Wayne Rogers first made a name for himself as Trapper John McIntyre on M*A*S*H in the early 1970s. But his well-received run on the hit television series was only the beginning of a long and lucrative career, not only in acting but in business as well. Today, Rogers plays a key role in a number of businesses, including an investment strategy firm, Wayne M. Rogers & Co.; an upscale boutique, Kleinfeld Bridal; and a privately held convenience store chain, Stop-N-Save. He also has ownership in four banks, is a minor owner of the Oakland Athletics, and is on the board of directors of Vishay Intertechnology. He is a successful real estate developer and is a panelist on the Fox Business Channel’s weekly show Cashin’ In.
In the past, his love for business and a good challenge led him into a variety of ventures—from owning a vineyard to running restaurants, to producing movies and Broadway plays. And aside from all that business, over the years, Rogers has played some 70 roles on television and on the big screen.
Rogers’ new book, Make Your Own Rules: A Renegade Guide to Unconventional Success, offers real-life advice for how to avoid becoming “a slave to convention.” He shares some of those insights with SUCCESS.
SUCCESS: When did you start your first business, and did you have any mentors who guided you in the beginning?
Wayne Rogers: I invested with two partners in a restaurant in New York City in 1955. That was my first business experience. Neither one my partners were restaurateurs. They didn’t know what the hell they were doing either, so it was a learn-as-you-go experience.
You’ve been involved in a variety of businesses and industries. What attracts you to a particular business endeavor?
WR: It’s not that a business is attractive so much as it is that I’m intrigued by certain businesses. I have an inquisitive mind, and I ask a lot of questions. So, I come at these different businesses without a lot of experience—and without prejudice.
In the introduction to Make Your Own Rules, you mention that you began to make investments because acting is an “up-and-down career” with long periods without income. How did you handle day-to-day life with that roller-coaster income?
WR: You learn it by the hard knocks. You’ve got to put groceries on the table. You better save for the bad times and not splurge. I’m surprised at this in our current financial situation as a culture; we have tended to spend way beyond our means. I tell my kids and their kids that they’re going to have to get used to a different standard of living. You can’t keep borrowing money for something you can’t pay for. I think early on you better figure out really quickly how to make ends meet. That may mean hardship if you’ve been raised on the easy side of life. When I started out, I drove a cab, worked as a lifeguard; I was in off-Broadway shows that paid $40 a week.
Money is a means to an end; it’s not the reason you work. What money allows you to do—that success allows you to do—is to provide for other people. Being in business allowed me more control over my income.
Please explain your thoughts on the importance of taking a creative approach to business rather than an administrative one.
WR: If you take a creative approach, you question every step in the process: Why do we do this? Why do we go to this supplier for this raw material? If you’re creative, you constantly question the process. If you do that, it will release imaginative solutions; that’s what inventors do.
If you approach the business from an administrative angle, you take what is served up to you. You do it, and you don’t think about the alternative ways to do it.
I recognize that in every business, there’s a lot of administrative crap that comes along that you have to do so you can get to the creative work. After all, most flowers are rooted in manure.
Curiosity and a love of learning have served you well. You mention that if you ask enough of the right questions, you can come to an understanding through common sense. What are the right questions?
WR: I don’t know that you know what the right questions are. I think you ask all of the questions. Somewhere in there you’re going to hear the answer that triggers the material you’re trying to get at. You’re trying to get at something but even if you ask the stupid or superfluous questions, those may lead you to the right information.
In the book The French Mathematician, the character had been working on a problem and couldn’t get the answer. One day he stepped on the bus and, bingo, the answer hit him. You don’t know how you’re going to get the right answer, but if you keep asking the questions, you’ll eventually get it.
You’ve been faced with some extraordinarily challenging circumstances in your business ventures. How do you decide to stay or to step back and cut your losses?
WR: Sometimes a door closes and it’s impossible to open. But I don’t anticipate that a business isn’t going to work. At some point along the way, you get signals that business, the way you planned it, is not going to work. So you have to change the plan.
There are things that you can do to protect yourself, but I don’t think you can always predict a disaster, and if you can predict defeat, you shouldn’t be doing it. If you have some reason to think that this risk is too great, you shouldn’t be doing it. But if you have an answer to that great risk that maybe no one else has, maybe you should do it.
Understand the risk, assess it and then proceed. You have to have the intestinal fortitude to do that. If you have the ambition and you’re capable of handling the emotion, you should do it.
There are plenty of people who have failed several times but ultimately succeeded. I don’t think there’s anything unique in those people. You just have to be able to accept the circumstances and to see all of the possibilities in those circumstances, and be able and willing to try them.
What advantages do you think small-business owners have today?
WR: The biggest advantage is that you are the instrument of your own doing. That is to say that you can control your business. You don’t have to worry about waiting on a large organization to figure out how to do something. If you have a solution, you can do your homework, take risks and find a better way to make your business work.
New companies start all the time because people find a new way to do something. For instance, with Kleinfeld Bridal, what we do differently is service. The wedding dress is incidental. You can buy brands anywhere. Ultimately it comes down to service, and we’ve found a way to do it better.