The beliefs and attitudes that are the foundation of how you approach business come from many sources. In order to improve your life journey, including your business practices, it helps to understand where your thought patterns come from and if they are valid.
One of my earliest memories of a shocking discovery about reality came from my mother. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, I followed the daily news from Budapest about the Hungarians’ struggle for freedom. At a crucial point, the Hungarians pushed the Russians out of Budapest. I ran to my mother with the paper to tell her the joyous news. My mother sadly looked at me and said the Russians will come back with tanks and overwhelming firepower and crush the revolt. That was the first time I remember coming face to face with reality. The lesson was that the bad guys can win, and my feelings about it don't change the situation. I still believe the University of Detroit can defeat the University of Michigan in its December basketball game, but that's another issue.
When I was about 10 years old, my maternal grandfather asked me to chop some logs into sections with an axe. I was from Flint, and I don't think I had ever seen a real axe before. We have a picture of my grandfather at a lumber camp near Black Lake when he was about 12. He was angry that I had no skill with an axe. The lesson was that if you have no experience or training in a task, chances are you will fail. I did not have a degree in accounting or taxation, but a partner in the CPA firm I first worked for gave me a trial balance and told me to do a corporate tax return. The outcome was predictable; Grandpa would have loved it.
Family stories influence your attitude toward issues. My maternal great-grandfather was a veteran of the Civil War and fought at the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia, in November 1864. He couldn't talk about it because he said he experienced a human slaughterhouse. He owned a sawmill in Cheboygan, and although he was a man of small stature, he had apparently made up for it in temperament. The story goes an angry employee confronted him in downtown Cheboygan. My great-grandfather threw the man through a plate glass window. The lesson is there was a time when being an employer was a lot simpler and much more satisfying.
One of the hardest lessons I learned came from my father; he was general superintendent of the Buick plants in Flint. In the early 1970s, he concluded GM's business practices would lead to its downfall. The product sucked, decisions were bonus-focused and management had lost control of labor. The people above him called him a dinosaur and said his business model was out of date. Management’s job was not making cars; it was making money. He predicted Volkswagen would take over the world car market and GM would go bankrupt. He resigned and took a job with Republic Steel. GM had Republic Steel rescind its offer. He took a demotion and then an early retirement. They also warned him about going public. They explained they had hundreds of attorneys who needed something to do. He died before Armageddon came to the American auto industry. He was only wrong on two things: the company that would replace GM and the timing. My lesson was that if you’re not the lead dog, the scenery never changes. Being right is irrelevant in the short run. I had two employment situations where I looked at a situation, expressed my concern and found myself in jeopardy. One company went bankrupt and the other experienced significant damage. It took a few years, but I have to admit I had a sense of smug satisfaction when the news was announced.
My father had a number of old sayings and opinions.
- “If you’re working under 60 hours a week, you’re loafing.”
- “If you meet a person and a week later you only remember their clothes, they are a phony.”
- “Did you ever notice that allergies occur during harvest? Just another excuse to get out of work.”
- “If you are born in to a good family, you are the beneficiary of the lucky sperm lottery. You could just as easily have been born to starvation in China or Ethiopia.”
For a long time I thought he was crazy until I read William Shirer's book “20th Century Journey.” Shirer was from Iowa and went to my father’s high school. Dad wasn't crazy; he was from Iowa.
When I was about 12, my grandfather told me to go out and bring a cow in to the barn that had been tied out in a field all day. His dire warning was the cow could not get to water. She had been out in the hot sun all day and water would kill her. I left my grandfather’s side as an innocent trusting boy, and minutes later, I returned as a cynical cautious semi-adult. When I untied the cow and wrapped the rope around my wrist, I was taken for a ride rivaling anything at Disneyland. The thirsty cow took off like a rocket for the water trough in the barnyard. I was dragged about 50 yards through a cow manure-clogged creek and through a barnyard thick with what you expect to find in barnyards. As I lay in the mud and manure trying to get stuff off my glasses, I was greeted to the sight of my father and grandfather laughing so hard they couldn't catch their breath. Lesson learned was you really can't trust anybody.
I have been an ardent supporter of the small business community. In the beginning, the world was very clear to me: Republicans were good and democrats were bad. When I initially got involved in advocacy, I dealt with Paul Henry on a fairly regular basis when he was a state senator regarding the Single Business Tax. Henry was a democrat and probably one of the finest men I ever met. A board member of the Small Business Association of Michigan that I consider a close friend is Gary Kushner from Kalamazoo. He is a good man. It is unfortunate he is a liberal, but he is an honest liberal. The lesson is not to label people. You lose high-quality friends and associates and gain some phony friends and associates if you do.
I was at a meeting in Lansing and the speaker was Lynn Jondahl, a democratic candidate for governor and long-term politician. Like most CPAs, I am good at thinking on my feet and love a good debate. I reached a point where I had Lynn flustered, and he expressed his difficulty in discussing the issue. After he left, Polly Reiber from the Small Business Association of Michigan popped my balloon. She commented on my quick questions and answers and how I had humiliated Mr. Jondahl. She said if I had come there to show off and blow up my own ego, I had succeeded. If I wanted to promote small business, I had failed. She explained Lynn always would be a very influential politician, and I had made a long-term enemy. The lesson was that it's not all about me. I did a similar thing with Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin when I asked him if he was going to fire his secretary. He inquired as to why. I said because she accidentally gave you the speech for the national association of the economically ignorant instead of the National Small Business Association. Bad idea. The more I represented associations, the less I did those things. Or maybe the less I did those things, the more associations trusted me as a spokesman.
Anyway, your beliefs and attitudes did not materialize out of thin air. Your beliefs were downloaded in your hard drive as a child, and you spend the rest of your life loading updates. Make sure the updates are improvements.
Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.