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ISSUE 120 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 4/27/2007

Caribou CEO shares experience

By Matthew Simenstad
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 27, 2007

Last Tuesday, President, CEO and “Head ‘'Bou” of Caribou Coffee Michael Coles spoke to a large contingent of St. Olaf students and faculty as a guest of the on-campus entrepreneurial group OleVentures.

The program brings several speakers to campus each semester to share their business and life experiences in order to provide a valuable source of information for budding entrepreneurs and faculty alike.

Coles'’ speech, entitled “"Caffeinate Your Growth,”" focused on the trials and tribulations that he has faced throughout his career first as an entrepreneur, then as an aspiring politician and finally as head of the second-largest coffee chain in the United States. Coles was hired (after a brief career hiatus) in 2003 to “create a serious number-two challenger to our biggest competitor, Starbucks.”

Competing with a coffee-selling giant like Starbucks is no small task, and to do so requires a great deal of creativity and perseverance. Fortunately for him, Coles says that he is no stranger to either of these characteristics. “

"My life has been about proving non-believers wrong,”" he said. Coles began working at age 11 to help support his family and he said that many of the qualities that he was criticized for having as a child now benefit him tremendously. He was dubbed a “wild child” in his youth, but now one of his primary assets is his wealth of energy.

Coles put this energy to use in 1977 when he and a partner started the Great American Cookie Company with $8,000 invested between the two of them. After finding a mall that would lease space to them in Atlanta, the two partners, their wives and Coles’' mother were set to open to a throng of customers awaiting free cookies promised to them for the store’s grand opening. Everything was going as planned until the first batch of 300 cookies was ready to be removed from the oven and the team realized: “We don’t have any potholders.”

The cookies burned, the fire department showed up and prospects looked grim. Fortunately the company proved resilient and wound up far exceeding expectations for their first month of sales. From there the Great American Cookie Company grew steadily until being sold in 1998 for $100 million.

Coles also recounted how a near-fatal motorcycle accident left him disabled “not only physically, but in my mind as well.” As he had with the Great American Cookie Company, Coles faced a tough challenge ahead. He learned to walk and to ride a bike again and in 1982 rode from Savannah, Ga., to San Diego, Calif., in 15 and a half days. In 1989, Coles' and a team set a record by riding from New York to Los Angeles in five days, one hour and eight minutes.

After two unsuccessful political campaigns for a seat in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate in 1996 and 1998 respectively, Coles came to Caribou in 2003. As president and CEO of the Minneapolis-based company he has directed the focus towards “making the customer the center of experience,” he said. “People make decisions to buy coffee based on how you treated them last time they came in.”

With that in mind Caribou has expanded from a regional brand to a national brand, with hopes of expanding internationally as well. “"I know we won’'t be the biggest coffee company,"” Coles said. “"That'’s okay with us. We want to be the best coffee company."”

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