About Our Benefactor
Michael J. Coles is an Atlanta business executive, serial entrepreneur, education advocate, philanthropist, respected public speaker, and the namesake of the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University. He embodies everything that the Coles College of Business aspires to instill in its students.
A Life in Business
After more than 19 years in the clothing business, Michael J. Coles founded the Great American Cookie Company in Atlanta in 1977 with his partner, Arthur Karp. They took an $8,000 investment and grew it into the largest cookie store franchise in the United States.
Michael’s entrepreneurial spirit ignited long before he opened that first cookie store in Perimeter Mall. During his nearly two-decade career in the clothing industry, Michael launched two separate businesses. The first was a chain of retail stores selling discounted brand-name clothing (a novel concept at the time), and the second was a young-men’s manufacturing company fittingly named The Great American Clothing Company.
It was a desire to spend more time with his growing family that led him to leave behind
the clothing business. “I was traveling a lot,” he says. “Not just around the U.S.
At that time all clothing manufacturing was moving to Asia. I would be gone for two
to three weeks at a time. I had young children at home and I was looking at industries
that would allow me to stay near them. I called it a forced pivot.”
Time to Get Tough
Coles’s story of personal perseverance is as impressive as his business acumen. Six weeks after opening his first cookie store, he was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident. A small rock lodged in the bike’s chain, the rear wheel locked up, and he was thrown from the motorcycle into a telephone pole. Doctors told him that he would never walk again unaided.
Nine months later, his youngest daughter, Taryn, challenged him to a race to the mailbox. Unable to run with her, he realized that his recovery was not progressing. Never one to give up, he started a self-styled rehabilitation program that began with a rusty, yellow Schwinn bicycle.
After years of training, he went on to set world records in three transcontinental bicycle races in 1982, 1984, and 1989. He still holds the record for riding from Savannah to San Diego in 11 days, 8 hours, and 15 minutes as well as the four-man team record from Los Angeles to New York in 5 days 1 hour 8 minutes. His time on the bike transformed his approach to business. “My accident, which is something that could have been a real tragedy in my life, in fact turned out to be a real triumph,” Michael says. He used what he learned in his recovery to nurture his entrepreneurial grow Great American Cookies, which he sold in 1998.
Michael Coles in the 1984 Spirit of America Ride
In 2003, he took the helm at Caribou Coffee Company and more than doubled the size of the company, opened a commercial sales division and an international market, and took it public on NASDAQ under the symbol CBOU in 2005. Today, he serves as chairman of Brand Holding Company and Brand Bank.
Coles’s commitment to community service led him to run for the House of Representatives against Newt Gingrich in 1996 and the U.S. Senate against Paul Coverdell in 1998, the same year he sold Great American Cookies.
For the next four years, he chaired the Georgia Film Commission and served on the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, the Kennesaw State University Foundation Board, and the Walker School Board. Michael has been deeply involved in a wide variety of nonprofit philanthropic organizations.
He is currently president of Hillels of Georgia, which supports the Jewish student community in college campuses, and explained: “I currently spend the majority of my nonprofit time working there,” he says, adding, jokingly, “I’m on the fifth year of my two-year term.” Michael and his wife, Donna, have also supported the American Lung Association, Georgia Special Olympics, Scottish Rite Children’s Medical Center, and the March of Dimes.
Supporting Kennesaw State
Michael’s relationship with Kennesaw State University began in 1990 when he joined
the school’s board of trustees. Having previously met then-President Betty Siegel
through his involvement in the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, Michael was aware of Kennesaw
State’s growing influence and was eager to help it continue expanding.
“I got involved in KSU because everything about the school then and today is very entrepreneurial,” he says. “They are always focused on what they can do to give their students – their customers – the best possible education and life experiences. The one thing I do know is customer experience. I wanted to help the school continue to enhance their customer service.”
Michael quickly took an interest in the School of Business, which was nicknamed “Entrepreneurial U” by Dean Tim Mescon, and became a frequent guest lecturer. In 1994, through his Coles-Novak Family Foundation, Michael endowed the business school with a generous gift. In appreciation, the following year Kennesaw State renamed the business school the Michael J. Coles School of Business (now College of Business).
In 1998, the college awarded Michael with the Beta Gamma Sigma Medallion of Entrepreneurship. The next year he received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. He was also a 2015 inductee into the Coles College Hall of Fame. Michael remains a member of the KSU Foundation Executive Committee.
Paying it Forward
Today, Michael mentors entrepreneurs and actively lectures about business, giving more than 75 talks a year at universities and corporate events nationwide. He is the co-author of the children’s book, The Land of the Caring Bou, with his wife, Donna, and co-wrote his autobiography, Time to Get Tough: How Cookies, Coffee, and a Crash Led to Success in Business and Life, with Dr. Catherine M. Lewis, Assistant Vice President of Museums, Archives & Rare Books at Kennesaw State University. The book was published in fall 2018.
Michael Coles with Dr. Catherine Lewis
In 2021, Michael and Donna contributed $1 million to Kennesaw State University to establish the The Michael J. and Donna N. Coles Veterans Scholarship Endowment Fund, which makes scholarships available to veterans who have exhausted their GI Bill benefits before completing their degrees.
“Donna and I are so honored to make this gift to KSU,” Michael says. “Military veterans have always had a special place in our hearts. When I ran for the U.S. Senate in 1998, I made many friends in the military and was saddened to learn how little the government does for them. This is our way to honor their sacrifice by offering some help for a better life.”
Words of Wisdom
Michael’s life has not been a straight-line to success. Whether he is selling clothing, operating a cookie business or overcoming an injury to become a record-breaking cyclist, running for public office, revitalizing Georgia’s film industry, or endowing one of the country’s most prominent business schools, he has never lost his entrepreneurial drive to create new opportunities for himself and others.
When young people ask him what they can do to emulate his success, he likes to share a story from his own past. At the age of 23, Michael was on a flight home to Detroit seated next to a successful businessman who specialized in mergers and acquisitions. Toward the end of the flight, Michael asked him if he had any advice that he might share.
“He looked at me and said ‘it’s all about taking risks. The younger you are, the easier it is. If you wait too long, life gets complicated and risks become scarier. Don’t be afraid to take risks, and don’t be afraid to fail.’
“You have to recognize that failure and success run hand and hand,” Michael adds. “There’s more to learn from things that go wrong than from things that go right.”