Did you know that McDonald’s owes its very existence to the fact that A&W Root Beer dropped the ball? And for what it’s worth, I don’t think Sonic would be around today either.
Most of you are far too young to remember the old A&W burger stands complete with waitresses, music, reasonable prices, and great hamburgers. For a short time, A&W did everything well. It was the recognized champion of its sector and the company to beat. The food was good, customers were happy, and the parking lots were full – especially on Friday and Saturday nights.
And if the customers were happy, the franchisees were ecstatic. It was a great concept – the first of the drive-in hamburger chains. The money just poured in – and nobody expected it to ever stop. I mean – why would it? Kids would always need a place to go and burgers were cheap to make and easier to sell. What could ever change that?
Yes, they’d heard something about a salesman buying a small burger outfit in California. But what did he know? The last they’d heard of him was when he passed this way trying to sell milkshake machines. They figured as long as they could keep the doors open, they would be profitable - and on top forever. Nothing could go wrong.
Yet today, we know that didn’t happen. A&W still exists, but it’s more of a memory for old folks than anything else. Some large conglomerate bought the bones of the company trying to make some money off the only asset left – the brand name.
First, A&W was so profitable that many franchisees simply got lazy. Equipment broke down and nobody repaired or replaced it. Buildings began to look worn down and worn out. Nobody paid it any mind because they were making so much money.
Second, they were making too much money to notice the milkshake salesman was on to something. The little McDonald’s place he bought was doing something right and it was growing larger every day.
But at A&W, life went on as usual. They saw no threats to their business model. No competition worth mention. Until the milkshake man brought his act to their town.
Suddenly, their customers were gone. Worse, they took their money with them.
Of course, that’s when the A&W folks finally woke up and began to pay attention. Only now they realized they no longer had the money to make the repairs to their buildings and equipment nor did they have the willpower to adjust their business model. Instead, A&W chose to simply fade away.
A&W didn’t recognize the problems of complacency and competition until it was too late. They erred in recognizing the problem of competition because it came in a new form and because they had no interest in acknowledging its existence. They were also blind to the possible outcomes of the toxic combination of apathy and entitlement.
A&W wasn’t the first to fall. And Sears is well along the same path. These days, some even put up the example of Microsoft as the technological equivalent of Sears. So you can see, the process of becoming irrelevant is still happening today.
Can you recognize and take ownership of a problem when you see it?
Really? Are you sure?
The call came at 2 AM on a Tuesday morning. Struggling to focus on the angry buzzing noise beside the bed, the young man finally manages to find his voice and answer, “ Yes?”
He sits quietly listening to the voice on the other end of the line. After a moment, he hangs up without saying a word. Glancing over at his sleeping wife, he gently nudges her awake.
“Something wrong with the baby?” She says.
“No. But your mother’s in the hospital emergency room and your Dad thinks you should be there.”
“But it’s the middle of the week. Can we get a flight this quickly? And what do we do about the baby?”
“We’ll just take her along. I’ll make the airline reservations while you get ready; and then we can both pack our suitcases.”
“And the baby?”
“We’ll make sure we take everything we need. Anything we forget, we can pick up there.”
Three hours later they arrive at the airport. He’s managed to get them reservations, but it was too late to get seats together. He decides not to tell his wife. They’ll get it straightened out when they get to the ticket desk.
Presenting his information to the ticket clerk, he begins to question her about adjoining seats. Perhaps, they can’t all be together, but surely there’s two for his wife and baby girl.
“No, sir. I’m sorry but this flight is completely booked. Maybe you can work out something with another passenger?”
His wife, hearing this for the first time, begins to worry. “What if they can’t sit together? Who will take care of the baby?”
Wrapping his arm around his wife to reassure her, the young man says, “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine. I’m sure I can talk somebody into trading with us.”
His wife smiles for the first time that morning. If anybody could talk someone into something, it would be her husband.
Boarding the plane, they begin to locate their seats. Sure enough, one is almost right inside the door, one in the middle, and the last one at the very end of the passenger compartment. They couldn’t be farther apart.
The young man speaks to other passengers trying to work out a solution. Finally, in frustration, he offers cash to a large man seated in the middle of a row near the bathroom. Doesn’t matter, the big man isn’t moving.
Gently tapping her husband on the shoulder, his wife asks if she can try.
“Yes, of course.”
Standing next to the still-seated big man, she begins to open her bag spilling its the contents on the seat beside him. As she lines each item up on on the seat tray, she explains to the him what each is for.
“Try this when she begins to scream,” she said, holding up a pacifier.
“When she’s hungry, you can give her a little from this bottle. Not too much. And be careful, she’ll probably spit up after. You’ll want to wear something over your suit when you burp her.”
“This is her favorite toy” she says as she rattles it in his face. She also likes to play with her plastic car keys but once she drops them, you can’t let her put them in her mouth. And trust me, she’s going to drop them.”
She begins to walk away, but then turns back.
“Oh, I almost forgot. When her diaper needs changing, you’ll know. The bottle won’t work and she’ll scream until you get her changed. The nasty diapers go here, the wipes are here, – and the clean ones are in here too? Got it?”
She turns again to make her way back to her seat a few rows up.
The big man stands and calls after her. “Wait. Wait. I think I’d rather trade seats, if it’s alright with you.”
“Are you sure? Well, OK. But I was so looking forward to some peace and quiet. Put my earphones on and relax to some quiet music.”
“Please?” It was the big man’s turn to plead.
“Yes. Of course. Let me get the rest of my stuff”.
Her husband smiles.
“I guess you were able to get him to understand our problem.”
“No”, she replies. “It was never our problem. It was always his. He was just a little slow to understand the situation. That’s all.”
How many of us fail to recognize a problem when we see it? And how many more of us take the easy way out and fail to take ownership or work out a solution until it smacks into our windshield?
A sure recipe for disaster is to drive your business focused on nothing but your hood ornament. Try looking a bit farther down the road to avoid problems rather than be stuck spending valuable time and resources on fixes or solutions.