Tag Archives: Innovation

Making Better Decisions


We were on the road and I was  happy: my Garmin GPS system had plotted the shortest route and was keeping me informed of traffic, speed limits and my speed; while listening to XM radio, Terri was using our Ipad to go online and locate a hotel for the evening; I had spoken with my office on my cell phone and the car’s computers were making sure that we were achieving the best fuel economy. Glancing at the array of gadgets, it dawned on me that I was utilizing more technology than Apollo 13 possessed to get to the moon.

I thought about how different this journey was if compared to a similar one in 1999. Guessing at the shortest distance, I would have plotted the route on a map; days before we were on the road, Terri would have phoned motels; I would have used a pay phone to check in with the office and fuel economy was what it was.  I realized that technology had radically changed my decision-making processes.

When reading the newspaper, I find dire warning of what is going to take place 20 to 50 years in the future: how our planet will not be able to survive whatever disaster the writers are fearful of. The authors of such articles utilize current knowledge in their demands that policies be adopted to avert such a future calamity.

There are several ingredients necessary to making good decisions: relying upon past experiences; assessing the effect of a decision upon others; taking into account factors beyond your control and being having knowledge of the facts. In that a decision based upon existing knowledge is limited to that knowledge, the last element of the preceding equation is an important one.

Good decisions are made by looking beyond oneself and seeking knowledge that provides for an array of choices. Success in anything— business, parenting or life in general—is predicated upon making the right decisions; better decisions are made through utilizing and applying the best available choices.

Occasionally, I will hear someone comment that they don’t have the time to be around other people; to look for new products; to learn through reading or attend educational programs.  By not seeking to expand his or her knowledge—thus limiting choices—I know that person, is decreasing his or her possibilities of success.

Knowledge

Knowledge is that which, next to virtue, truly raises one person above another.” – Joseph Addison

Never Too Busy To Say Hello


My father’s business was built upon relationships developed over many years. I thought about my father as I wrestled with our bank over a service fee.

When a $250 “Account Analysis Fee” appeared on our monthly statement, I complained to the bank branch manager who sympathetically told me that I had to speak to the commercial account representative. I called and left a message for him; a week later I left another message and then still another. When he finally returned my call, he informed me that he would change our account so there would be no more charges and he would look into refunding the fees they had removed from our account. The next month we were again charged the analysis fee and I realized our account representative had failed to carry through on the commitment he had made.

It’s not just the banks, in all types of businesses, CEO’s and boards of directors, isolated from customers, under pressure to maximize profits and hounded by stock analysis are allowing the “bean counters” to determine how they approach their customers. They have succumbed to the arguments: that automation can replace the human touch; that customers will put up with “customer service” outsourced overseas; that the wait times, errors and inefficiencies occasioned by reduced staff will be forgiven and that Americans are so shallow that only price makes a difference.

When I first went to work for him, I didn’t understand my father’s role in his company. He had managers who handled operations and a bookkeeper and secretaries who administered the back office. He arrived at 9:00 a.m., went to the post office an hour later, took over an hour for lunch, played golf on Wednesday afternoons and left for home by 5:00 p.m.: what a life! It was years before I came to the realization that through his interaction with customers, my dad was our company’s number one sales person.

His schedule was based upon connecting with people. He arrived at the office after having coffee with our banker and other businessmen; he timed his visit to the post office to coincide with customers retrieving their mail; lunch was often with a client and on Wednesdays he played “customer” golf. He knew his customers: their problems, needs and opinions of our service. In return, they knew, liked and wanted to do business with him. Not only did he interact with them, he also set the example of how we were to deal with our customers.

Prior to my appointment with a new doctor, I looked him up online and found he had two addresses. I went to the first location, a large building housing a number of offices but not that of the doctor I was scheduled to see. Concerned about being late for my appointment, I called the physicians office and was disdainfully informed that I was in the wrong location and impatiently directed to the correct address.

When I arrived at the doctor’s office, the receptionist, without a greeting or smile, handed me a clipboard and ordered me to fill out an attached form and when I returned with the completed questionnaire, demanded a payment. By the time I saw the doctor I was ready to do battle. He turned out to be a nice guy and a good physician but he almost lost me as a patient before we met.

