Friday, March 31, 2017

Never Change!

I mean, really.  Change is scary.  It might lead to success or even recognition.  Change does strange things to us.

I’m going to write about my horse now.  Please bear with me, prepare to saddle up, don’t go wandering off into the sunset, try to shoe a pig.  I’ll do my best not to be cliché.

Sam is a draft horse.  Sometimes draft horses are known as gentle giants.  There was a TV show that told us that.  Big draft horses are gentle, kind souls at heart.  They never get upset and are gentle with kittens and small children. 

Sam is a gentle giant.  He is big and strong and gentle with the barn cats all of the time.  He tends to enjoy small children most of the time.  When he is not being a gentle giant, he is being mule-headed, stubborn and obnoxious.  In the time that he has been my companion and friend, he has tossed me from the saddle five times.  Each time was due to a disagreement as to who was directing whom.  We have our moments. 

While we’ve managed our way through most of the troubles, Sam has a couple of habits that are absolutely unbreakable.  One issue in particular drives me around the bend.  Sam likes to eat grass whenever I am leading him in his halter.  It never fails that, as soon as the halter goes on, his head drops to the ground and he goes after the grass. 

It is not such a bad habit as habits go.  The trouble is, it is something that I don’t want him to do.  I have my reasons.  The reasons are valid so don’t go all judgmental on me. 

I have done just about everything possible to get Sam to stop grazing under halter.  By now, I’ve found that the best I can get is that he will lift his head when I jerk on his rope.  He also pays attention when I say “Stop!” in my dad-voice.  If I say nothing or just keep walking, he’ll drop his head to the ground and stop to grab a bite.  When that happens and because Sam is about 1300 pounds heavier than me, I also stop, often very suddenly. 

They say that horses will change habits within six or seven weeks with steady and consistent training.  Sam has hung on to his habit for five years with absolutely no sign of giving up.  Even for a horse, that’s a long time.

I know a lot of people who are like that.  We have clients who insist on calling with orders, expecting us to just record them.  Each time, we ask for a valid purchase order.  Responses vary but everyone does at least give it lip service.  They are always shocked when they call back a week later and the verbal order has not been started.

My response is always the same.  “I can’t do it without a purchase order”.  Heck, I can’t even remember that we ever discussed the logo if I don’t have a purchase order.  When they finish being upset I will quietly repeat that we can’t keep track of anything without a purchase order.  And their response is typical.  “Well, it’s the way I’ve always done things.” 

In the 25 years Team Mates has been doing business, we have made many changes to our processes.  We have adapted to the requirements of our customers and we have reacted to our growth by streamlining our systems and through the improvement of our processing.  We do this in order to be of better service to our customers.  After all, our goal is to listen to our customers, consider their needs and react through change and adaptation.  That is how we provide service.

Sam will never change.  He is a horse and has a different thought process.  He can’t communicate with me to tell me why he won’t adapt.  He might have his reasons for not wanting to stop eating under halter.  It might be that he just doesn’t understand.  No matter the reason, I don’t ever lose patience with Sam.  He is a horse.  I am not.

My customers, though, are humans (for the most part).  They are reasonably intelligent and we take the time to explain the reason for needing to change our policies and procedures.  We also explain how the changes will benefit them. 

Those customers that see the value of change are usually the most successful in their businesses.  The ones that continue to call in their orders and never change are pretty well guaranteed never to be successful. 


Fortunately, Sam will manage quite nicely.  

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Heroes


In recent years, the debate over immigration in the United States has been epic.  There are few places in the heavily populated regions of this country where you don’t run into foreign-born people working at jobs.  We see people in all lower-paid areas of the service industry who are ‘not from around here’ and yet they work at those jobs every single day. 

No, they’re not just like us U.S.-born citizens.  They have a different language and culture and they earn substantially less money than we do (https://www.bls.gov/news.release/forbrn.nr0.htm).  They work hard in spite of this and they work every single day just like we do.  The aforementioned report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that the jobless rate in 2015 was actually .5 percent lower for foreign-born people than it was for U.S.-born people. 

