HOW WE GOT STARTED - My Greatest-Hits List
An insider's take on what allowed Bill Gates, Charles Lazarus, Olin King, and Sam Walton to succeed.  

By Hank Gilman
( October 1, 2002)

I've been covering business -- as a reporter and an editor -- for about 20 years now. And much of that time has been spent writing about larger companies like Sears and IBM. But most of what I've learned about business is from firms run by their founders. It was not only the "big idea" or "the eureka moment" that impressed. What stood out were the numerous innovations, many of them quite mundane, that helped create successful enterprises. You know the greeter who meets you at the door at Wal-Mart? The obvious explanation is that it fits the image of the chain to have a senior citizen smile and hand you a shopping cart. But I was told by a Wal-Mart exec years ago that the company believed making eye contact with potential shoplifters cut down on the theft rate. Apocryphal? Maybe. But it's the eye for many such details that made the chain successful. Here are some of my other favorites, most of which I believe are true, and the entrepreneurs who spawned them.

Bill Gates: The founder of Microsoft always appeared to understand--right from the start--how to groom the press through providing almost unlimited access to the company and its executives. (Gates seemed never to meet a reporter's request he didn't like.) The result, from my perch: mostly positive coverage in a hypercompetitive industry. It's a lesson often lost on executives of nonentrepreneurial ventures. I never asked him about it--I haven't seen him in years. But clearly his handling of the fourth estate helped, especially in the company's formative years. If you can believe it, there was a time Gates was the good guy and IBM wore the black hat. But that's showing my age.

Charles Lazarus: I don't even know where to begin. Lazarus, the founder of Toys "R" Us, is the founding father of the category killer (Home Depot, Circuit City , Staples -- you get the picture). But everything he did, it seemed, from the chain's name to its locations to pricing, was smart. He named the company Toys "R" Us because he wanted potential customers to know exactly what it sold. He eschewed mall locations for years because he didn't want people walking into his stores loaded down with shopping bags. (They buy less.) Pricing? Lazarus figured out not only how to be a discounter but how to appear to be one. Toys "R" Us would make sure the hot toy at the time was priced at or below the competition's price. So everything else had to be cheap, eh?

Olin King: Interestin' fellow. A former member of rocket scientist von Braun's team in Huntsville, Ala., King launched SCI Systems, which manufactured, among other things, circuitboards for personal-computer makers like IBM. But it was the attention to quirky details and his intense focus that caught my eye. How to weed out incompetent plant supervisors? At the company picnic, King had factory workers vote on which manager would sit in the dunking booth. The winners, often unpopular, were typically bad managers--the dunking booth was just one way to weed them out, he reckoned. But it was his extreme devotion to building the company that I hadn't quite seen before. He'd show up at dinner parties precisely when meals were served and leave right after coffee to get in more office time, for instance. "I've had two wives and one business," he said to me, "and that ought to tell you something."

Sam Walton: I won't bore you with old Sam stories. To me his eureka moment was this: A retail chain's fate was held in the hands of low-wage workers. Yeah, all merchants say they know that, but Wal-Mart actually did something about it (bonuses for reducing theft; trips to the annual meeting). I didn't quite get it either until I walked into a Kmart (circa 1985). There, in a section the chain had just spent tens of millions of dollars to remodel, were empty boxes and other trash left by workers stocking the shelves. Boy, I thought, these guys are so doomed.

Has your company built unusual loyalty among its employees? For an upcoming feature for FORTUNE SMALL BUSINESS magazine, we're looking for the names of small-business CEOs who have created strong employee teams and highly productive workplaces.To nominate your CEO, write to us at Please include the company name, number of employees, industry, contact information and a short description of workplace practices that make your company more productive.