Different from the doctor’s staff, my father insisted that all customers be treated graciously. He was never too busy to say hello, to inquire about family or to offer to help. He built relationships that served us for over fifty years.

Companies that focus on profit and neglect customer service and satisfaction suffer in the long run. I think of the junk American auto manufacturers turned out in the 1960’s and the market share they lost to higher quality—and in some instances more expensive—foreign imports; there are other well known examples of the same.

In a world where it is increasingly uncommon to do so, treating your customers graciously is a deciding factor in developing loyal relationships, andLa it’s up to the person in charge, to set the example for doing so.

Real Service

To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity.” – Douglas Adams

The Passionate Rug Salesman


After receiving a promise that I could spend the rest of the afternoon watching football on television, I agreed to go to a furniture store with Terri. Wandering the store, we found the rug we had been looking for on sale and made the decision to purchase it. As we were talking with the salesman, I thought back about a previous purchase of carpeting for our home.

We were shopping at a large store in which there were numerous carpet samples of different types and prices. We narrowed our selection down to two samples from the same manufacturer; one priced higher than the other. Wanting good quality but also being budget conscious, I asked the apathetic sales person about the difference between the two carpets. Observing the puzzled look on his face, I realized that he didn’t understand; so again I asked “What’s the difference between the two carpets?”  After taking a minute to think about it he responded with, “$10 per yard.”

The prior experience was brought to mind by the attitude and professionalism of the sales person from whom we purchased the rug. He could explain in detail the difference between varying rugs: how one’s fibers were tied and the number of knots per square inch; how another was “tufted” and the dye process on another. He explained how the rugs from one country differed from those from another; how they were designed and how to know good quality products.

When I asked how he had obtained his expertise, he explained that he had by chance stumbled into the business and had developed a passion for rugs.

After college I went to work for my father. Over the years, I became adept at running a medium size commercial subcontracting business, however, my passion lay elsewhere. Without a zeal for what I was doing, I lacked the desire to focus on growing and improving the business. Without a fire for what I was doing, success was illusive and I eventually sold the business.  My brother made the same decision about his profession.

After 30 years as a lawyer my brother gave up his law practice to be an entrepreneur. The projects he invested in never returned the money he earned as an attorney but he was happy. Unlike many people who spend a life of frustration and dissatisfaction, he was willing to make a change and his passion for business brought happiness.  Passion also makes a difference in other activities.

My brother-in-law Don was a union insulator spending 35 years on construction projects. Don didn’t have a background that would lead him to playing golf—his parents and siblings didn’t play and neither did most of his friends and acquaintances. I would lug my clubs and get in a couple of rounds when Terri and I would visit her sister. Curious, Don decided to try the game and fell in love with it. He developed a passion, which led him to practice and now he is an accomplished golfer: his passion led to his success.

As our children began to think about their future, drawing upon my experience, I would advise them to try and find a job where their vocation was the same as their avocation. I explained that the happiest, most successful people I knew were those who did on their jobs what they also loved to do on the weekend. Those people had discovered if your job and your hobby are the same, you are never working.

It is important to be passionate about something: if not your job, your family, a hobby or a sport. If you are in an occupation that you are not excited about, consider changing jobs; if you can’t change, find a part of your job that you can be enthusiastic about. Passion can be rediscovered: it’s never to late to rekindle your ardor for something or someone you love: it takes work—but it is worth it.

Life is too short to not have passion in it.

Quotes

One of the things that may get in the way of people being lifelong learners is that they’re not in touch with their passion. If you’re passionate about what it is you do, then you’re going to be looking for everything you can to get better at it.” – Jack Canfield

The kind of commitment I find among the best performers across virtually every field is a single-minded passion for what they do, an unwavering desire for excellence in the way they think and the way they work. Genuine confidence is what launches you out of bed in the morning, and through your day with a spring in your step.” – Jim Collins

Early In The Morning


Photo by Jenny Carrington

I would awaken before anyone else, quietly put on a bathing suit and go to the white beach that led to the lake in front of our house. I can still feel the morning air, cool, with the promise of a hot day and thunderstorms to come. In the solitude of the early morning I could be what I was, a preteen boy. There were tadpoles to catch, sand castles to build and an imagination to run wild. I loved those early mornings but then I became a teenager and the joy of early mornings was replaced by adolescent pleasure of sleeping in.

