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August 30, 2018 | Tom Ballard

Haslams have engaging fireside chat during “36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival”

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Those who attended last year’s “36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival” in Nashville were impressed with the way in which Governor Bill Haslam moderated a fireside chat with FedEx Founder Fred Smith.

On Wednesday afternoon, Tennessee’s outgoing Chief Executive Officer (CEO) was up for an even greater challenge . . . moderating a fireside chat with another legend, in this case his father who founded Pilot Flying J Corporation 60 years ago. “Big Jim” Haslam, as he is affectionately known by many, and his youngest son had a humorous, insightful conversation that drew laughs and applause from an appreciative crowd at the Wild Horse Saloon.

The discussion over about a 45-minute period covered everything from the history of Pilot, founded as a single gas station, through the more recent acquisition of a minority stake by noted investor Warren Buffet and ended with  the senior Haslam’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs.

The first station was opened the year the Governor was born. As “Big Jim” explained that period, he needed a job and was offered one as a high school coach but the salary would not begin for several months. He needed income then. As he looked around, the elder Haslam was offered a job selling ads for a local television station.

“I was not sure TV was going to make it,” he said laughingly.

By 1964-65, Pilot had grown to 12 stations, and Haslam sold one-half of the company to Marathon Oil Corporation, a transaction that provided expansion capital. In 1988, Pilot repurchased the stake held by Marathon, only to bring the corporation back as a partial owner in 2001 and again repurchase that interest in 2008.

“Never say bad things about your partner,” the senior Haslam said, adding, “You may need them again.” In the freewheeling give and take that characterized the fireside chat, the Governor said, “You married, divorced, and married again.”

When Pilot Flying J was approached to sell what will eventually become a majority stake in the company to Berkshire Hathaway, “Big Jim” said he was reluctant to say yes at first until he met Buffett and became more comfortable with his rationale for the offer and his operating approach. A good part of the comfort came as he met with Buffett on the latter’s home ground and saw just how down-to-earth he was.

“He told me that he understood our business,” Haslam said. “I struggled with the decision.” In the end, he agreed because Berkshire Hathaway has never dismissed a CEO and doesn’t want to run its companies.

“I wanted to be able to tell our employees this is best for you,” he explained, something that he clearly believes.

What other advice did the 87-year old business executive share with a crowded Wildhorse Saloon?

  • “The best advice I can give anyone starting a business is don’t have an ego.”
  • “Make sure your faith and family come first.”
  • Get an education and know enough about the sector where you are focused to be able to get your arms around it before it gets its arms around you.
  • Hard times will come, but remember: “When things are good, they are never as good as you think they are. When things are bad, they are never a bad as you think they are.”
  • “Play for and make the breaks and, when they come, make sure you score.”
  • “A leader is really a leader in bad times.”

The Haslam family is also known for its philanthropy. On that topic, “Big Jim” also had some advice, telling the story of Max Friedman who called him in the early days of starting Pilot to ask that he become involved in the Community Chest program now known as the United Way. As he tried to explain why he had higher priorities, Haslam said that the well-known Knoxville Jeweler said simply, “Son, you have to pay the rent.”

The simply stated, but cogent advice was clear for everyone in the room.

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