The Gray Cat Blog

A comprehensive collection of blogs designed to assist small business owners and multiunit operators.

Sometimes You Have to Start at the Bottom

Mar 27, 2023

Over the years, I have been fortunate to have held some pretty nice corporate roles.  I was the National Marketing Director of Little Caesars back in their high-growth years; a VP of five divisions for a $3-billion, 1,400-store convenience chain; and finally, President at Jimmy John’s all before I launched Gray Cat Enterprises in 2004.  But, before all that I started at the bottom of the barrel.  A moldy barrel.

The year was 1986, I was living in Denver, and I decided to enter the world of retail and not just any retail, mind you, but seasonal retail at a mall during the holidays.  I figured if you were going to land that $3.25 an hour job, why not do it during the peak of the shopping season to fully experience the “rush” of holiday cheer.  I started with all the typical retail stores that I shopped at – the sporting goods stores, Gap, record stores – but nothing seem to catch my eye. 

Then, I came across a land filled with bread, cheeses, and gifts.  It was the land of Hickory Farms.  Where better could I hone my retail skills than at a gift store that specialized in holiday gifts (other than fruit cake).  My soon-to-be employer welcomed me with open arms – I clearly had assistant manager written all over me!   So, after a few minutes filling out paperwork, I was handed my first magenta apron and sent to the cheese display. 

There before me was a wide assortment of damn near every cheese known to man.  The Edams, the Cheddars, the Jacks…..they were all there.  And like an incubator for microbes, so was the mold.  Throughout the day, the mold on the cheese would grow ever closer to the patina shade we all fear when you unexpectedly take that first bite into a slice.  My new role – eliminate the mold.   

Seriously.  I was a retail cheese mold scraper…..

Not by some exotic approach of molecular biology, but by simply using a sharp instrument and the ability to unwrap plastic.  I started at one end of the display case and carefully opened each package of cheese.   Over the course of an 8-hour shift, I carefully scraped mold into a bucket and re-sealed the packages of cheese.  Of course, this had to be done rather discretely keeping this mold-aversion activity out of the eyes of our customers. 

I did this for two weeks straight earning $260.00 and apparently, I was pretty good at it since I was asked to complete the store paperwork at the end of the week to prep me for management training.  I ended up not wanting to pursue the management training role in Denver and decided to take my “cheese skills” to Chicago where I landed a role at Little Caesars. 

Now, even though I was the National Marketing Director at Little Caesars, I didn’t start in that role.  Far from it.  I started as a manager trainee at a single location slinging pizzas six days a week.  From there, I moved into a Community Marketing role; to Marketing Manager; to Regional Marketing Director; and to my eventual National Marketing Director role overseeing field marketing for 1,600 franchise and company-operated stores in thirty-five markets throughout the USA. 

The point of the story is even though I have had some high-level roles in my corporate career and big projects at Gray Cat, I didn’t start at those levels.  I started at the cheese mold scraping level.  But, along the way I learned that scraping mold was just a means to an end.  To achieve your ultimate role, one must live, learn, and appreciate the will necessary to achieve your ultimate, aspired position.   

John Matthews, President & CEO, Gray Cat Enterprises, Inc.

John Matthews is the Founder and President of Gray Cat Enterprises, Inc. a Raleigh, NC-based management consulting company. Gray Cat specializes in strategic project management and consulting for multi-unit operations; interim executive management; and strategic planning. Mr. Matthews has over 30 years of senior-level executive experience in the retail industry, involving three dynamic multi-unit companies. Mr. Matthews experience includes President of Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches; Vice President of Marketing, Merchandising, Corporate Communications, Facilities and Real Estate for Clark Retail Enterprises/White Hen Pantry; and National Marketing Director at Little Caesar's Pizza! Pizza!