Mechanical engineering wasn’t going that well for me at the University of Missouri, Rolla. I was finishing up my third year there. It wasn’t that the concepts were too difficult for me, I actually did better at the harder classes. My problem was a lack of concentration skills for things that are not project oriented. It’s hard to make something that is boring, and is stretching over four months feel like a project. Perhaps this might be the biggest downfall of a free range childhood. My parents were good ones but hands on help with homework was almost completely missing. My mother was actually afraid that she would teach me to do something the wrong way and told me such. Tragic really as she was plenty smart, just lacking in self esteem. The summer between my sophomore and junior years in college were spent building and racing a dirt track stock car. Now there’s a project for you! After the end of junior year, I decided that starting a small business of my own was a project that I could sink my teeth into. My professors thought that was a splendid idea too. They were totally on board with that. After looking into the how to, and the purchase, of a printing company and a brass plating company, a construction company from scratch is what I ended up doing with a friend of mine.
It was impossible to hide that we were brand new as we were in our early twenties and had no portfolio or franchise to hide behind. It was slow. It was hard. How do you make the damn phone ring? I went diving over the furniture to answer a wrong number. “But now that I have you on the line, are you sure I can’t interest you in a project?” I went to the library and checked out books with titles like “What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School”. In it, the author described how you can learn everything you need to know about a client or business partner during a game of golf. That didn’t make the phone ring either. I did read good books on accounting and business basics. No credits, but a decent education. My study skills were so much better when it truly was a project.
I read books on and took classes about being a salesman. Now, there are some things that just come naturally, and some things that just don’t. This was a big stumbling block for me. Part of selling in a tight consumer market is applying some pressure while not appearing to do so. Make them say no or else ‘a deal is a deal’. I could not do this. I once tagged along with a professional salesman to a home, as we were going to be their subcontractor, and I was going to help with the sale. We got the job but I went home feeling the need to jump in the shower. I could never sell a job the way he did. I was secretly rooting for the homeowners to ‘get what’s being done to them’ and throw us both out the door. That would have made me happy.
Early on, a very nice couple took a gamble on us. Towards the end of their project, they seemed rather surprised that we knew what we were doing. They asked us how we had learned it. My immediate question, one that I did not utter out loud, was ‘why the hell did you hire us then?’ Perhaps altruism? Who knows. Working on it was one of the fonder memories.
By entering home shows, building nice displays and every other thing we could think of, the phone started to ring. One problem gives way to another.
The Stock Car Racing only went for a couple more years. Our second car was getting too beat up and we didn’t have time to make a new one.
We started hiring a number of employees. This was exciting for a guy in his mid twenties, in some ways, until we had to start acting as couples counselors between young adults that couldn’t play well with each other in the sandbox. Older Vietnam Vets seemed to be a theme on many construction sites. They cut down on the counselling duties. One problem gives way to another. One vet in particular was so rough that whenever he talked, all we could manage to do was nervously laugh. How does one join the conversation when the main topic is always beating someone, usually his boss, until green stuff came out of their ears? I didn’t even know that ears had green stuff in them. Luckily, this guy was not our employee and our exposure to him was limited. I also came to believe that, with him, it was all useless bravado. He did get the job done. The Vietnam Vet that we hired was a large man with a fatherly and confident demeanor. It seemed as if he could have run the place, but he had no interest in doing so. He and his son got me into dirt bike motorcycle racing.
We built up a group of employees that we wanted to keep. In years past, we had little to no work during the winter. How were we going to keep them? One problem leads to another. I bought a lot in the city of Manchester. We started to build a spec home, partly to make money, but mostly to be able to keep our people. But then, we didn’t get slow that winter. The spec home sat there, half built. One problem leads to another. Eventually, we solved that problem. We just didn’t succeed in the first objective.
After about five years, the family business that I grew up in, one that makes stained glass windows for churches for the last hundred plus years, was short handed and needed help. I was getting tired of couples counseling, one problem leading to another, the quantity of money that flowed through the business as compared to what stuck, aka, risk, but most importantly, I got tired of selling. Some problems just remain the same. It’s difficult, yet important to recognize that in life.
Though I’ve loved the work in stained glass over the past thirty years, I did miss the satisfaction of personal accomplishment and control. You can’t have it all, but do appreciate what you do have.