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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. I caught up with O’Toole on Queensland’s Hamilton Island.

You can say what you like, but to me, thunderous applause from a business audience is a strong recommendation that the speaker has really hit the mark. And over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to be inspired and educated by some of the most powerful motivators of modern business — Jack Welch, Michael Gerber, Edward de Bono and Tom O’Toole.

GE’s chief executive of the twentieth century, Jack Welch, probably needs little introduction. Meanwhile, Michael Gerber’s legendary book, The E-Myth, has been one of the greatest business best seller books of all time. And Edward de Bono, the creator of the term ‘lateral thinking’ has been one of the most provocative mental motivators for over three decades.

But Tom who? Who’s Tom O’Toole? I had long heard about the legendary speeches of the Beechworth Bakery’s Tom 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 a recent engagement on Hamilton Island.

I know, I know, you are thinking: “Nice job, if you can get it!” Well, all I can say is that someone has to do it, so I’m glad it’s me. From the outset, I should add that Tom would be humbled to be linked to those big names of business but, in terms of inspiration and an ability to relate to people in small business, O’Toole is distinctive.

Seeing is believing

Seeing and hearing Tom 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 Tom 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 Jerry put it: “It’s really, really hard!”

When the going got tough

Tom 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 Tom’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 Tom 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 Tom’s story?

Born in a tent in Tocumwal, northern Victoria, Tom 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, Tom’s 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”. Tom 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 Tom, 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, Tom’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 took out the Victorian Tourism Awards in 1994, 1995 and 1998.

Tom’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 Tom speak was a young bloke I know, who had taken on the writing caper and has dreams of helping our company grow.

At first, I suspect he thought Tom 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 Tom 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.

Motivators are coaches


Human interaction is often underrated by some bold individualists in business and I suspect that they miss out big time. Personally, when I go to a swimming pool to bowl over a few laps, I know the effort is okay. However, it is nothing compared to what I could achieve if I got out of bed at 5:30 each morning and joined a team of swimmers with a coach yelling and screaming for greater effort.

There are technical tips and of course the competition. The O’Tooles of this world are like coaches or mentors who show us another way, who get an extra lap out of us and drive us to higher achievements.

My recent interview with Edward de Bono had an enormous impact on the way I approach a problem. De Bono is astounded that many of us downplay the use of thought to solve business problems and come up with creative solutions.

This great thinker of the twentieth century and beyond told me he thought the sculptor, Rodin, had done thinking a great disservice by making thinking, in his famous statue The Thinker, look like a difficult task. He argued that thinking is and should be fun. It is also rewarding.

In a book called Marketing Without Money, which he co-authored with local business writer John Lyons, de Bono analysed the creative thinking behind great businesses such as Paul Cave’s BridgeClimb, along with other legends such as Dick Smith and Gerry Harvey.

Lyons and de Bono insist that great businesses are often linked to someone using their grey matter rather than simply throwing money at a problem.

De Bono makes the point that thinking is critical in business and can bring great results. He told a story of two boys, who, when walking in the forest with no shoes on, encountered a bear. Both panic stricken, one boy opened his satchel and started putting on his running shoes.

Reacting, the other boy exclaimed: “Why are you doing that? You can’t outrun a bear!” To that, the other boy replied: “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you!”

Following this inspirational meeting, I’ve had one major problem in my business which was solved by me thinking laterally and creatively.

And let me add, I actually used the words: “What would de Bono do if he was confronted by such a problem?” The power of thinking and the power of inspiration — ignore these business boosters at your peril.

Getting back to Tom

Let me share some of the ramblings and ravings of this high-achiever and motivator. O’Toole admits that he has borrowed his wisdom from others.

“Nothing I say is original but then again what is?” he says. “Probably some is. Some of it is my life and that’s got to be original.”

He admits he had a troubled start to adult life, but thanks the work of a counsellor and Lifeline for helping him through his low points.

Nowadays he goes to the gaol at Beechworth and talks to the inmates, trying to do for them what a caring social worker once did for him when he lost his wife — that is, get them positive.He hates what he calls “dream takers”.

“Beware of the dream takers — they’re bloody mosquitoes — they are everywhere,” he told the audience. “I want to be a dream giver.”

Having goals is crucial

When it comes to building a successful business, he is a great believer in goals. “Have goals,” he advised us. “Most people don’t have goals.”

“The most important thing about goals is having one. I believe if your goals are not on paper then they are not on this planet. Goals are just dreams with dates and we must all dream.”

O’Toole is big on empowering his staff so that they own initiatives that have had profound impacts on his business growth. Sure, he conceded that at times he had a small part in planting the seed of an idea, but recognition for himself was not a major concern. This is a guy who respects and exudes a love of his staff. He has lots of social get togethers and loads of fun.

“Choose to be happy,” he told us. “Don’t tell me what I am doing wrong, tell me what I am doing right.”

And like most highly successful small businesses, he listens to his customers by asking them to write suggestions and comments on a notice board in his shop. His lesson is simple. “My customers tell me how to run my business,” he says.

