The entrepreneur is independent. The entrepreneur is tough. The entrepreneur is driven. The entrepreneur is chic.
Yes, chic. Take Kyle Sampson, the 32-year-old founder of Sampson Industries, the most profitable privately ownedoil company in America today. Born in a Tulsa brothel and raised by prostitutes who saved their money to put him through Harvard Business School, Kyle Sampson -- occasionally arrogant, often alienating, prone to unilateral decision making -- is the symbol of America's new love affair with the entrepreneur, the embodiment of Entrepreneurial Chic. His greatest achievement, however, is not the $2 billion he made gambling oil leases with the $2,000 give to him by his mother, a madame. It's his cool, his style, his elan.
Sampson spends his evenings -- where else? -- at the Oak Bar of Manhattan's Plaza Hotel, observing how entrepreneurs walk, talk, and sip their drinks, the better to refine his own entrepreneurial dynamics. "Learning how to be an entrepreneur was essential to my success," he reckons as he sips a vintage champagne wine cooler between bites of delicately sliced wild duck. "My background did not permit me the luxury of making it through normal corporate channels, so I must continue to study how it's done." And not done. Sampson lives in fear of the Curse of Jobs -- the possibility that, like the young, brash founder of Apple Computer Inc., he too might wake up one morning bewildered, rich, and out of work.
The power of Kyle Sampson cannot be gauged by money or job description. It is more visceral than that. The dark glasses he must wear when walking the streets of New York City are his protection from the thousands of people who would mob him, just to feed off his success and the power of his vast entrepreneurial talents. Women line up to fall under his spell, and his fan mail each day numbers in the thousands. He is a touchstone for the 1980s, and he takes his role seriously.
For Kyle Sampson, in fact, is not Kyle Sampson. He is Larkin Malloy, an actor who portrays entrepreneur Kyle Sampson on "Guiding Light," the longest-running of the daytime soap operas, which started on radio in 1937. "The entrepreneur is the new in-character on soap operas today," explains Malloy. "To be an entrepreneur is to feel powerful about yourself. And that's exactly why America now loves anything entrepreneurial."
America hasn't always been enamored of the power of the entrepreneur to inspire and charm. Far from it. To call someone an entrepreneur 30 years ago was something of a pejorative remark. Back then, the Corporate Man was cool. Entrepreneurs were risk takers, and America was not into risk -- not in business, not in politics, not in lifestyle. The word conjured up images of such robber barons as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Hill, and Harriman, who not only conquered America, they pillaged it. Or entrepreneurs were sleazy promoters, backdoor businessmen trained at matchbook universities, pretenders to the Rotary who memorized phrases out of dog-eared copies of Dale Carnegie. To be small was bad, to think small was even worse, as the administrator of the Tennessee Valley Authority explained in 1952: "As a nation we can't live in a world of economic folk dancing and basket-weaving and simultaneously in the world of the big and productive machine. . . . Our productive and distributive superiority, our fruitfulness, rest upon bigness. Size is our greatest single asset."
Today, of course, we know different. It is the entrepreneur who energizes the economy and the economy that energizes the nation. This is what Ronald Reagan's America is all about. Whether it is the stealth of Alexis Carrington in the board-room or the courage and determination of John Rambo in the jungle, the image overshadows the reality. Risk is in; institutions are out. Small is not just beautiful -- it's powerful, too. And corporate America has an image problem.
Meet entrepreneurs Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes, two old-fashioned and hardworking geezers in braces sitting on the front porch of their modest enterprise. "Between Ed's fruit orchard and my vineyard," says Bartles during one of the pair's 30 commercial spots, "we could make a truly superior premium-grade wine cooler. So Ed took out a second on his house, wrote to Harvard for an MBA, and now we're preparing to enter the wine-cooler business. We'll try to keep you posted on how it's going. Thank you very much for your support."
We believe the breezy palaver of Frank and Ed because they are entrepreneurs who understand the quality of devotion and the wry importance of market surveys and an MBA. "With all the wine coolers on the market, we are always being asked which one we think is of the highest quality and tastes the best. Well, to be sure of being completely honest and unbiased, Ed and I have sealed each of our answers separately in an envelope. Ed's answer is Bartles & Jaymes Premium Wine Cooler. That's funny," quips Frank. "So is mine. Well, you cannot argue with research."
You have to admire these two old men willing to take on the big American vintners for a slug of the $700-million-a-year wine-cooler market. Little matter that the down-home duo of Bartles and Jaymes have nothing at all to do with entrepreneurship. Frank is an Oregon farmer, Ed a California contractor. Both are the results of an extensive talent search by Ogilvy & Mather, the ad agency, to find characters who could best swaddle Ernest and Julio Gallo with a bit of Entrepreneurial Chic.
