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The Entrepreneurial Challenge of Turning a Venture Around

The Center for Entrepreneurial Learning and Leadership’s annual William A. Freeman Memorial lecture will be on April 8th at 5:30pm in the Assembly Hall of the Nessmith-Lane Building at Georgia Southern University.  The lecture is open to the public and all are welcome.  This year the lecture will be given by Georgia Southern University alum David Handlen and will focus on “The Entrepreneurial Challenge of Turning a Venture Around“.

About the Speaker

Working for the Air Force and taking classes at a university at the same time can be a trying effort. Late night classes, relocation, and university transfers can create barriers that make achieving an education difficult. Nevertheless, David Handlen’s determination and drive helped him to overcome these obstacles and achieve his Bachelor’s in Business Administration at Georgia Southern College. With this degree, Handlen went on to successfully manage and develop several snack food plants leading to millions of dollars in profit.  Originally from Burlington, Vt., Handlen moved around when he was young. He lived with his grandparents until his parents got out of the army. “I really did live all over the place,” Handlen said. “I went to three different high schools and then started college at the University of Connecticut.”

However, his parents soon moved to California. No longer able to meet Connecticut residency requirements, Handlen decided to enlist in the Air Force. “In those days, the draft was going on, and I knew I really didn’t want to be in the army,” Handlen said. “The Air Force offered a good program so I decided to join.” During Handlen’s seven and a half years of service, he still found time to get his education by taking night classes at different universities. “I took classes for almost five years at night time,” Handlen said. Although it was difficult managing the Air Force and his studies, Handlen admits it was his motivation that helped him stay focused. “I wanted to get my degree and just stayed very committed,” he said.

In 1969, he left the Air Force and was accepted to Georgia Southern College. “Georgia Southern was very kind to me and gave me credit for all my schooling that I had been taking while in the military,” Handlen added. “They accepted all my credits, two and half years’ worth.”  While at Southern, Handlen took on a job managing the old Wise Theatre in downtown Statesboro. His experience managing at the theatre combined with other management skills he acquired during the Air Force convinced Handlen to major in business. “I believed that Georgia Southern had a great school for management,” Handlen said. “I got into it, really enjoyed it, and excelled.” He graduated from Georgia Southern in 1971 with his Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.

After graduating, Handlen worked in Alma, Ga. with the Model Cities Program. However, not feeling a good fit for this public program he took on a job as manager with a Frito-Lay plant in Salisbury, North Carolina. “This is where my career really took off,”Handlen said. “Frito-Lay helped me to get my basic management training out of college.” Over a period of seven and half years, Handlen worked in four full time plants and helped start off two plants in Wisconsin and New York.  “Working with several of [Frito-Lay’s] plants throughout that time period, I got a lot of basics on how to make snack food,” he said.

From Frito-Lay, Handlen took on a job in California as plant manager with Laura Scudders, a large snack food operation that existed on the west coast. In charge of 600 employees, Handlen began to get the feel for more responsibility. “I was able to apply everything I had learned with my Frito-Lay, military, and college background,” Handlen said. “I was able to turn the plant around and become quite successful.” Handlen admits working for Laura Scudders was his favorite job. “I was able to bring everything that I learned over the last 10 years and apply it,” he said. “I felt like a kid in a candy store.”

Over the next 30 years, Handlen would continue to progress in his management career moving up the administrative ladder. He worked for several different companies including Azar Food Services, Klien Brothers, and the Standard Meat Company. He successfully helped to turn around plants for each of these.  Handlen agrees his most successful story was working with Winchester Meat Company in Hutchinson, KS, a branch of the Standard Meat Company. Handlen was hired to turn around a meat packing plant that was built in 1898. “The plant had been sitting idle for seven or eight years, “Handlen said. “There had been two to three companies in there for the last 85 years. I was hired to go and put money into the plant.” And put money in it he did. Handlen’s boss bought the plant for $50,000. When he was done with it, it sold for $9 million.

The last 10 years of his career, Handlen went into consulting. “I went on to do consulting for 12 different companies. Every single story was a turn around,” Handlen said. “I did consulting for both food and nonfood – taking a company and turning it around completely.”  Consulting was Handlen’s way of meeting a challenge. When he would get a company up and running, he would move onto the next one. As he continued consulting, he soon gained an effective group of team members. “I had a couple of people that moved around with me,” Handlen said. “We were a team and we got a reputation that we could turn a company around in six months or so. People would come looking for us because they knew we were reliable.”

Handlen attributes a lot of his business success to classes taught to him at Georgia Southern by Dr. Rick Stapleton. Stapleton’s classes were built around a case study approach which forced students to bring lessons from their other courses and apply them to a problem. “That approach really helped me with business because it felt just like the real world,” Handlen said. “He taught me to bring math, finance, human resources, accounting and data processing to help run a business.”  Consulting would be Handlen’s last full time job before he retired three years ago. Although retired, he still finds time to substitute teach three days a week at local high school in Fort. Worth, Tx. He also enjoys gardening and playing racquetball.

As for any entrepreneurs looking to start their own business, Handlen advises them to work on their listening skills. “I’ve met a lot of young people in the last few years that talk too much,” Handlen said. “Sharpen your listening skills to understand your customers.”

Profile written by: Natalie Demarko

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