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A Blog Post

A Question of Time

During the month of December I had the opportunity to sit down over pints with several folks in our industry and talk about the current state of affairs. There’s no question that this is the worst that many of us have seen in our careers. But some of the things I’ve learned in St. Louis construction in a lifetime that started riding around jobsites as a kid have left me with these “perspectives” that I’d like to share.

There’s no good business with bad people. In my Dad’s day construction people shook hands over a deal. You were as good as your word. If you broke your word to someone they would definitely never do business with you again and just might do physical damage to you. Today many people in our business are looking for an angle. When you deal straight up you don’t need an angle.

Everything has its season, so learn to adapt. My business mentor, my maternal grandfather Charlie Wheeler, began his career as haberdasher’s assistant at Boyd’s clothing store at the age of 14. He left that company in his late 60s as its CEO at the time it was sold to a publicly-held company. He’d built Boyd’s into a St. Louis institution. Today the site of the downtown Boyd’s, which once took up a city block, is a parking lot. But after his career at Boyd’s ended my Grandpa spent five joyous years traveling the country and helping to start some of the first discount outlet stores.

When you run out of cash, you’re done. My friend Steve, a self-made millionaire, tried to teach me that one, with less than spectacular results. I suspect that we’ll be seeing a lot of such hard lessons learned in our industry in the next few years.

“All I needed to know to be a plumber was that (stuff) runs downhill,” Joe Sheehan, the late president of Sheehan Plumbing once told me. Joe, a crusty, irreverent, WW II veteran of the Battle of Remagen Bridge, implied that his observation applied to the way people behave in general. Based on what I’ve seen over the past couple years, Joe was right.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” That framed quote from Winston Churchill has been in my office for over 30 years. Whether it’s the “new normal” or the “old normal,” facing up to the worst and persevering is what defines courage in business and in life.

“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” I’ve written many times in the past in this space about one of my favorite films, the Jimmy Stewart classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s the story of man who wanted to see the world and ended up running the family business after his dad dies. It’s my story. There are so many lessons to be learned from that movie. But this year – a year in which my Mom died and I’ve wanted so much to thank both my parents for what they gave me – I noticed for the first time the framed quote cited above hanging on the wall beneath a picture of the Peter, father of George Bailey (the Jimmy Stewart character):

“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”

The quote reminded me of the most important thing my parents gave to me – and the most important thing we can give to anyone in business and in life: our time.