleven. One of the gentlemen that I was working for at the time, during part of my short career at Gulf, took over as CEO of Citgo, which was ironically part of Citi Service. It was the downstream end of Citi Service. I had spent a lot of my time working on Citi Service, on the analysis for the acquisition, potential acquisition of the company. So when he took over as CEO of this entity that was just acquired by the Southland Corporation, the parent company for 7-Eleven, he reached out to me and said, could you come and join? So I left Gulf, and I went to the Southland Corporation slash 7-Eleven, and crisis occurs again. At 7-Eleven, they took on, they did an LBO, leverage buyout of the company. It took on $4.5 billion of debt at 17% interest rates. Hard to imagine at the time anyone would do this. This was during the days of leverage buyout frenzy that occurred in the 1987 timeframe.

Well, by 1991, 7-Eleven, the Southland Corporation was filing for Chapter 11 protection. And I thought, I'm out of a job. Now what am I going to do? It turned out that that was the best thing that could have happened in my career, the way that people approach adversity.

They either put their head down and take on the role of the victim, woe is me, or they put their head up and say, I'm going to figure this out in chaos as opportunity. I kept my head up. I looked at the opportunity. I worked harder than I worked prior to the filing of Chapter 11. And when we came out of it, I had the opportunity to be the head of strategic planning for 7-Eleven because of the division that I ran during that LBO period and the bankruptcy period ended up outperforming much of the rest of the company. And so I came out of it with an opportunity to develop a new plan for the new entity emerging from bankruptcy. That then led to an opportunity to be chief financial officer. That role of chief financial officer gave me an opportunity then to be chief operating officer. So it was a wonderful sequence of events where I was able to work really hard and prove that at least one division of the company could excel. I was then able to develop a plan for the new entity going forward. I was able to take on the role of chief financial officer to finance that plan. And then I was ultimately able to be the chief operating officer to execute the plan and chief executive officer to then sell it to the investment community. That led to an amazing period of time.

In a 10-year period, we increased same-store sales every quarter for nearly 10 years and had a tenfold increase in the equity value of the company from the time I was named CEO in 2000 until we sold the company in 2005. So it ended up being just a wonderful experience. Born of adversity. Born of problems and crisis and challenge. And that adversity that we faced, the chaos that we faced, turned into opportunity for me both personally and professionally. And we've been listening to Jim Keys tell the story of his life. I think the line I took away from this was when he said, I was a worker.

And that's such an important thing to be able to put it in that simple and very straight way. Our Labor Day special continues after these messages. MUSIC For each person living with myasthenia gravis, or MG, their journey with this rare condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share these powerful perspectives from real people with MG so their experiences can help inspire the MG community and educate others about this rare condition. Listen to find strength in community on the MG journey on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Learn more about Roku Streambar today at Happy streaming! Echoes of history, Baghdad soundwalks on iHeartRadio, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-09-05 04:17:38 / 2023-09-05 04:26:19 / 9

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