Young people today can be forgiven if they don’t realize the friendly, white-haired face staring at them from their bucket of KFC chicken isn’t just a logo someone created—it’s a representation of a real-life man, Harland Sanders.
“Col. Sanders,” as he was known, was an honorary Kentucky Colonel and the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which (as KFC) has become the second largest restaurant chain in the world in terms of sales.
I always liked Col. Sanders, from the days when he was a cultural icon as the star of the chain’s TV commercials. But my enjoyment of the colorful “character” on screen grew into real admiration when I later learned the story of his life and success.
In a way, Col. Sanders reminds me of my Dad, Ralph Lorenz, who founded Ralph’s Hardwood Floors. They were both entrepreneurs at heart, with a passion for identifying a customer need and then fulfilling it.
Col. Sanders, who was born in 1890, held many diverse jobs as a young man—Army soldier, blacksmith’s assistant, train fireman, un-degreed lawyer, and life insurance salesman among them. Responding to needs he saw, he started several ventures, including a ferry boat company and a company that manufactured acetylene lamps.
When the Great Depression hit, Sanders took a job running a gas station for Shell Oil Co. in Corbin, Kentucky. The gas business was tough, and Sanders—whose compensation was a share of the profits—was desperate to find a way for the station to earn more money. So he began asking himself the age-old entrepreneurial question: What do my customers need that I can sell to them?”
One thing he couldn’t help but notice was that many people who stopped at his station were looking for a place to get a good meal. An accomplished cook since his youth, Sanders realized that was a need he could meet.
So he began selling prepared food, including fried chicken made with his “secret recipe,” an item that proved particularly popular. Eventually, Sanders closed the station and turned the location into a real restaurant. That was the beginning of what came to be Kentucky Fried Chicken and eventually KFC.
Likewise, Dad had many different types of jobs in his youth and was involved in several ventures. Ralph’s Hardwood Floors is the result of his lifelong focus on identifying opportunities. When a leading hardwood floor company left the local market, Dad saw a demand for a service he knew he could supply.
Dad is also like Col. Sanders in that he never lost his drive, even in his later years. Although the roots of KFC go back to Sanders’ roadside stand during the Depression, it wasn’t until he was “retired” from the restaurant business in 1952 that he began franchising Kentucky Fried Chicken, realizing there was a lack of good fried chicken restaurants across the country. After Dad “retired” from Ralph’s, he still couldn’t resist trying to fill a market need he saw, and he began selling portable infrared heaters.
That spirit lives on in Ralph’s today, inspired by Dad’s example. Whether it relates to appearance, performance, or customer service, we’re always trying to figure out what our customers need and how we can give it to them.
As Dad and Col. Sanders clearly demonstrated, that mindset leads to business success—and to happy customers!
Photo courtesy of CanonFire09