Arnold Schwarzenegger and Me (Part I)

[This blog is the first of two parts.]

 I first met Arnold Schwarzenegger in the early 1990s when he, along with Sly Stallone and Bruce Willis, were fronting Planet Hollywood, a movie star version of the Hard Rock Café with grand aspirations. Some associates of mine at the time were seriously examining the possibility of opening some Planet Hollywood restaurants. We did a whirlwind tour of locations in the US and Canada.

 We then ended up in New York. One of my associates said, “Hey, Arnold is going to be having breakfast at the restaurant tomorrow around 10 a.m. Do you want to meet him?” Sure. The next morning I show up and, indeed, he was in the back of the empty restaurant having his breakfast.

 There were a number of things I noticed about him immediately, apart from big biceps accentuated by small sleeves. He had a huge and easy confidence, but not arrogance. He was self-assured—and after successes in bodybuilding, business and movies—why wouldn’t he be. He had the look of a cat who swallowed the canary so many times it was old news.

 He was very down to earth and easy to talk to. When he found out I was from Vancouver, he said he loved going up there. He said a future Planet Hollywood would have to be on Robson Street—and, sure enough, years later when a Planet Hollywood opened in Vancouver it was at the corner of Burrard and Robson Streets.

 As my associates looked into the Planet Hollywood deal and potentially opening some franchises it became clear that the deal was quite one-sided and good for Arnold—and challenging for everyone else. Basically, you had to be awed by celebrity and crave basking in the stars’ reflected glory and then check your financial chops at the door.

 Schwarzenegger is a unique person and with a one-of-a-kind life story with many lessons for entrepreneurs. I just finished reading his autobiography Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story (Simon & Schuster, 2012). Schwarzenegger notes in the book that, “We [Arnold and his squadron of advisors] spent almost two years negotiating my ownership stake [in Planet Hollywood]….the arrangement I ended up with was more lucrative and had more safeguards built in in case the business went south.” (426) Planet Hollywood did, in fact, go bankrupt—but Teflon Arnold came out unscathed. Arnold clearly understood business and he had a grasp of financial details.

 Total Recall has many interesting dimensions: immigrant success story; the world of bodybuilding; his various real estate and business exploits and successes; his general business acumen; the business side of the movie business; and then a business person and “Governator” trying to get things done in the tar pits of politics.

 Total Recall gives a great glimpse into Schwarzenegger’s life story. He candidly covers his many failings and shortcomings – his self-proclaimed penchant for wanting to say outrageous things, his marital infidelity, his crude comments and his various blunders.

 Where did it start? He grew up in Thal, Austria, a village of 200, with “no plumbing, no shower, and no flushing toilet, just a kind of chamber pot.” (5). His father was a stern police officer. With his Austrian / Germanic roots, he talked about his father: “His answer to life was discipline.   We had a strict routine that nothing could change;” (10).

 Growing up, “I never felt I was good enough, strong enough, smart enough. He let me know that there was always room for improvement. A lot of sons would have been crippled by his demands, but instead the discipline rubbed off on me. I turned it into drive.” (10).

 As a youngster, “Somehow the thought took shape in my mind that America was where I belonged.” (13) As a 10 year old, “I became absolutely convinced that I was special and meant for bigger things. I knew that I would be the best at something—although I didn’t know what—and that it would make me famous. America was the most powerful country, so I would go there.” (16)

 Time and again throughout his life he summons his inner reserves of drive (to get out of Austria and go to America), to learn from his mistakes (his first and one of his few defeats at an international bodybuilding competition), to be financially successful, take risks and keep writing down his goals.

 He candidly recalls mistakes which makes him endearing—it’s easy to relate to someone who admits he messed up time and again. The difference with Schwarzenegger: he would simply keep persisting and learning. He talks about his compulsory service in the Austrian military and driving a fifty-ton M57 tank and then one night forgetting to park and apply the big brake. It ended up in the lake the next morning. Not good.

 The book is very readable. Schwarzenegger is very perceptive of his surroundings and self-analytical. He refers to the differences between his upbringing and his experience in the US. He was struck by how Americans celebrated—he never had a birthday party. Americans were generous to him as a newcomer and helping him get established.

 He has proven the naysayers wrong time and again, truly creating an unbelievably true life story. When he started in bodybuilding he was a nobody from the backwoods of Austria. His ticket to America was bodybuilding. He became a star. When he said he wanted to be a movie star the scoffing began. One small problem: he couldn’t speak English. Then, when he did, he had a strong German accent. When he became the biggest box office star in the world, he thought of politics. This, too, seemed ludicrous. But, he did careful polling and got great advice, got involved in a ballot proposition and then served two terms as the “Governator.”