Joe Dudley grew up in a three-room farmhouse in Aurora, N.C., with 10 brothers and sisters. Now 58, he heads a direct selling company he founded called Dudley Products of Kernersville, N.C., which makes 150 cosmetics and hair care products. Most of his 25,000 distributors are hairdressers. Annual sales are $35 million and growing. Not for nothing did Dudley get the 1995 Horatio Alger Award. Dudley, who has been in direct selling since the age of 20, says it builds character by rewarding self-discipline and initiative. Under the circumstances, it's hard to argue.
What was your first job? I worked in a chicken processing plant, taking chickens out of a vat and putting them out to be cut up. I would do any job, the dirtiest jobs at the plant, because I wanted money to go to college. I saved $100 a week.
How did you get into direct selling? I was staying with my aunt in New York and saw a guy on the street going from house to house, selling for Fuller Products, a black beauty products company. I asked him, "Man, how can I do that?" He said it would cost $10. I got $10 together and ran down there.
Did you do well at that? It was one of the most important moments of my life. The founder, S.B. Fuller, was my mentor. He taught his people initiative, courage, loyalty, integrity, and self-improvement. Selling for Fuller paid for college for me and my wife, Eunice. I met her selling for the company. About 1967, we moved to North Carolina to grow my Fuller business.
How did you start Dudley Products? Fuller ran into financial difficulties and couldn't keep me supplied. So we started our own company in 1969, making products on our kitchen stove.
What made your company work? I sold people my mission -- that they could be job-makers rather than job-takers. I called our office a "mental gymnasium": I washed out "I Can't and put in "I Can." People came in from all walks of life and did very well. We had a sales meeting every morning. We still do. Volunteers meet at 6:30 a.m. to discuss books like the Bible, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, and Secret of the Ages by Robert Collier.
Did all this make you a local hero? Actually...