1985 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Have the tenacity and persuasion to turn challenges into opportunities."
Norman Brinker was raised on a small farm in Roswell, New Mexico. He spent his days milking cows, feeding chickens, picking cotton, raising rabbits, and riding horses. "I wanted to be a rancher," he said. "All that I dreamed about and thought about was being a rancher." Although his parents were poor, they were supportive of their energetic son. When he was 10, Brinker started his own rabbit farm. At 13, he began breeding and boarding cocker spaniels, becoming a charter member of the Roswell Kennel Club. He also delivered newspapers, and by the time he was in high school, he had worked his way up to circulation manager for the Roswell Daily Record.
Brinker had a great love of horses and riding. He invested some of his profits from his newspaper route to buy his first horse at the age of 10 for $30. He named him Silver. By the time he graduated high school, Brinker was showing, breaking, and training horses. After enrolling in the New Mexico Military Academy, Brinker earned a spot on the International Equestrian Jumping Team. His time and travels with the team opened his eyes to an entirely new world.
In 1952, Brinker joined the Navy in the midst of the Korean War. But rather than being sent to Korea, he was named to the U. S. Olympic Pentathlon Team and competed in Helsinki, Finland, in 1952. Two years later, he competed in the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. He went on to earn his way through San Diego State University selling cutlery door to door and managing a clothing import business. He was elected the school's first non-fraternity student body president.
Eventually he began running six Jack-in-the-Box outlets. In 1965, wanting to go out on his own, Brinker founded Steak & Ale, a restaurant that featured all-you-can-eat salad bars. By 1971, Steak & Ale had grown to 28 outlets and Brinker took the company public. Five years later, he merged Steak & Ale with Pillsbury and included his concept of Bennigan's in the deal. He took over the reins of Pillsbury's restaurant division, which included Burger King, Steak & Ale, Bennigan's, and Poppin' Fresh.
In 1983, Brinker left Pillsbury and invested in Chili's, taking it public and serving as chairman and chief executive officer. Brinker International included 1,400 restaurants under the names Chili's Grill & Bar, Romano's Macaroni Grill, On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina, Cozymel's Coastal Mexican Grill, Maggiano's Little Italy, Corner Bakery Café, Big Bowl, Wildfire, and EatZi's Market and Bakery. It is consistently recognized by Fortune magazine as one of America's "Most Admired Companies." In 2000, Norman Brinker stepped down as chairman and was named chairman emeritus.
Brinker was the author of On the Brink: The Life and Leadership of Norman Brinker, in which he included an account of his 1993 polo accident that caused him a serious brain injury and his long road back to recovery.* Deceased