Michael J Coles
Arts & Entertainment Lifestyle

How Cookies, Coffee and a Crash Led Michael J. Coles to Success

November 6, 2018

Former Caribou Coffee CEO Michael J. Coles shares an excerpt from his book, “Time to Get Tough: How Cookies, Coffee, and a Crash Led to Success in Business and Life,” written with Catherine Lewis and released in October.

By Michael J. Coles

I wrote this book to help you face your own Goliaths, whatever form they might take. Starting a new company, changing jobs, going back to school, surviving a divorce, or just trying to get back in shape are all stressful events that require courage and commitment. They are all Goliath-like challenges, and the hardest part of facing them is often taking the first step. I’ve always liked the 1990s Nike slogan “Just Do It” because it demands action in the face of uncertainty. That is why the David and Goliath story appeals to me. The point of the story is not David’s victory over Goliath in the Valley of Elah; the point is that David was willing to face him in the first place. We all have the ability to battle giants. The challenge is finding courage to step into the valley.

Michael J. Coles Time to Get Tough

Prologue | Step into the Valley

I was so close to setting a new ultramarathon cycling record that I could almost taste it. It was the eighth day of the 1983 race, and I was in Arizona, only 488 miles from San Diego. All of the elements for victory were in place. I had trained hard. I had assembled the right crew. I had done all the things that were necessary to break the record I set the year before. At thirty-nine years old, I was in the best shape of my life. I was going faster than I ever thought possible. If I stayed on this pace, I would cross the entire United States in nine days. You could hardly drive much faster.

But instead of breaking the record that year, I broke my collarbone. I was blown off my bike by a dust devil — one of those menacing whirlwinds called “ghost spirits” by the Navajo. When the dust devil struck me and I started falling, I knew it was bad. I hit the asphalt and heard a loud, unmistakable crack — and there I was again, splayed out on the highway. I had been there before, broken and bleeding. In 1977 I was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident, riding home on a damp August evening six weeks after opening Great American Cookies. My partner, Arthur Karp, and I had started the cookie company with only $8,000, and it had become more successful than we ever could have imagined. Then, in a moment, everything changed.

Once again I was facing something unexpected, daunting, and larger than life. I found myself in the shadow of Goliath, the latest of the giants that have haunted me for so many years. But I was not going to be defeated by that dust devil when I was so close to reaching my goal. While waiting for my collarbone to be x-rayed, and even before I told my wife Donna, I started sketching out what I needed to do to prepare for the next race. The doctor told me I could start training immediately, as long as I kept pressure off my shoulder. When I got home, I set my bike on an indoor trainer and started a new regimen that felt eerily familiar. It was only a few years since I first climbed on a stationary bike while trying to recover the full range of motion in my legs after my nearly fatal motorcycle accident. Now I was broken again, but I was back on the bike.

It was a painful process. I needed a stool to get onto the seat. Even the lightest pressure on my right arm brought excruciating pain, so it took everything I had to just stay upright. I finally resorted to saying out loud, “You’ve got to do this. You can’t waste any time. It’s time to get tough.” When I finished that first session, I grabbed a piece of paper and scrawled with my left hand TTGT and taped it on the bathroom mirror. Later that day I told Donna that I needed to make signs with that slogan to put around the house. This was before personal computers were common, so I hired a graphic designer who hand-painted fifty of them on four- and two inch-square card stock. I posted them everywhere, even inside the refrigerator. I gave them to my crew and placed them on all of my bikes and all over my office. Every time I felt like giving up, the abbreviation for “Time to Get Tough” slapped me in the face. And it made all the difference.

Michael J. Coles is the co-founder of the Great American Cookie Company and the former CEO of Caribou Coffee. He did not follow a conventional path into business. He does not have an Ivy League pedigree or an MBA from a top-10 business school. He grew up poor, starting work at the age of 13. He had many false starts and painful defeats, but Coles has a habit of defying expectations. His life and career have been about turning obstacles into opportunities, tragedies into triumphs, and poverty into philanthropy. Michael Coles lived in Detroit from 1968-1971, and this three-year period was very instrumental in his growth as a leader in the business field.

See Michael J. Coles speak at the Detroit Jewish Book Fair on Nov. 8 at 8 a.m. For more information, visit bookfair.jccdet.org/schedule.

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