I emigrated to the Dominican Republic in 1982 from the U.S.  I went there to see the world from a different point of view and to see what it was like to live somewhere else.  It was a learning experience to state the understated.

I found out what it was like to survive in a completely different culture, to not speak the local language and to see how local citizens acted.  I worked hard to learn Spanish and soon became fairly fluent.   Those first months were frightening, especially when I learned that I wasn’t ‘from around those parts.’  People treated me differently.  I didn’t make a lot of friends at first.  I learned about nationality, about survival in a foreign country, about the very different view from outside the United States and about culture.  I learned a whole lot about who I was (a citizen of the United States) and I learned to respect those who found themselves in a foreign place.

For the most part I was welcomed.  I am from the Latino world’s view of heaven on earth, the home of the American Dream and the two car garage.  I was seen as rich, even when I found myself unemployed and nearly penniless.  There is, by the way, no unemployment net in the Dominican Republic.  You either survive and pay the rent or you find yourself on the street.  It is frightening for someone like me.  Latinos (and I am sure, many others), just live with the risk.  Eventually, by the way, I came back to the United States because I could not live in a country that had electricity 5 to 10 hours a day and expected its citizens to buy generators to make up the difference.

People who come to the United States are looking for work.  They are looking for opportunity.  Legally or illegally many people work to get here and work to stay here, to take the most menial jobs if that is what they have to do.  In the Dominican Republic, I met a lot of Haitians who had gone to the Dominican Republic the very same way, in order to find a slightly better opportunity.  They worked as maids for barely survivable wages because Haiti is even worse economically than the Dominican Republic.  There are simply no jobs in Haiti.  Conditions are horrible.  Haitians are hated, though, and still they go. 

The U.S. citizenry has a long history of treating its immigrants poorly and yet, without that supply of new people, we would not have anyone working in the jobs that we think ourselves too good to perform.  Eventually, those very same people have families, children who become acclimated to our culture and who become assimilated.  Those children become doctors and executives and pillars of our communities.  In short, they become like us.  Then it is their turn to be U.S.-born and to take better jobs, and treat the new arrivals exactly as we have treated those children’s parents.

I think of immigrants as heroes.  I was once in a similar position.  I know just how hard it is to go to another place, not speak the language and to eventually receive the sideways, sarcastic comments directed toward the new arrival.  Immigrants work, they celebrate their culture and they grow families that become Americans in every sense of the word. 

A week ago, we were informed that the United States would have ‘A Day Without an Immigrant’.  I told my staff, the majority of whom are Hispanic and Asian, that I would not penalize them for taking the day off.  All but 2 of the 20 or so folks that work at my company came to work that day.  I thanked them.  I continue to thank them.  They are the heroes to me.  Regardless of the social pressures exerted on them, they said that working that day was more important.  Why?  First, yes, they need the money.  Second, they see themselves as a team, a group of individuals who work together to make a company grow and prosper. 

Their logic was that this whole thing is a non-issue to them.  They live here.  They work.  Who, after all, would they be showing and what would they be proving?  That they had power?  They know that.  I tell them all, every chance I get, that they have that power.  I can’t replace our staff.  That makes them valuable and important both as individuals and as a group. 


The people who make up the fabric of our country are important individuals who are respectable, who work for a living and live for something that they probably could not have in another place.  There is a good reason for people to want to move to the United States.  I know that immigration won’t stop for any reason at all, regardless of who is doing what to whom.  And I know that the people who come here to make a better life for themselves earn the right to be heroes an awful lot of the time.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Promises


I was recently elected to the board of our wine makers’ club.  The meeting was held while I was on vacation and it was suggested that if I wished, I was welcome to send a campaign speech to be read by one of the members. 

