My father, Kent Esplin, was an entrepreneur. The word wasn’t much in style in his day, and I never heard him refer to himself as an entrepreneur, or even say the word. Nevertheless, my father was an entrepreneur.
He grew up in Southern Utah during the Great Depression. His family lost their sheep ranch near Zion National Park at the start of the depression and went the next decade without a job that paid cash.
In spite of this my grandpa and grandma Esplin were able to provide for their family without going on welfare. They did so through a lot of hard work and by seeing opportunities others missed or weren’t willing to try. Growing up in this environment my father learned to work hard, keep an eye open for opportunity, and have the courage to try new things.
After World War II my mother and father moved to Salt Lake where my father did what was necessary to support our growing family. Over the years he owned a small grocery store, drove a milk truck, and worked at a manufacturing plant where his jobs included loading and unloading rail cars. Whatever his job he always kept his eyes open for opportunity.
In the 1950s he started experimenting with dehydrated food. He started a company, Perma-Pak, and became a pioneer in the food storage industry. It was difficult at first but through hard work he grew the young company until he was able to quit his job and run it full time. I was the youngest of 6 children and by the time I was born in 1963 the company was well established.
Growing up we had a lot of Perma-Pak food in our house. One of the company’s popular products was a powdered drink mix and it seemed like we could always find some of that in our cupboards. I don’t remember drinking it much but my sister and I and our friends did like to pour the sugary mixture into our hands and lick it. It was kind of messy, and left our hands and tongues red or orange, but it was a tasty treat.
Perma-Pak continued to grow and it provided a comfortable living for our family. The main problem with the food storage industry is that it is highly cyclical. When things are going good in the world you can’t give food storage away, but in times of turmoil you can’t manufacture it fast enough. This caused a lot of stress and negatively affected my father’s health. In the late 1970s he sold the business for enough to comfortably retire.
The Making of a Candy Empire
I wish the rest of this story were about me but it’s not. However it does start with some interesting parallels. I hadn’t thought about licking powdered drink mix out of my hand for years until I read a story recently in the Deseret News, one of Salt Lake’s daily newspapers, about a businessman and philanthropist named Menlo Smith.
Like me, Menlo Smith grew up in Salt Lake. Like me, his father was an entrepreneur. In Menlo’s case his father owned a business that had just one humble product, a powdered drink mix called Frutola. Like my sister and I, Menlo and his sisters discovered that pouring the drink mix in their hands and licking it was much more fun and tasty than drinking it. That is where the similarities end.
Menlo’s father, J. Fish Smith, noticed that his children weren’t the only ones who liked to lick the sugary powder out of their hands. Seeing an opportunity J. Fish changed the name of his product to Lik-M-Aid and started selling it as candy.
After graduating from the University of Utah Menlo decided to market the product nationally. He moved to St. Louis and started the Sunmark Company for that purpose.
While there he heard some mothers complaining about how messy Lik-M-Aid was. Smith solved this problem by putting the powder in straws so kids could pour it directly into their mouths and Pixie Stix were born.
Menlo’s next door neighbor in St. Louis was the owner of the company that made Tums, the tablets for treating indigestion. Menlo started experimenting in the evening with Tum’s presses to see if his sugary mixture could be made into tablets. The result of these experiments was SweeTarts.
Other products soon followed including Tangy Taffy, Nerds, and Willy Wonka Brands. In the 1980s Smith sold Sunmark Company to Nestle for, as it states in the Deseret News article, “…more money than the Smith’s of the Great Depression ever knew existed.”
From Candy Man to Philanthropist
After selling the company Smith’s second act started with a 3-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to the Philippines. The crushing poverty he saw there made a lasting impression on him. He wanted to help, but he wanted to do it in a way that would allow the poor to take care of themselves rather than relying on others.
Following his mission he worked with some professors at the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University to start Mentors International, an organization that gives low interest micro-loans to businessmen and women in developing countries and mentors them on how to start or grow businesses.
Mentors International’s first loan was made in the Philippines in 1990. The company currently has offices in five developing countries, has loaned over $60 million dollars (with a 96% repayment rate), and has assisted 3.3 million people in their battle against poverty. And it all started with a handful of flavored sugar.
As children Menlo Smith and I both licked sugary powdered drink mix from our hands. All I saw in the sweet powder was a short-term sugar fix but Menlo and his father saw much more. They could not possibly have predicted the outcome of their idea when they started but they did have the vision to recognize an opportunity and the courage to act. The stories of my father and the Smith’s show that if you approach life like that the possibilities are endless.
You are much more likely to find something if you are looking for it. Approach life with your eyes open to opportunities, your mind open to new ideas, and your heart full of courage to try new things.
The reason the Smith’s saw more in a handful of flavored drink mix than I did was because they were desperately looking for ways to grow their business while my mind was on sports and other activities of a suburban childhood. They were looking for opportunities and I wasn’t. They were trying to come up with ideas and I was just enjoying a treat.
Not all of your ideas will work out as well as the Smith’s. Entrepreneur and author Seth Godin wrote:
“The problem is that you can’t have good ideas unless you’re willing to generate a lot of bad ones….Someone asked me where I get all my good ideas, explaining that it takes him a month or two to come with one and I seem to have more than that. I asked him how many bad ideas he has every month. He paused and said, ‘none.’ And there, you see, is the problem.”
The old proverb says that opportunity only knocks once. Opportunity responds to this charge in the poem of the same name by Walter Malone. The first stanza reads:
They do me wrong who say I come no more
When once I knock and fail to find you home
For every day I stand outside your door
And bid you wake and rise to fight and win.
Entrepreneurs know that while opportunity visits frequently, it is often cleverly disguised. To have any chance of finding it you have to be looking and you have to be willing to come up with a lot of bad ideas before you find the good ones.
Live like an entrepreneur:
- Be aware of the opportunities around you
- Don’t worry about having bad ideas
- Do worry about not having any ideas at all
- If an idea looks promising, have the courage to pursue it and see where it takes you
If you don’t you might find yourself looking back some day, like me, and finding you had a great business idea in the palm of your hand but didn’t recognize it.