By Fred Dickey Jan 2, 2017
Last Monday, this column introduced Dan Shea, a big-time businessman who overcame childhood poverty in a small Midwestern town.
Dan Shea, 63, lives with his family in Fairbanks Ranch, a gated treasure-chest community in the hills east of Del Mar. Why it would be gated, I don’t know, except maybe to keep the Rancho Santa Fe hoi polloi out.
Living there can’t be without problems. Imagine the burden of having, say, six bathrooms and constantly needing to replenish the TP supply. (“The toilet next to the broom closet won’t flush!” … “I didn’t know we had one there.”)
What are the people in Fairbanks Ranch like? Well, just like your neighbors, only driving nicer, dressing sweller and talking softer.
Many got there the hard way, without the Ivy League or a trust fund. And that’s my transition to Shea’s business career.
Shea was raised in the rural Illinois village of Okawville, the son of a hard-working poor man who supported his wife and their eight kids on a small Air Force non-com’s pension and a job stocking grocery shelves. Even with those pressures, Dan says his dad was sober, kind, generous and respected in town.
“Let me tell you what he’d do: In later years, I’d send him some money, and he’d go down and buy meals for other guys who couldn’t afford them.”
The $10 given by a poor person packs more love punch than the rich person’s $1,000.
Shea says he revered his father. “In my life, wanting to help others came from my dad.”
San Diegans in a really bad way have opened the mail to checks signed by a name they don’t recognize — Dan Shea.
Shea is a man who had a tough row to hoe. That’s an apt characterization for a poor kid from farm country who 40 years ago was living in his car. Now, he’s a partner in a company that owns 140 fast-food restaurants and three ultra-end Donovan’s steakhouses, two of them in San Diego.
Let’s start the story with the car. It was 1980 and Shea was 26. He was post-Army, post-college, and had decided to become a post-gofer by leaving a major company after two years. They didn’t beg him to stay. He looked elsewhere: He looked and looked, but got few looks in return.
He ended up homeless, living in his “big-old-boat Chrysler.” It was only for three weeks, but that car was a torture chamber. It conjured up fears of poverty that were impatient in his memory, like a house cat scratching at a door to go outside.
He grimaces at the
recollection. “It wasn’t for long, but when you’re going through it, you
don’t know it’s going to be brief. It was completely humiliating. Even
10, 15 years ago, it would just choke me to think about how awful that
“I’m living out of my old car, taking showers in the YMCA. I blamed everybody else for it. A conspiracy against me. But then I figured out I’m the one making the choices, so maybe I need to make some different ones.”
I observe him shift uneasily: You still don’t like talking about it, do you?
“No, I don’t. Doesn’t feel good. You’ll get me to tear me up if you keep going. So let’s move on to another subject.”
The job that that got him out of that bedroom Chrysler was with the DeLorean Motor Company. It was the darling of the car business 35 years ago, largely because of the glamour of John DeLorean and his glittering model-actress wife, Cristina Ferrare. The company eventually went the way of all balloons.
“I like to tell how I was a senior executive with the DeLorean Motor Company, meaning I got to drive John DeLorean around.”
Shea became a broom of information, sweeping up and storing the wisdom and follies of all the heavy hitters he eavesdropped on while being a fly on the wall or behind the wheel. It was a practice he developed into an art of observation.
“Many times they would allow me to sit in on meetings, but not at the table. I got to listen and what I learned boosted my confidence. I figured out they were just 30 years further down the road than I was.”
However, even chauffeuring is not without job peril. “I had driven DeLorean and Johnny Carson to a dinner at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas one night. I parked and waited.
“He came out a few hours later, but when I saw him wave to me, I went to start the car and the battery was dead. I had left the parking lights on. He was not a happy human being. Later, Cristina, a very sweet lady, just chuckled and said, ‘He’ll get over it.’”
Shea was told something by DeLorean that for a journalist is disquieting. He was listening as DeLorean told assembled reporters something that Shea thought highly improbable.
He recalls the conversation they had walking to the car: “I said, ‘Wow, Mr. DeLorean, I had no idea we were going to do that.’ DeLorean said, ‘Let me tell you something, Dan.’ I can recall this word for word. ‘You can tell the press whatever you want, then phones ring off the hook, and people want to invest, and the press never comes back to see if you actually did what you said you’d do, ever.’”
During his four years with DeLorean, Shea made enough networking points to land a job as a regional parts manager for Mitsubishi, which was then moving into the U.S. market.
That sounds like a pretty big job, Dan.
“Sounds like it, but not really.”
A lot of people would consider that a career-track job, but the ambitious Shea was not content.
“I always found myself in a position where nobody could see in me what I saw in myself, and when a job opening came up, I had to go in and hound them to where they would say, ‘Dan, you’re coming along, but we’re going to go outside for this job.’ That happened with Mitsubishi.
“I was steady Eddy, go-getter. I worked enormous hours. Maybe they thought I was working all those hours because I couldn’t get the job done in the regular amount of time.”
He made the jump from wholesaler to retailer by talking his way into the finance department of an L.A. County Mitsubishi dealership. It was a time in the mid-80s when credit was free and easy, especially free to “buyers” who got lost right after being handed the keys by eager dealers, but before financing was finalized.
“You come in, you got a mirror under your nose, there’s condensation, you must be OK. Here’s the car. (Consequently,) I came into a situation where we had a million dollars-plus unfinanced on the road.”
He found out that people who like the idea of having free cars want to continue having free cars. Since the law does not allow harassment of debtors, he was left with “please,” which tends to work mainly with waiters and spouses in good humor, but won’t work with deadbeats in possession of your cars.