During college, my joy of staying in bed became an inability to get out of bed; however after marriage and graduation from college, the responsibility of supporting a family meant I had to be up and going. The days of not being able to get out of bed were replaced by a lifetime of getting to the office early.

To make sure our roofing crews were on the road in the still dark early mornings. I would arrive before 6:00 a.m., open the office and meet with the foremen. The first thirty minutes of the day, were hectic, then there was a lull; a quiet time before the phone started ringing. That is when I would wander outside, drink a cup of coffee and savor the cool morning air. It was a time to catch my breath and collect my thoughts for the coming day. Early mornings were a solitary time until Terri and I opened our inn.

Since we served our guests breakfast in their rooms, morning was our busiest time of the day. We would get up at 5:00 a.m. and go non-stop for the next three hours; then after everyone was served there was time to sit outside, drink a cup of coffee and visit with the guests. The visits were engaging, open and rewarding. I appreciated those encounters in the coolness and promise of the early morning; however, I had not truly experienced the beauty of morning until my first visit to Mt. Hood and the Timberline Lodge.

I was hosting a tour of western lumber mills and forests for a group of lumber dealers and their spouses. We arrived at the snowbound lodge late in the afternoon; to make sure everything was ready for the day’s tour, I was up early the following morning. The sun was rising in the East as I walked out of the lodge entrance. Worried about slipping on ice, my eyes were focused on the steps; when I looked up, I caught my breath at the sight. In the distance to the south, bathed in the early morning light, were the golden-hued, snow-covered peaks of three distant mountains. A vision that still lingers in my memory.

Some people find a quiet time in the midday, others in the evening and there are those people who are always busy: never stopping to catch their breath. Creativity, problem solving, sanity demands a break from the constant demands of the day. For me, that break takes place in the early morning, when with a cup of coffee, I take time to collect my thoughts, organize the day to come and reflect on the blessings afforded to me.

Quote

Every now and then go away and have a little relaxation. To remain constantly at work will diminish your judgment. Go some distance away, because work will be in perspective and a lack of harmony is more readily seen.”-Leonardo DaVinci

From An Adding Machine To An Ipad


Mr. Laferty was 5’ 6”, shaped like a pear and had a bad comb-over; he was my father’s bookkeeper and he and his adding machine fascinated me. His fingers would fly over the keys as he would enter numbers; after every entry, he would pull the manual handle, the roll of paper would advance and he would enter the next set of numbers. Like a machine, he would not stop until an entire column had been entered; then he would pull the adding machine tape close—he never tore the tape; he saved, reversed, re-rolled and used it again—check his numbers and start again. After at first refusing to do so, he would relent to my begging and let me pull the adding machine crank; that was my first experience with an office machine.

After graduating from college, I began work in my father’s office. I had only been there a few days when the general manager asked me to check an estimate. I began to check the math by hand: multiplying, adding, totaling columns. He laughed at my efforts and asked why I didn’t use the comptometer. I had no idea what it was, much less how it operated but I learned and was fascinated by the weird machine.

The comptometer was the size of an IBM Selectric typewriter—another ancient and rare piece of office equipment—and weighed about as much as a Volkswagen Beetle. It had two keyboards and a row of small windows in which the calculations appeared. When using the machine to multiply or divide, you could hear the internal mechanisms clanking and banging for what seemed to be an eternity before miraculously the results would appear. I loved that machine and thought it to be a miracle of technology until we purchased our first electronic calculator.

Our first calculator was the size of a telephone, had no printer and would die from a surge of electricity from a storm 30 miles away. At first my father and I would enter a calculation, obtain and then check the results by hand. For a mathematically challenged college history major, that it could instantaneously calculate the square root of a number was a miracle and I would enter number after number watching it do so. I was satisfied with the calculator and its successors until I discovered computers.

When drinking a beer with a guy I had played against in a racquetball tournament, I asked what he did for a living. He responded that he owned a company that developed and sold small business accounting software. Small business software: you had to be kidding! To run software, you would have to own a computer and that was beyond the means of any but large businesses. Soon afterwards, we owned our first computer.

