Friendly’s co-founder doesn’t let 17-foot fall, swarm of bees keep him from Techstars

 S. Prestley Blake sips on a Friendly's Fribble with his wife, Helen.
S. Prestley Blake sips on a Friendly's Fribble with his wife, Helen.

Three weeks ago, S. Prestley Blake, the cofounder of Friendly’s Ice Cream was at his Connecticut home, digging a new pond with a back hoe. By himself. At 100 years old.

The machine, with Blake at the controls, rolled 17 feet down into an open-pit rock mine that he is remaking into the pond, scraping much of his skin. He screamed for help, but no one heard.

“I’m going to stay here and die, or crawl myself out,” Blake said, recalling the accident.

He managed to grab hold of the rock and got to the top, with the motor still running.

Not even two weeks later, he pronounced himself fully recovered.

“Well, he’s the fastest healing person I’ve ever seen,” his wife, Helen Blake, said.

About the time the bandages came off, Blake’s grandson Adam Blake, cofounder of ThriveHive, asked his grandfather to introduce the marketing company at Techstars Boston demo day on Sept. 1, a showcase for startups.

“Starting a business today is so different than in his time because you didn’t have to worry about online marketing,” said Adam Blake, who received his MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “We thought bringing a 100-year-old dressed in a tie and jacket to a tech event would be a great way to emphasize that point of how different things are now.”

The T-shirt-, jeans-, and sneaker-wearing Techstars crowd could learn a thing or two about presentation dress. Or not. Times are definitely different than 1935, when Prestley and his brother Curtis opened the first Friendly’s Ice Cream shop in Springfield.

“I especially wanted to have my grandson proud of his grandfather,” Prestley Blake said. “The whole event was well done and very well received. Of course, I’m deaf so I couldn’t understand anything anyone was saying, but I saw the visuals.”

Techstars is a three-month accelerator program for startups that offers mentoring and up to $118,000 in seed funding and convertible notes. The summer session included 12 teams from the US, Spain, Canada, Ukraine, and Portugal.

Since Prestley Blake lives in Connecticut, and the event was in Boston, he needed a little bribing to make the drive, in the form of his son chauffeuring his parents.

But before Prestley Blake could share how he turned $547 into 650 stores, he got himself into trouble, again. He was stung by a swarm of bees on Tuesday morning while in the woods. But, he took a Benadryl and was fine, Adam Blake said.

Good thing he was OK, as the 950 investors, entrepreneurs, and community members greeted Prestley, who stood on stage with only a cane, to a warm welcome.

“I encourage them to pick someone who gives them extra credibility, somebody who is credible themselves, and makes people listen a little closer,” said Techstars Boston managing director Semyon Dukach. Prestley Blake’s “great tenacity is very inspirational.”

The Blake brothers sold Friendly’s in 1979 to Hershey Foods Corp. for $162 million. In 1988, Donald Smith and a group of investors bought the ice cream company from Hershey. Then in 2007, Prestley Blake became the company’s single largest shareholder in order to force then-chief executive Donald Smith out of the chain. Friendly’s was bought by private equity firm Sun Capital Partners, and John Maguire is now the CEO.

Helen and Prestley Blake show no signs of stopping any time soon. Helen Blake has a Facebook account to see her children’s and grandchildren’s photos, but is too busy to check.

“I can’t keep up with everything. I have enough trouble trying to finish my e-mail. I’m behind by 1,000,” said Helen Blake, 83, who prefers text messaging because she can respond quickly.

She doesn’t even play golf any more. “It takes too much time,” she said seriously.

Considering Prestley Blake describes their home as a “hot bed joint,” because the sheets are still hot when the next person comes to stay with them, the Blakes could give entrepreneurs a run for their money with the pace at which they live.

But even though Prestley Blake started his business at a time when it took five years to own a second store, his advice still stands true: Treat employees fairly, be frugal with your cash, and build a stable business. On Tuesday, Prestley Blake said Friendly’s could have used ThriveHive’s technology 80 years ago to help them open storefronts faster.

“What caught me by surprise was how touched people were” by seeing Prestley on stage, Adam Blake said. “It helped cap off a really unbelievable experience for us and all the other companies, and I’m glad he was able to be a part of a new generation of entrepreneurs.”