Interview with Cal Turner Jr.: Lessons from AMA Set Company’s Future

Published: Mar 22, 2019
Modified: May 20, 2020

By AMA Staff

AMA Quarterly talked with Cal Turner Jr., who turned his father’s company, Dollar General Corp., into the brand it is today. Turner was the CEO of Dollar General from 1977 to 2003. He wrote a book taking a look behind the scenes called My Father’s Business: The Small-Town Values That Built Dollar General into a Billion-Dollar Company (Center Street, 2018). Turner spoke about how he and his managers initially relied on AMA courses to establish a strategic plan and about the differences between leaders and managers. Here are excerpts of the interview:

AMA: Your company and you have used AMA programs to train yourselves over the years, is this true?

Cal Turner Jr.: You better believe it. The Wall Street Journal favored us in a wonderful way with an actual review of the book, and they started the review with the announcement from my father to me that I was about to become president of Dollar General—the announcement he made while he was in his executive washroom, sitting on the john and speaking through a closed door to me. And the review said something to the effect of, so much for corporate succession!

I actually got my first promotion…. He said, “Son, I think it’s time for you to become president so I can become chairman for a long time.” So we did it. But when I did it, I had leadership tremors, because it’s one thing to come into the business—he gave me the title of executive vice president immediately when I came in—but now I am president. And whatever a CEO is, that’s what I am. And this business is entrepreneurial chaos under my dad, the founder, and now I was president.

And I remembered I had taken an AMA management course in New York. I had gone up there, once a month for four different months, we’d had a week up there, at AMA headquarters. Larry Appley [Lawrence A. Appley, former chairman of AMA] had everyone in his clutches as a dynamic speaker and presenter. So when I became president, and it scared me, I looked into AMA again. And they had at the time what they called “Management Course for Presidents,” and it was about strategic planning. They convinced me that this was the way to really open your company up to all of its possibilities and empower management to become a true team and get the company going….

We went up to Hamilton, N.Y., to the American Management Association planning and implementation center. Our ragtag senior management team got a dose of wonder about what we should do with this company. The beginnings of our becoming a team at the top of the company occurred in Hamilton, N.Y., doing strategic planning and following the AMA model under Hank Pattison as our planning coordinator. We gave Hank fits. His eyes would swim around in his head at some of the things that we’d say! But that’s where we got real teamwork and coordination into the senior management of the company. I owe the genesis of success to AMA and strategic planning that we took through AMA.

AMA: What are the lessons from AMA and Dollar General that you would tell other companies to take to heart?

CT: There is almost an immeasurable difference between a leader and a manager. Leadership is about development. Management is about mere results. I wouldn’t say that results aren’t important, but our company needed to get beyond entrepreneurial chaos, it needed to get beyond its version of boss-ism. My father, who founded the company, was “the boss,” and he knew his leadership style was no longer relevant and he wanted me to figure out what was. Well, AMA helped me to do that.

But I became fascinated with the distinction between management and true leadership that opens the company up to everybody, leadership that challenges people to grow and develop to their fullest potential, leadership that really defines a mission and a purpose for an organization that vitalizes and makes everyone in that organization excited to be part of it. Our company was one of little stores scattered everywhere, and we definitely needed the kind of culture that true leadership can help you to have in scattered locations. I can’t say enough about the importance of AMA in our company’s development.

AMA: When you look around the business world today, what are the things that leaders should be doing that they may not have learned the lessons to do?

CT: I think leadership is about achieving the right connections. You need to be connected to the same mission and purpose. Management needs to be connected to each other. The culture is critical, and every high-growth company needs to get beyond mere operations and into true leadership.

Today, I see a very strong need for leadership in our society that helps us get beyond guilt and blame so that we can incorporate diversity of talent, diversity of objective. Our problem solving is much more incisive when it brings to bear everybody’s input. We need as a society to discover the things that we need to come together to accomplish, the things that will never be accomplished as long as we’re blaming somebody who’s not like us. Leadership helps an organization to understand the synergy of different talents and different points of view. They help develop the powerhouse of the organization.

In our country today, there is plenty that can unite us, whether Democrat or Republican, but it is leadership that brings our potential differences into synergistic combinations….