Underdog Businessman Overcomes Obstacles
NewsBook Festival of the MJCCA

Underdog Businessman Overcomes Obstacles

His book reveals Coles' time at the helm of Great American Cookies and Caribou Coffee, as a record-breaking cyclist and candidate for U.S. Congress.

Kevin Madigan is a senior reporter for the Atlanta Jewish Times.

Michael Coles reads from his new book, "Time to Get Tough."
Michael Coles reads from his new book, "Time to Get Tough."

“I don’t want to give you all the details because I really want you to buy the book.” Thus began author Michael Coles’ talk at the Book Festival of the MJCCA on Nov. 15. The Atlanta entrepreneur was promoting his memoir, “Time to Get Tough: How Cookies, Coffee, and a Crash Led to Success in Business and Life.”

The book, co-written with Kennesaw State University history professor Catherine Lewis, tells the story of Coles at the helm of Great American Cookies and Caribou Coffee; his time as a record-breaking cyclist and as a candidate for U.S. Congress; and the trials and tribulations he encountered along the way.

“When I was a kid, I never imagined I’d write a book that anyone would be interested in reading,” Coles said. Growing up in New York, his father filed for bankruptcy and the family fled the state to evade creditors. “I didn’t realize we were poor. Everything seemed pretty normal, but eventually we had to move to Florida, a debtors’ state where wages could not be garnished. Things were very different,” he said, describing life in a tiny Miami Beach apartment and having to share a room with his older sister. He began working at 13 in the clothing industry as a way to help support his family, although “because I started working so young, my grades were really awful.”

Under the shadow of paternal failure, Coles found the impetus to get ahead, crediting his father with giving him important life skills. “Dad never recovered from his bankruptcy, but he started me on a path of doing more than what I was told I could do. I became angry when people said I wouldn’t go far,” he said.

He stayed in the apparel business until he was 33, having married his current wife, Donna, at 28, and admits to leading “a pretty fast life” during that period, which involved “a lot of drugs; one friend lost his life, another lost everything he had,” Coles recalled.

Cleaning up and switching careers, Coles launched what was then called the Great American Cookie Company in 1977 at Perimeter Mall, with a mere $8,000 that eventually turned into $100 million in sales. Getting there, however, was anything but easy. “We had no experience in the food business, very little money, and our first day was a disaster,” he said. Thwarted by a lack of potholders, the cookie trays had ignited, and firefighters were summoned. The mall manager then asked him, “Is this what it’s going be like every day?”

Six weeks after opening the store, Coles was severely injured in a motorbike accident, and his doctors doubted his ability to ever walk again. As part of his rehabilitation, though, Coles took up cycling and later managed to break records crossing the country from Savannah to San Diego. Less successful were his forays into politics. He ran for Congress against Newt Gingrich in 1996 and Paul Coverdell in ‘98 – and was soundly defeated each time.

Having sold the company in the late 90s, Coles became the CEO of Caribou Coffee, a tenure that started on the wrong foot with his opening salvo to senior management: “I’ve been to 50 Caribous and I have yet to have a good experience.” He was simply referring to a lack of consistency, but after that, it took months to get the team on board.

These days, Coles is a philanthropist whose name adorns the business school at Kennesaw State. “To be successful, it’s how you deal with the unexpected,” he said, adding, “The difference between success and failure is dealing with the unknown.”

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