Fifty years later, successful entrepreneur remembers the dirty laundry
Jim Yates of Flint Hill, Va., has fond memories of dirty laundry.
Fifty years ago, Yates learned a lesson a midst soiled shirts, skirts, slacks and socks. It was a simple observation that over time fueled a wildly successful business career: In both your personal life and in business, you can either complain about problems, or you can find solutions.
In 1962, as a young college student in rugged and rural southwest Virginia, Yates quickly grew frustrated with the dysfunctional campus laundry. The facility was run by members of the football team as a requisite of their scholarship package, and doors were scheduled to open each evening after classes. Naturally, students were eager to get it done and get on with their nightly routines.
It might have sounded like a good idea in a campus conference room or scribbled on a coach’s notepad. But in practice, it was a triple-X mess.
Players were almost always late to unlock the doors and power up the equipment. While they took their time eating dinner or relaxing before work, grouchy undergrads waited outside in lines that seemed longer each day.
Yates was one of those students standing in the heat and humidity or cold and snow. As his friends stood and steamed, Yates knew there just had to be a better way.
So, he found one.
Doing his homework and beating the streets, Yates discovered a professional laundry 16 miles away and struck a deal to borrow their truck to haul clothes from campus to their facility. In exchange for bringing the business, Yates would handle the billing and earn 25 percent of the revenue.
Knowing it would be difficult for him to gather dirty laundry from students across all of the dormitories, Yates recruited a laundry captain in each building and promised a small percentage of the revenue their dorm generated.
Also recognizing that students didn't always have cash and might use the service more if they didn't have to pay right away from their own pockets, Yates developed a credit system. He meticulously tracked each item and sent the bills to mom and dad.
When others were content to grumble and gripe about a flawed system, Yates created a solution that earned him a healthy five figures during its run. He’d done more than build an extremely successful business; he’d hammered a noticeable dent in the college’s bottom line.
Later, during his senior year, one of the deans summoned Yates to his office and threatened to expel him from school and withhold his degree if he didn't relocate his operation to campus and give a healthy percentage to the school. Yates has never forgotten the dean’s stunning pronouncement. “It’s not right that you’re making more money than some of our professors.”
Valuing the finish line more than the fight, Yates’ days of competing against the college were over. He chose to cooperate, move his business on campus, finish school and get out of town. He left college with much more than a degree.
Five decades have passed and Yates has repeated that problem-solving success many times over. As his wife, Rosemary, likes to say, “Jim can’t necessarily make the gravy, but he sure can make anyone’s gravy better.”
In a recent interview at his home in Virginia’s gorgeous, rolling Rappahannock County, Yates explained that at every stop along his entrepreneurial journey, he’s remained doggedly determined to make respect and complete honesty his calling card. “Don’t ask me what I think,” he says with a smile, “or I’ll tell you.”
When invited more than once to identify a larger theme to his life, no matter how the question is phrased and regardless the context, his answer is always the same. “The Lord’s hand is in all things.”
“Even when the occasional venture floundered or failed?”
“The Lord’s hand is in all things.”
“Even after the heartbreak, the trials, the dozen or so near-death experiences?”
“Yes,” his infectious smile returns.
Over and over through a winding career from cabs to cattle, Yates credits the heavens for the lessons and clings to that mantra with a relentlessly positive attitude. Whether making millions, losing millions or forgiving more debt than most could accumulate in a lifetime, he recognizes the hand that guides his life.
After all these years and all he’s accomplished, Yates’ friends, family and business associates say he’s still just a college student standing outside and thinking of a solution.
But that’s not all he’s thinking. He’s probably wondering why the rest of the world doesn't try the same thing. No complaining, no selfishness and no finger-pointing, just every single one of us recognizing the Lord’s role in our lives and looking for solutions.
There’s got to be a better way.
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