My speech consisted of two paragraphs.  First I said that it would really be a pleasure to serve on the board.  The second was my “campaign speech” where I promised wine in the drinking fountains and free pony rides when we hosted the board meeting at my house.  Board meetings are, by the way, open to the entire club and are generally social gatherings.  We do, however, do quite a bit of work at the meetings.

In the past six months, I’ve actually honored both promises.  I gave rides to at least one member, although they were offered to everyone.  The trouble was that my ‘pony’ is actually a large draft horse.  I think that Sam, the large pony, intimidated a few members, even after wine was consumed. 

The second promise was honored, at least to some extent, when I put on a wine blending class.  Instead of fountains, I had pumps in glass bottles that dispensed measured amounts of different wines so that people could measure what they created.  It was a fun class and in the end, I did dispense the wine out of, well, sort of fountains.  I guess that it depends on the definition of a fountain. 

At my company, I have two very important philosophies.  First, tell the truth.  Customers call often and ask if we can do certain jobs and we will give them honest answers.  Also, if we have a problem with any bit of work, and it was our fault, we tell our customers what happened.  Honest answers serve us far better than anything else.  This also applies to our employees.  We will not misrepresent any part of the company’s operations nor will we allow for our employees to do that. 

The second part is that we honor our promises.  When work is promised, we take it very personally if it is not complete at the proper time.  We can’t control every aspect of our surroundings, and know that.  We take the responsibility for our commitments though. 

I have no control over snowstorms that stop all shipments.  While this year has not been terrible in that regard, we have had a lot of people out with illness, sick children and other issues.  It seems as though our staff is never all at the shop at any given moment.  And yet, we take the responsibility and not once have I blamed staff shortages for any job to which we have a committed due date.  The thought that this might be a good excuse is foreign to me. 

After several years of practicing the two policies, our staff also tends to work together tocreate successes.  We didn’t always do this.  The changes took place back in 2008 when I started asking customers and what was required of Team Mates in order to set us apart from other embroidery companies.  The answers were clear and repetitive.  “Honor your promises and tell us the truth” were repeated so often that even a stubborn guy like me actually started to listen.  We changed the way that we did business, learned to track the progress of our orders and tell the truth to each other and to the public at large. 

The result has been that people began to trust us.  Over eight years have passed and the idea that we do this has become so ingrained into the company and to the people that work here and to our customers in general that we generate few complaints and more often than not, we are able to create great successes even through failures.  People understand that if we didn’t deliver on time, something catastrophic and beyond our control has happened.  Usually, rather than penalizing us, we are given help.


It thrills me how well people work together when we deliver on a promise or two.  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Really?

They met in college and dated for their final two years.  He was a long way from home.  His parents didn’t have enough money to visit during the school year so he never got the chance to introduce her to them.  Consequently, the surprise was even bigger, the disappointment greater. 

They fell deeply in love.  They studied together and were rarely apart, except on weekends when she went home to work.  She never mentioned him to her family, afraid that they would ask her about him and knowing how they would react.  They would want to see pictures and she knew that they would demand an immediate breakup.  He learned about her and about her background.  He worked to understand her beliefs and her culture, how she had developed her opinions.  They adored each other in spite of their vast differences.

He told her of his own childhood and how his had only first been exposed to her culture at sixteen, how he had kept shaking the young boy’s hand, fascinated, wanting to touch him, to see how his skin felt, trying to discover a difference.  His family was deeply embedded in its own culture and he had rarely had the chance to get to know a different one.  And now, he wanted to spend the rest of his life with someone so completely outside of his own world.

Graduation day arrived.  His parents and grandparents came to the ceremony, so proud to see their son in cap and gown.  Her parents were there as well, excited for their girl who was the first to get a university degree.  Their families still had not met, or heard of the relationship.   

They decided to spring the wonderful surprise of their engagement on graduation day.  Both were nervous, knowing that they might face some negative reactions and yet forever hopeful that everything would go well.

