Grinding It Out

Feb. 22, 2010


Big Ten Black History Month Website

By Larry Watts

Three yards and a cloud of dust. And when it’s fourth-and-one, Roland Parrish, who was a closet college football fan as a youth in Hammond, Ind., wants the ball in his hands.

That’s the way Parrish, 56, approached his career as a track standout at Purdue University, his academics and now his life as the owner of 22 McDonald’s restaurants in north Texas.

“I delivered newspapers as a youngster, and when I saved enough money I bought a subscription to Sports Illustrated,’’ he says. “That magazine blossomed my exposure to the Big Ten.

“I remember 1968 as a wonderful year with all those sophomores on the Ohio State football team. I think I can still name the 22 starters. And there was John Wooden and Lew Alcindor at UCLA, and I’ll never forget (Purdue All-American running back and defensive back) Leroy Keyes in ‘the game of the century’ against Notre Dame. His pictures were all over the magazine.

“Keyes was my first impression of Purdue,’’ he added. “He was sort of my idol along with (former Northwestern defensive back) Irv Cross, who grew up two or three blocks from me. Now when we return to Purdue, Leroy knows me by my first name.’’

Parrish traces his discipline in life to his parents, who have been married 61 years. He just recently took over their guardianship and moved them to Dallas.

“My father (John) only had a high school education, but he was very involved in the community,’’ he says. “He was the pastor at church and Hammond’s first African-American councilman, a position he held for over 20 years. People who met me thought I had been in the military service, but my discipline came from the way I was raised.’’

A high school All-American and Indiana state champion in the 800 meters (1971), Parrish still remembers filling out two college applications in his basement — one to become a business major at Indiana and the other to major in engineering at Purdue.

It was Dr. Cornell Bell who finally swayed Parrish to come to Purdue, but not as an engineering major. Bell recruited him to become the first member of his Business Opportunity Program through the Krannert Business School of Management.

“I had advised Dr. Bell that I had already been accepted into Purdue’s engineering program, but over the last half of my senior year he convinced me to give his program a try,’’ Parrish says. “If it didn’t work out, he would take care of all the paperwork and transfer me back to engineering. He had a summer program where I could earn 11 hours in credit, have free room, board and tuition and earn $20 a week. I did take some special options in industrial engineering, but I never looked back.’’

Parrish terms his dealings with Bell, who passed away last year, as a “love-hate relationship.’’

“He was there 37 years and it was like working with Bobby Knight,’’ he says with a chuckle. “He was there to apply some of the discipline I got from my father. But I got a letter from him in 2000 and he told me I was his No. 1 son. He and his wife didn’t have any children, so he called all of us ‘his children.’

“He had open heart surgery five years ago, so I flew up from Texas, picked him up in Gary (Ind.) and took him to the Mayo Clinic (in Rochester, Minn.). I stayed with him through the initial surgery and after he rehabbed for 30 days, I returned to take him back to Gary. Over the last few years we became the best of friends. We talked about life, and he advised me about things with my parents.’’

At Purdue, Parrish earned six Big Ten Championship medals (one silver, five bronze), advanced to the NCAA Championship semifinals in both the 1,000 (indoor) and 800 (outdoor) as a senior (1975) and made the Dean’s List seven out of eight semesters. He set 11 records on the track, and his mark of 2:21.9 in the 1,000 (1975) stands as one of the oldest at Purdue, and his time of 1:48.37 (1975) in the 800 ranks as third-best. He was twice, as a sophomore and a senior, named the track team’s most valuable performer.

“Winning the award as a sophomore was a shock because everyone figured it would be (Olympian and four-time Big Ten Champion) Larry Burton or (three-time Big Ten Champion) Jeff Bolin,’’ he says. “I was consistent, however. I remember there was an article in the student newspaper, The Exponent, saying I was quietly becoming one of the best half-milers in the nation. I still have that (article), so I guess my quiet leadership made a difference.

“When I came to Purdue, I had the discipline, but I knew nothing about cardiovascular training. I had a coach tell me if I got in the right shape physically, I had the mental makeup to do well.’’

Parrish was never one to shy away from the fact he had to balance his life both as a student and an athlete.

“We had a free pass from classes on Friday and Saturday when we hosted the Big Ten Indoor Championships my sophomore year,’’ he says. “We had the trials for the 800 on Friday and I won my heat. Saturday morning, I got up and went to my statistics class because I wanted to make sure I reviewed the material and stayed on top of everything. That afternoon, I got nipped at the tape for second place and to this day I wish I could have gotten a gold or silver, but I did get an A in the class because I learned how to compartmentalize. I went from athlete to student and back to athlete within 24 hours.’’

Although head coach Dave Rankin didn’t want him to run cross country, following a junior season in which he was plagued with a groin injury, Parrish decided to train with head coach Mike Poehlein’s squad. Poehlein was also the distance coach for the track team.

“That was one of the best things I did,’’ he says. “I did six miles in 31:30 (5:15 a mile) and I was in such good condition. When we did time trials (for track) later in the fall, I ran a 4:13 mile and that was due to my training with the cross country team. With a little more maturity, I probably should have made an appointment with coach Rankin to ask if I could run a couple of meets just so I could have gotten a letter.’’

