Born in 1931, Norman Brinker was raised on a small farm in Roswell, New Mexico. He spent his days milking cows, feeding chickens, picking cotton, raising rabbits, and riding horses. "I wanted to be a rancher," he said. "All that I dreamed about and thought about was being a rancher." Although his parents were poor, they supported their energetic son.
When he was 10, Brinker started his own rabbit farm. At 13, he began breeding and boarding cocker spaniels, becoming a charter member of the Roswell Kennel Club. He also delivered newspapers, and by the time he was in high school, he had worked his way up to circulation manager of the Roswell Daily Record.
Brinker had a great love of horses and riding. At age 10, he invested some of the profits from his newspaper route to buy Silver, his first horse, for $30. By the time he had graduated from high school, Brinker was showing, breaking, and training horses. After enrolling at New Mexico Military Academy, he earned a spot on the international equestrian jumping team. His time and travels with the team opened his eyes to an entirely new world.
In 1952, while the Korean War was in full swing, Brinker joined the U.S. Navy. But rather than being sent to Korea, he was named to the U.S. Olympic pentathlon team, and he competed in Helsinki, Finland, that year. In 1954, he competed in the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, going on to earn his way through San Diego State University by selling cutlery door to door and managing a clothing import business. He was elected the school's first nonfraternity student body president.
Eventually, Brinker was running six Jack in the Box fast-food outlets. In 1965, wanting to branch out on his own, Brinker founded Steak & Ale, a restaurant that featuring all-you-can-eat salad bars. By 1971, Steak & Ale had grown to 28 outlets, and Brinker took the company public. Five years later, he merged Steak & Ale with Pillsbury and included his concept of Bennigan's in the deal. He took over the reins of Pillsbury's restaurant division, which also included Burger King, Bennigan's, and Poppin' Fresh outlets.
In 1983, Brinker left Pillsbury and invested in Chili's, taking it public and serving as chairman and CEO. Brinker International included 1,400 restaurants under the names Chili's Grill & Bar, Romano's Macaroni Grill, On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina, Cozymel's Coastal Mexican Grill, Maggiano's Little Italy, Corner Bakery Café, Big Bowl, Wildfire, and EatZi's Market and Bakery. Fortune magazine has consistently recognized Brinker International one of America's "Most Admired Companies." In 2000, Brinker stepped down as chairman and was named chairman emeritus.
Brinker was the author of On the Brink: The Life and Leadership of Norman Brinker, in which he included an account about a 1993 polo accident that left him with a serious brain injury about his long road back to recovery.