Talking Shop with Donnie Harris

Monday, November 9, 2009
Donnie Harris is owner of McAlister's Deli in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

Donnie Harris has had his share of business ventures. The Marble Hill, Mo., native has owned a night club, limousine service, entertainment system company, sports card business, entertainment center and several restaurants. Today, Harris is still in the restaurant industry with McAlister's locations in three states, plus Just Kids, Just Babies and Senior Benefit Services insurance. Harris holds degrees from Woodland High School and Metro Business College. Harris and his wife, Cheri, have been married eight years. The couple has three sons, Brock, 19, Alex, 17, and Logan, 15, and a daughter, Malaena-Sloan, 2, whom they adopted from Guatemala. Business reporter Brian Blackwell recently visited with Harris to learn more about how he got involved in his multiple businesses.

Q: How did you get started in your ventures? Tell me your business story.

A: I could give a long story of how I did this or that or that. But the truth of all the businesses I have started comes down to having vision, getting people and banks to follow that vision, experiencing many failures to find some successful ventures and never giving up. I have, unfortunately, been guilty of acting too quickly on some businesses I have opened and not researched or sought sound advice from people much smarter than me. I have been near bankruptcy on a couple of occasions. We now have just started our sixth year of in business at McAlister's in Cape. It's a national franchise but we are 100 percent owners, as we have locations also in Paducah, Ky., Marion, Ill., and Shiloh, Ill., with franchise rights for five more yet to come. I still own and operate the insurance agency but have been in negotiations with a couple of other companies to merge or sell while still being affiliated and servicing all my current clients. Who knows what is next? 

Q: How important is support from your wife?

A: My wife, Cheri, supplies a lot the energy and support in the Just Kids and McAlister's operations. She's been instrumental in their success. She has been right with me and beside me throughout the growth and expansion of what we are doing. Cheri has launched a new business a couple of months ago called Simply Stated. It's a photography company utilizing her personality, skills and creativity to capture images and bring amazing photos while specializing in on-location shooting -- basically, "have camera will travel" to locations of the client's choice to make memorable pictures that have the entire area talking and has our phone literally ringing off the hook. She has a passion for what she is doing and, from her years of being in education as a teacher and executive director of Just Kids, she is unbelievable with kids and families.

Q: How has the economy affected your businesses?

A: The economy has fortunately not affected us too bad, as the businesses we have each reach a different age demographic. Just Kids has expanded in this bleak economy with the addition of Just Babies. The insurance is steady as Medicare constantly is changing things for the seniors, which causes frequent changes and updates to their policies. At McAlister's we introduced the "choose 2 items for $5.99" this last year and our customers have fallen in love with this new concept. God has truly blessed us.

Q: What are the upsides and downsides of your business?

A: People ask me all the time how do we do it and keep up with so many different things. My wife and I are great multitaskers. A lot of all this came from a combination of stupidity and ego. Seriously, we just keep trying to find the right thing.

Q: Finally, tell me what the future holds for your businesses?

A: The future is not guaranteed. While we do plan, we can only pray and have faith that the economy comes back bigger and better than ever and that we make good choices. McAlister's is the first business we researched. We went to many different states over 35 locations and observed operations. They provide great support as a franchise and I feel they will keep adapting to the trends while also [stay] on the front of exciting new promotions and items. This is the first of of all these businesses I have been associated with that we prayed about before doing, and dedicated to the Lord before opening. With that being said, I think things will be just fine in all of our businesses as we do strive to provide the best possible experience and customer service at McAlister's, Just Kids, Just Babies and our clients at Senior Benefits Services. We have so many dedicated employees in each of our operations who take their jobs seriously and have been with us since we have opened each business. And thanks to our customers, who help us keep doing what we do as we strive daily to improve in every aspect possible.

Q: Who have been the most influential people in your life?

A: My mom has inspired the most. She taught me with God all things are possible, that nothing ventured is nothing gained and, like the children's book of the little train that could, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can." I took all her words to heart. Kenny Shrum believed in me and gave me my first loan to start my first business, running River City Sounds systems, which I owned and operated over 20 years. A man named Les Strong who got me in sales and taught me to not to be afraid of commission sales as I have gone over 25 years without a guaranteed paycheck. He taught me your outcome determines your income. I also feel strongly that Zig Ziglar, the great motivational speaker, helped paved the way to think outside of the box and to believe in myself. My cousin Loyd Ivey, a self-made millionaire/entrepreneur, helped pave my way from a young man for me to know that life is what you make and that there are basically three types of people: One, those who make it happen, two, those who let it happen and three, those who just sit around and wonder what happened. One other individual who inspired me was Mike Tomlin, who backed me in several business endeavors in the late 1980s, bringing Rumors [nightclub] to Cape, Springfield and a couple of other locations. I only had $5,000, but some great ideas and determination that he saw in me. He then helped me become a licensed insurance specialist in 1988 dealing in the senior market. I fortunately hit the ground running and have been blessed with a lot of God-given ability to communicate and transfer feelings well with things I believe in and am passionate about.

Q: What is something most people don't know about you?

A: I didn't go to college, I care a lot of what people think of me, I will never say never and I like to help people and do compliment people constantly as I love to make them feel noticed and appreciated. I also have to take sleep medicine to sleep four hours and that playing basketball is something that I look forward to most each week.

Q: If you could sit down for a meal with anyone, who would it be and why?

A: I would love to sit down with Jesus and get the opportunity to get the answers that we all have. As Christians we wonder the hows, the whys, etc. -- the things my mom told me when I was a kid that she didn't have the answers to but we would understand it all by and by. If I could have dinner with anyone it would be with the mother of our little adopted girl, as we have not yet had the opportunity to meet her. But we are attempting to at this moment to locate her and let her see what an act of love she did and how blessed we are as a family to have this wonderful little girl in our life. In Guatemala, 50 percent of children die before age five. With her personality and zest for people and life, I truly believe this little girl would have made it just fine, regardless, or would somehow made it out of Guatemala one way or another.

Q: What do you do in your spare time?

A: I love doing things and getting things for family and friends, playing basketball, shooting pool, following the Cardinals and college basketball and taking trips with my wife and kids. I am an eBay addict and I have just started a couple of months ago on Facebook. I already have reconnected with past friends, employees -- with almost 800 people in such a short time.

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