The plan was to meet at a local restaurant, sit at adjoining tables and introduce each other.  He arrived last, family in tow, and took the table next to hers.  He brushed her shoulder as he walked by, smiling at her.  His parents noticed and shook their heads as they sat.  In a loud whisper, his grandmother asked “How can you know someone like that?  And why are they allowed in this restaurant?”  He was shocked at her disgust.  His parents nodded in agreement, barely containing their anger.
Finally, though, he signaled to her that it was time.  They both stood and moved together, ready to make the announcement.  Both family tables became silent as they watched them take each other’s hands.  “Mom, Dad,” he said.  “This is Sarah.  I’ve been dating her for the last two years and we are engaged to be married.” 

A shocked silence followed.  His grandmother stood, almost knocking over the table.  “You will NOT do this as long as I am alive,” she shouted.  “My grandson will never have a Liberal as a wife!” 
Her family stood.  Her father sneered at his grandmother and said, “Don’t worry.  It will never happen.  Your kind will never share our table, our home or a scrap of food with us.”

They turned and hurried out of the restaurant, their daughter in tow.  She looked back with tears in her eyes.  That was the last that they saw of each other for many years.

“Seriously?” you ask. 

Think about it.  In our haste to make sure that everyone has to get along with everyone else, we seem to have forgotten that we are all essentially human, that opinions divide us far too often.  In fact, they divide us far more often than race, culture and country.  Amazing, isn’t it?  And sort of silly in my own personal universe. 


With that in mind, I wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and happy holidays.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The American Dream

I have listened to a lot of radio since the election.  I’ve read a lot of articles online and heard all sorts of opinions too.  It helps to have perspective.  Sometimes, it even helps to have a little knowledge when forming an opinion.  I also have the rare but welcome inspiration that allows me to propose the occasional hypothesis. 

I was reading about strategic mistakes made by the DFL Party during this past election cycle.  One of the proposed errors caught my eye because it was a comparison between the two candidates’ core message.  On one side, it was “Make America Great Again”.  The DFL proposed a series of ideas regarding jobs creation, education, and getting more people into the middle class.  The proposal centered loosely around the idea that the DFL would build “an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top.” 

Yes, the most outstanding problem is that the message was way too complicated.  It’s far easier to grab onto a slogan.  Regardless of your political leanings, slogans work. 

Today’s brilliant inspiration derives from the more complicated message.  It seems to explain some things.  Or maybe I had too much wine last night. 

The real message here has to do with the disappearance of the American Dream.  In fact, I doubt that many people actually hear those words these days.  My baby boomer generation grew up with tales of rags-to-riches business types.  If those didn’t hold our attention, there were still plenty of retirees around who were living just fine off their savings and a social security supplement. 

What always fascinated me, though, were the stories of people who put their hearts and souls into their small businesses and then one day sold them for a good sum of money and retired to live a wonderful life in some nice tropical place.  The hours of labor and the small salaries during their working years paid off.  Even more plentiful were the stories of immigrants who took whatever menial job they could find, saved carefully, raised children who became doctors and lawyers and eventually retired to enjoy the rest of their lives with their grandchildren.

That was the American Dream. 

The Dream disappeared during the past thirty or so years.  About five years ago I discovered that my business would not be worth enough to allow me to sell it and retire.  There is no more capital gains reduction, no more income averaging.  Selling a business has become complicated and is worth a whole lot less than it used to be. 

This led me to realize something about the current generations going into the workforce.  Young people are being educated.  They are being encouraged and they are being told that we need them.  They are not being given a Dream.  They see their working life as something that won’t be a joy.  When we of my generation run into snags or start getting burned out because of the long hours, we look ahead with some small remainder of that wonderful Dream and say ‘Don’t stop now.  Retirement will bring a great future.’ 

These days, our children know that Social Security will be running out, that there is very little profit sharing happening in companies and if there were, they’d be taxed to death on it.  Instead of working long and hard for an employer, they are mobile, not loyal and they tend to see work as a means to a pleasant trip, enough money for the weekend’s entertainment, or some other personal pleasure.  It is absolutely no wonder that less effort is put into the day’s work. 

It is no surprise that we allow manufacturing to go overseas.  I no longer wonder why I can’t find reliable young people of U.S . origin who might be interested in the embroidery business.  It’s simple.  I have nothing to offer but work.  I can’t make them rich, give them a share of a very slim profit, promise them the end of a rainbow.  All I can do is tell them that we have schedules to keep, minimums to produce and that we need to run fast to even pay for ourselves.  For them, there are easier and better ways to make money.  Machine embroidery is no one’s passion.

Millennials and so many others do not deserve to be blamed for their attitudes.  We tried to give them a work ethic.  We forgot to tell them that there could be fun at the end.  Or in the middle.  Instead we suggested that life pretty much sucks these days. 

Maybe we should try a slightly more positive approach to our grandchildren.  Maybe we should try figuring out how to recapture the American Dream.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Easy Way Out

It seems like the popular thing to do these days is to ask rich people to pay more taxes.  I hear the shouts that ‘They don’t pay enough!”  As a former CPA who did a lot of very rich peoples’ tax returns, I can tell you that those people will never pay as large a percentage as the average American.  Get used to it.  Never gonna happen.

You can tax rich people.  They’ll leave or expatriate their incomes though.  They will look for, and find, loopholes that reduce their taxes.  They will never pay what you would expect them to pay.  And the economic bottom line will be that instead of getting a rich person to be more supportive of the government and those who are less-rich, they will become more reclusive and less participative.  Or they will use their income to generate more power and control over the government. 

Regardless, the less rich will always cry out against the more rich.  The poor will be angry with everyone.

There is also no way to eliminate competition, either physical or economic or mental, and still have people.  We grow due to competition.  There is always someone out there in the world that we want to beat.  More often than not, there are always many people that we want to outcompete.  There may or may not be animosity involved.  There is always some jealousy.  We don’t get better by doing less than the next person. 

I can understand the desires of the less ambitious folks in our country.  They are competing by working to slow other people down and by discouraging them to work less.  Who hasn’t heard the phrase “Hey, slow down.  You’re making the rest of us look bad.”  I hear it sometimes in my shop, much to my own personal dismay.  Those folks don't last long, by the way.

This attitude seems to have gotten worse during the past few years.  The outcry against the very rich has actually been translated into proportionately higher tax rates for that class of people.  It is a tragedy. 

The less ambitious are working side by side with the less rich to raise minimum wages, create a shorter work week and allow for more paid vacation and family leave.  Corporations should pay for all of this because they make lots of money.  Oh, and the big rich companies don’t pay a lot of taxes. 
The outcry does not consider the fact that small businesses, who are in the less rich category, comprise nearly fifty percent of the work force and create nearly sixty-four percent of the new jobs in this country.  (SBA FAQ) Every new tax and wage hike and family leave allowance that is imposed on the large corporations takes a much larger toll on the small corporations.  It is no wonder that new business startups are falling behind business failures (Gallup Business Journal).


The past couple of generations of people in this country have subscribed to the idea that we can take an easy way out.  We can just vote for higher taxes and higher wages and more vacation.  Social media says that will solve our problems.  Thankfully, I am not part of the latest generations.  I really don’t want to see the consequences of the easy way out.  For my part, I’ll keep my head down, manage my small business and keep people employed for as long as possible.  And hope that I can survive the easy way out for long enough to get at least one or two days of retirement.      

Friday, September 30, 2016

Out in the woods

Today we get a story, fun, and an observation.
    
