'I work my butt off': Dolly Parton on how she succeeds in business

Parton talks about her non-stop empire expansion, trusting the people she hires and the importance of ‘9 to 5’

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Dolly Parton is a live performer, recording artist, songwriter, novelist, philanthropist, Netflix producer, theme-park operator and hotelier, just to name a handful of her business ventures. She sells everything from dog accessories to fragrances and even muffin mixes.

How does she keep up the momentum? “I work my butt off,” she said in an interview with Bloomberg News to hawk her newest endeavour with ConAgra Brands Inc., a grocery storewide food line, starting with Dolly Parton’s Buttermilk Pancakes.

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Fifteen minutes is about all the time this celebrity-turned-business mogul has between performing at the Thanksgiving football game halftime show to promote her newest album, Rockstar (her highest Billboard 200 debut to date), filming a commercial for the 2024 Olympics and launching a new pirate-themed dinner theatre in Tampa, Fla, She is almost certainly the only American to have been offered the dual honours of a dedicated episode on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars and a statue at the Tennessee state capitol (she politely declined).

For Parton, though, her allure goes well beyond the music. In an age where “quiet quitting” has pervaded workplaces across the United States and hustle culture is being criticized by the rising number of gen-Zers shuffling into the office (or Zoom rooms), Parton works for her success, way past nine to five. And at 78 years old, she shows no signs of letting up.

Work Shift spoke with her about her non-stop empire expansion, trusting the people she hires and the importance of “9 to 5.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Dolly Parton is not just a person — she’s an empire. How do you run all of it? What decisions do you make and what do you delegate to others? 

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DP: I have a huge empire, because I not only have the stuff that I do with my music, I also have Dollywood, the theme park, I have hotels, and I have dinner theatres and all sorts of things that I’m involved in. So I have thousands of employees.

I am smart enough to know that I don’t know all the things I need to know about any of that, other than my music. I’m more of the creative force and the one that has an overall sense of things. I try to find the best people and I try to trust them to do what they say they can do. Then I have people looking out after all of them.

I have a pretty good gut. And we know if somebody’s not right, they’ll show themselves, or it’ll be pointed out so many times by other people that you do trust, you’ll know it’s time to move on from that person. So I depend on my own higher wisdom of knowing if I’m in the right place with the right people. I have been so blessed through my lifetime to be surrounded by great people. We really care about each other, or I think they like me. Some of them do.

Q: In the 1980 song “9 to 5,” you said “you’re just a step on the boss man’s ladder.” Well now you’re the boss woman. How did the experiences that formed the basis of that song shape the kind of boss that you are today?

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DP: Well, I’m still a step on my own ladder, because I’m always climbing. I was proud of that movie because I really do think that opened a lot of doors and brought a lot of attention to women that are so qualified and for so long had not really gotten all the chances that they deserved. I think a lot of that has changed.

A lot of people don’t believe that some women can be feminine and sexy and smart at the same time. You just prove yourself by doing what you do best. That’s how I carried my own business all the way through the years since I was a very young girl in Nashville. I always believed that I had something to offer that could make us all a bunch of money. Looking like a woman and thinking like a man, so to speak.

A lot of people don’t believe that some women can be feminine and sexy and smart at the same time

Dolly Parton

Q: Speaking of which, your look —  the hair, the outfits — is such a big part of who you are. What’s your advice to working women about how to use our appearances to our advantage?

DP: Lord, everybody don’t want to look like me. I look like I’m going to work at the strip club.

I’ve always said everybody should be comfortable in their own skin, and in their own life, and in their own clothes. You know what business you’re in, and you pretty much know what’s expected. If you’ve got a dress code, just look the best you can, take it right to the limit.  You can kind of bend the rules a little bit, but if that’s the job you want and you already know the rules, then go by the rules. Look like a stripper on the weekends.

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Q: How do you keep expanding your empire without diluting it?

DP: At my age, I look at these things like it’s a new adventure. I’ve already accomplished everything I set out to do in my music. Of course, I want to do more things, want to do better — I’m doing my life story as a Broadway musical. So if I did nothing more musically than get this show on its feet, get it on stage and it does good, then I feel like I have accomplished almost everything I ever wanted to do.

If I’d have been doing these things back when I was trying to build my music career, it would’ve diluted that, or people would’ve been confused who I was. But this is becoming who I am now. People will always know I’m a singer, writer, producer. They already know that. I’ve proven that. I’ve worked my life away for that. Now these are fun things for me to do. These are things we call “mailbox money” (or passive income).  You can draw your royalties or not, but I enjoy having these meetings with all these big people that have done so many great things. I don’t really think that I’m going to be fading away any time soon. So whatever I want to try to do, I’m just going to do whatever feels right to me.

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Q: How does the partnership with ConAgra, which started with Duncan Hines but is now growing beyond that, fit into the grander scheme of Dolly Parton Inc.?

DP: I only do the things that I feel like I can have confidence in, believe in, and will be able to sell with conviction. So, food I love. I grew up cooking and eating in a house full of kids. So when Duncan Hines came to the forefront, I said, absolutely. I’ve been using Duncan Hines from forever. I thought that’d be a good way to start with the food line.


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