Today many of us gathered to say goodbye to a great man – Norman Brinker. Most people know of Norman as the mind who started and refined the trend of casual dining and the founder of Brinker International, but to me Norman will always be a horse lover, polo player and wonderful father first.
In my horse days I had a barn behind Norman’s equestrian center – Willowbend Polo Club. We would ride back and forth between barns and most of my horses came from owners at Willowbend that owned horses that were too much for them and wanted to unload them. Those were wonderful days and how fortunate we all were to be able to watch Norman streak across the polo field doing what he loved. Norman had an uncanny knack of knowing and remembering everyone’s names from the grooms to the owners and he treated everyone equally.
When I had two very young children I decided to work as a waitress at Steak and Ale – a concept that Brinker owned and was fairly new at that time. I helped open the Plano location and Norman spent an amazing amount of time with us learning what worked and what didn’t. He also wanted to make sure that we knew our jobs inside and out and we did a lot of wine tastings to learn about what we were serving. That was my first exposure to wine and it’s an experience that I still enjoy. His passion about the company made us passioniate about what we were doing, and we took our jobs personally and wanted to make Norman proud of us.
Our lives continued to intertwine – my sister was married at Willowbend and went on to work at the corporate offices at Brinker International. Being a “Brinkerhead” she loved being a part of that culture and was always amazed when she would visit a Chili’s and Norman would be there often by himself just enjoying a burger. He always remembered my sister and made her feel special.
What Norman and many great self-made leaders understand is that to succeed it has to be personal. Your own integrity, how you treat people and love of what you do is not a small part of why these people have succeeded and why so many people people love and respect them in return. I wish I had taken a pen and notepad to the service because the wisdom and stories that were shared were incredible. Ross Perot and Mr. Brinker were good friends for many years and I can understand why – they are a lot alike, and both have a great, dry sense of humor that I love. Mr. Perot spoke and he was able to capture what made Norman so special. Even though he had been in a coma and had health issues from a polo incident and had other obstacles, nothing was going to keep Norman down and no matter what he did it was always with an amazing positive attitude and a love for life and everyone around him.
We’ll miss you Norman, but know that you are happily playing polo on the most heavenly fields any of us have ever dreamed of.