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Parlay hard work into opportunity

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

When Arthur Gaston found himself working at a coal and iron mine in Alabama after World War I, he wondered how on earth he’d ever get ahead. At a time when college graduates couldn’t find jobs, Gaston didn’t even have a high school diploma.

Every two weeks, Gaston and his co-workers would line up for their pay. After deductions for milk, rent and company-store purchases, only a few nickels remained. But Gaston shunned company “credit” and, instead, looked for a way to escape.

He found the answer in his lunchbox.

Every day, Gaston’s co-workers would drool over his lunch—baked sweet potatoes, flaky biscuits and fried chicken, prepared by his mother—and he would share.

One day, Gaston realized the men would pay for such a fine meal. So, he and his mother started selling boxed lunches, then peanuts and popcorn on payday. And they began to save money.

Next, Gaston started lending money at the rate of 25 cents on the dollar, compounding biweekly. (Loans at 25 percent interest were no bargain, but he was the only lender who would take his fellow black miners as customers.)

Gaston’s lending operation soon brought in more money than all his other enterprises combined. The downside: All his businesses relied on access to his co-workers, tying Gaston to his job at the mines.

Gaston racked his brain until he realized that instead of figuring out what he could sell, he should look for what people needed. One thing Gaston knew they needed: money for burial costs.

Almost nobody could afford a funeral, and the black community couldn’t buy burial insurance. So in 1923, Gaston organized a burial society;  then, in 1932, an insurance company, followed by a savings and loan association, a business college, a drugstore, a funeral home, cemeteries, a realty firm and a radio broadcasting company.

By the time he died at age 103, Gaston had amassed a fortune of more than $130 million. Here’s what helped him do it:
  • He understood that his fortunes would not change unless he changed them.
  • He saw debt as a dead end and figured out how to do better than break even.
  • He stuck to his goal of getting ahead, while many of his co-workers blew their take-home nickels on alcohol and women.
  • He parlayed opportunity into opportunity.
  • He looked for business opportunities that also provided a public service.
— Adapted from Black Titan, Carol Jenkins and Elizabeth Gardner Hines, Ballantine Books.

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