April was my five year Cancerversary. Something I should be celebrating. I have always known I am one of the lucky ones having a cancer with a 70% mortality rate and still breathing five years later, but at what cost? There is great sadness and depression associated with this unprecedented feat.
When I left Detroit fresh out of college, for a new life in California, I was on a high. Everything I touched turned to gold. I have to admit my life was very blessed. Everywhere I turned were rewards and overwhelming opportunity. I was the golden child often referred to as the young Maverick.
I opened my first Little Caesars restaurant when I was 24. At that time we only had about 500 locations and I was the youngest franchisee. My second restaurant followed a few years later. By the time I was 29 I had three restaurants, became president of a co-op of 70 more, organizing all the marketing and working with Cliff Freeman and Partners out of New York on our national ad campaigns. It seemed I could do no wrong and I was a natural at it all. It never seemed difficult.
|Opening Invitation for My First Restaurant|
I bought a big million dollar home in the hills of Fremont, California and filled the driveway with boy toys. Stanley Burell AKA MC Hammer was a neighbor and regular customer. I even secretly employed a member of his family. Kristi Yamaguchi and her family frequented my restaurants and I began to chair the San Francisco Easter Seals Telethons. Everywhere I turned, life had something or someone fascinating to offer.
|Ribbon Cutting Ceremony #2|
©Brian N. Walin
I was always in my restaurants meeting my customers while being very involved in the Bay Area community. I worked with DECA, an organization that prepares emerging leaders and young entrepreneurs for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management in high schools and colleges around the globe. I taught students at the high school level about entrepreneurial skills and how to be successful in business. I also taught classes on how to enter the job market for the first time, concentrating on the do's and don'ts of a first interview. I was even honored and respected enough to judge DECA competitions at the state level. I was so involved and well recognized locally that my grocery shopping had to be done late at night because people would stop me and want to talk and I never had that much extra time.
|Ribbon Cere"money" #3 Ribbon Laced with $20 Bills Donated to Easter Seals Staff (left) cut by Mayor|
©Brian N. Walin
In those days, sleep was nonexistent. On a good night I got 6 hours. I always began my days late, 9 or 10 AM, but then worked long into the late night hours catching up on my accounting or marketing for the company. There was nothing I wouldn't do. One day I might be making dough and grating cheese, the next I was fixing an oven or snaking a drain, then getting on a plane and flying to Los Angeles to film an upcoming commercial. It was never dull and I was always needed somewhere.
I designed and constructed my own stores, negotiated all the leases with the guidance of attorneys whom I only called in if I got over my head. I hired my staff and personally trained them all. I planned the marketing layouts, negotiated rates, and worked closely with our national ad agency developing television commercials and ad campaigns. I didn't even take a day off for the first two years and a personal vacation took ten years to accomplish.
|©Brian N. Walin|
|Sponsoring and check presentations of the Easter Seal Telethon |
©Brian N. Walin
Before Little Caesars, I wanted to get into the entertainment industry. I sang in night clubs, was apart of college productions as an actor, learned how to build sets, and direct. In my heart, I wanted to be an actor or sing, to make people happy. During college breaks, I would find jobs in entertainment to learn and make contacts.
I worked with Universal Studios one summer on the film "The River" with Mel Gibson, Sissy Spacek, and Scott Glenn in the hills of Tennessee and Virginia. I learned a lot about the harsh realities of film making. It's not all flash and glamour and working on location was no picnic. I still enjoyed every minute of it. Working on set in a sound studio was much more my style. I wanted to be an actor! But that would all change upon meeting a very kind man whose advice I took to heart (to Hart) and that changed my life path.
|University of Michigan Press Release|
Being involved in the entertainment industry, I gravitated towards like minded people. One afternoon I was on the 20th Century Fox lot. They were the filming a finale of the hit show Hart to Hart. I spent the afternoon with friends from my old neighborhood in Michigan on set. After the shoot there was a big wrap party planned on the sound stage. I wanted to leave, tired from the long day, but upon exiting we were stopped by Robert Wagner who wanted to talk to us. Frankly, I thought we were in trouble for something as his approach was extremely brisk.
