1952 | BORN IN ANN ARBOR, MI
Pioneer High School, where I went to school, sat kitty-corner from the University of Michigan football stadium; we felt very much a part of what went on at the campus. It was a time of great change for our nation, and the political unrest at my school that mirrored what was happening in downtown Ann Arbor. At the same time, the high school benefited from its proximity to the university; the opportunities we had were unbelievable. We could choose to take classes in eight different foreign languages taught by University of Michigan faculty.
1975 | GRADUATED FROM MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY
I ended up going to Michigan State—surprisingly, a lot of my classmates did the same! I went there, because I decided I wanted to work in the hotel and restaurant industry. Michigan State had, and still has, the second-best hospitality program in the country.
As a part of the curriculum, I had to work in some type of service industry job. I chose Schuler’s Restaurant & Pub. It is currently located in Marshall, but at the time they had eight locations across the state and one in Ann Arbor. Although it is a fantastic family business, working there made me realize that I would not be able to sustain a career in that industry after all. I never knew that you had to wake up at three in the morning and work weekends! After that, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to study. I was very disoriented until I eventually gravitated to organizational behavior management and changed my major.
1975-1977 | WORKED FOR MICHIGAN BELL
After graduation, I got a job in sales of all things. It was telemarketing before the term had even been invented. I worked for Michigan Bell helping businesses use the telephone to increase sales and be more efficient. I would train them to use calling to supplement their face-to-face meetings, which everybody does now, but back in the mid-70s, it was a foreign concept. This gave me a chance to learn about many different types of businesses. I had to understand their products and customers; sometimes I would even ride along with the outside salespeople to get a better sense of their practices.
1979 | EARNED MBA FROM MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY
While I was working towards my MBA in marketing from Michigan State, I got a job as an academic advisor for undergrads in the business school. Because I had graduated from the university myself, it gave me a chance to develop some mentoring skills. Students would come in not knowing what to do or which classes to take, but I was well suited to help them because I had been in their same position.
1979-1984 | BRAND PRODUCT MANAGER AT AMWAY
After I got out of school, I married a woman who I met at Michigan Bell. We decided that we liked Grand Rapids and wanted to stay there, so I looked around and was fortunate enough to get a brand product management job at Amway. As a new kid out of college, it was exciting to work with the products that got Amway started: laundry detergent and their all-purpose liquid cleaner. They were the crown jewels of the company. I got involved in package redesign, graphic redesign, new product development, and reformulating existing products—the whole gamut.
1984-1988 | PRODUCT MANAGER AT HAWORTH
I was hired to develop not a product as much as a service. The office furniture industry in the mid-80s was going crazy with the sale of cubicles. My job was to build a quick-ship service program that would enable the company to sell cubicles fast. That way, clients wouldn’t have to wait for months. We created a narrow product variety that was pre-produced; all Haworth had to do was finish them off and ship them in five or ten days. At the time, that was much faster than the two to three months that other suppliers would typically take.
1988-2001 | BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR AT HERMAN MILLER
Herman Miller, Steelcase, and a lot of the major furniture companies had been fighting over big corporate clients, but none had the time nor the people to go after that middle market. Herman Miller created a new division to speak to and go after that middle market, and I was given that job to build that capability. I led a team that worked to build a new tier of manufacturers to make chairs and tables at lower price points. We had to expand the product varieties of different distributors to suit the needs and smaller budgets of average consumers.
2001-PRESENT | PRESIDENT AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF EDWARDS GARMENT
I knew a headhunter in Grand Rapids, so I reached out to him and told him to keep me in mind if anything interesting came up. It took a little over two years, but one day he called me and said, “I found a uniform company in Kalamazoo that is looking for somebody to come and replace the President. Are you interested?”
If you had asked me when I first started college in 1971 where I thought I would end up in my career, I might have guessed that I would have become the owner of a restaurant somewhere. Clearly that was not meant to be. My career path didn’t follow the plan that I initially laid out, but at the same time, I am now doing exactly what I wanted to be doing from the start: running a business. Since my time at Michigan State, I vowed to never work in the hotel and restaurant industry, but now I’m selling uniforms to that same industry! Luckily, my inside knowledge comes in handy because I am sensitive to the needs and the challenges facing my clients. I feel very blessed. It has been a roundabout path, but I can’t imagine any place better.
GARY SCHULTZ ON HOW TO GET AHEAD
There is no doubt that, at each of the companies I have worked for, I did many different things and learned at every opportunity. There are lessons I learned during my first job at Michigan Bell that still help me today. Over the years, having a strong initiative has served me well. It also didn’t hurt that I often seemed to be in the right place at the right time. That said, I would tell my adult kids to learn new things and go to new places whenever possible. You don’t necessarily need to do it too often, but you never know what skills you can pick up that will be useful for your development.