What It Takes

Michael E. Melton

Michael E. Melton was raised in the projects in Kansas City, Mo., by a single mother, but he decided early on that he would not become a statistic. A part-time job cleaning a lab at the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration in high school exposed him to science and engineering. He earned a bachelor's degree in engineering, then went to law school. While practicing patent and intellectual property law, he invested in a chain of fast-food restaurants. Thirteen years later, he is a partner in Norris & Melton, a Pennsylvania Avenue NW law firm, and co-owner of 20 Taco Bell and five Five Guys restaurants in the Atlanta area. MEM Enterprises, of which he is founder and CEO, employs 710 workers, and grossed $24.7 million last year. Melton, 51, has served three years as president of 100 Black Men of Greater Washington D.C., which mentored 11,000 young people last year, part of his effort to show young people from backgrounds similar to his that they can succeed.

Why he's successful: "I had a desire to get more out of life than what I had and I had the ability to learn what it takes to make that happen. Once I set that plan, I stayed the course ... It was my plan to become vice president of intellectual property at a major corporation by the time I was 30. Everything I did ... was toward that goal ... And, though I had a passion for practicing law, it was unfulfilling because of the politics that went along with it. That caused me to look outside the law for something to do. Having been a business lawyer in corporate America, I saw the benefits of being a businessman."

Biggest obstacle: Melton was the oldest of four children. The family struggled, though his mother worked for the Social Security Administration. "There never seemed to be any disposable income ... I was ignorant of what else was out there in the world because you weren't exposed to different things. The whole environment was about staying away from the police and going to school basically just to be babysat because the teachers spent so much time on discipline. I got what I could out of it, but when I graduated and tried to do something else, I found out far behind I was." He escaped his environment through reading and watching television. "I was a latchkey kid before they had a term for it...I developed my imagination by inserting myself into certain television shows. My grandmother got us a subscription to Reader's Digest and I read them from cover to cover."

What saved him: "When I worked at NOAA, they let me go into the lab to hang out with them. That introduced me to technology and engineering. They were all engineers and scientists. They talked to me about different things and courses I needed to take, but my school didn't have any of those courses. I needed to sign up for algebra my senior year because I hadn't taken it, but that was the only course that I took to prepare me for engineering. When it came time to take the SAT, I wasn't prepared. That happens a lot. People tell you don't have an aptitude for something, when in reality, there is no way you could because you haven't been exposed to it." Melton earned a track scholarship to the University of Missouri-Columbia, though he gave it up after a year to focus on engineering. "I truly worked my way through college. Each time I completed a course, I would try to tutor it for pay the next semester."

Best job: In 1984, after graduating from law school at Missouri, he took a job with the Department of the Navy in the District. He drove east in a $9,000 new Honda Prelude his mother had co-signed for blasting Prince's "Purple Rain" cassette to keep him company. He loved the job, but hated the bustle of the city and after 18 months, he took a job at a law firm in St. Louis. His big break came when he was hired to serve as legal counsel in Europe for Texas Instruments. "This week I might be in Italy, then Portugal ... I lived in Nice, France. If you walked 200 yards, you were in the Mediterranean. Three miles in the opposite direction, you were on a mountain skiing. I was near Monaco, Saint Tropez, Paris."

Worst job: Working for Motorola as vice president of semiconductor licensing. "Here comes this black guy from another company and he's the new vice president...Two of my top negotiators quit, thinking they should have had the job...I had to build a staff that would work with me ... Flying back and forth and staff issues wore on me."

Smartest move: "To take the risk to borrow $16 million to buy this business. I talked to a lot of people I knew and they said, 'You don't know anything about business. You don't know anything about making tacos.' You have to have confidence in yourself and not be afraid of naysayers."

Biggest misstep: Continuing to practice law after he bought the Taco Bell restaurants in 1997. "When I bought this company, I was chief patent counsel for MCI. I was rocking and rolling ... I had 40 attorneys reporting to me. I had access to the corporate jet ... I didn't realize that what I had bought would bring me security for the rest of my life, assets to pass on to my family. I just thought it was something to make me some money. If I had stopped on that day...I would be twice as large as a corporation."

Why he gives back: Melton met his father only once, when he was 32 and reached out to him. He is close to his mother, who will be feted at a 70th birthday party next week in Kansas City by him, his two brothers and sister. "I had very unstructured guidance growing up ... but there were people around me who put me in the right direction. I want do that, to make sure that kids know they can do whatever they want to do."

What lies ahead: "Growth and stability. In this recession, it's taking a lot of work. I'm making moves to grow so that when we come out of it, I'll be ready. I'd like to buy 10 more Five Guys, including one in the Atlanta airport. I want to make sure I have enough capital to do remodeling on my facilities so the customers will have a great experience. I've always wanted to open a hotel."

Advice to the aspiring: "If you are dreaming of doing something different, dream big, then find out what it takes to make that dream come true and go for it."


Avis Thomas-Lester

 |  August 4, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  |  Category:  success stories Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I enjoyed the story about Mr. Milton. Proves we still live in the land of opportunity.

Posted by: LarryMac3 | August 13, 2010 10:44 AM
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Mr. Milton claims that he built a franchise empire while holding a leadership position at MCI. I see this as an irresponsible act rather than evidence of extraordinary leadership skills. I know this type of personality thinks that the distraction of the side business did not detract from the work at the main business. What really happens is the staff leads itself while the leader works on his exit plan. The leader is actually stealing time from the company. A responsible individual would have stepped down from the corporate position.

Posted by: Spec128 | August 10, 2010 3:51 PM
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