Last of four stories on the 2018 Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame honorees.
WATERLOO — Tom Porth has worked at a Village Inn in some capacity for 42 years, starting at the bottom and eventually becoming owner.
Porth owes his success to the hard work and vision of those he’s worked with over those 42 years, he said.
“People are the key to success,” Porth said. “When I started out in this business, I had no visions of this. I was a typical farm kid looking for a job.”
This year he will be inducted into the Junior Achievement of Eastern Iowa Business Hall of Fame.
Porth’s story begins on a farm in Calamus in rural Clinton County.
“Pretty unremarkable beginning — my dad was a small farmer on small family farm,” Porth said. “DeWitt was the big town for Calamus people, and Clinton, that was the big city.”
He graduated from high school in 1974. He went to community college in Moline, Ill., and then took a year off of school before planning to go to University of Iowa.
“At the time I had this part-time job at a restaurant called Village Inn,” Porth said. “So I went to work full time for a year. I thought that I’d save a little money and go back to school, and I never went back.”
In the early years, Porth often thought he was making a mistake.
“Village Inn was growing. At the time they were building new stores and had some need for some young assistant managers,” he said. “From a farm kid’s perspective, it was indoor work and air conditioning; I was on the farm baling hay.”
Around 1980, he managed the Moline store and was promoted up the chain to director of operations.
He moved to Lincoln, Neb., where he met his wife, and they moved to the Cedar Valley in 1986 to start their own franchise.
“That’s when we left the mother company, if you will, and started off on our own entrepreneurial journey,” Porth said. “When we got here in 1986 things were about as they were ever going to be.”
Iowa was not doing well at that time because of a farm crisis. John Deere was shrinking its workforce by 9,000, housing prices were plummeting, Rath Packing Co. liquidated and the economy was attempting to recover from an early-1980s recession.
“During that period of time I was economically naive and I was focused on my job and the restaurant business,” Porth said. “Back in those days I didn’t do the research well enough to know how bad things were in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls market.”
Porth launched three restaurants in Dubuque, Cedar Falls and Fort Dodge.
“My wife and I went to work. I opened the restaurant, she closed,” he said.
Despite the tough odds, his franchise grew. In 1990, he opened a Village Inn in Waterloo, and in 1994 one in Wichita, Kan., followed by two more in Kansas in 2000 and 2003.
Porth had nine restaurant locations in Iowa and Kansas.
In 1986, in his first couple of weeks in Cedar Falls, a member of the University of Northern Iowa’s athletic department came in, asking him to join the boosters.
“I didn’t know beans about the University of Northern Iowa, but people were asking us to integrate,” Porth said.
A group of regulars from the YMCA would come in to his store, eventually convincing him to join.
“Some of my early friendships were from the YMCA, people that I got to know and worked out with,” he said.
Porth integrated himself into Cedar Valley business culture during the 32 years he worked in the area.
“So many franchises these days are coming from out-of-town money; this is in-town money so we can be philanthropic here,” Porth said. “We’ve done what we can, where we can, when we can to help things locally.”
Porth’s marketing strategy has been a “four walls” method.
“Meaning what goes on inside our restaurants is key,” he said. “If we’re not doing our job inside the restaurants, if we’re not making people happy, they’re not coming back.”
Good experiences and word of mouth turned into return customers.
“That’s really, over those 30, 40 years, what made us have any semblance of any kind of success,” Porth said.
In the 2000s, Porth was president of the Waterloo Chamber of Commerce board of directors and had been a board member for the Waterloo YMCA.
Mentorship made the difference for him.
“I think every successful entrepreneur needs a mentor,” Porth said. “This community is chock-full of role models.”
With the luxury of time now on his side, Porth said the last three decades seem easier than he initially recalled.
“Now, you look at over 30 some years, it’s a breeze,” he said. “We owe this community a great deal.”
‘I think every successful entrepreneur needs a mentor. This community chock-full of role models.’