Home People Profile Bham People Larry Thornton: From $5 an hour to America’s Boardrooms

Larry Thornton: From $5 an hour to America’s Boardrooms

Author Larry Thornton, founder of the Why Not Win? Institute and its executive director Zillah Fluker. (Ameera Steward Photo, The Birmingham Times)
By Javacia Harris Bowser
Special to the Birmingham Times

Over the course of his life Larry Thornton has been the first African American to do several things. He was the first to own a McDonald’s franchise in Birmingham, the first to serve on the board of directors for Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED, Inc., and the first to be named board president for The Club, the private establishment that sits atop Red Mountain. Thornton may have often found himself in spaces where he was the first African American to be there, but he was determined to not be the last.

That’s why he wrote the book Why Not Win?: Reflections on a 50-Year Journey from America’s Segregated South to America’s Boardrooms — and What It Can Teach Us All. The book traces Thornton’s path from his early days of being one of a handful of students to integrate Montgomery schools in the late 1960s to the accomplishments that allowed him to eventually integrate the board rooms of major corporations, too. Thornton shares lessons learned along the way, such as the importance of relationships, self-awareness, and dogged determination.

“There were some unique personal disciplines and processes of thinking that led to such accomplishments, so I simply wanted to chronicle those for the most part for my family,” Thornton said. “I never wanted a granddaughter or a niece or a nephew to ever wonder what led to being the first.”

But the book, published April 2019, was just the beginning.

Thornton has also launched the Why Not Win? Institute with the help of Zillah Fluker, who serves as executive director. For the institute, Thornton and Fluker have created professional development workshops based on the lessons of the book and taken the sessions to nearly a dozen colleges and universities including the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Alabama State University, Alabama Agriculture & Mechanical University, Auburn University, Texas Agriculture & Mechanical University, Clemson University, and Fisk University.

Thornton first approached Fluker about writing an introduction for the book. She came back with the introduction and an idea.

“Having spent 13 years in human resources at major corporations and 10 years in higher education all I could see was an opportunity to address an issue that people were having, which is in the classroom they’re not teaching those essential skills,” Fluker said.

Communication skills, time management, and personal responsibility and accountability are just a few of the values Fluker and Thornton hope people glean from Why Not Win?

“I proposed to him to consider launching an institute so we could incubate the lessons in his book and actually teach people,” Fluker said.

Thornton and Fluker quickly learned that these lessons were needed beyond the college classroom.

“As we were sharing with people what we were planning to do we were hearing from working, seasoned professionals, ‘Wait a minute we need this ourselves!’” Fluker said.

Thornton and Fluker have presented the lessons of the Why Not Win? Institute to members of the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham and to executives at Regions Bank, Alabama Power, and Coca-Cola.

“Our goal is to showcase the stories of the book but really help people realize it’s just a few minor adjustments and tweaks that could really reposition your entire trajectory,” Thornton said.

That’s what happened for him.

Thornton admits that, in middle and high school, education took a back seat.

“I bought into those tremendous messages of inferiority that we received on a daily basis,” he said. “So, I just turned off to school.”

He sought refuge in drawing and painting.

“I just became lost in my artistic world and that’s probably the one thing that got me through because I could get it out of me and on to paper,” he said.

Then a no-nonsense English teacher saw his potential and encouraged him to go to college to study art. After getting a degree from Alabama State University Thornton became an art teacher. But state budget cuts left Thornton without a job.

He eventually got hired by Coca-Cola to paint signs, making just $5 an hour. Soon he was promoted to advertising manager. Later he was invited to take advantage of a partnership between Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and in 1992 opened a McDonald’s franchise in Birmingham. Eventually, Thornton found himself sitting on Coca-Cola’s board of directors.

“From $5 an hour to the boardroom,” Thornton said with a smile. “Working hard has all kinds of residual benefits but I would admonish anyone and everyone to never work for money, to never work for position. Those are byproducts of integrity, honesty.”

Thornton said that being first means, “having a deeper sense of appreciation for all of those who have gone on before you who made significant sacrifices, sometimes the ultimate sacrifice, for you to be the first.”

Thornton said he was also aware of the doors he was opening for those who would come after him.

“You understand well what you’re doing and the why of it all,” Thornton said. “You may have family members who can’t necessarily understand your drive, your passion because they don’t necessarily buy into the why. But, as Maya Angelou said, we are the hope of the slaves.”

Why Not Win?: Reflections on a 50-Year Journey from America’s Segregated South to America’s Boardrooms — and What It Can Teach Us All by Larry Thornton can be purchased online and in stores from retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and NewSouth Books.