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Video: ‘Candy man’ is sweet to ex-employees

TODAY contributor
updated 3/18/2010 10:18:13 AM ET 2010-03-18T14:18:13

Bud Kolbrener was enjoying an active retirement. Just 54, he traveled widely and lived well after selling a candy company in St. Louis for a sweet profit.

But then one day he got a call from a couple of longtime employees, Debbie and Marley Otto. “They needed some help,” Bud recalled. “They needed a place to work.” 

Marley’s unemployment insurance had run out. So Bud set aside his leisurely lifestyle and returned to 80-hour workweeks, doing what he’d done since he started his first business at age 18.

He bought a little store and staffed it with all his old employees who couldn’t find work. Bud gave up his own retirement so they would have a paycheck until they reached theirs.

Golden parachute in reverse
I found Debbie Otto at a conveyor belt, boxing chocolate. “If you could create the perfect candy for Bud, what would it be?” I asked.

She thought for a moment, her hands still busy. Then she said simply, “A heart.” 

Bud was hunched over his computer in a room just big enough to hold mops. “Why was their problem your problem?” I asked.

“Without their hard work, I would’ve never been the success that I am,” Bud explained. “I wanted to give back.”

Marley and Debbie had worked side by side making chocolates since they were teenagers. When they retired last fall, Bud kept working, training their son-in-law, Bryan. “On a bad day, he didn’t even yell,” Bryan said with a grin.

Is that the recipe for a successful boss? Kay Woods thinks so. This is her 28th year creating candy with Bud. “He listens to your ideas,” she said, adjusting her hairnet. “Works with you. Laughs and jokes and cuts up, but is still there to pass along what should be done.”

One day Bud sprung a surprise. He hadn’t started the new business just to give back jobs, he confided; he wanted his employees to run the company. And now, after five years, they were ready. Bud offered his employees Lake Forest Confections — for free.

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A golden parachute for employees? “I hope that it is a golden parachute,” Bud chuckled. “I hope they get rich.”

Even with a recession on, profits were down only 2 percent. “One of the big, sad things about our society today is, we’re only interested in short-term profits,” Bud said. He turned to watch Bryan mixing a batch of chocolate. “We need to invest in people.”

Thanks, but no thanks
Bud has no children; he never married. To him, Bryan and Kay felt like family. And sometimes family can disappoint.

Bryan agonized over Bud’s offer. He knew he could run the company, but after days of soul-searching with his wife and two kids, he turned down Bud’s gift, saying he wanted his weekends back. “He came to me with tears in his eyes,” Bud recalled.

“Life is too short to just worry about money,” Bryan explained. “You gotta worry about your happiness.”

Kay wouldn’t take the company either; she wanted more time with her grandkids. “I value my family life,” she said.

So Bud did not find his fairy-tale ending. But Bryan and Kay found something they thought was better: their own vision of happiness.

The boss understood. “It isn’t just money,” Bud said. “If you get up in the morning with a smile on your face and look forward to going to do whatever, then that’s what you should be doing.”

Now, knowing how the story ends, would Bud do it again?

“In a second!” he said emphatically. “If I thought I could help any of these people who helped me over the years, I would do that.”

Meet the new boss
And even though things didn’t work out exactly as planned, Bud still wound up helping his employees: He instead sold the business to a family that agreed to keep his “family” working with the same pay. Bryan, the man who didn’t want to be boss, began training his own new boss, Dan Abel. Video: Sweet solution

“I’m doing better, but I still eat too many mistakes,” Dan said with a smile. His dad and Bud had been friendly competitors since both men were in their 20s.

Dan Abel Sr. was a happy man that day: “We picked up incredible employees, and we hope they stay on for years and years and years with us.”

But, I asked, “What kind of guarantee did the employees get that they won’t be back in the same position they were the last time?”

“We’ve been in business 30 years,” Dan Sr. said. “I’ve never had to lay anyone off.”

But what if Bryan and Kay do fall on hard times again? “I’m there in the background, if there’s any problems,” Bud assured me. He’s already built 10 successful companies, and at 59, he’s willing to start still another to give his employees work: “I feel obligated, and I told them that.”

So Bud has done quite a lot for Kay and Bryan, but what have they done for him?

“Kept him in line,” Kay chuckled.

In the end, life is not just about making money: It’s finding what makes you smile. 

If you would like to contact the subjects of this American Story with Bob Dotson, contact: 

Lake Forest Confections
7801 Clayton Road
St. Louis, MO  63117
(314) 721-9997

Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox by clicking here .

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