After finding out we were all from Michigan (RJ was born in the Detroit area) we instantly bonded. He invited us into his trailer and we talked for a long time, like old neighbors. This was just before his wife, Natalie Wood died off Catalina Island. He was so very kind and I could see the deep love for his family. The entire trailer was lined across the top like crown molding with family photos.
|Mel Gibson and I on set of The River|
©Brian N. Walin
|Mel and Julie on set of The River|
©Brian N. Walin
At this point in my life I was setting myself up in the entertainment industry, but had not gotten a big break. During the conversation I asked RJ what I need to do to make it in the business. His advice…“Don’t do it.” He continued to burst my bubble with his advice making tremendous sense. He explained how hard it was for him throughout the years and how long it had taken to get where he is today and how many waiters there are in Hollywood trying to survive waiting for that big break that probably would never come.
I took what he had to say to heart. It made a deep impression upon me. I respected what he told me as he dished out fatherly advice. I had a lot of connections in the industry which kept me busy working, but my natural talents were not singing and acting. I was in college getting my Business Degree at U of M and working in the entertainment industry during my time off.
That fall I returned to college and realized, with an education I could do anything, but as an actor I would most likely be waiting tables. I will forever be grateful for RJ’s advice. To make money during college I had a few jobs, but one was the cornerstone of my life with Little Caesars. This blog is a condensed version of my book (still in progress) and this chapter ends with me becoming the youngest franchisee at the time. After college I made a permanent move to California and opened my first restaurant, the first in the San Francisco Bay area. Hollywood was a memory.
No matter what I was doing, I was happy and for some reason I thought life was like this for everyone. Anything I wanted I could have. Not in a cocky way, it was just how life was for me. I want a new sports car, write a check, I want a Rolex, write a check, I want another restaurant go to the bank, get a loan, no problem.
After only six short years of being in business, I was inducted into Who's Who Worldwide Platinum Edition of Global Leaders for the first time. I had amassed a wall full of awards and celebrity photographs. And it didn't hurt that I owned the second highest volume restaurant in Northern California. My life was so fast paced. I never stopped to compare myself to others because I honestly thought everybody could have it all if they just applied themselves. It was never just handed to me. I worked hard for it, but for some reason doors always opened. I was never turned away.
|First year induction into Who's Who|
If I have one thing I can pinpoint as a strength that helped me get where I am, it's good communication skills and trusting my gut. I have always been comfortable talking with anyone from CEO's to janitors. Celebrity or power doesn't impress or intimidate me, I could care less. I have always been curious about everything in life, so I can find common ground. I don't care for pretense and often I'm underestimated because I don't act the part which I learned early on gave me an advantage when swimming in uncharted waters. You want to F**k with me? Let's play ball. I've taken out a few competitors over the years. I might appear meek and mild, but I'm hell on the dance floor! After the music stops, you better hope you have two legs to stand on when the dust clears. I've always tried to play nice so that everybody wins, but sometimes in business it's not always that simple.
|On the set of The Love Boat with Fred Grandy "Gopher and Former Congressman" |
©Brian N. Walin
Throughout my life I have gleaned information from those around me. I have filtered the bullshit and used the good to further my life and career. My instincts have been crisp and decisive. I seek out interesting people with similar goals and learn. Over the years I have been helped and educated by so many others who took the time to care and teach as I intently listened and learned. I only took advice from those who were on or have been on my same path. Only the people who have proven themselves I listen to. That in turn has garnered me great success.
I began to teach others how to become successful. People would ask my advice all the time and I tried to be brutally honest because I ALWAYS heard RJ in the back of my mind “Don’t do it” and for me he was so right. I believe you will be most successful in life if you follow your natural talents. If you suck at painting, you're not a painter. However, if you still aspire to be an artist, clay might be a better medium to attain your goals. You need to experiment to find your niche. Just because you enjoy doing something doesn't mean you are good at it and can make a living doing it. I was very careful to make sure if someone asked my advice, I would give both pros and cons. If I didn’t think they were capable, I would try to suggest ways to get them to realize a goal they wanted, but always being brutally honest if it wasn’t going to happen from my perspective.
I was blessed with a team of the best accounts, lawyers, and bankers that I had put together over the years. To them I am eternally grateful for all the advice and guidance throughout the years. Life to me is a series of learning from one another. I was surrounded by talented people and the energy was always so positive and enjoyable. I never stopped to realize most everyone I was working with was much older than I was, but that never seemed to be an issue.
