PEABODY — Businessman, real estate developer, philanthropist and one-time "juice man" Bill Cummings explained how he started small and made it big during a talk on Tuesday at Northeast Arc's Black Box Theater.

About 100 people, including students from several North Shore schools, turned out to hear the conversation between Cummings, who is nearly 82 and lives in Winchester, and radio talk show host Kim Carrigan of Swampscott.

Later, he spent time greeting young people and signing his self-published autobiography, "Starting Small and Making it Big, An Entrepreneur's Journey to Billion-Dollar Philanthropist." 

"I thought it was great to hear how he got to where he is now," said Danvers High junior Colby Thomson, who was impressed by how Cummings "changed his business strategy from making profits to giving back to the community."

"No matter what happens in life," Danvers High senior Skye Healy said, "you can always be successful." 

Cummings is the founder of Cummings Properties.

On the North Shore, he bought the dilapidated, former United Shoe Machinery property in Beverly in 1996 for $500,000, and transformed it into a business and medical office park where 6,000 people work. It now includes a new condominium complex along Elliott Street.

In the past six or seven years, Cummings said, "100 percent" of the profit from the Cummings Foundation's real estate portfolio has gone to charitable causes. He and his wife, Joyce, created the foundation, which owns about 70 percent of the real estate that Cummings Properties manages.

The foundation's philanthropy is focused on organizations in Eastern Massachusetts, including Northeast Arc.

Jo Ann Simons, the CEO of Northeast Arc, a Danvers-based agency that works with people with intellectual and physical disabilities, told the audience a $100,000 grant from the Cummings Foundation several years ago helped to improve  physical access to the art center where the Black Box Theater is located.

Cummings said he recently visited Rwanda, where the foundation is contributing $15 million toward construction of the new University of Global Health Equity, an effort that includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Partners in Health.

The juice man

The son of a house painter, Cummings grew up in Medford in a one-bedroom apartment with his sister, mother and father.  He described his parents as products of the Great Depression who taught him the value of hard work and saving money.

"He likes to say that he started as a juice man," Carrigan said, asking Cummings, who graduated from Tufts University, to explain his first company. "What was it you did with juice?"

"I think that what Kim must be referring to is the opportunity I had when I was, I guess, about 23 years old to buy up a little company in Medford," Cummings said. The company, Old Medford Foods, made fruit punch.

"I've always liked fruit punch," he noted.

The business was for sale in the low six figures. But after touring the plant and speaking with the owners, he learned the business had just one part-time worker who worked one day a week making fruit punch for about 25 customers, mostly  catering firms. The owners dropped the price to $40,000. Eventually, they settled for a sale price of $4,000.

"I looked at the business, explored it, negotiated it and gave them a check all in the same day," Cummings said. "And that gives rise to something that I talk about all the time, and that is opportunity.

"Sometimes opportunities come along, but we need to recognize them when they do and take advantage of them if they are worth taking advantage of," he said. "But that was certainly one that fell in that category."

At the time, one of his customers was a dining hall at M.I.T. that served fruit punch at faculty functions. They couldn't come up with a punch bowl large enough to serve a thousand students in the dining hall, however. Cummings bought a refrigerated dispenser for the dining hall, and in that way the business began to take off.

He wound up selling fruit punch to hundreds of colleges up and down the East Coast. Seven years later, he sold the business for more than $1 million, helping him get his start in commercial real estate.

Carrigan asked Cummings if today's young people have the same drive as he did, and Cummings replied that work was his passion — he wanted to work. He had plenty of odd jobs: working at Brigham's Ice Cream, selling Christmas trees and later, Vicks VapoRub. He also worked for Gorton's of Gloucester.   

His advice to anyone hoping to start a business or career: "If it doesn't really turn you on, don't do it."

In the audience were students from Beverly and Gloucester high schools, students from the DECA business clubs at  Danvers High and Hamilton-Wenham Regional, SkillsUSA students from Essex Tech, and students from the Young Entrepreneurs program run by the Peabody Area Chamber of Commerce.

Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt, who was also there, said it was fitting to have Cummings in Peabody as a symbol of the "intersection of philanthropy and entrepreneurship we so want to encourage."

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.

Cummings makes a splash talking to students