Shea was willing to play the game. He got the name of the police detective in charge of auto theft. Then at 3 a.m. or so, he’d phone the home of the guy holding the car.
“I’d usually get a woman. ‘Hello,’ I’d say. ‘Is (the guy) there? This is detective so-and-so with the police department.’ She’d say, ‘Oh, hold on.’ I’d hear whisper, whisper, whisper. ‘No, he’s not here. Can I take a message?’
“I’d say, ‘I wanted to catch him before tomorrow morning because we’re issuing a warrant for his arrest for grand theft auto.’ She’s, ‘Oh, I don’t know when I’ll see him.’ I’d say, ‘OK, when you do, just give him the message.’
“I’d show up at work the next morning and the car would be there.”
His car-recovery efforts went so well that when the sales manager job opened up, he applied for it. And wouldn’t you know, same-old, same-old — no experience, too important a job to take a chance on … blah-blah-blah.
He finally went bottom-line: He asked the boss how much they could lose in 30 days if he flopped in the job. The guy groped for a number, and finally said $4,000.
“I told him to hang on. I ran down to my office, got my check book, wrote him a check for $4,000 and said, ‘Here. Thirty days from now, if I don’t work out, just cash this check.’
“I never told him I didn’t have $4,000 in the bank.”
Months later, successful sales manager Shea noticed the same check lying in his boss’ open desk. He quietly lifted it and tore it up. Nothing was ever said.
The sales manager job went so well that he saved enough to take a flyer with a partner at peddling an after-market car product in the late 1980s.
It flopped and they went broke. He was left high and dry on the East Coast with only a return plane ticket for the long, long, long flight home.
“I started over, and pretty soon I’m back to making more money than I was before. I tried (another new venture) and that one went broke, too. I went broke three times, all told.
“Here’s the point: I never declared bankruptcy. I went back and paid everybody I owed money to.”
An important lesson he learned from his failures was to “quit digging a hole.” In other words, don’t throw good money after bad. If it’s not working, get out, and do it early.
Failure also taught him something about human nature.
“I had a group of friends, and they all scattered. The first time I went broke, or even more so the second time, they just disappeared. They weren’t anywhere around.”
I bet they were afraid you were going to ask for money.
“It took me a couple of years to figure that out. I first said to myself, ‘They must feel sorry for me and don’t want to make me feel bad.’ What a crock. They were afraid I was going ask for money.
“It wasn’t in my DNA to ask anyone for money. It was in my DNA to go back to work to make sure I didn’t have to.”
You must have those thoughts like, “Why don’t I just forget this nonsense and just get a nine-to-five job?” How did you beat back that feeling?
“I didn’t want to work for other people, especially in corporate America, because it’s a different world. I wasn’t going to fit in because I’m not afraid to call a spade a spade. They rarely want somebody like that. That’s just the way it is.”
You were single at the time. Let’s say after that second failure you were married with children. What would you have done?
“I would have gotten a regular job and never looked back.”
Now, here’s some Shea audacity for you: On the heel of those failures, he became a business consultant for $5,000 per week. Hello! What can you teach me except how to fail?
He laughs and says, “You know what the definition of a consultant is? It’s the guy who knows 300 ways to make love but doesn’t know any women. I became one.”
He did it differently. SOP for consultants was to demand a retainer and a contract, and all the entanglements that go with it.
Shea, however, simply told clients he’d work week to week, and if he weren’t providing valuable service, he would walk away. In other words: Fire me if I’m not doing the job you want. It worked, and he gained multiple clients, and life was good. However, his goal was not to build other people’s success. He wanted to build his own.
In 1992, opportunity beckoned with one particular customer and he seized it. Kingsley Machine in Los Angeles was a mess with so many problems, they’d have to take a number to be counted. Shea consulted and cleaned it up. He was actually more of a trouble-shooter than a consultant.
Ownership asked him to become chief operating officer at $400,000 per year. He gambled and countered by offering to work for half the money, but with the addition of ownership options. They made the deal, and the company again became profitable. Two years later, Kingsley was acquired by a Fortune 500 company.
Guess who made out fine, really fine? Shea promptly retired at age 43.
What a ghastly fate, to retire at 43.
“Yeah. The first year was glorious,” he says. “The second year was the most boring of my life.”
Two decades ago, he partnered with Don Wollan of Rancho Santa Fe, who had done well in fast-food restaurants. He had met Wollan years earlier when both were serving on a charity board.
“I saw that Don had a great heart and great capacity for work, and capacity to help others. He knew restaurants. I’ll tell you upfront, I wouldn’t be in the food business without Don.”
Their main business is fast-food restaurants. Of the roughly 140 they currently own, mainly Hardee’s outlets located in the South. I say “currently” because they buy and sell like a Monopoly game, though I’m not sure Shea would like the analogy.
They also opened the Donovan’s steakhouses. However, a seafood restaurant they also opened in downtown San Diego was quickly closed because, as Shea says, “Everything went wrong.”
On his own, he invested in a retail business called Discount Fabrics in 2002. It went toes-up real fast.
You took a bath on that one?
“A big bath. I had people say to me at the time, ‘Oh, my God, are you embarrassed you had to close?’ I said, ‘No, I’d be embarrassed to keep it open when it’s not working.’”
Shea’s secret to business success? Actually, no secret: Employ skilled, trustworthy people and then support and appreciate them. And on the flip side, spot bad people and have nothing to do with them.
There are some words by Einstein that would also be Shea’s sentiment: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”
I have observed that people born to privilege never lose its glaze of it. And people born to poverty never lose the haunt of it.
Dan Shea has the ability to make lots of money. That came from brains and fortitude.
He also embodies the words of young Anne Frank, who wrote: “No one has ever become poor by giving.” That came from something deeper.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]