Michael Coles shares advice for ‘Taking on Goliath’

KENNESAW, Ga. | Mar 1, 2019

Business college namesake speaks in Tetley Distinguished Leaders Lecture Series

Serial entrepreneur Michael J. Coles has a unique interpretation of the classic story of David and Goliath.

Coles – the namesake of the Michael J. Coles College of Business and the co-founder of the Great American Cookie Company – says most people view the story of the shepherd David defeating the villainous Goliath as a tale of overcoming adversity. However, Coles likes to look at it a little differently.

Michael Coles

“For me, that was never the takeaway,” he said. “The takeaway of that story was always that David, without ever knowing the outcome, had the courage to step into the valley.”

Coles was the featured speaker in the Coles College’s Tetley Distinguished Leaders Lecture Series. Titled “Taking on Goliath,” Coles’ presentation focused on inspiring business students to avoid letting uncertainty keep them from taking risks.

“Each of us every single day faces goliath challenges,” he said. “It may be going back to school, getting a master’s degree or changing jobs. The real question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Do we have the courage to step into the valley?’”

Coles described several moments in his life where he took action not knowing whether he would succeed. In 1977, armed only with $8,000 and a chocolate chip cookie recipe, he and his business partner quit their jobs in the clothing industry to open Great American Cookies, the country’s first single-concept, mall-based food store.

Despite a disastrous opening day that ended with 300 burnt cookies and a call from the fire department, the strength of Coles’ product won out and the company went on to reach $100 million in sales by the time he sold it in 1998.

The same year he started his business, Coles was in a serious motorcycle accident, which nearly robbed him of his ability to walk. Soon after, Coles developed his own rehabilitation regimen around bicycle riding. After years of training, he set transcontinental cycling world records in 1982, 1984 and 1989. He still holds the record for riding from Savannah to San Diego in 11 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes as well as the four-man team record from Los Angeles to New York in 5 days, 1 hour and 8 minutes.

In both his business and cycling career, Coles said it would have been easy to listen to critics – people like the manager at Perimeter Mall whose disbelief in the cookie store concept almost cost Coles his first lease, or the doctors who said he would likely never walk again without a cane. However, he says he was able to succeed by never settling for less than what he knew he was capable of achieving.

“As an entrepreneur, when you get comfortable, that’s a dangerous place to be,” he said. “Because when you’re comfortable, that’s when you lose your edge.”

Coles expressed that the goal of sharing stories from his life is not to brag about what he has accomplished, but to motivate others to realize they are all capable of great things.

“If you read anybody’s book or attend anybody’s lecture and it motivates you to lift yourself up, just remember it was you that did it,” he said. “It was nobody else’s words. You found the strength and did it.”

Michael Coles

Each attendee received a copy of Coles’ new book Time to Get Tough: How Cookies, Coffee, and a Crash Led to Success in Business and Life, co-written by Catherine Lewis, Kennesaw State’s assistant vice president of museums, archives and rare books. After the presentation, Coles met with students personally and offered to sign their copies.

Made possible by a generous donation from former Tetley, Inc. CEO Hank McInerney, the Tetley Distinguished Leaders Lecture series has brought prominent business and community leaders to Kennesaw State University since 1990 to share their insights with students. The next scheduled presenter is Rob Hale, CEO of Granite Telecommunications, who will speak on April 5.

– Patrick Harbin

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 43,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.