As the president of an Atlanta wholesale company in a multi-generational family business, Howard Young’s career had followed a pretty predictable plan. But a doctor’s visit and cancer diagnosis flipped the script with almost no warning.
The 1982 Terry graduate told a packed house at a recent Terry Leadership Speaker Series talk that he was well into a successful career when he had to drop it all and begin the fight of his life.
“I was 42 years old, married to my college sweetheart and had three wonderful daughters. Everything was going great,” he said. “I went to see the doctor because I had just visited Mexico and thought I had indigestion. Twenty-four hours later I’m sitting in front of a surgical oncologist and he’s explaining to me that I need to go in for the second most complicated surgery you can have.”
Pancreatic cancer has a very low survival rate because it typically doesn’t exhibit symptoms until it is too late to treat. Young was given just months to live.
“Fifteen years later, I’m still here,” he said. “But it did change my life profoundly. It made me rearrange my priorities. I was thinking that work was very important to me, but faith, family and friends are really what’s important. It’s amazing how cancer changes you and changes the people around you. People tell you things that you wouldn’t normally hear them say.”
Today, he brings those lessons to General Wholesale Company of Atlanta, now in its third generation of family ownership and operation. While family businesses can suffer from tricky interpersonal relationships, Young credits his father’s far-sighted leadership with providing a model for keeping both the family and the business on solid footing.
“You hear horror stories about how family businesses can destroy families. But my father, who was CEO of our business, said that if it ever comes to that, the business will have to go,” Young said. “He did a good job of structuring the family business so that we all are accountable to one another, but don’t report to one another. That’s allowed us to work together and utilize our different talents.”
Young said his father allowed the next generation to step into leadership roles and make mistakes early in their careers, which built confidence and resilience. He advised Terry students to approach their jobs diligently but not to dwell too much on their mistakes—or successes—as they build careers.
“Show up early and be willing to go the extra mile. You’re going to make a mistake, but when you do people are going say, ‘They’re working hard, doing the right thing and they’re focused. So as long as they learn from that mistake, it’s OK,’” he said. “If you learn how to work with others to achieve a common goal, that’s the key. Treat people with mutual respect and know that you’re all here to achieve a goal together.”
In addition to his business leadership, Young is a member of the Terry Dean’s Advisory Council, chairs the Destroy Pancreatic Cancer nonprofit organization and volunteers with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. He was awarded the 2016 John S. McCain Leadership Award from the TGen Foundation.