As CEO of Tupperware Brands, Rick Goings is a highly successful man. Now 71, he manages a company with more than $2 billion in annual sales and over 10,000 employees, and he is the organizer-in-chief of the iconic Tupperware parties.
But it wasn't always that way. At 17, just as he finished high school, Goings' life looked as though it wasn't going anywhere great, he told me for my recently published book "Before I Was CEO."
Due to a "troublesome situation at home," he was living in a rooming house in Wheaton, Illinois, and sleeping in a chair that could be turned into a bed. College wasn't on the radar: He simply couldn't afford it.
Instead, Goings was going door to door in Wheaton and other Chicago suburbs selling Grolier Society encyclopedias. At least that would earn him a living — or so he thought. The sad reality was that he "went around with the books for 90 days, and never sold a single set."
Looking back on this, Goings mused: "I became CEO of the most respected direct-to-consumer selling company, but I couldn't do direct-selling when I did it myself."
Despite the continuous failures, Goings didn't give up easily. "It is one of the key determining factors of a lot of people that don't succeed: They quit too soon," he said. He saw fellow young salesmen come and go. Some were successful and built entire sales teams; others quit after just a few disappointing days. All the while, he kept knocking on doors.
But with just a few bucks left in his pocket at the end of the summer, Goings knew he needed to come up with a new plan. With the last of his money, he bought a loaf of bread and a big jar of peanut butter, and he ate peanut butter sandwiches for a week. Then, by a stroke of good fortune, a door inside him opened to a different future.
A young couple to whom he was presenting the encyclopedias changed his outlook. "They didn't buy the encyclopedia, but the man was very nice to me," Goings said. "He had gone into the Navy to find himself, he told me, and then on to university. When I met him he had a nice house, and he was 32, 33."
That was the moment Goings said: "I've done this; I've stuck this out longer than anyone else on my sales team. It's time for something else."
The Navy seemed like a pragmatic choice. Within a week, Goings quit his job and went down to Navy Pier at Lake Michigan to enlist. Three months later, Goings was in training. It would prove to be a life-changer.
From that moment Goings was on an upward track. In the Navy, he learned to be a leader for the first time in his life. Following a successful test, he became the platoon leader of his crew.
The hard training also helped him gain physical strength, and the Navy provided him with foreign experience, as he served at locations around Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and on a Navy ship aiding efforts in Vietnam.
After his Navy years, Goings took an interest in business. He enrolled in college, but quit before graduating to start his own company, Dynamics Inc., making and selling fire alarms. He hired fellow students and eventually struck gold. Fire alarms in the 1980s were novel, and with Goings' sales experience and tenacity, the company became a runaway success.
After that initial success, Goings returned to corporate life. His hard-earned credentials from the fire alarm business got him a senior-level job at Avon, then the U.S. leader in direct sales. While there, he got more expat experience, leading the company in Germany and in Asia.
His background in direct sales, his foreign experience both in corporate and military life, and his lifelong work ethic made him the perfect candidate to finally get the CEO job at Tupperware in 1992. But if it weren't for that life-changing moment at 17, he may have never gotten there.
"It's interesting, I don't remember the name of that man who recommended I go to the Navy," Goings told me. "But if I could, I would go back and thank him."
"A lot of people don't do it enough, saying 'thank you.' If we're successful, we [should] share it with the people who helped get us there."
Peter Vanham is a global leadership fellow for the World Economic Forum. This article is adapted from "Before I Was CEO," a book on the life stories and lessons of leaders before they reached the top. You can find it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble now.