It was like royalty visiting when they delivered our brand new TRS 80—Tandy Radio Shack—computer. We had purchased the top of the line: 64k of memory, a 13” black and white monitor and an expansion bay, with three 5 1/4” floppy drives. It was so cutting edge that an industry trade magazine detailed a reporter to visit us to take pictures and gather information for a feature story. Our accounting was automated and with the advent Visicalc, the first spreadsheet program, so was our estimating. I thought it was advanced as technology could ever get, until last week my wife gave me an Ipad.

The Ipad is amazing.  The size of a small notepad, it is a personal entertainment and business center. I can download and read books and while doing so listen to my favorite music; when I tire of reading, I can play a game, check email, write a letter or surf the internet. It doesn’t require wires, external power or speakers; it represents a miraculous advance in technology.

As I downloaded applications to my new Ipad I thought about Mr. Laferty and all the advances in technology that have occurred since he would grudgingly let me pull the hand crank on his adding machine. I thought how our lives have been changed by those advances.

If today’s technology had been available 25 years ago, I might still be in the building business. Tasks, such as producing shop drawings, that were onerous and time consuming then, now would only take minutes to complete. Communications with customers, employees and vendors would be seamless and immediate; in many ways business is easier now: but is it better?

Perhaps and perhaps not: when your are always in touch, there’s a tendency towards making precipitous rather than well-considered decisions. With the urgency of instant connectivity, without clear thinking, communications can reduce productivity, occasion mistakes and damage relationships. In addition to the negatives that can occur in business, technology also affects personal relationships.

Tablet computers, smart phones, video games allow for entertainment self-sufficiency; we don’t need others to distract us from boredom. However, boredom is important: if our minds are always externally occupied, when is there time for creativity and problem solving? Not just creativity, I fear the effects of technology on relationships: lending to isolation rather than socialization.

It’s been an amazing journey with technology: from watching a comptometer chugging away to sitting on my back porch surfing the web. Technology begets technology; so, advancements are going to come fast and I cannot imagine what tomorrow will bring. I do know that we must not become so enraptured with tools that we lose touch with each other.

Quote

As industrial technology advances and enlarges, and in the process assumes greater social, economic, and political force, it carries people away from where they belong by history, culture, deeds, association and affection.” – Wendell Berry

The Madras Shirt Clique


During the early 1960’s everyone attending Ocala high school dressed pretty much the same; nobody—at least the guys—paid much attention to what people wore. That changed in 1963 when Augie Greiner opened Greiner’s Men Store.

Augie introduced style to a small southern town that was just beginning to build a class of young professionals.  His store provided Ocala men with access to same brands of clothing as their contemporaries in the larger cities; before long, those styles migrated to the local high school and defined by the “Greiner look” a clique was born.

We dressed essentially the same: Gant shirts—with button-down collars, either cotton broad cloth or madras and with a small “loop” of cloth on the back at the neck; HIS cotton khaki slacks; a belt with a color that matched our shoes and Bass Wejun shoes—either cordovan or black but not brown. We not only dressed the same, we also  smelled the same.  When a group of us would get together, the overpowering odor of our cologne, English Leather, would transport you to the interior of a fine British sports car.

In the 1960’s, when attending church, going out for dinner or other social functions, men and their sons donned coats and ties.  Until Augie came along, putting on “Sunday-go-to-meeting” clothes meant gray or brown suits or a particularly ugly sports coat with either gray or brown pants.  This too changed; men started wearing tailored suits, made with expensive fabric and my group of friends wore brass-buttoned, blue blazers with “rep” ties, Corbin slacks and Johnson and Murphy shoes.

The “uniform” we wore in high school became the same uniform we wore in college.  If he could have opened a store in the midst of fraternity row, Augie Greiner would have made a fortune.  Not only did we dress, look and smell the same, we listened to the same music and dated girls who looked alike and dressed the same and we ignored anyone who didn’t conform.

As we opposed the war in Vietnam and entered the “hippie” period of the late 60’s and early 70’s, we conformed in our nonconformity.  And, when I graduated from college and returned to Ocala to work for my father, I learned to conform in business.

