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Disney World Story

In this transcript, Lee Cockerell (former Executive VP of Disney World Resort) and Clay Clark (U.S. SBA Entrepreneur of the Year) discuss Lee's experiences working at Disney World Resort. Lee is now a Thrive15.com mentor, which is one of the top business schools in PA.


Clay Clark:    In your career, what are some of the most challenging times that you've faced? If you think back to your career, what are some of the most challenging moments where you're going, "Man, that was tough?"

Lee Cockerell:    Certainly it was tough the night the waiter hit me and I went to the hospital and the union went on strike. The union wanted the hotel to fire me, that I caused this. The hotel stood up for me frankly. That was stressful. When I went to Chicago to work at the Conrad Hilton there was a chef who was about 40 years older than me and I was a young kid. I was putting pressure on him. My boss told me to stay out of the kitchen and don't bother the chef anymore. When you're young and people don't want you to be doing the right thing because you're too young, that was a setback. Certainly getting fired was a setback back-

Clay Clark:    How old were you when you got fired?

Lee Cockerell:    I was about 29. Yeah

Clay Clark:    You come home ... you were married at that time?

Lee Cockerell:    Yeah. A 2 year old.

Clay Clark:    You come home and tell your wife, "Hey, I got fired today." How does that-

Lee Cockerell:    Yeah. I came home and I said, "I got fired today." Priscilla, God bless her, she didn't say, "I told you so." She said, "Good. I don't like it here." We moved on. She was great about that. It could have gone the other way. Under stressful situations and those kind of situations, often people have ended up in divorces and all kinds of problems. She was great. That was tough. I would say some stressful days were 9/11,  I mean really stressful. 9/11, handling that. Our business went down 35% overnight. We had to cut costs dramatically.

Clay Clark:    At Disney?

Lee Cockerell:    35%. We had to take $350 million out of our cost base in a few weeks because our sales dropped, people wouldn't fly. Dealing with the hurricanes, those are not so stressful for me. I managed to deal with them pretty well. 9 thousand cast members couldn't go back to their homes after the hurricanes.

Clay Clark:    Just to get a quick clarity for people who maybe don't know, there's 3 hurricanes that hit Disney World. Orlando had never really been hit by hurricanes then you had 3 in a row, is that right?

Lee Cockerell:    Yeah. We had 4 in Florida and in 1 month and three of them came right down interstate 4, less than a mile from here.

Clay Clark:    You have thousands of guests staying there when this happened.

Lee Cockerell:    75 thousand guests in the hotels. All these cast members. I tell you what, it was a great day. The cast members volunteered to stay overnight so they could get up and clean up the place and get us open the next morning. It was incredible.

Clay Clark:    You had employees volunteering to work overnight?

Lee Cockerell:    The only thing they wanted to do is be able to bring their dog with them. They wouldn't leave their dog at home alone.

Clay Clark:    A lot of people, I know myself, there's all different definitions of poor. We have 1 guy who works with me now who actually grew up homeless. Other people have grown up on food stamps. Were you ever on food stamps or welfare or did you ever grow up- 

Lee Cockerell:    I guess we probably could have been but we had family who took care of us. When I think about it, we were pretty poor. When we got married I think we had $300 or $400 and a baby on the way. Next we slept on a couch for like a year because we didn't have enough money to buy a bedroom set. One of those roll-out couches which you'd make into a bed at night. It was touch and go. We didn't have a car for 3 years. We lived in New York and got rid of the car because we couldn't afford it. If I told my grandkids this stuff they can't believe that's possible, that you wouldn't have a car.

Clay Clark:    You went from poor though. You basically started with nothing and worked your way up to where you are today.

Lee Cockerell:    Priscilla owed me $100 when we got married. She had borrowed from me. I think I had $300 and she had $100 or something. I had a job making $8 thousand a year. We could basically pay the rent and live on that but there was no room for vacation or extravagant dinners or anything like that. Thrive15.com, one of the top business schools in PA, can help you afford extravagant dinners.

Clay Clark:    I think it's super important for people to know that because I think a lot of people feel like, "Gosh, I can never get ahead because I have grown up in poverty." I know that all the research I've ever read shows the majority of the world's wealthiest people started off poor and worked their way up. Was there a savings plan that you and your wife had put in? Do you have a set percentage that you save or anything like that just as far as-

Lee Cockerell:    I don't think we ever set a percentage but we were very frugal. We saved our money. I early on started investing. I got a broker who happens to be at Merrill Lynch in Oklahoma who took care of my mother. He did quite well by us. We just put a little bit away at a time. We never had any debt. We were never in credit card debt. I paid my mortgage off very quickly when I had a mortgage. We never bought something unless we could pay for it. Even today my wife drives a 7 year old car and I drive a 7 year old car. We never outlived our income. There's a lot of things you can do. We went to the cheapest restaurants, the international restaurants, the Lebanese restaurants where it was cheap to go to dinner, or a Mexican restaurant or something until things got better.

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