Ferguson: “You Have to Understand How it All Works”

Jimmy Ferguson Lecture 3-13-2024
Photographed (from left-to-right): Dr. Russell Jones, Arkansas Tech University interim president; Tracy Cole, dean of the ATU College of Business and Economic Development; Jimmy Ferguson, speaker for the spring 2024 edition of the ATU School of Business Distinguished Lecture Series; Dr. Adolfo Santos, ATU executive vice president for academic affairs and provost; and Bryan Fisher, ATU associate vice president for advancement. Ferguson received a desk clock engraved with the following message: "As moments turn into memories, your legacy remains timeless."

McDonald’s franchisee and Arkansas Tech University benefactor Jimmy Ferguson stood before students from the ATU College of Business and Economic Development on Wednesday afternoon and told them that three skills will be paramount in their future success: communication, engagement and empathy.

“There is so much unknown in the business world today,” said Ferguson. “Especially with the changes in society over the past four or five years and the changes among consumers. Every aspect has changed so much, and it’s not stopping. It’s going to continue to change. It doesn’t matter how well you think you know your business. You’re going to be challenged on a daily basis in such a way that you might not have the answers, but you have to find them to succeed.”

Ferguson provided the spring 2024 ATU School of Business Distinguished Lecture Series address to a packed house in the Doc Bryan Student Services Center Lecture Hall.

Dr. Russell Jones, ATU interim president, announced in December 2023 that the forthcoming student union and recreation center on ATU’s Russellville campus will be known as the Ferguson Student Union. It is named for Jimmy Ferguson, his wife Cindi and their family in recognition of their lead gift in support of the construction of the facility.

Ferguson served on the ATU staff from 1975-94. He advanced to the rank of assistant vice president and dean of students before entering the private sector.

“I did a lot of my growing up here,” said Ferguson. “The most important thing was our connection and relationship with this community…students, faculty, staff and of course the community people.”

While at ATU, Ferguson was elected president of the Arkansas College Personnel Association in 1982. He served the National Association for Campus Activities as the chairman of the board of directors. He held an appointment by Gov. Bill Clinton to the Arkansas Governor’s Advisory Council on Volunteerism.

Since completing his service to ATU and entering the private sector, Ferguson and his family have owned and operated more than 30 McDonald’s franchises in central Texas for almost three decades. He has held numerous national and regional leadership positions with the McDonald’s organization.

He has also served as chairman of the National Asian/Pacific Islander American Chamber of Commerce and Entrepreneurship.

Ferguson encouraged ATU students to be inquisitive when searching for financial capital and other elements essential in beginning a business.

“You can’t be so narrow and look at one element of lending institutions,” said Ferguson. “There’s so much out there. You can get the most knowledge about this process from your friends and other business people. They have already experienced this themselves. They can not only support you…they want to see you succeed. We have grown up in a society that we don’t always like to ask questions. Our perception of people who ask questions is sometimes that they don’t have confidence in themselves. But most people, especially your friends and relatives…other business people…they want to help you and to see you succeed because they are part of it, too.

“Twenty-five percent of start-up entrepreneurs say they are getting support and knowledge from other business people in the same industry,” continued Ferguson. “What happens to the other 75 percent? I guarantee you the 25 percent who are asking for support and advice will succeed much greater than the other 75 percent.”

Ferguson recalled how he and his wife, Cindi, worked 10-to-12 hours per day, seven days per week at their first McDonald’s location in order to ensure its success.

“We had one location that our livelihood depended on for five years,” said Ferguson. “It was in a small town of 10,000-to-12,000 people. We knew how the drive-thru worked, how the front counter worked, how the kitchen worked…we weren’t experts, but we knew the concept. Whatever business you get in, you have to make sure you have a complete knowledge of what success looks like.

“If we had just sat there with that one location and been satisfied…if we had never moved into Austin…we’d still be with one restaurant,” continued Ferguson. “You have to go beyond. From there, we were able to grow beyond Austin. We were always within 30 minutes of all our restaurants. We had a system in place where we were engaged and getting all the information we needed on a daily basis in case we needed to make a decision.”

As the Fergusons’ holdings increased, so did the logistical challenges. Payroll grew from issuing 50 checks each pay period to more than 1,300 checks. Ferguson said they developed a new business plan every year to account for the rapidly evolving nature of their business and to ensure they met their targets for sales and customers.

“We had to develop a system that was more than a business plan,” said Ferguson. “We had to execute that plan and every single element within the business plan.”

The center of the plan was people, especially the employees at each of the Fergusons’ restaurants.

“I had an 18-year old employee who had been with us since he was 16,” said Ferguson. “He knew everything about equipment. You have to identify people who are in your company who have special skills. We started sending him to school, and he’s been with us for 25 years now. He trained and supervised a team of technicians that could fix any problem we had in our restaurants. We never had to call and ask someone else.”

Another reason the Fergusons were able to address many of their challenges internally was they had the willingness to do every and any job in their restaurants.

“You have to be versatile,” said Ferguson. “You don’t have to be an expert, especially at first, but you have to know how it’s done. My favorite position when we first started was working the French fries. I knew how to work those French fries. The customers were asking for me to make their French fries. But what I do best is take a clean towel and clean the tables. You have to understand how it all works.”

Learn more about the ATU College of Business and Economic Development at www.atu.edu/business.