Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review: A Friendly Life by S. Prestley Blake with Alan Farnham

Had it not been for the fact that two young men couldn't find jobs and had parents who cared enough about them to make sure they weren't hanging around getting into trouble, who knows what would have become of the Blake brothers. During the height of the Great Depression, S. Prestley and Curtis Blake opened their first ice cream shop in Springfield, MA with a small investment from their parents. They called the place, "Friendly Ice Cream," because Curt knew they were two friendly guys and they wanted their store to be a friendly place.

The brothers weren't afraid of hard work, and they worked long hours to develop their business, always keeping the customer in mind. By the time the United States entered World War II, they owned two stores (a second shop had been opened in West Springfield, MA in 1940). When the country called, Curt enlisted and Pres, who was married and had a daughter, became an expediter. They made sure, however, that everyone knew Friendly wasn't closing. They posted signs on the windows to let people know they would be closed only until the war was won.

Upon their return home, nothing could stop the Blake brothers. Friendly continued to grow and prosper, remaining true to good customer service and treating their employees with respect. By the 1970's, Friendly had grown to 500 stores concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

When the Blake brothers sold Friendly to Hershey Food Corporation, the brothers embraced retirement. Hershey sold the company in 1988, and the "s" was added to the company name a year later, making it "Friendly's."  But Pres would put himself back in action after the turn of the century, when word came to him that his beloved company was losing focus due to mismanagement.

I apologize for the long introduction to A Friendly Life by S. Prestley Blake with Alan Farnham, but I couldn't help myself. I grew up on Friendly's ice cream. Friendly's is tied into so many memories: The annual trip to Friendly's on East Street in Chicopee, MA after dance recital each June; trying to be the first to see the Friendly Ice Cream sign from the Mass Pike when returning home from vacation; stopping by Friendly's a few hours before my mother's wake to try and swallow a few bites of food; and now, living less than five minutes from the current Friendly's headquarters in Wilbraham, MA.

When Brigantine Media asked me if I would be interested in reviewing, A Friendly Life, I didn't waste any time in saying yes. I feel like Friendly's is as American as apple pie, and I can't imagine not having these stores around. Even my girls love to visit Friendly's.

In this engaging autobiography of S. Prestley Blake, readers learn of the company's humble beginnings; the growth of Friendly Ice Cream; how the brothers made it a success, and the people Pres met along the way. They are also treated to the years of Blake's retirement: his world travels, his love of the Rolls-Royce automobile, and his affection for sailing. Also provided are details of how after he heard from friends and former employees about lack of training and poor customer service, he pulled himself out of retirement and rose to become the largest shareholder of the company he co-founded, and went on to file suit in 2003 against CEO and Chairman Don Smith. The suit accused Smith of misusing corporate funds.

A Friendly Life is an excellent read not only for business people wishing to know the key elements that made Friendly's such a success. It is also a great book for anyone who enjoys biographies of any kind. For the most part, it reads like a novel. The words simply flow and you find yourself caught up in the Friendly story.

The book is broken down into three parts: Building Friendly Ice Cream, There's More to Life Than Friendly's, and Back to Friendly's. I have to admit that the chapters about Blake's retirement weren't as interesting to me as the rest of the book. That's because the style of the writing changed. Part 2 talks about various people from his life; and while they are amazing people who are worthy of learning about, there are a few pages dedicated to each person and they are told as isolated stories, so it comes across as choppy. This part is also where we learn of his world travels and his Rolls-Royce collection.

What I think amazed me the most about A Friendly Life is how down-to-earth Blake sounds. He's made millions of dollars and he has a great head for business, but he doesn't come across as a know it all. It cost him a great deal of that money to bring suit in order to do what he felt was necessary to save the company he founded, and it also created a rift between him and Curt. Perhaps because of all this, he is able to give some fabulous advice in his Epilogue. I won't share any of it, because you really need to read it directly from him. It's powerful.

I highly recommend A Friendly Life.

Title:  A Friendly Life
Author: S. Prestley Blake with Alan Farnham
Publisher: Brigantine Media
ISBN-10: 0982664419
ISBN-13: 978-0982664414
SRP:  $15.00
Also available in a Kindle edition

No comments: