The son of an engineer, James Collins was 11 when he helped his father build a house for their family. He earned 50 cents a day on the construction project and by the end of the summer had saved $40. He used that money to buy a horse, but he needed a loan to buy the hay that would feed it. His father took him to the bank, where Collins took out a loan for $45, which his father cosigned. Young Collins paid back the loan from the money he earned from his paper route. Later, he joined 4-H and bought a cow, whose milk he sold to neighbors. He also made money selling turkeys at Thanksgiving, and he mowed lawns for many of his paper route customers.
After high school, Collins joined the Navy and served during World War II. He used the GI Bill to enroll at the University of California at Los Angeles. To help meet expenses, he washed dishes twice a day at his fraternity house. He earned a degree in civil engineering, but left his job with a construction company in 1952. After meeting the McDonald brothers at their original 15-cent self-service hamburger stand, he opened a 19-cent self-service hamburger stand he called Hamburger Handout. He opened a second stand in 1957 and two more by 1959. In 1960, he added Kentucky Fried Chicken to his menu. By 1962 he was the exclusive agent for Colonel Sanders to develop KFC take-home stores in Southern California.
In 1967, Collins bought the Sizzler Family Steak House chain. The following year, in November 1968, Collins Food International went public. In 2001, Collins Food International became Worldwide Restaurant Concepts (WWRC) and Jim Collins retired as chairman emeritus. WWRC was purchased by Pacifica Equity Partners in September 2005 and will continue from Brisbane, Australia as a private company operating, franchising, or joint venturing 310 Sizzler restaurants worldwide, in addition to the 112 KFC restaurants in Queensland, Australia, and 21 Pat & Oscars restaurants.
In the early 1960s, Collins became involved with his alma mater, UCLA, and the Los Angeles YMCA. At UCLA he served as president of the Alumni Association (1974-76); president of the UCLA Foundation (1980-82) and was Alumnus of the Year in 1982. He has been active with the Los Angeles YMCA since 1960 and was chairman of the board from 1978-82.