Monday, September 19, 2011

Interview with S. Prestley Blake, Author of A Friendly Life

Joining us today is S. Prestley Blake, co-founder of Friendly Ice Cream Corp. I recently reviewed his autobiography, A Friendly Life. You can read that review here.

Welcome to The Book Connection, Mr. Blake. It’s an honor to have you with us.

You and your brother Curtis opened the first Friendly store in Springfield, MA during the height of the Great Depression. Did either of you have fears that your business would fail because of the economic climate?

Regarding whether we had any fears of the business failing: I would say, “No.” We had plenty of energy and determination and no fear of hard work, and not much to lose but our time. If it did fail we could chalk it up to experience and use the lessons learned for our next endeavor.

A second Friendly store opened in 1940. Why did you choose West Springfield?

I was looking for another location while Curt was in college and found the West Springfield location. It was in a good community, on a main road, near good housing, and it was available. Also, it had 200 feet of frontage, was properly zoned, and the price was reasonable.

When the United States entered WWII, you closed both stores and you and your brother joined the war effort. What was it like coming back to the business after the war? Were people happy to see you back? Did business pick up where it left off once you returned?

When the war was over everyone was happy, I was eager to get going on expanding the business. I believe Curt shared my enthusiasm, though possibly to a slightly lesser degree. Business was good as everyone was joyful and anxious to get back to normal.

Through the years, Friendly Ice Cream Corp has grown and prospered. What do you feel are the keys to Friendly’s success?

I feel our key to success was being very careful with money management and not overextending ourselves. Of course there are many other factors such as hiring good people to assure good quality and service, but on the fiscal side I was especially desirous of avoiding debt. I always felt that if we owned everything outright with no debt, no one could take it away no matter how bad things got!

The suit you brought against former Friendly Chairman and CEO Donald Smith in 2003 cost you a great deal of money and damaged your relationship with Curt. Do you have any regrets?

My suit against Smith cost a lot of money, which I did not expect to get back, because in a derivative suit any money awarded would go to the company, but toward the end, Smith and his entrenched board could avoid going to court by selling the company, and that’s what they did. At the same time they avoided the proxy battle, which would have thrown them out. I for one wanted to expose all our evidence in court, but I felt I should consider the other shareholders that I was fighting for instead of my own personal feelings. Of course, I have no regrets as far as the battle went because I got all my money back and then some. My only regret is that my brother did not see the whole story, and still does not understand the fine points of the suit or the Harvard study. If I had conceived of the trouble ahead when we sold the company I would have bought him out and continued to run the business with selected partners.

What is different about the modern day Friendly’s versus the stores you first opened? The menu comes to mind, but are there other things? Are you satisfied with how the company has evolved?

Today’s Friendly’s, in my opinion, has far too complicated a menu. As for the management style, I can’t comment, as I am not close enough to the management to understand their motivations.

According to the book, it sounds like you’re enjoying retirement right now. You’ve built a successful business from the ground up, traveled the world, and met many interesting people. Is there anything you haven’t done or would still like to do?

I have done many exciting things, but now I am happy to stay nearer to home. I have so much I love to do here, and I am out on the property most of the time---always busy.

At the end of A Friendly Life, you offer some advice in your Epilogue titled, “What I Tell Kids.” If you could only impart one piece of advice to the young men and women of America just starting out, what would it be?

My advice to anyone now is, “If you can’t pay for it now, don’t buy it.”

Is there anything you would like to add?

I am happy that I wrote the book. Many people have written to tell me it has inspired them. It makes me happy to think that I can be of some help to others.

Thank you for spending time with us today. I wish you the best.

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