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There were no holes in the Doughnut man’s philosophy

Oct 8, 2002 6:41 AM

   One of the most memorable men I have ever known — a doughnut salesman — died a few days ago.

   Well, he wasn’t exactly a doughnut salesman, at least not recently.

   He was Bill Rosenberg, the founder of Dunkin Donuts, and his life story was almost too incredible to believe. He was the Horatio Alger and Frank Merriwell of the age of marketing and franchising, and he changed the way people in our world thought about coffee and doughnuts.

   He was one of the most dynamic doers I have ever known, a man who believed that nothing was unattainable. He lived by homilies, one of his favorites being, “There are two ways to get to the top of an oak tree: sit on an acorn and wait for it to grow, or climb it.

   He was a climber who let nothing get in his way, and a fighter who could slug it out with the best of them.

   He was born in a working class neighborhood of Boston, and when he was 12 he began buying ice cream for two and one — half cents and selling it for a nickel. He never forgot that arithmetic, and he never stopped multiplying it. He was born a salesman and remained one all his life.

   In 1946, when the Parker House and Statler in Boston were selling the best coffee in town for a nickel, Bill bought their “hotel blend” from La Torraine coffee company and 18% cream from the H. P Hood milk company, got himself a truck, painted Industrial Luncheon Service — Caterers to Industry on the side, and started peddling the best cup of coffee in Boston for a dime around factories in grimy Boston neighborhoods. He also served doughnuts, and as that business grew a Swedish baker told him he could make more money retailing from a store. Bill took a Sunday drive with the baker, rented a little abandoned awning store, which had replaced an abandoned gas station, which had replaced another failed gas station, for $75 a month, in Quincy, Massachusetts, and he and the baker and the baker’s wife opened for business. Dunkin Donuts was born.

   A thousand stores later, Bill Rosenberg formed the International Franchising Association, in 1960, starting a worldwide business trend. He also developed cancer, and after doctors at a Boston hospital saved his life twice he gave them millions to found the William Rosenberg Chair in Medicine at Harvard Medical School, in connection with the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. He also established the William Rosenberg Fellowship at Harvard Business School. Later a William Rosenberg Chair in Franchising and Entrepreneurship was established at the University of New Hampshire. Two years ago Fortune magazine inducted him into its initial Small Business Hall of Fame as one of the 15 most significant entrepreneurs.

   Along the way Bill’s son Robert, with an MBA from Harvard, took over Dunkin Donuts from its founder — salesman, and Bill relaxed — as much as he could — to enjoy a large and successful harness racing stable. Horse racing is one of the most fragmented of all sports, and it bothered Bill, an organization man from the beginning. I was editing a magazine at the time, and he wrote me a letter titled “Ideas While Shaving.” In it, he outlined his concept for an organization that could bring together the various components of the fragmented industry. The idea was brilliant in its simplicity, like most great inspirations, but ambitious almost beyond reality. He ended the letter by writing, “I shave every day.”

   I published the letter, and Rosenberg rounded up 100 friends, dunned them for $1,000 each, and got the organization started almost overnight.

   One of Bill’s brightest maxims was taken from one of the dullest of American presidents: Calvin Coolidge. It was: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

   Come to think of it, not bad advice. For doughnut salesmen or anyone else.