The image of the entrepreneur taps into the deepest recesses of the American psyche, with its fascination for the outcast, the underdog, the loner in love with his loneliness. Think of Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo and Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, the seafaring heroes of Hemingway and Melville. Above all, Americans value independence. And no one in business today understands this better than T. W. "Bill" Samuels Jr., president of Maker's Mark Distillery Inc.
Samuels is a self-proclaimed entrepreneurial guru who wanders the country preaching the Great Business Awakening to all who will enter his tent. Not coincidentally, his booze is a smash. "The best," say the critics; "worth the price," cheer the drinkers; "the hardest to find," gripe the liquor store owners. Executives of Hiram Walker, the giant liquor company, see it another way. To them, Maker's Mark is one of their wholly owned subsidiaries that is bucking the industry trend and showing signs of growth.
"Hey, I'm still an entrepreneur," argues Samuels, who sold his family's business in 1981. "Everyone still thinks I own the company, because I'm the one who mouths off. When I stop considering myself an entrepreneur, then I'm through."
Samuels apparently is not kidding. "Hiram Walker's management actually told me that the public believes small companies -- not big companies -- make great whiskey." The men at Hiram Walker confirm it. "People perceive that care and soul go into Maker's Mark," explains Russell Woodman, a product manager for Hiram Walker. "It's a quality product because of the image Bill has created." Move over, Jack Daniel.
The entrepreneurial image comes a little easier to Compaq Computer Corp., whose admen have scripted a national television spot around the company's humble beginnings at a roadside coffee shop, as the founders outline their ambitious plans and goals on a food-stained placemat. Voila! A star is born. The spirit lives on. And we want to believe.
At the other side of Silicon Valley, giant Rockwell International Corp. also manages to get the most entrepreneurial bang for its advertising buck. The company's 30-second television commercial proclaims: "Rockwell International managers have the entrepreneurial freedom to move through the maze. . . ." This multimillion-dollar ad campaign is designed to convince potential customers and potential employees that one of the world's industrial Goliaths is, in reality, an entrepreneurial David. Rockwell has a human face. Rockwell is exciting. Rockwell is hot.
"Entrepreneur is a big, big word around here," explains advertising director Philip Jacques. "We at Rockwell have the spirit. We are not fat and stodgy. We want people to know we have vitality." Adds Rockwell president Donald Beall, "When you think of entrepreneur, maybe you think of a couple of guys in a garage coming up with the latest Silicon Valley wonder product. Or someone like Mrs. Fields, who turned the freshly baked cookie into a mini-industry. I'd like you to think of an entrepreneur not as a lone wolf starting a small business, but as someone who works for Rockwell."
Have our greatest fears finally come true? Is somebody asking us to believe that the B-1 Bomber is just like a cookie? Has the entrepreneur become, dare we say it, institutionalized? Has the entrepreneurial spirit that now inspires a generation been co-opted by corporate America, just as dungarees (designer jeans), natural foods (high-fiber breakfast cereal), and the Beatles (Muzak) have? Is this a coup d'entrepreneur?
How does an entrepreneur smell? Jan Stuart thinks he knows. Stuart's Manhattan company manufactures a line of fashionable men's toiletries. Now, for $18, he'll sell you an eau de toilette called "Entrepreneur," a cologne he describes as "a distinctive, confident, and long-lasting fragrance, creatively blended of exotic musk, amber, herbs, and Oriental spices with the subtle accent of cognac." One splash is all it takes for the entrepreneurial mystique to stir in even the most high-minded limited partner a passion she cannot fully understand or control.
Don't get the wrong idea. Many entrepreneurs are good family men who spend much of their free time with their wives and children. In the old days, a family vacation might have taken them to Disneyland or Coney Island. But now there's Enterprise Square U.S.A., in Oklahoma City, where the thrills of capitalism come alive for the whole family. Meet your favorite enterpreneurial characters, like Henry Ford, Helena Rubinstein, Sebastian Kresge, and George Washington Carver. Take a turn at running a lemonade stand. And check with your accountant: the trip may be tax-deductible.
This entrepreneurial thing may be hotter than anyone could have imagined -- or sillier. Almost overnight, "entrepreneur" has become a sweeping snap, crackle, mom-and-pop catchall, a trendy metaphor that takes in rules, values, lifestyles, and attitudes. Entrepreneurship now means anything that is better than it was before, a synonym for achievement, quality, and taste. It is a source of power and money, a touchstone for creativity, a way to excitement and fame. Business schools now teach it, sociologists study it, and politicians left and right lay claim to having fostered it. Hucksters steal it shamelessly to sell their products. Before too long, so much meaning will have been piled on the back of this one word that it may collapse of its own weight. Myth will give way to meaninglessness. And the entrepreneur will once again be out of fashion, unworshipped, and unchic.
Kyle Sampson, meet Dr. Kildare.