2005 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Seize all that life has to offer. Embrace the richness of life and share it with others."
Jim Keyes was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1955. The youngest of six children, he lived with his family in a small country home built by his father and grandfather. It was rustic and had no running water. The well on their property was shared with Keyes' grandparents, who lived next door. While the house had no heat, it did have electricity and a wood-burning stove.
Keyes describes both of his parents as highly intelligent, but undereducated. His father attended school through the sixth grade, at which time he was forced to quit so that he could help support his large family. He worked as a machine operator in an abrasives factory. Keyes' mother grew up in foster homes and, like her husband, became a factory worker. When he was five, Keyes' parents divorced. They told him he could choose which parent he wanted to live with, but rather than make that decision he went to live with his older sister for the summer. When school started in the fall, he was forced to make a choice and he returned to his home to live with his father.
Keyes knows now that he was living in poverty, but at the time he had no sense of hardship. His friends from the wealthy side of town enjoyed coming to his house to play. "We saw my place as an adventure and compared it to camping," he says. "It wasn't until I was older that it became more apparent to me that we were poor."
When Keyes was 10, his father was diagnosed with cancer. At the same time, his widowed grandmother next door was also ill. Shortly before his father died, they lost their house. The authorities found out that they had no running water and when Keyes came home from school one day, he saw a large, red sign on his front door that said "condemned." His grandmother was put into a rest home and his father was sent to a Veterans hospital, where he died six months later.
Keyes went to live with his mother, who worked two jobs to support them. When he was 15, Keyes began working for McDonalds and became the shift manager within a year. During summers, he did a second shift at night as a truck driver. He took on a third job when he became a church organist. He used his earnings and a small baseball scholarship to attend the College of the Holy Cross, which was close to his home. At that time, his mother had developed cancer and he felt it was important to be nearby to help with her care.
Keyes majored in political science and continued to work at McDonalds. He graduated in 1977 cum laude and as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society. He took a year off to work full time, and then entered a JD/MBA program at Columbia University in New York City. During his first year in the business program, he served an internship with Gulf Oil and the company offered him a job as soon as he finished his MBA.
Gulf assigned Keyes to corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh. He performed well and was steadily promoted. When Gulf merged with Chevron, Keyes joined Citgo Petroleum, which was owned by 7-Eleven (then known as Southland Corporation), and quickly moved up the corporate ladder. In 1996, Keyes was named chief financial officer. He was elected to the board the following year, and became chief operating officer in 1998. In 2000, he was named president and CEO of 7-Eleven, Inc.
Keyes read Horatio Alger stories as a child and now feels humbled and delighted to be recognized by the Association. "It is an incredible honor," he says. "I actually don't see myself as a success because there is still so much to accomplish and so much life left to live. In fact, I feel that I am just at the beginning of my journey."