Every time I am with Bob Kierlin (founder of Winona, Minnesota-based Fastenal), I am more impressed with him as a person and as a business visionary. We got a chance to spend some time together again while I was in Winona. Here's a guy who started and built Fastenal into one of the powerhouses of American industry, and he is about as soft-spoken a person as you will ever meet. He is legendary in town for his habit of purchasing second-hand suits and for his staggering generosity of spirit.
I spent five years researching my book on nine breakthrough companies, and I am proud to have, for many, broken the story on Fastenal (just as my book was going to press Morningstar picked Will Oberton, now CEO of Fastenal, as its CEO of the year—so they scooped me a bit—but I'm still proud to have been able to fill in some of the back story on the company).
In my travels, I collected a lot of fascinating material, but my most prized possession from my five years of travel is provided below: It is a schematic that Bob Kierlin drew in the late 1970s of the proposed invention around which he launched Fastenal—a vending machine that dispenses nuts and bolts. I treasure the sketch because it is a reminder of one of the most important lessons I have learned about entrepreneurship: Wanna-be entrepreneurs focus way too much on trying to find the very best idea before launching. Real entrepreneurs grab an idea and start moving—and adapt their vision of the business as they go.
Bob quickly learned that the vending machine idea wasn't going to work. So instead, he opened a nut-and-bolt store next to his father's auto parts store. One can imagine the whispers and jokes from his friends back at the job he left at IBM. None of them are laughing today. That little nut-and-bolt shop has become 2,000 stores nationwide, with a financial performance record that caused the folks at Morningstar to name Fastenal the best producer of shareholder value anywhere. (The whole Fastenal story is chronicled in my book).