Following his senior season, Parrish was presented a Red Mackey Grant in order to continue his education. He had received his bachelor’s degree in management and elected to pursue a master’s degree in business administration.

“When I first came to Purdue, I probably didn’t realize the value of a scholarship,’’ he says. “But now that I have a daughter (Aulana) there as a junior on the Roland Parrish scholarship, I do.

“I knew all through my senior year that I would be going to graduate school, so Ron Fruitt, who was in charge of housing, was able to help me out and get me a job as residence hall counselor. Through the work as a counselor, teaching that same statistics class I took as a sophomore and the Mackey Grant, I had enough money for tuition and books, and I still had enough left over to buy a new 1975 Buick Regal. My father never let me have a car as an undergrad because he always said ‘gas and books do not mix.’’’

After receiving his master’s degree, Parrish was hired by Exxon as a financial analyst. He eventually worked his way up to district manager, where he was the company’s sales leader for four straight years, but he saw his goal of becoming a regional manager dwindling.

“There were 64 regional managers when I started, but by the time I left it was down to 12,’’ he says. “I had a pretty good career going, but I knew there was more downsizing to come.’’

For his final two years at Exxon, he worked his usual 50 hours a week in the corporate office, spent 10 hours commuting and then worked another 25 unpaid hours while being trained at McDonald’s. The last two weeks of his training were spent at Hamburger University in Oakbrook, Ill.

But getting accepted into the McDonald’s training program wasn’t an easy task. He was rejected the first time he applied in 1986.

“I still have that letter as a reminder,’’ he says. “It took a year through networking, but I finally got a live interview, and I prepared for the interview by reading Ray Kroc’s autobiography, Grinding It Out. So for the next two years I was working for free while learning all about the product, equipment and McDonald’s system.’’

Upon completion of the program, Parrish was ready for his first franchise. However, he turned down his first two offers in Houston and Tulsa. Faced with a “three strikes and you’re out’’ situation, he was then offered a new restaurant in Dallas.

“I was told there was an Exxon station right next door,’’ he says. “My wife (Jewel) was three months pregnant and our son was nine or 10, so we decided to drive over (from Houston) and check it out. We pulled into that Exxon station to gas up and it was all boarded up, which was a real shocker.

“We drove in all four directions to check out the area and then I called Exxon the next day. That’s when I found out the station was being demolished and a new one was going to be built on that site. And there was going to be a new school and police station built in the area.’’

Parrish and his wife decided to invest their $180,000 savings into the franchise, which cost $400,000. According to Parrish, a McDonald’s franchise now sells for between $1.8 and $2 million.

Six months later, on June 20, 1989, Parrish opened the doors to his new restaurant. It didn’t come without any second-guessing because he could always look out his window and see the new Exxon station, knowing the name had appeared in the upper right-hand corner of his paycheck for the last 13 years.

“It wasn’t easy at first,’’ he says. “I was the owner, manager and janitor. Our projected sales were off 30 percent that first year and we got robbed a couple of times. I had a young family and was working 16-18 hours a day, but I had to persevere and I was confident I had made the right decision, so I kept plugging away.’’

An avid reader, near the end of that first year, Parrish wrote a passage in the middle of one of his favorite books, “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.’’ The next day, he added to the passage, “Got robbed last night - not sure.’’

Parrish not only made his restaurant work, but he purchased his second restaurant in 1991 and the third two years later. But even with his successful run, he still has the fear of robberies.

“We have been robbed 30 times, eight in one year, but we haven’t been robbed in the past two years,’’ he says. “That is the worst feeling, going out to your restaurant after a robbery. We’ve never had anyone hurt, but we have had two people kidnapped. It’s never about money then. Fortunately, there are five or six guys behind bars now and the crime rate has gone down.’’

According to Parrish, the average McDonald’s franchise holder owns approximately five restaurants. Not only is he one of the leaders in the country, he has now been listed on Black Enterprise magazine’s BE 100 for the past six years. He is currently vice-chair of the National Black McDonald’s Owner/Operator Association and serves on the board of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Texas. In addition, he is the vice-chair of the McDonald’s Owners National Advertising Fund, which handles nearly $500 million in advertising expenditures annually.

“I have always been a goal-oriented person,’’ he says. “One day in the late 90s, I was thumbing through the Black Enterprise magazine and saw two names I was very familiar with — (former NBA standout) Junior Bridgeman and (sprinter/Oakland A’s designated player) Herb Washington. Junior has done very well with Wendy’s, and Herb has been very successful with McDonald’s in the Canton, Ohio, area. Having been athletes, we all had something in common, and I wanted to get on that list.

“I didn’t realize it, but I have come to find out the McDonald’s executives do look at that magazine and compare how Herb and I are doing. The closest I’ve been to Herb is $500,000, but with my latest purchases, I think I might be able to eclipse him. It’s not a major goal, but it wouldn’t be bad. Herb is a great guy and he’s been in the business longer than I have.’’

Looking back, Parrish says, “It’s been a great run and I owe a lot of it to my experience at Purdue. Competing with that name on your chest means a lot, and I still stay very involved in the university. I learned discipline as a child, but I had some great fatherly figures in Dr. Bell, Coach Rankin and Coach Poehlein.’’