When I arrived, my dad’s company had been in business for almost 40 years.  And, in 1971 we pretty well did things the same way we did in 1934: the same materials; the same engineering and although somewhat updated, the same equipment.

The people I befriended within the industry were also resistant to change.  We would greet sales people hawking new products with suspicion and would discourage the use of their products.  We boxed ourselves into an industry that installed labor-intensive systems that required expensive equipment to move heavy materials.  In conversations, the question “Is there be a better way to do this?” was not asked.

Although I sold that business over 25 years ago, occasionally I reflect on how I would do things different if I started it again today.  I know that I would use systems that are far less labor and equipment intensive: systems that were available, but I refused to use in 1984.  Not having been involved in it for a number of years, I now view the business through entrepreneurial eyes: looking from outside rather than inside the box.

Viewing your business through eyes of an entrepreneur is an exciting exercise.  Asking the questions, “If I was starting this business today, what would I sell? Who would I sell to? How would I operate?” forces you to step out of the box and develop answers that may be different from what how you are presently operating.

That’s what Augie Greiner did when he opened his clothing store in Ocala.  Although a small town, there were other men’s stores; and if you wanted a gray suit and a fedora, they were happy to meet your needs.  But Augie realized that to go to market with the same type of products everyone else was selling, would result in price competition and low margins.  Instead, he changed fashion and by doing so founded a business that has prospered for nearly 50 years.

Quotes

You don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note.” – Doug Floyd

The fastest way to succeed is to look as if you’re playing by somebody else’s rules, while quietly playing by your own.” – Michael Konda

When Your Ship Comes In Will You Miss the Boat?


We had never been so busy. Not only did we have a large backlog of sales, we were staying late at night to complete estimates and the phone was ringing off of the hook. I started dreaming about how much money we would make if we increased our productivity with new equipment.

I put together a plan listing the proposed new equipment; the reduction in direct cost that would result from increased productivity; financing alternatives and an amortization schedule. It was a great plan; the best I ever produced and I was proud of it. When I handed it to my father he studied it for a minute and then said, “let’s go get a cup of coffee.”

My dad didn’t believe in drinking coffee in the office. Like a cocktail in the evening, to him drinking coffee was a ritual, more about the ceremony than the drink. Going for a cup of coffee meant a break from the every day occurrences in the office, driving to a restaurant, sitting down, being served and having time to talk.

After the waitress served us, my dad asked me to explain my proposal. When I finished doing so, he congratulated me on a good job and then said, “We aren’t going to purchase any new equipment; what we are going to do is raise our prices.” He then explained that after nearly 50 years he knew how cyclical the construction industry was. He opined that the boom we were experiencing was not normal and he didn’t want to be paying for equipment that would be sitting idle.

He told me that there are times when you can make good money and when those times arrive you don’t want to be saddled with a lot of “cheap” work. With higher margins you can afford to work overtime or on weekends; that productivity—while always a question—wasn’t as great of an issue.

We raised our prices and we still got one out of four of the jobs we bid. It was one of the easiest times in my business life: we made good profits kept our crews busy and were not overburdened with work.

The country is in the midst of the “Great Recession;” however, I believe there will be a time—perhaps sooner than we think—that not only will business improve but will boom. I am concerned that companies are so focused on sales, that when the good times come they will not have the capacity to take advantage of high-margin opportunities.

How do you know that the market is turning: that the time is right to raise your prices? For my father it was the number of job we were bidding and phone traffic. If the phones were ringing and our estimators were grousing about not being able to catch up, he would raise prices. He never worried about running cheap work off; he kept his eye on the prize: the high-margin job.

I have faith that business is going to improve; heck it couldn’t get much worse. The challenge is to have benchmarks that you can rely upon to recognize when it is time to increase margins: maybe the phone ringing; the number of orders shipped; sales people grousing or just talking with your customers. Whatever, you don’t want to be like Bob Hope who once said, “My ship came in but I missed the boat.”

Quote

Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity.” – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Be ready when opportunity comes. Luck is the time when preparation and opportunity meet.” – Roy D. Chapin Jr.