An Interview with Jim Tracy, the President of ABC

An Interview with the President

I first met Jim Tracy on a bright summer morning at the reception desk of America’s Best Companies. Instead of having an employee lead me through the maze of desks leading up to his office, he was there to greet me personally, and as we walked together to his office, he shared his vision of the company with me and emphasized my future place within it. On that first day, I understood that I was more a part of a family than merely a part of a business team, and I went home feeling that I now had the power to change the world in my own small way.

Over the past few months, I have seen Jim in virtually all of his professional moods, ranging from boyish enthusiasm to frustration. I have seen him laugh with his friends about their standings in fantasy football, and I have seen him happily recommend the finest foods at restaurants during staff dinners. In fact, Jim Tracy is a man who lets enough of his personal life seep into his business to make working with him much more interesting than with a traditional stiff-collared boss.

Despite these glimpses of Jim’s inner workings, however, it’s clear that there’s more to be learned. When his son Grant visits, we at the magazine have caught flashes of a gentler side of our president than we normally see. At those times, our boss can be seen in the humble process of opening his son’s soda bottle and letting him sit at his desk. At times we can overhear quick but affectionate calls to his wife. And on Friday afternoons, we often see our president ready for an afternoon at the Pilates studio and dressed in casual attire quite different from his usual suited manner.

Through it all, though, one thing has remained clear: Jim Tracy is a man on a mission. It is a mission that we all share at America’s Best Companies, and one that could not have been realized without an exceptional president behind it. Here’s how that mission began.

Lynn Celmer: You seem like a very dedicated man. Were there any experiences when you were young that affected the way you are today?
Jim Tracy: Well, back during the fourth or fifth grade, I was an active kid like anyone else. One day after school, my parents sent me off on my bike to go pick up my sister. On the way, I hit a car going about 25 miles an hour and split my head open. My parents took me to the hospital, but this incident wasn’t the life-changing moment.

LC: What was?
JT: Well, about a month later I started having epileptic seizures as a result of the accident. I was told that there would be no more sports for me since I was having seizures every time I tried to do something active. But I became determined to participate in a sport. I remember saying, “Mom, I simply can’t live like this. You’ve got to stop being so protective.”

LC: And what happened?
JT: In eighth grade, without my doctor’s knowledge, I started controlling my seizures. I had long learned how to tell when one was coming on, and as soon as the symptoms would occur, I would pause and take time to massage my temples and keep the seizures from occurring. Eventually I stopped having them. To this day, I still have migraines and I still have to take EEGs. But overcoming that on my own made me feel like nothing could stop me, like I owe it to myself to do something special. It was a miracle. I felt like I needed to do bigger and better things.

LC: Do you still play sports?
JT: Oh, I love sports. I love watching them, participating in them, and watching my kids participate in them as often as my busy schedule will allow.

LC: What else do you do in your spare time?
JT: Well, I collect classic editions of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha. I like the whole idea of “dreaming the impossible dream.” I believe that it was an inspiration even for the people who originally settled here in America when they started building their own enterprises. This was one of the first best sellers, and it changed all of humanity. You have to look at the world back then: You could really only be what your dad was, know what I mean? This was one of the first books to encourage people to be different. It kind of makes fun of that idea that the dreamers were crazy, and as I got older in life, I became more and more fascinated with how the book was culture-changing. I’m trying to do a little of the same thing today. I’m trying to be a little culture-changing. Part of the message of the book is that it’s OK to dream. Even if it seems crazy, it’s OK to take chances.

LC: That seems to grow out of your earlier experiences. Has anything else ever inspired you to go the extra mile?
JT: I would have to say the movie Rocky because it was the first time I went to a movie and was emotionally charged up. This was shortly after my accident. To me it demonstrated hard work, energy, and effort. The funny thing is that Rocky lost, but I was still so inspired. For instance, when I was in seventh grade, I tried out for the gymnastics team and didn’t make it. My mother used to give me a dollar every day for lunch at school. Instead of buying lunch, I saved up my money for almost a month until I had $20. I asked my mother if she could write out a check, because I wanted the Charles Atlas workout that was in the back of a Boys’ Life magazine. It was just a big folded sheet of paper with exercises to do, but I did those every day for a year and ended up making the team in eighth grade.

LC: Let’s say they made a movie out of your life. Which actor would you want to play you?
JT: I would say Val Kilmer because I’ve been mistaken for him several times. Once when I was on an airplane sitting in first class, a flight attendant approached me and said that two passengers in coach had asked if I was him and if they could have my autograph if I was. Val Kilmer’s a regular guy in that he tends to stay away from the Hollywood scene. He prefers to stay with his horses and buffalo on his New Mexico ranch.