Over the years I had trained and watched thousands of employees, as well as franchisees come and go. I worked with some of the most creative people on the planet. One of the most talented I still keep in touch with, Cliff Freeman who has since retired. Cliff Freeman and Partners was our ad agency who created all our memorable national television commercials. I was on set as Cliff gave birth to the very first Origami Pterodactyl commercial. Remember..."What am I going to do with a box?"
After that, the camera ready pizzas for the next few commercials were made on set by me, after learning some tricks the studio food techs taught me. Life was a blast. I was always learning, moving forward, and having fun. By now we had amassed over 3,200 locations world wide within our Little Caesars family. Being apart of that and contributing to the growth was more than I had ever dreamed of.
I spent almost 20 years working myself to a point where everything I said was trusted, respected, and I had the track record to prove it. Then one day after being sick off and on for several months, I was given 3 months to live. AW SHIT! I'M GOING TO DIE!
Even then I made the best of it. I told only a select few about my health issues. I planned the biggest party you can imagine. I had many contacts and pulled together a spectacular chain of events. I took over a local steak house at Christmas for a holiday blowout. I retrained their employees on how to properly serve like a 5 star restaurant, putting them all in tuxedos, white gloves...the whole nine yards. Secretly, I always wanted my own 5 star restaurant.
I insisted on real silver, fine china, and crystal to be used for the evening. A champagne fountain, ice carving, and fresh flowers with mounds of garland filled the rooms as well as a tree that the staff gave to me decorated by them with gratitude for teaching them how to reach higher and be better at their craft. I chose the meals and how they were to be prepared. Every detail down to what type of coffee, where it came from, and how it was to be served was decided upon by me. After all, if I’m going to die, I’m going out in a big way, My Way! (Cue Sinatra) This was all made possible because of a bizarre twist. The current manager was a very good friend who used to wait on me regularly at another local haunt of mine and also was my massage therapist for awhile during my recovery. So, he knew of my health issues.
The limo for the evening was so big it could not turn around in the cul-de-sac, so the driver had to back the car in all the way down the street carrying its two hot tubs and case of champagne in the trunk. Cute side note: My mother had flown out for the event and was late getting ready. The limo driver actually did my mother’s hair for the event. He treated her like a queen. I thought it would be a disaster given my mother was a hair stylist when younger and a model for Clairol, but he did a great job. Even as I was dying, life always had a way of coming together and surrounding me by talented and interesting people. Dinner that evening was beyond expectations!
The next party was Las Vegas. With a suite at the top of the Mirage Hotel the festivities continued with gambling, shopping, and seeing every show I could fit in. My friend Joy and I went shopping chalking up a closet full of hand tailored suits and clothes I would probably never wear, but always wanted. The bill for all this…close to $150,000. Hey, I thought I was going to die, so the checks flowed like champagne.
The three months passed and I was getting stronger. AW CRAP! I'm going to live! I spent all that money, but I had a blast! Over the next few years it was obvious I had to cut back on my work duties. I didn’t have the strength to keep the old pace up. I slowly cut back until all I had left was Walin Enterprises, Inc. I needed to keep something income producing to refill my retirement nest egg I just pissed away on a month long life ending rock star party.
The next five years were not all that easy. I found, because I was not in my restaurants enough, the temperament had changed both with the employees and myself. Negative things began to happen and when they got dangerous, I planned my final strategy to move on with my life. We had several robberies where people were injured. I had managers held up at gun point, pistol whipped, tied up with phone cords, and chased through the parking lot with steel pipes. I always knew these things existed in life, but not in mine.
On the local news was a story about a pregnant manager at Taco Bell located a block from one of my restaurants. She was murdered with a shotgun because she couldn’t open the safe. The poor mother with child died for no reason. You see, it was common for businesses to use time delay safes that could only be opened during predetermined hours to access the cash. Usually hours the stores are not open and often only one time a day. They must have thought she was lying about not being able to open the safe and shot her and the unborn baby in cold blood.
That was the catalyst that prompted my decision to begin plans for an early retirement. I don’t think I could live with myself knowing someone died in one of my restaurants for money. We had already had a few brushes with criminal activity. I had cameras in the stores, time delay safes, and even personal wireless holdup buttons for all the managers. But, all that wasn’t going to stop a catastrophic event.
