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Lena's Food Market founder Bezelee Martin talks to students.

Lena's Food Market founder shares his wisdom

Bezelee Martin had some good advice on being successful in life and business for a group of students recently.

"You should always love what you choose to do or else you can't be successful.

"You can't be successful if you're not good at it.

"Always be the best. Pick someone to study who is successful and pay attention to what they do.

"If you follow that advice and never give up, I assure you will not fail."

Martin, the founder of Lena's Food Markets in Milwaukee, was speaking to a group of Vincent High School students about the foundations of entrepreneurship during a classroom session sponsored by Junior Achievement. Before Martin's talk, Junior Achievement manager Antonio Avery asked the students if they recognized the name of the 80-year-old businessman's stores.

Seeing how just about everybody in certain areas of the North Side of Milwaukee knows about Lena's Food Market, plenty of hands went up. Avery asked how many students planned to open a business one day. A smaller group responded with raised hands, but Martin's talk dealt with success on many different levels.

When a student asked how old Martin was when he started his first business, he said he had been 14 years old. He said that when he started his grocery business in 1960, he had "zero money; well, I mean zero in business terms."

Martin told the students when he opened his first grocery store, some people warned him it would fail because it was located next to a bigger store. Martin's message to students was to always have confidence in yourself.

"The way I looked at it, God didn't give him any more than he gave me," Martin said about his larger competitor. "Besides, I could change prices easier than they could because they were so big it took more time. I could just do it."

Martin employs about 300 people in Milwaukee at five locations; Lena's Food Market has the distinction of being one of a handful of African-American owned grocery chains still doing business in the entire nation. That's one reason why Martin is being inducted into the Wisconsin Business Hall of Fame April 18 along with others at a ceremony at The Pfister Hotel.

I'd heard about Martin for decades but had never had the honor of meeting him in person before the Vincent High talk. His accomplishments as a black businessman in a city where many black businesses have either failed or been taken over by others make Martin both a pioneer and survivor.

These days Martin's adult children run Lena's Food Markets; during his talk he answered a frequently asked question.

Why did he name his stores "Lena's"?

As it turns out, Lena is his wife's name. "I figured if you want your wife to stick close to you, that's what you do," he said with a twinkling smile.

Smart husband. And an excellent businessman.

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