Aspire | Action | Acquire
Aspire | Action | Acquire

Risky Business

The hotel pioneer Conrad Hilton lost all but one of his hotels during the decade long Great Depression of the 1930s. At that time in America’s history he was in the middle of building the Dallas Hilton and some half-a-million dollars in debt. His story contrasts with the successes of Walt Disney’s studio during the decade long depression years. Cited in Neal Gerbler’s biography of Disney, the animator’s brother Roy wrote to his parents to say: “This past three years will be a very good lesson to the people at large.” Gabler’s interpretation is that “others would have to learn to invest in themselves.”[1]

Conrad Hilton’s son Barron is quoted in the Taraborelli biography for saying that his father “was the kind of man who always believe no bad situation to be permanent.”[2] This approach demonstrates an appetite for risk, that is contrary to organizational thinking. For reason of “risk aversion,” business organizations, “have become associated with quite the opposite sort of person [to self-made billionaires] – namely a faceless conformist.”[3] The advice as proffered by the late J. P. Getty is that “no one can possibly achieve any real and lasting success or ‘get rich’ in business by being a conformist.”[4]

Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, wrote in Business at the speed of thought, of: “To win big, sometimes you have to take big risks. Big bets mean big failures as well as successes.”[5] This was certainly Thomas Edison’s experience as summed up by his Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Edward Morris. “One reason for his [Edison’s] business failures was, paradoxically, the characteristic that had made him triumph so often over rival entrepreneurs: an impatient willingness, compulsion even, to take enormous risks.”[6] These traits are recognized more generally in their book The self-made billionaire by John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen.”[7]

The unwillingness to change with the times is acknowledged by Sam Walton and also Burger King co-founder James McLamore, in their respective biographies, as a chief cause of competitor failure. Walton’s own success arose out of the unwillingness of large manufacturers to change their supply models. In the Financial Wealth chapter, it was explained why senior executives are often reluctant to commercialize new products. Separate academic research conducted decades ago significantly found that two-thirds of new product launches [a small percentage of those conceived] fail.

The experiences of Walton and McLamore contrast with those of Mc Donald’s founder Ray Kroc. In his autobiography, Kroc recants that many of the company’s best product ideas came from its operators as ways of countering the competition rather than copying them. It would be Burger King that would imitate the Big Mac burger but not its success with the Whopper. The secret to succeeding according to Sam Walton, who disclaims having had an idea that wasn’t someone else’s in his autobiography, is thinking small. That is, not to act big.

In Grinding it out, Ray Kroc recants that the overnight success of the Egg McMuffin took nearly three years to get fully integrated into the McDonald’s system.[8] The notion of acting small when big is vindicated from much wider research in the book The Innovator’s Dilemma written by leading innovation academic Clayton Christensen.


[1] Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (New York NY: Vintage Books, 2007), 165.

[2] J. Randy Taraborrelli, Hiltons – the True Story of an American Dynasty (New York: Little Brown & Company, 2015), 23.

[3] M. S. Fridson, How to be a Billionaire: Proven Strategies from the Titans of Wealth (New York: Wiley, 2000), 215.

[4] J. P. Getty, How to be Rich (New York N.Y: Jove Books, 1986), 195.

[5] Bill Gates, and Collins Hemingway , Business @ the Speed of Thought: Using a Digital Nervous System (Ringwood Vic: Viking, 1999) 262.

[6] Edmund Morris, Edison (New York: Random House, 2019), 93.

[7] John Sviokla, and Mitch Cohen , The Self-made Billionaire Effect How Extreme Producers Create Massive Value (New York NY: PortfolioPenguin, c 2014), 61.

[8] R. Kroc, and R. Anderson, Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonald’s (Chicago IL: Contemporary Books, 1987(1977)), 172-174.