LC: Let’s get down to business, so to speak. If you could open your own small business, what would you choose?
JT: Well, even though 80 percent of them fail, it would be a restaurant.

LC: Why?
JT: Because I love to eat and I love to cook. I also love the idea of bringing gratification or joy to people on a daily basis. There are a lot of businesses where you can give people temporary satisfaction, but the idea of having a restaurant and putting love into your food and having these people come every day and see them with smiles on their faces—that really appeals to me. Most of them are there for a reason, whether it be a celebration, business meeting, family night out, or just two people in love. Just being able to help create that setting for whatever it is they want to do would bring me a lot of joy. I also like that it would allow for constant creativity if I had a frequently changing menu.

LC: You’ve often spoken about the difficulties of running a small business in America. Have you ever visited a region of the country where successful small businesses still seem to have an edge over big corporations?
JT: Well, I spent a good amount of time living in the city of Chicago and, oddly enough, I feel that a small business owner still has a serious advantage over the bigger businesses there. You have to leave the downtown area to recognize that. We have this immediate downtown area with hotels and tourism where you have all of the big name shopping centers and stores and everything else, and outside of that, the city of Chicago hasn’t allowed all of these big-box stores to dominate the landscape. Chicago also has all of the great ethnic neighborhoods like Little Italy and Chinatown and none of them are dominated by any kind of chains. It’s all little local family-owned businesses and restaurants and you still see religious figurine stores and bowling supply shops.

LC: Why do you think so many people have stopped using small businesses?
JT: Well, I think it’s primarily convenience. I think the Internet has created a lot of convenience for people so they don’t even have to leave the house to buy something. America is a little bit unique in that we have our own personality. The personality of America is go go go, get more, have more, do more. People feel like they have to keep up with the Joneses and time has become this valuable entity that we don’t want to waste. I’m just as guilty as anyone when it comes to that. The Internet and these super mega-marts where you can get everything from milk and groceries to the latest DVDs—not to mention prescriptions filled and eyeglasses made—have added a new level of convenience. It requires more effort to go to small businesses in that you have to go to several of them to accomplish all of these things. I think people also need to take time to get reacquainted with their communities. Part of how you do that is by having a downtown area in the community where people can gather for ice cream, visit their friends, shop, and just say “hello” to one another.

LC: Why is the mission of ABC so important to you?
JT: I feel that the pattern of more small businesses closing every year is not positive. When you extrapolate the numbers forward and you look at what might happen in 20, 30, or even 40 years based on what we’ve seen in the last 10 years, society in America will have a very low number of small businesses and big business will have taken over everywhere. I don’t think that’s a pattern for success. We spend billions of dollars every year donating to international charities and causes and yet we don’t pay attention to many other crises here at home because we aren’t even aware that there is a crisis. And to me it’s a crisis that there’s becoming more and more of an elimination of the middle class, the reason being that the middle class has traditionally been these small business owners. As we lose those people, I can’t help but think about what the options are going to be for future generations. Around 50 years from now, you will either have to go to college and get an education, or, if we see this continuing pattern, you’re going to have to work in a menial job at a big-box store or at a factory. In the past, there’s always been an in-between and the loss of that worries me. If you had the money to go to college, you could pursue a career with a big company or a professional career as a doctor or lawyer or something. If you couldn’t afford that, you could stay in your town, work for a business, and then maybe someday you could build it up or buy it or take it over. There was also the option of moving to another town and building a similar business so you could compete. Today, I just don’t see that. I don’t see that 50 years from now. I see that being eliminated now.

LC: Has there ever been one figure who’s been an important influence on your life?
JT: I didn’t grow up with any male grandparents, and Zig Ziglar kind of became a grandfather for me. One of the best books I’ve ever read is Ziglar’s See You at the Top, which I think should be required reading in high school. I think it would teach teenagers more than Catcher in the Rye and Moby Dick combined. See You at the Top is not a salesman’s book; it’s a book about life. It also inspired our company motto: “You can have everything in life you want, if you just help enough other people get what they want.”

LC: When will you consider ABC a success?
JT: I would say when I see headlines on the news or in the newspaper that say something like “Small Business Resurgence Becoming New Phenomenon.” That would make me happy. Seeing that small business sales have reached all-time highs would truly give me the satisfaction that what we’re doing is making a difference. If another headline said “Mega-marts Stock Down After America's Best Companies Announces New Small Business Projections,” I could live with that, too.

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