Gerald has just signed up for the most popular online business, social network. He has recently closed the family business, and his desire is not to let 30-plus years of learning and experience go to waste. Leaning back in his chair, he ponders how he will make this work. His unorthodox working career does not easily fit the social networks cookie-cutter formula, nor does it include the traditional resume formula. As a small business owner, his career has been one of nonstop learning and problem solving.
It has been his contention that his recently closed company’s roots reach into the mid-1960s when his father started work at Baldwin Piano Company. Baldwin is where his father had begun learning manufacturing processes. First as a new hire instructor and subsequently as a plant supervisor. It amused him when people would come into their shop, assuming that the little business in central Kansas had a limited knowledge base and background.
For Gerald, pride in doing his best work is something he holds dear. Customer satisfaction is his personal challenge. Embarrassment about not sending out his best is a powerful motivator.
Through research, he knows he has two hurdles to overcome. The assumption is that former business owners are challenging to work with, and people in their fifties are past their working prime, unwilling to learn new things, and just coasting until retirement. Both are stereotypes and remove the knowledge business owners and middle-aged persons are individuals, bringing their own experience and talent.
It is bemusing to him when people who are past climbing the “corporate ladder” and want to focus their attention on helping a business succeed cannot get past the first cut in resume sorting.
With experience comes the knowledge business requires a long-term mindset, and not a mishmash of weekly and quarterly goals that cause an endless variety of unnecessary planning changes. A long-term business strategy considers that sometimes you are ahead of the competition and sometimes you are behind. The key to success in decision making is to look ahead and consider how the decision is going to affect the company immediately and in the future. Short-term thinking causes highs and lows to peak in ways that are not wanted.
His personal experience as the owner of a business has shown managers and business owners need honest feedback on decision-making, be it pro or con. After deciding on a course of action, the need is for people who will execute the plan in the future and not try to sabotage the plan to make a point.
In the past, discussions with workers from other companies clarified many managers do not understand how the work in their department is getting accomplished. Some of the issue is managers who have a zero interest in the workings of their department. Others regularly give restrictive orders but are not concerned with the outcome of their orders. Many managers are lucky there are people willing to fill in the gaps and do the right thing to keep things moving forward despite obstacles created by the manager. Most times, those employees would be in trouble if found out.
For years, he has listened to business and leadership audio books and podcasts. In a recent podcast, the topic was looking in the wrong places for experts or where expertise can be found. He agrees with the conclusion that much expertise lies with the people doing the work. Decision makers are not doing their due diligence when they exclude workers as a valuable source of information.
Closing his eyes, he thinks about the effort required for the family business to succeed in its mission of meeting or exceeding its customers’ expectations. Exceeding expectations being the rule, not the exception. Looking back, he has a hard time pinpointing a time when the company did not meet customers’ expectations. He knows the source of achieving quality and customer satisfaction starts with a company’s culture and goes before a paper trail.
In the late 1980s, an aircraft interior company, PPC called, looking to offload the building of small interior assemblies. After agreeing to help, the owner asked if he was helping to set up another competitor. Responding he was not, and on a handshake, began a long-term relationship with the company that embodied the best in supplier-customer relationships. A relationship built on trust and cooperation. Despite the best efforts of his company, there were few customer relationships following PPC built on those ideals.
His company’s stated goal, “Our greatest pride is in the quality we put into every project and the interest we take in the success of our customers,” could not dent the barriers put up by other companies. Barriers put in place by management who were/are ignorant of the importance of cooperation and trust in the success of a working relationship.
Interestingly enough, it was many times a “regular” worker who was doing the same work in their own facility and tasked with bringing materials and tooling to his shop who understood the cooperation aspect better than most. He always enjoyed those relationships.
Gerald recalls a conversation he had with his father as they were closing the business. They had talked about the many products and projects they completed over the years. The journey included custom office furnishings, composite aircraft cabinetry, high gloss finishing on aircraft cabinetry, work on presidential aircraft, plastic vacuum forming, cnc machining, laser engraving, solid modeling, 3D printing. The diversity of projects and products resulted from enjoying the challenges brought by customers and the satisfaction of completing those challenges.
Equal to pride in quality and customer satisfaction is his commitment to honesty and integrity and the willingness to help other companies when they are in a bind. There was a day when customers recognized and rewarded excellent customer service. The change in business to focus on the bottom line and profit maximization resulted in customer loyalty all but disappearing. He has seen firsthand that pushing costs down to suppliers may cause short term monetary gain, but results in long-term supply chain issues. The goal of any supply chain should be the balance of healthy suppliers and product costs. The supplier does not exist to fix any pricing issues their customer may have. They do not exist to be abused by “profit maximization initiatives”. His time as a long-term supplier taught him to value the people and companies giving excellent service and, in return, reward them with his business.
He ponders what he considers is his biggest take away from all the experiences. The simple fact of business is people. Despite all the advances in technology and processes, customers are people, employees are people and suppliers are people. All respond the best when treated with dignity and respect.
So, with the shop’s equipment sold, what does it all mean? It means a chapter of his life has closed. A chapter that makes him very proud. A chapter full of laughter, tears, good times, and bad times.
So, what of his future? Is there a place for a middle-aged man who has 36 years' worth of problem-solving experience, who at the same time studied people, business, companies, leadership, marketing, sales, HR, continuous improvement, and how they work together? The short answer is yes, but only for the company looking for people who value coworkers and understand their job is the business’s long-term success.
© Alan Simpson