Meet Parkland's distinguished alumnus of 2014: Jeffrey Hettler
After Jeffrey Hettler took a few marketing classes at Parkland College in the early ’80s, he found himself inspired to pursue it as a career path. Today, 33 years after the Central High grad earned his Parkland degree, he owns Five Star Trading, which places manufacturers’ products in grocery stores and other retailers.
Proud of the role Parkland played in his professional life, Hettler, 52, established a scholarship there in honor of his late parents. During commencement services on Thursday night, Parkland will honor him as its distinguished alumnus of 2014.
Hettler sat down with News-Gazette staff writer Tim Mitchell to talk about Parkland pride, making a buck off his Edison middle school classmates and more.
Q: What led you to establish the Frank and Priscilla Hettler Scholarship six years ago?
A: When I was seven years old, my mom died of cancer. She had fought it for probably a good year. They didn’t have a whole lot of chemo and other things to help sick persons in the 1960s. She didn’t smoke, and nobody else in the family had cancer.
When I was 15, my father died of heart disease. He was a smoker, and he had a heart attack when he was 39.
Here’s the story of the scholarship. When my dad died, we got a total of $80 cash donated by people in lieu of flowers at the funeral. I put the money in a savings account from 1977 to 1992. We were getting 5 percent interest, and the money was up to about $230. In 1992, the bank started charging for any saving account with less than $500, so I had them give me a cashier’s check for the entire amount, and I put the check on my desk.
By 2007, I had a good business going, and I talked to my good friend Carl Meyer, who was the Parkland College Foundation Executive Director. I asked him how the scholarships worked. My family finally took that funeral money, and we added more money to it to start the Frank and Priscilla Hettler Scholarship for Parkland College students from large families. Normally, we will pay for a student for 12 hours, and some years we paid for as many as four people. The applicants all have to write a handwritten essay. It is amazing to read these essays, when I see these people are really struggling and need some help. I have never met any of the scholarship winners.
Q: But you’d like to?
A: Absolutely. The other nice thing is that some of the winners might do the same thing when they get to be fortunate in business. There are a lot of people struggling in this day and age, especially with college. We call it paying it forward.
Q: What attracted you to Parkland?
A: I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career when I was still in high school. Parkland College proved to be a good steppingstone for me, and it was there where I learned what I wanted to do. I took a marketing class that I totally enjoyed, and that led me to an associate’s degree in business administration. For my parents, having their children go to college was a goal, so when they died, a trust fund was set up to get me through college. After I got my degree from Parkland, I transferred to Southern Illinois University, where I got a BS in marketing.
Q: What was your reaction when you heard about this recognition?
A: My first thought was, “Wow.” But I was also so humbled by it. I’m just an average Joe, and I really appreciate them pointing somebody like me out.
Q: What led you to your career in marketing?
A: When I got done with college, I went to work for Frank Keck, who ran Keck’s Furniture here in town. Frank was going out of business, and I had interviewed with Frank. Everybody was leaving Frank, so he desperately needed some help for his going-out-of-business sale. Keck has another business called The Other Store, with more contemporary furniture. So I worked there.
Then I had a good friend whose dad was at Kraft. He was a sales rep, and he knew a food guy named John Mitchell, who turned out to be my mentor. He pretty much taught me everything I know. And he was looking for a sales rep. John hired me as a sales rep for Eisenhart and Associates in October 1984, when I was only five months out of college. They were a St. Louis-based food broker. Food brokers get paid to represent products. We represented products like Planter’s Peanuts and Banquet frozen foods and they paid commission based on product placement in the stores,
Q: As a foodie, what’s your favorite meal?
A: A good filet. When I first got into the food business, I wanted so badly for us to represent A1 Steak Sauce, and we actually ended up getting that account. I thought I was in hog heaven because I got free samples, and the stuff was expensive. Probably steak, a baked potato with butter and sour cream. My dad was a big cook because my mom died when we were so young, so he took over that duty. For him, Sunday was always a special meal, like stuffed pork chops or a roast that was in the oven all day. We had burgers on Saturday nights.
Q: What do you like most about the career you chose?
A: Sales is a function of marketing, and I have always been interested in sales since I had a paper route with The News-Gazette as a young kid. Our family had a paper route in the Lincolnshire area for about 17 years. Every child in the family took their turn doing the paper route when they were old enough. We would keep track of every home that gave us a Christmas bonus, and for each one of those homes we used to place their News-Gazette in the door, rain or shine, instead of throwing it at the concrete.
Some of the people gave me a $20 tip, and one guy used to give me 50 bucks. Some people would give me Fannie Mae candy and give me money. One year, a customer asked me why I put Mr. So and So’s paper in the door every day. I told the customer that Mr. So and So appreciated my service at Christmastime.
Then, in junior high school, I used to sell gum. I had a jacket that I always wore, and inside the jacket I carried bunches of sticks of gum. I could carry like 20 of them in my jacket at a time. I think I paid a quarter for each of them and sold them to my classmates at Edison for a buck.
Q: Whose poster was on the wall of your bedroom when you were a boy?
A: I had a poster for actor James Brolin, and I had a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus poster.
Q: Who is your favorite musician?
A: It depends on my mood. Jim Brickman is my favorite piano guy. My parents had a piano and an organ, and my sisters would go in there to practice. I would sit on the couch, listen to them practice and then fall asleep. I like everything from Christian music to hard rock. I’m a big fan of Styx and REO Speedwagon.
Q: What is your favorite vacation destination?
A: St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. That’s where I proposed to my wife, and she loves shopping there. She usually gets a piece of jewelry when we go there. We always say at the Marriott Frenchmen’s Reef. We go there every several years.
Q: What is your advice for young people interested in a career in marketing?
A: The best thing is to get a master’s degree to get an edge in the marketing department. You have to have a passion to sell the stuff, to convince a company to carry this line. It’s challenging. And don’t take no for an answer. If somebody tells you no the first time, try again with a different angle. Sometimes it takes me four or five times to present an item before the store decides to carry it.
Q: Most importantly, how many dogs do you have?
A: We have three dogs— Hootie, Zip and Mr. Hawk— and they are all mutts. One is from the Humane Society in Urbana, and the second one is from a rescue organization in Paris. We got the third dog when a lady was going to take him to the pound because she didn’t want him any more, so we said we would foster him. All of a sudden we decided to keep him. He’s just a great little dog.