O’Tooles of the trade

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Tom O’Toole left school with little education and yet is inspiring us to live our lives to the full and run our businesses with a vigour and determination that means they must succeed and be profitable.

But who is O’Toole? I had long heard about the legendary speeches of the Beechworth Bakery’s O’Toole, but because we were often speaking at the same conferences on different days, I hadn’t had the chance of seeing this ‘madman’ until an engagement on Hamilton Island a few years ago.

Seeing is believing

Seeing and hearing O’Toole is an experience and reinforced my long-held view that small business owners can derive enormous inspiration from exposing themselves to such motivated, high achievers.

A great speaker can hold an audience and O’Toole can certainly do that, but the really good ones drive those who hear them into determined action plans. And procrastination when it comes to effective personal change is a national affliction.

How many times have we resolved to do things ‘right’, but then steered away from the hard road simply because it was too tough?

Jerry Seinfeld had a funny observation that men have a natural inclination to build big things – roads, bridges, skyscrapers. But how come most men never do these sorts of things? As Seinfeld put it: “It’s really, really hard!”

When the going got tough

O’Toole has done it hard and he told us that it got so hard one night that he felt the steely taste of a gun in his mouth. Dramatic stuff and more tragic than most other business owners, however, O’Toole’s tale touches a chord with anyone who has rolled up the shutter on a business or hung a shingle out or kicked off a business from home.

Business is not just advertising, hiring, tax collecting and payment – there is a balancing act, which not only involves employees, but includes suppliers, customers and family.

Small business is a massive juggling act. Time, money, brainpower and emotions are all juggled as strategies constructed to make a business work and grow.

This is the sort of indefinable aspect of business that non-business owners can never understand. And it is why those who have run the gauntlet and have tried to make a business work will hang off every word of the likes of O’Toole.

The disbelievers can be cynical, let them be. And let them one day own a business and realise the error of their ways.

And what’s O’Toole’s story?

Born in a tent in Tocumwal, northern Victoria, O’Toole was a battler at school who admits to being nearly illiterate. He actually liked the peace of being locked in a dark cupboard at school and this translated to the loneliness of an early morning baker kneading dough and battling with his own tortured thoughts and demons.

In his early adult days, O’Toole life was in the wars, with a battle with the bottle and his relationship with his first wife, culminating in her leaving him for a “big Fijian”. O’Toole was left to run a business with two little daughters.

That’s when the gun barrel option was put on the table, but thankfully for O’Toole, his daughters and Beechworth, a counsellor and some good friends showed this battered baker that there was another way to run his life and his business. And it worked.

Nowadays, the Beechworth Bakery, in Beechworth of course, has five other outlets in regional Victoria, with the Beechworth operation an important anchor attraction for the thousands of tourists who head to the old Aussie bush town each weekend.

More than 10 years ago, O’Toole’s operation only had him and two part-timers. Now he has sold part of his operation to young guns, but he’s still in the play.

Why is he successful?

Ask him to sum up why his business has done so well, he points to his belief that business success is based on innovation, outstanding product quality and first class customer service.

It sounds easy but most businesses struggle with these basics, but not The Beechworth Bakery, which has been the recipient of multiple Victorian Tourism Awards for Significant Local/Regional Attraction.

O’Toole’s philosophies are predicably straightforward:

  • If you wouldn’t buy it, then don’t sell it 
  • Attitudes are contagious 
  • Nothing changes if nothing changes 
  • If it’s to be, it’s up to me
  • Don’t let someone else steal your day.

The power of being positive

Sitting in the audience on the day I saw O’Toole speak was a young bloke I know, who had taken on the writing caper and had dreams of helping his workplace grow.

At first, I suspect he thought O’Toole was a lunatic on day release, but within five minutes I could see the impact the Beechworth baker was having on him and the audience. The crowd included a CEO of a prominent finance outfit, his senior executives, the company’s key suppliers and the company’s new franchisees.

One of the enduring lines that O’Toole used which left an indelible mark on the audience was: “Goals are just dreams with dates and we must all dream.” The impact was immediate. The audience had been changed, positively and powerfully.

And this is what the non-business owner often fails to understand: others who have kicked business goals are great role models and can be responsible for major improvements in businesses.


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