Entertaining and compelling real-life stories with valuable
lessons on how to succeed in business and in life.
The author is successful business, real estate, and media entrepreneur Dick Kazan.
Published on December 1, 2009

Today: How a simple idea, hard work and a love of people let a man with little money or education build a corporate giant.

That man was Troy Smith, and the firm he built was Oklahoma based Sonic, a national restaurant chain. Today that chain has over 3,500 stores in 42 states and it employs nearly 100,000 full and part-time personnel. Yet it all began so modestly.

Troy grew up in an oil patch region of Oklahoma and at 18; he married his high school sweetheart Dollie Twiggs in 1940. But soon, like many other young men of that time, he was off to the military for World War ll.

After the War, Troy went home to Dollie and their two small children and he supported them by driving a milk delivery truck. Needing to make more money, he switched from milk deliveries to bread deliveries.

But Troy realized two things: First, that driving these routes would never make him and his family financially secure and second that he wanted to be his own boss.

As a result, while driving his bread route, on the side, he worked long hours starting restaurants but none of them worked out. However, he was no failure because he grew wiser as he gained business experience.

In 1953, Troy and a partner were running the Top Hat root beer stand, located on a large gravel and dirt parking lot. It was the kind of lot that causes tires to make a crunching sound as they run over the gravel and it kicks dust into the air.

The two men decided to open an upscale steak house along side their stand and it made money. But Troy discovered most of the profits came from the root beer stand and he sold his interest in the steak house to his partner.

But something far better awaited Troy and one day his life changed dramatically, as he found his destiny.

He was driving in Louisiana when he saw a hamburger stand unlike any other he had ever seen. As in a drive-in movie theater, each car had a speaker and customers in the comfort of their cars ordered their food.

As Troy watched, a short time later their food was rushed out to them. The customers liked it and it was a highly efficient way to run a fast food business. After speaking with the owners, he built a replica of it at his Top Hat root beer stand. Very quickly, it became a big hit!

Soon Troy took on another partner, Charlie Pappe, and the two men opened three more Top Hat restaurants run just like the first one and they too became very popular.

The men knew they had something special and began to open new units on a grand scale using franchise concepts develop by McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants.

But a problem arose. In 1959, when they tried to trademark the Top Hat name, it wasn’t available. So wanting to create the image of speed, Troy selected Sonic and added the slogan: “Service at the Speed of Sound.”

Troy kept opening stores and the Sonic chain became a tremendous success. By the late 1970’s there were 1,200 stores.

But then suddenly Sonic hit the wall and it nearly collapsed. Everything Troy had worked so hard for was at risk because the chain had grown so fast it didn’t have the management and systems in place to run such a big operation.

This happens commonly to many successful entrepreneurs that start and build their businesses because they don’t have the temperament or knowledge to run them as corporate giants.

At Sonic, customers and franchisees complained about the food and other issues, a dangerous situation for any restaurant chain and Sonic hemorrhaged money. To survive it restructured itself and it closed 300 stores, a huge blow to Troy.

To save the company, Troy and the Board of Directors brought in a top notch management team, one with the skill set to conduct a corporate turnaround and run a giant operation. They ran it well and Sonic returned to profitability and to its massive growth to become the size it is today.

Although Troy stepped aside from day to day operations in 1983, he would remain active in Sonic for the rest of his life.

Troy was well known for his warmth and the praise he always offered to others, often giving them credit for the company’s success.

In fact this last September when at 87, as Troy’s health was failing and he was unable to attend a national Sonic gathering, he sent a recorded message to play for everyone. In it, he thanked them and he apologized for not thanking them often enough.

Troy’s survivors include Dollie, his wife of nearly 70 years, their son Butch and daughter Leslie and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

But Troy’s survivors also include many others he deeply cared about:

The hundreds of thousands of people and their families employed by Sonic or by its franchisees over the years, the employees and families of the suppliers to Sonic and a million customers that eat at Sonic each day. For they too were Troy’s family.

Success Tip of the Week: As Troy Smith showed us, in whatever your walk of life, there is magic that comes with sincerely caring for others. Today, smile and offer others a kind word and notice what a difference it makes in their lives and in yours.

In the next KazanToday: 15 Minutes to a better, happier you.

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Many of these short, inspirational success stories are about people from all walks of life who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve remarkable results. These stories contain practical advice and a recipe for success for each of these renowned individuals. Some of their stories may help you to avoid some of the costly and time consuming mistakes that many of us make in life and at work. Learn from some of history's greatest winners on how to become a winner yourself, no matter what the obstacle, and no matter how daunting the task before you may seem. Good luck!
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