Tom says some of the best ideas he ever had came from customers.

Paul Cave agrees with this and reckons nowadays he doesn’t work as hard as he used to because he has a well-designed, systematic business run by a good management team.

However, he insists on being responsible for surveying customer feedback forms daily. His greatest complaint is that he doesn’t get enough complaints so that he can pick up some new tricks to better his business!

Back to Tom


“Ask yourself ‘how long am I going be dead?’ You’re going to be dead a long time. So take a bloody risk and enjoy life. It is easy to exist but it takes a bit of effort to really live,” says O’Toole.

I don’t know if O’Toole as a baker and as a businessman is as good as some of his rivals, who have created major corporations and franchise groups, but he certainly has made a very memorable mark as a successful business speaker and, more importantly, as an educational motivator.

The US educationalist, BF Skinner once defined education as that which remains after all that has been learnt has been forgotten.
Tom O’Toole and many of his lessons are unforgettable.  

Great quotes

“Beware of the dream takers — they’re bloody mosquitoes — they are everywhere. I want to be a dream giver.” Tom O’Toole

“Goals are just dreams with dates.” Tom O’Toole

“Ask yourself: ‘How long am I going be dead’? You’re going to be dead a long time. So take a bloody risk and enjoy life. It is easy to exist, but it takes a bit of effort to really live.” Tom O’Toole

“Seeing and hearing Tom 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.” Peter Switzer

“Now, what’s the use of worrying? It’s silly to worry, isn’t it? You’re gone today and here tomorrow.” Groucho Marx

“To identify schools with education is to confuse salvation with the church.” Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

About Tom O’Toole’s book


My son read O’Toole’s book, Breadwinner: A Fresh Approach to Rising to the Top and here is what he got out of what he described as an excellent book:

  • Nothing I say is original, but then again what is? Probably some is. Some of it is my life and that’s got to be original.
  • I know I can’t please everyone so I don’t even try. In fact, trying to please everyone is a good recipe for going broke.
  • I have concluded that it’s about getting up in the morning in love with life and rarin’ to go.
  • What are you famous for? You’ve got to be famous for something.
  • Get out of your comfort zone.
  • Talking the talk is very easy for me, but walking the talk is a different story.
  • Take a risk – smile – live, don’t just exist!
  • The person who does not take risks has nothing, is nothing, becomes nothing. Only the person who risks is truly free.
  • Ask yourself: “How long am I going be dead?” You’re going to be dead a long time. So take a bloody risk and enjoy life. It is easy to exist, but it takes a bit of effort to really live.
  • Nothing changes if nothing happens. Action is a magic word. Before anything will change, I’ve got to change. If it’s to be, it’s up to me.
  • Enjoy your work – we all spend a lot of time there – so we might as well enjoy the experience.
  • Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without the collective spark of enthusiasm.
  • If you’re not getting what you want out of life, check your level of enthusiasm.
  • To become enthusiastic, just act enthusiastic – that’s how simple it is. Fake it ‘til you make it.
  • Shock people.
  • Have a look in the mirror and you will see what the problem is.
  • Be grateful.

Be happy!

“Choose to be happy,” he told us. “Don’t tell me what I am doing wrong, tell me what I am doing right.”

The gospel according to Thomas

  • Beware of the dream takers! Get famous! Get out of your comfort zone! Take a risk – smile! Enjoy your work! SHOCK people!
  • A smile is the quickest way to wreck a pity party.
  • Believers pick up the prizes.
  • None of us is as strong as all of us – together everyone     achieves more.
  • The more you learn, the more you earn.
  • Little things are the only things.
  • We put limits upon ourselves.
  • What you think about expands – so think positively! Look for opportunities! Get excited! Talk up business! Brag about your job!
  • Put delegation into action.
  • Don’t let an old person in – old age will only appear when we stop dreaming.
  • Without good people you’re nothing.
  • Think great thoughts - mediocre attention attracts mediocre results. Great thinking attracts great results.
  • Mistakes are life.
  • If you wouldn’t buy it, don’t sell it.
  • Problems are always within my four walls – anytime I have a problem in my business it’s always within my four walls. Yet it is so easy to put the blame elsewhere. I’ve done it many times myself, because I don’t want to be responsible. I’d rather point the finger at somebody else.
  • When I am asked, “What if you train them and they leave?”, I usually reply: “What if you don’t and they stay!”
  • My customers tell me how to run my business.
  • Choose to be happy.
  • It has got to be simple.
  • What do you think of yourself? Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without the collective spark of enthusiasm.
  • Enthusiasm is like measles and mumps – highly contagious.


Tom’s view on goals

  • Goals are important.
  • Most people don’t have goals.
  • The most important thing about goals is having one.
  • I believe if your goals are not on paper then they are not on this planet.
  • Goals are just dreams with dates and we must all dream.


And finally

  • 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.

 

Work on your business, not in it. To learn how, book a complimentary business assessment today with a Switzer Business Coach.

Important information: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

Published on: Thursday, July 30, 2009

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