What retirees can learn from Colonel Sanders

by | Jun 20, 2023

Whether you’re looking toward your retirement future, currently planning your retirement or already long since retired, there’s a big chance you perceive retirement as a kind of “end”. And, while retirement can provide freedom from mainstream work and represent the end of career-based responsibilities for some, it’s not the end at all.

In fact, for some, retirement is just the beginning.

Take Colonel Sanders for example. (Yep, we’re talking about that Colonel Sanders.) Love him or hate him, he saw astounding success in the later years of his life and we’re here to break down all there is to learn about how he made it big at 60.

The journey of Colonel Sanders:

While Colonel Sanders is a face recognised across the world today, the real Col. Sanders didn’t become a professional chef until he was 40, didn’t franchise KFC until he was 62, and didn’t become an icon until after he sold his company at the ripe young age of 75.

In fact, his life before 40 was riddled with challenges, difficulties, and a number of setbacks.

In 1890, he was born Harland Sanders and grew up on a farm in Indiana. At age 6, his father passed away leaving him to care for his siblings while his mother spent her days working long hours to support the family. One of his many responsibilities was to feed his sibling and, according to the New Yorker, he was already a pretty good cook by age 7

After his mother remarried, he was sent to work on a farm about 80 miles away at just 12 years of age, and he soon realized that he would rather work all day than go to school. So, he did what anyone would do – he dropped out in the seventh grade.

He spent the first half of his life working odd jobs, selling insurance, tires, making lighting systems, and a variety of other escapades. But he eventually acquired a service station in Kentucky in 1930 (yep, that makes him 40!) where he began serving classic Southern dishes to travelers. 

The location became known for its food, and Sanders actually got rid of the gas pump and converted the once service station to a proper restaurant.

Famous recipe at 49

But the breakthrough that would ripple into his iconic success didn’t come until 1939 – when he was 49. It was then he discovered the now famous recipe. He found that frying his chicken and its signature “11 herbs and space” in the new “pressure cooker” of his time resulted in the exact consistency he’d been searching for.  

As a result of his new discovery, the restaurant became incredibly popular over the next decade. 

It was in 1950 that the governor of Kentucky recognized his contribution to the community and named him colonel – the highest honor the state can give. Which is no surprise if he tried even one bite of that chicken…

So, Sander began dressing the part. He adopted the famous white suit and tie that became a key feature of his icon status.

Sanders donned the white suit and Kentucky colonel tie to complete his look
Image source: MENSXP

Franchised at 62, forced into early retirement by 66

In 1952, he made a deal with his restaurateur friend, to franchise “Kentucky Fried Chicken”. And, after it became a top-seller, he made the same deal with other restaurants. 

But it wasn’t all roses from here. When a new interstate bypassed the Colonel’s restaurant, he was forced to sell the location to make up for the loss of customer traffic in 1956. 

Yep – after reaching that level of success, he was struck right back down. It left his $105 Social Security check his only source of income. 

Perseverance that led to being an icon at 75

But he wouldn’t let this be his end. He hit the road with his wife, planning to dedicate the remainder of his years to fully franchising the side product he’d started just 4 years earlier. He would go into a restaurant, offer to cook his chicken, and try to make a deal with the owner. 

By 1963, he was fielding franchise requests without having to put in any legwork, with more than 600 restaurants across the country (and Canada) selling KFC. What happened from there led to his iconic success. 

He was approached and offered the chance to sell his franchise rights. Though Sanders was hesitant to start with, he agreed to sell his rights for $2 million in 1965 and KFC went worldwide – and the Colonel was happy to know that, at age 75, he would see his company continue to grow beyond his own capacity.

At 75, the Colonel sold his franchise rights for success long into retirement
Image source: San Francisco Chronicle

Lessons for retirees on making it big in your 40s, 50s, 60s and up!

Colonel Sanders’ story isn’t just an exciting tale of how our favorite fast-food restaurant came to be – it’s also a tale ripe with inspiration for retirees everywhere. And we’ve broken down exactly what retirees can learn from his tale of making it big at 62. 

  • Taking a real chance on yourself and your talents

One of the key things to consider about Sanders’ story is that he took a chance on himself and believed in his talents. 

From the time he dropped out of seventh grade, he was making his own decisions based on the goals he had in his life. What didn’t matter were the limits anyone placed on him or the expectations of a society – he knew what he wanted and he did it. 

When he took on the service station and made the decision to experiment with the cooking skills he had built over the course of his life, he took a chance on himself. Even if he didn’t know at this point that it would turn into a restaurant, he figured out a way to incorporate the talents and life experiences he accrued into what he was doing – even if that was just pumping gas and cooking on the side. 

Even when he hit the road in 1956, he was taking a leap of faith based on what he knew of himself: that he could be successful in his industry and he deserved to try. 

If you take anything from his story: recognize that a lot of these retirement stories we share are all about truly believing in yourself and investing in what you want out of life. 

  • Overcoming challenges with red-hot dedication

We all face challenges, but the thing about this story is that no matter the challenges, no matter his age, Sanders faced it all with dedication. When he started on his search for the ultimate recipe, after he lost it all to an overpass, and even when he was reportedly facing 1009 “no’s” before he heard a single “yes” from his hunt for restaurants. Yep – he was turned down one thousand and nine times before his chicken was accepted at least once!

The determination and dedication shown by Sanders throughout his entire career is a message for retirees across the globe

If that’s not a testament to what dedication and self-belief can do for you, even in retirement, we don’t know what is. It’s a big part of why we encourage our readers to put themselves out there and believe in themselves – because we know exactly what it can do. 

  • Knowing that retirement doesn’t = the end 

When it comes to approaching 40s, 50s and even 60s, a lot of people have a fixed mindset on what they’re capable of. But the thing about that? It can hold you back from the kind of success that Colonel Sanders himself saw. 

By the time he opened up his gas station, he had spent most of his life working odd jobs, with no real purpose other than the satisfaction of good labor and returned income. And by the time he was 60, KFC hadn’t even seen the kind of success it was capable of. Even when he was reduced to his own minor savings and Social Security, he traveled across the country knowing he could make something more from it. 

He knew that retirement didn’t mean the end, so it wasn’t. Something our readers should definitely keep in mind.

  • A focus not on being rich, but for a quality service

Funny thing about Colonel Sanders and this incredible story? It seemed his pursuit was never solely about becoming rich, but rather about being renowned for his food – for the talent he’d pursued. He apparently grumbled and swore about the more profitable, but less quality gravy that the corporate KFC began producing. 
We think this is another good takeaway. While we believe in earning money in retirement, we also think the focus should always be on giving yourself a purpose, a legacy, something that helps you fall asleep at night knowing you’re doing something real. Because it can make a real difference to the quality you’re putting out, and the way it’s received by others.

When your focus is on your purpose, not just money, you're likely to see a special kind of success

Colonel Sanders’ story is one of great inspiration for retirees across the world. His success and the now-famous KFC are a testament to the fact that you can not only make it big at 60, but make it even bigger at 75. Through unique dedication, hard-work and perseverance, Sanders saw a successful career that all started from a love of cooking. 

So, if someone were writing an article about you in 100 years time – what would you want to be remembered for?
If you’re looking for unique ways to earn money in retirement, tips and tricks on retirement planning, or anything on the state of retirement in the United States today, read more here.