If you want a meeting with one of the more successful business owners in the Springfield area, don’t go looking in a high-rise building with glassed-lined corner offices with city views. Instead, you will have better luck by knocking on the door of a modest, metal office building with nothing more than an address on the front door. There you will find Michel Shay, whose business portfolio includes more than a dozen restaurants, a convenience store, two wildlife ranches and a farm.
Shay was recently named the 2017 Gold Buckle Gala Honoree by the Ozark Empire Fair Foundation. It’s a tribute bestowed annually to a deserving philanthropist who has shown endless support for the foundation and its mission of supporting area agricultural youth scholarships and grants.
Shay’s passion for agriculture, future farmers and the Ozark Empire Fair burns bright. “I think part of not only society but generationally we have people who forget about those who produce the food for the world and it is important,” Shay said. “It is a pretty humble job, especially for the kids. They work hours and hours and hours a day on those animals; it is time-consuming.”
Shay grew up on a farm in Mexico, Missouri, and his first job off the family farm landed him work at an egg ranch. “My original job was manure removal and then I graduated up to part-time egg picker, which paid a little better than scooping the manure,” Shay recalled with a chuckle.
Shay quit the egg ranch to play baseball in his freshman year in high school. The owners of the egg ranch didn’t rehire him, so his older sister helped him get a job at Hardee’s. That job set before Shay a career ladder that would lead to the ownership of 16 Hardee’s in Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas.
For Shay, the first wrung on the ladder at Hardee’s was unloading supply trucks, then grill cook, then manager and so on. “My goal when I got out of high school was to own one or two of my own restaurants.” By the age of 24, Shay owned a Hardee’s restaurant in partnership with a couple of other business owners.
Shay attributes much of his success to the lessons of hard work and perseverance he learned growing up on a farm. “When I started in the restaurant business, people asked me why I did that. I said, ‘Working on the farm, you never got a day off – at restaurants, at least you get one day a week off. That’s a big step up,’” he said with a grin.
Shay has been a long-time customer of Bear State Bank, a relationship he says has been beneficial in growing his business. “One of the best business decisions I made was moving my real estate loan business to Bear State. They’re great people and great to work with. They’ve been nothing short of phenomenal.”
The relationship between Shay and the Ozark Empire Fair started more than a decade ago when he partnered with the fair in a mutually beneficial marketing campaign.
“When I started in the restaurant business, people asked me why I did that. I said, ‘Working on the farm, you never got a day off – at restaurants, at least you get one day a week off. That’s a big step up.”
The promotion established all those years ago still remains today. Any Hardee’s customer who purchases a large breakfast, lunch or dinner combo receives a free ticket to the Ozark Empire Fair. “It was kind of two-fold in the beginning,” Shay recalled. “For us it was an opportunity to get non-Hardee’s customers into the Hardee’s restaurants and also to get Hardee’s customers into the fair.”
The promotion translates into Hardee’s buying 17,000 fair tickets or more each year. “It has been good for our business, and it’s good for our customers and it’s good for the fair,” Shay said. “It’s hard to develop that kind of relationship where everybody involved comes out better.”
Shay’s involvement with the Ozark Empire Fair extends far past a business partnership – it is also personal. Shay served two terms on the Ozark Empire Fair Foundation Board from 2009 -2016 and he currently holds the position of emeritus on the foundation board. “One thing about being associated with the fair is you really meet a cross mix of the population and business community because there are so many different people that are involved with the fair. And they have the same love for agriculture and the kids involved in agriculture,” Shay said.
Shay has a heart for youth in agriculture and appreciates the foundation board’s mission to help support aspiring farmers through scholarships and other avenues. For more than a decade he has purchased one of the top steers at the Gold Buckle Gala. He typically buys a steer from a youth who lives in or near a community with a Hardee’s restaurant.
Shay has also generously given the fair substantial cash contributions through the years. One of his goals is to ensure the fair provides reasonably priced live entertainment. “That has always been one of my interests and I have kept that on the forefront – trying to find a mix of some popular entertainment that is also affordable for people to go see.”
Whether it is on a personal or professional level, Shay is honored to be involved with the fair. “It is a good thing. It is a positive event. When you go out to the fair you can see someone who is eight days old or 80 years old.”