A good friend, Pete, has a small vineyard in his back yard.  He grows about a ton of grapes each year and when harvest time comes around, it is an excuse to have a big party that he calls the “Grape Stomp”.   It is a big potluck and during the day much wine is consumed while people are given sharp instruments that are used to cut grape clusters from the vines.  Once the grapes are all cut, at previous stomps he has put out small tubs for the kids to stomp grapes in.  Each year, the kids get a little bit bigger and the bins look a lot smaller.

Pete has been seeing something a little bit more complex in his mind for the past couple of years.  He described it to me by saying that he wanted something like a floor and walls surrounding maybe a wading pool where people could stomp a little bit better.  He loves to have everyone participate. 

His description produced a picture in my head of a rickety little disposable framework surrounding a plastic pool where adults could walk on grapes for some time, maybe fall down a few times and have a laugh or two.  So we made a date to get this thing built.

The day before we were to stay, Pete picked up the wood and texted me the directions to the place where we’d be building it.  His friend would be helping us with it. 

I escaped work early, and followed his directions out into the country, to the end of a gravel road, down a long driveway bordered by electric cattle fences. I arrived at a 10,000 square foot fully equipped professional wood shop.  Turns out that Pete had enlisted the help of a master cabinetmaker who does a little bit better than simple rickety frames.  Pete’s friend is a perfectionist who uses nothing in the way of hammer and nails.  He works with beautiful reclaimed wood.  The cabinet maker was designing a rather unique grape stomping barrel.  Pet and I would be doing the work, milling reclaimed telephone pole cedar and reclaimed white oak into the sides and floor.  The cabinet maker would instruct and direct.  The barrel would be five feet in diameter and would be water tight, all made without use of a single nail or bit of glue.  We finished our own wood, routered it, sanded it and cut every single piece at a custom angle.  When it was done, it was an actual round circle.  It was beautiful!

It worked, too.  People had a ball stomping grapes in it and getting all purple.  The day was deemed a success and there were lots of photo opportunities for all of the partiers. 

Our project took me to places where the true backbone of the United States still resides.  In order to get wood, we visited a pallet maker.  She builds them out of old cedar telephone poles by cutting them up with a giant band saw into planks that are then sized and nailed together.  It is really hard work.  She does them by herself.  She is off the grid.  Try as hard as you can, you probably won’t find her.

We picked up some metal strapping to hold the barrel together from a similar business that custom builds gates and metal fencing.  And, of course, we did the project back in a spot that is completely out of sight.  These are people who aren’t voting in the current election.  They’re busy working.

These are people, though, who are the first ones to jump to your aid, to defend their country and protect our rights as individuals.  There is no negotiation prior to doing these things.  The folks that magically make pallets full of food and beer and products appear in the stores don’t ask for anything more than the selling price of their products.  That’s it.  No handouts are requested, no free benefits are needed.  Helping someone is just exactly that.  You never hear “What’s in it for me?”  They already know the answer. 

This is the backbone of the United States.  There are no races here and there is no difference between working men and working women.  Much of this backbone consists of immigrants and first generation U.S. citizens.  Their parents or grandparents studied and became U.S. citizens, and most were treated far worse than the immigrants of today.  They didn’t get welfare or free medical care and they had to take menial jobs to survive.  They learned to depend on their own resources because help was out of their price range.  Today they pretty much build our country. 

I really don’t think that most people realize just how amazing this subset of our country is.  They do still build things around here.  Pallets don’t come from pallet factories in Mexico.  Cabinets don’t all come from the sales floor at Home Depot.  Someone actually makes this stuff and then has to sell it.  Lettuce does not come from the lettuce factory.  And meat is not created already in the package.  Someone had to feed it, grow it and butcher it.  Those people aren’t well paid and they can’t afford a new iPhone every six months.  They pay for their own health insurance and don’t quite understand why we need free trade agreements with neighboring economies.  After all, we can build it ourselves if we put our minds to it. 

Ah, well.  Time to go home to my suburban house.  Time for a glass of wine while I sit and appreciate the fact that I crushed the grapes that made the wine.  With my feet.  Maybe.