My days in the pizza business were numbered as my health was still a major issue and the thought of the criminal activity bothered me. It was time to move into the next phase of my life. I began construction of a third home to retire in. I sold all my assets and put it all in the hands of my trusted money managers and planned a rockin retirement at the young age of 39.
Things were going pretty good for the first seven years. I was happy traveling and doing anything my heart desired. Then I got smacked with another reality that plagued my past. I was given my second death sentence. I was given a longer sentence this time, perhaps three to five years. I was told cancer would take most of my tongue and the odds of survival weren't good given the fact the cancer had traveled to my lymphatic system. I had plenty of time to recharge my battery before this so I had the attitude...Bring it on bitches!
As you know, if you are a regular reader, that was 2007 and I am still here, a few body parts rearranged but still kickin! The fanciful life I was once so blessed with is fading as I press on into an ever evolving life unfamiliar to me. So many people would love to have the life I have today, but I’m feeling a bit lost. So many realizations are coming to fruition that are getting me down and depressing the hell out of me. For everything I’ve done in my life, all that I know, and all I have learned and accomplished along the way, I am feeling useless.
I know I have had a great life, but my future seems bleak. I spend a lot of time with my feet in the sand at the beach or watching the golfers pass as I relax in the pool. I wake when I want and stay up all night watching movies and eating popcorn. I spend countless hours with social media chatting with people from around the world. A skill I learned spending so much time in bed recovering from cancer. Sounds perfect right? For all intensive purposes I’ve become a shut-in with the activity level of a sloth, but unintentionally.
|Just Hangin Out|
I’m stronger today and I want to get involved in life again, but on my terms as it has always been. Oddly, when I try to offer advice about business or finance I seem to get shut down. People seek my advice about cancer, which I gladly try to provide, but I don’t want the rest of my life to be defined by that. I have more to offer.
During a visit to MD Anderson I was asked to speak to some staff about giving better customer service from a patient's perspective because of some problems. (See December 31, 2011 post) It was even discussed that I might be involved with training to better experiences at the hospital. I really felt excited that I might make a difference and be useful, but that was shut down making me feel useless once again.
The problem I seem to face most often, when people meet me, their first impression seems to be…Oh that’s the guy with cancer. NOTHING I have accomplished in my past seems to matter. With all my knowledge, contacts, experiences, and life lessons to share to help people grow and become more successful, I’m known as the sick guy!
I have noticed this increasingly more over the last several years, but this epiphany was the result of an online friend who pretty much shut me down when I tried to offer advice to help grow a brand. Something I spent 20 years of my life doing and I have no doubt I could have added something positive to an already outstanding career. The experience left me with an overwhelming feeling as if I had nothing to offer. I know I shouldn't take that too seriously since they have no idea who I am as an online entity, but it was a big slap in the face. My life as I know it has vanished and frankly nobody cares because I’m now defined by cancer. My body doesn't always allow me to do some things I used to, but my mind is full of knowledge and advice ready to be put to use and given freely just so I can feel useful again.
I noticed this effect years ago while playing caregiver to my mother. She landed in rehab more times than I can count and always had new and interesting roommates. I had a fascinating conversation with a woman who shared a room with mom. She had been a Rockette in New York and during her rehab we had plenty of conversations. One afternoon a group of children came to perform and the old woman tried to offer advice to the children's director on how to keep the girls in sync during the dance routine. They were cute, but rather sloppy. The director blew her off and didn't want to hear it. Out of curiosity I asked the director later what the old woman was trying to tell her. The director said, “That old lady knows nothing about dance. She’s got to be 90!”
If that director would have taken a moment to listen and get to know the old woman, she might have learned something useful. Unfortunately the old lady was defined by her age and the disability that put her in a wheelchair, making her appear useless and knowing nothing about dance...or life for that matter. It’s a sad reality, but so very true.
Even though I’m only 51 with a phenomenal career, I’m being defined by the very same problem. I was immensely successful because I listened and learned. I took myself out of the rat race by choice, but cancer took away my life as I know it. Now that I have information, lessons learned, and education to share, the fact remains…I appear incompetent...what the hell do I know…I’m the sick guy who doesn’t work and obviously has nothing to offer! Pardon me while I go back to my trivial life and do nothing but soak in the pool and watch the clouds go by with a margarita in my hand! (Cue Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville)
What are you doing with the rest of your life?
©Brian N. Walin - No portion of this blog may be reproduced or used in any way without expressed written consent.