I have been writing a series of books called Lessons Learned one story at a time over the past few years. I may be able to finish them when my MBA work is complete next year. In the meantime, I wanted to share some bits and pieces I have written already. Here is the foreword to Lessons Learned: Build Something. It represents the memories growing up in the house of an entrepreneur. It is my memory, I am sure my siblings and parents may recall it differently.
“Don’t knock something, build something.” – Bert Jacobs
(See my parents in the reflection in the door)
As a child, my father, Clayton, would come home after everyone else’s father had. We often ran up to him and asked him if he had any surprises for us. It wasn’t a strange question. As the owner of a commercial photography business, my father often had interesting props and samples to share. The different trinkets and sometimes magical items (a smoke machine or fake ice cubes for example) were fun for a few minutes. However, it was my father’s stories at the dinner table or overheard while sitting outside my parents’ bedroom that intrigued me more.
As an entrepreneur, my father had not started with nothing. He had come from a good East Coast family. His mother’s family, the Peck’s, were a well-known Connecticut family descended from the second president of Harvard, Charles Chauncy. His Father’s side was of noble stock as well – having been a few generations from Joel Barlow, an early statesman of a newly independent America. Walter White (my grandfather, no relation to the Breaking Bad character) travelled the world as an engineer with Exxon. His time in the military had garnered him some unique experience that was an asset in the oil industry. New Jersey was their home.
Clayton joined the Air Force during the height of the Vietnam War and was stationed in Ohio. It was here that he received an injury to his knee that gave him a limp that he still walks with almost 50 years later. He met my mother, Nancy Martin, during a double blind date. My mother is one of 6 children. The five girls lived in an attic together while her brother and parents had the only two bedrooms in the house. They grew up modestly in a working class neighborhood where hard work and loyalty were still rewarded with a living wage and a pension. My grandfather was a union official with GM. My mother still carries the statuesque height and high cheekbones of her Native American Ancestor.
My father stayed in Ohio, never having felt like he wanted to “keep up with the Jones’s” of New Jersey. After working in a few photography jobs, he realized there was more work than his boss could handle and decided to begin his own photography firm.
When I was born, my parents had just moved from their small 2 bedroom rental to our first house – my older brother, twin brother, mom and dad. As my father’s business improved we moved to bigger houses and my sisters were born. He often stressed about money and providing for us. My mother was the voice of reason, “You can’t change what happens Clay. We’ll figure it out. We always do.” It is not what happens to you that matters, it is how you react to it.
The stories my father told as his business ebbed and flowed centered around people. He would talk about his employees who were adding responsibility and taking on more of the business. He was happy to come home earlier because he had people he felt comfortable with leading the office. He knew that if you put in the hard work up front, that the return on his investment would be greater and longer lasting.
When my father’s business would take a down turn, instead of reducing staff he was honest with them. He asked them to find the new business that would save their own. In most cases, the business came and they made it through. Sometimes, no matter how much he cared about someone and knew their family would be impacted, he had to be the boss when no one else could. I remember one of these days very clearly. He was on the steps of our second house, just off the kitchen. My mother was consoling him and his head weighed heavy in his hands. “I had to let him go today. I don’t know what they’ll do. I couldn’t figure it out. It was the last thing I wanted.” My father, looked at me, I was probably 10 or 11 at the time, and he said something that he repeated just a few months later when my Grandfather, Walter, died. “You find out what you are made of when you have to let someone go.”
My father has always had an incredible work ethic and strong values. He always hired talent that complimented his strengths and filled specific needs. He knew that it would make the whole company better. When he sold the business after nearly 20 years, he had to let go of all his employees, his business partner, and the company he had grown from nothing into the largest firm of its kind in central Ohio. It was time to let it go, and he found out what he was made of.
“You get to choose to see the world as full of obstacles or full of opportunity.” This sentiment from Bert Jacobs, founder and Chief Executive Optimist at Life is good, reflected my mother’s mantra through all those years. In times when my father’s strong will was failing, my mother would be right there, reminding him that when one door closes a window opens. They both have taken on second careers and continue to be a guiding light for our family.
My parents’ example proved a solid foundation for my life.
Thanks Mom & Dad.
talk to you soon,
(hint: I’m the cute one.)