On the Job with Michelle Oaks

Michelle Oaks is the owner of The Cakery. Her shop specializes  in custom baked goods.

Michelle Oaks is the owner of The Cakery. Her shop specializes in custom baked goods.

Starting with a cashier’s job at a local McDonald’s, Michelle Oaks parlayed hard work and determination into a creative position over advertising, promotions and public relations for five separate restaurants.

After 24 years of hamburger success under the Golden Arches, Oaks practically stumbled into a “sweet” position as owner of The Cakery, a local institution making cakes, brownies, cookies and custom baked goods for most conceivable occasions.

She credits a particular manager from the “burger and bun” days for helping develop her work ethic and enjoyment of business and personal relationships.

She enjoys ballroom dancing, a good mystery novel and the great outdoors.

Oaks participated in a question-and-answer session with reporter Jim West.

Q. What was your first job?

A. My first real job was working as a cashier for McDonald’s in Albany. It was also my first career. I worked all the shifts and then they promoted me to do tours, birthday parties and all the training for new hires. Eventually I did the advertising, promotions and public relations for the five local restaurants. Twenty-four years later I decided to find out what life was like outside the golden arches.

Q. What was the first thing you spent money on when you received your first paycheck?

A. I probably spent some of it on food and gas to get back and forth to work. But I put some away for a special graduation trip for my sister and I — the Olympics in Montreal, Canada.

Q. What’s the single most effective technique you found during the past two years for keeping employees motivated?

A. Employee motivation is tricky. Not all of them are motivated by money or raises. I’ve tried to stress that businesses are having to close their doors every day and we have to do our jobs right and make the best product we can or we could all be without our jobs.

Q. What led you to your current position? Why did you want to operate your business?

A. I had decided to leave McDonald’s and my mother had always instilled in me that I could do anything I wanted. She told me to be a leader and not a follower, so when I found out by accident The Cakery was for sale, I decided to follow my dream of being an entrepreneur. I had always had the safety net of McDonald’s beneath me and now it was all on my shoulders. I was too busy at first, though, to let that really hit me.

Q. Do you have a role model or mentor in your career?

A. My mentor was my first boss, Eugene Caruso, a genuine human being. He worked hard and expected all of us to do the same. But he loved what he did and even after his health had failed he was in his stores every day, talking to staff and greeting customers. He taught me a lot about business and people, work ethics and life. I will always think of that time as my good ole days.”

Q. What is the biggest lesson you, as a business leader, learned from the recent recession?

A. You never know what life will bring you, so you just have to get up every day, put a smile on your face, do your absolute best and pray that things get better.

Q. If you could turn the clock back on one aspect of technology – examples email, automated phone systems, cell phones, PDAs, etc. – what would you most like to see go away?

A. Technology has come a long way. They all have wonderful applications, but we are way too dependent on computers and cell phones. I miss the handwritten letter, the thoughtful thank you note and the “just because” Hallmark card.

Q. What is your favorite work-related gadget?

A. I love all the decorating tools that are available these days, but my favorite “go to” gadget is a simple little metal spatula. I can do a world of decorating with that tool.

Q. What is your favorite tradition?

A. At home I like to prepare a traditional Christmas dinner. We choose a different country each year and celebrate their traditions. We design the menu and day around that country. It’s fun to learn about how other places celebrate. At The Cakery, my favorite tradition is celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. My staff enjoys it so much.

Q. What was the last book you read? Do you have things you read daily or regularly?

A. Usually I read mysteries or historic novels, but I recently read a book called “God Winks,” and I’m learning to pay attention when I recognize a God wink in my life — a sign from God that this is what and where you should be.

Q. I’m up and going by and what is your morning routine?

A. My cat usually wakes me at 6:30 a.m., even on the days I’m not going to the gym. I listen to a bit of “The Today Show,” then feed and water the livestock. After that, I’m ready to face whatever project we have going on at The Cakery. Each day there is a new and exciting mystery just waiting to unfold.

Q. What famous person would you like to meet, and why?

A. I would like to have met “Anna,” the school teacher who went to Siam and befriended the King. We all know the movie, “The King and I,” but I would have liked to hear her talk of living there in those times and learning the language and culture.

Q. Favorite hobbies or activity outside work?

A. I teach ballroom dancing all over Southwest Georgia, and it’s truly something I love to share with my students. I also hold a dance at the Hasan Temple on the third Saturday of each month so my students will have a place to enjoy their dancing. It’s a family fun event.

Q. If you could take back one business decision you made in your career, what would it be?

A. I try not to look back at the decisions I made and criticize myself. I try to weigh each decision before I make it, with the information I have at the time, gather any new information I can and make the best choice for me. I just have to move forward and do better the next time.

Q. Best thing about your job?

Creating special treats for events our customers are having can be exhausting as well as exhilarating. But it’s worth the hours of stress when that white bakery box opens and we see the delight on their faces.

Q. Worst thing about your job?

A. When we miss the mark and disappoint someone — even though we really tried to do what the customer asked of us. For a while it takes the wind out of our sails.

Q. The most beneficial course I took in school was?

A. Hard to say. I never thought I would use fractions, but sometimes when we have to make a bigger or smaller recipe they come in handy. Sometimes knowing the proper spelling of a word or just vocabulary in general helps when writing on a cake. Even knowing a famous Shakespeare quote or an event in history helps. You never know.

Q. What would be your dream job if you were able to pick a position outside your current career path?

A. I would have loved to continue my own dancing career and danced professionally — maybe even on stage. I’m more than content, though, to encourage my very talented students. The only other thing I ever dreamed of doing was running a little Bed and Breakfast in some remote vacation spot, meeting new people and helping them have a new adventure.

Q. Finish this thought: “On the first anniversary of my retirement, I see myself …

A. I’d love to see myself spending more time with my niece and nephews and traveling around the world, but I’ll probably be right here working for as long as folks want treats from The Cakery.

Q. What is the one trait a strong business leader cannot afford to be without?

A. Humility, and the ability to laugh at your mistakes.

Q. Crystal ball time: What’s your call on when the economic recovery for our area will be in full swing?

A. When we all learn not to depend on the government but on our talents and energies — not expecting anything in return — things will start to get better.

Q. What kind of music might I find on your list of most played on your iPod?

A. I still have a record player — no iPod — but the music would all be ballroom or Latin music as I would be researching new music for my classes.

Q. What do you think is the biggest change Albany will see in the next 10 years?

A. A lot of new projects like The Artpark are in the works. I hope our city leaders will continue to respond to such forward ideas and provide more reasons for visiting our city or relocating here.

Q. What was the best vacation you’ve ever taken? Why?

A. A cruise to Alaska. I met the most wonderful and interesting people from all over the world and saw the most breathtaking scenery and majestic wildlife. I learned a lot of folklore on our 49th state and danced to a great orchestra every night. The food wasn’t bad, either.

Q. What are the biggest changes you have seen in your specific line of business over the past few years?

A. With all the baking and cooking shows on TV, we ‘re presented with more challenges from our customers. It’s always interesting to see if we can rise to the challenges. Cake decorating has come a long way, baby, in the last 14 years and I’m still trying to keep up with all the new ideas. It can be overwhelming at times.