Failure was never an option for Davis

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:17 pm

“Hard work. Dedication. And the mindset that failure is not an option.”

That is how former Green Bay Packer great Willie Davis answered a question about the secrets behind his post-football career as a successful executive in the beer distributing and radio businesses.

Davis was fielding questions at a recent Milwaukee Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon, where he was promoting his recently completed autobiography, “Willie Davis: Closing the Gap.” The subtitle of the book is “Lombardi, The Packers Dynasty and the Pursuit of Excellence.”

Davis, of course, was an All-Pro defensive lineman for Coach Vince Lombardi’s Packer championship teams during the 1960s.

For the past 30 years, Milwaukee has been a focal point of Davis’ life. He still owns a residence in Milwaukee and maintains a strong local presence through ownership of radio stations 1290 WMCS, 102.1WLUM-FM and WLDB-FM 93.3.

A quick scan of his book recounts lessons learned from the legendary coach and how Davis applied them later in life to his business career.

One of the striking themes of the book is the vision Davis had for his career after football. As a player at the peak of his game in 1963, Davis enrolled at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business to earn his master’s degree in business administration with an emphasis on marketing.

“If there was one player on the team who truly appreciated my pursuit of a degree, it was Bart Starr,” Davis wrote in the book. “Bart, as kind as he was, never once took part in giving me grief. Instead, he talked to me about the struggles of school and encouraged me to stick with it, telling me that what I was doing was inspirational. I was scared but excited. Going back to school made me feel like a winner, like I might be able to achieve my dream after all.”

After Davis achieved initial business success as a West Coast distributor of Schlitz beer, he was asked to serve on a series of corporate boards of directors. In almost every case, he became the first African American to sit in the board room in an era when the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum and breaking new barriers. Davis wrote candidly about his director interactions as the only minority at the table.

“As recently as the 1980s, corporate America was still lacking in terms of minorities in upper management positions,” Davis wrote. “I also found it fascinating how intrigued and sometimes even uncomfortable certain board members were in terms of dealing with a black director. I can say truthfully that I never once encountered any kind of blatant racism or even really any bad feelings toward me and my involvement. Instead it was more of an uncomfortable adjustment at times for companies that had been so used to doing things a certain way. They wanted to change, they wanted to broaden their world perspectives, especially when it came to issues related to minorities, who were becoming a much larger customer base with each passing year. It was like anything else at the beginning. It was sometimes awkward as they took those first steps.”

Davis shares plenty of advice for other business executives. “Know where you want to go and get there,” Davis wrote. “You might not always know how or where your path will take you. I can assure you it will not be achieved in just a few big steps but rather a series of small steps along the way.”

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes.

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