In this special interview, Overdrive sits down with actor, serial entrepreneur and author Wayne Rogers to discuss the importance of creativity, the value of show business, and how lacking experience in business can be a good thing.
While you are widely known for your work as an actor, including your role as Trapper John on the now-classic TV series, M*A*S*H, you have had a rewarding career beyond show business. Would you share a few highlights?
“Over the past four decades, I have been a founding shareholder in six banks, produced movies and Broadway plays, managed the finances and investments of others, and served on the boards of several companies. I have developed residential, commercial, and office real estate in five states. I have co-owned a convenience store chain, a film distribution company, a vineyard, a restaurant, and a hotel or two.
“I have also helped turn around numerous distressed businesses, notably Kleinfeld, the largest bridal retailer in the US. Somehow, I even ended up owning a minority interest in a Major League baseball team. And, yes, I have also acted in numerous films, television shows and series, and stage plays. This will surprise you, but the common thread to the various businesses in which I have been involved is that I had never previously been in them!”
So that explains the title of your debut as a business author, MAKE YOUR OWN RULES: A Renegade Guide to Unconventional Success.
“Yes, and as I admit in my book, I have never read a business book; therefore, I did not write a conventional business book.”
What can people who are aiming to launch or grow a successful business hope to learn from your defiantly original business book?
“I have no step-by-step plan for success or surefire tips to becoming a millionaire. Instead, I tell anyone who is interested in exploring ideas and willing to take risks what has worked for me in business over the past four decades, what has not worked, and why. It may offer some useful lessons and provoke some readers, positively I hope.”
Would you explain how lack of previous experience has worked for you in business?
“Most people would think that the lack of previous experience in a particular business would be a sure formula for failure. However, because I didn’t have a specific educational background—for example, a degree in medicine or law—I was not predisposed to make career choices based on that criterion. In fact, it was an advantage in that I had no rules to follow, no pre-made decisions, no ‘books’ to tell me how to find success.
“This allowed me to take a creative approach rather than an administrative one. I have also tried to avoid being part of the system, which is not the same thing as trying to change it. You don’t have to be ‘against the system’ to succeed; you just don’t want the system to systematize you, as it were. The goal is to maintain your individuality while functioning within the system.”
In MAKE YOUR OWN RULES, you make a compelling argument for recognizing creativity as a major player in the business world. Why?
“My contention is that the business world and the artistic world are not opposites. When they are both functioning at their best, they draw on the same mental process— it is all creative. Business can be like art, and it should be just as creative. So, I make a case for the entrepreneur, the small businessperson— the one who takes a risk to initiate an enterprise, the one who provides much of the economic impetus in the US, the one who creates most of the jobs in the workforce today.
“The creative process as applied to business must be unencumbered, and you should approach it by asking not only ‘why?’ but also, and more important, ‘why not?’ This leads to solutions that are not obvious or burdened by policy, tradition and corporate regulation.”
Nearly every business depends on at least some established practices and standards. Does being creative in business require questioning, rethinking and overhauling everything?
“In business, creativity is typically exemplified by someone who challenges convention and finds a new way to do something, as opposed to someone who tries to create something from nothing. The creative process begins with research—‘homework,’ if you will. You must start with all the available research, some good, some bad, but gather it all, try to understand it, make your choices, and test them.
“I put this kind of creativity into practice at a vineyard I developed, Rancho Tierra Rejada. One of the first things I learned in the wine business was that conventions, like installing a frost-protection system, are sometimes necessary, and, to improve on them, you must understand them. In business, being creative requires imagination, plus reason. In order to get anything done, you have to maintain a semblance of reality. Often, people will look at a business and think, ‘If I ran this place, I would…’ and imagine ways to improve that business. But you need to find the limit where creativity becomes fantasy and respect that limit.”
In your book you credit show business for your impressive success as a business entrepreneur. Would you explain why?
“Everyone must start somewhere, and having a passion for a field is critical to finding your own voice in business. Acting wasn’t my life’s plan when I started out, but it fulfilled a lot of my needs to be creative. It also became the steppingstone for everything else that I have done. Above all, getting into acting was my first major lesson in making my own rules in order to succeed.
“I started my career as a theater actor in New York, New York, USA, or, rather, as an actor looking for work in the theater. I worked a variety of odd jobs to pay the rent while searching for acting roles. I waited tables at Schraff’s Restaurant on 42nd Street; I even drove a cab. Every theater actor goes through that, as do others pursuing their business dreams. You do what you have to do to earn enough to pay the rent and eat until you can bring your idea to fruition.
“My show business experience also taught me much about managing people and gave me the confidence to bet on myself. People often ask me why I continued to act once I had other business interests. The simple answer is that I am fascinated by it. Like any out-of-work actor, if someone offered me a terrific part today, I would take it in a heartbeat.”