January 17, 2017

Heroes, everyday people, faith during slow times


Rod McDonald When I was young, just starting out in business, I heard that business people who were active in charities and volunteer activities did so for tax reasons and to enhance their business. In other words, all good deeds were related to the bottom line. That is what I was told. 

More than 40 years have passed and what I was told was not true. Yes, you do get a bit of a tax break with a charitable donation. It is usually between 15 and 30 per cent, give or take. The other 70 per cent comes out of your pocket. It is not 100 per cent, as some would have us believe. If it were, I would be incredibly generous.
Yes, people who volunteer are often successful. It is not because they have volunteered that they have been successful, rather, it is because they are decent human beings, wanting to make a difference in their community that has lead them to volunteer. With their personal commitment to community, other people recognize their decency and want to do business with them. No matter what the business, real estate, running a radio station or selling plants out of a greenhouse, people want to do business with decent people. 

Jerry Tell owned a successful concrete plant. This was in the 1970s.  He was involved in Minor Hockey as a volunteer dad.
Minor Hockey had equipment spread all over the place. He had a bit of unused land at his plant and he offered it to Minor Hockey, to build a small warehouse. He asked them to volunteer their labour and they did. He then asked the brick layers, builders, concrete workers and his customers to pitch in and help the hockey dads. They did. In short order, all the hockey equipment in Regina had a safe and dry home during the off-season. I was told his generosity was for self-serving reasons. I had no opinion. I didn’t know him.
A year later, Jerry Tell’s company started to manufacture bricks. I was now a potential customer and I dropped out to his office. I stood at the front desk; Jerry spotted me and asked if I needed assistance. I introduced myself, with all the confidence of someone in his second year in the trade. Jerry said, “Let me get you a cup of coffee.” He brought the coffee, a wholesale price list and a credit application. He said to me, “You look like you are an honest, hardworking young man, so I will start you out with $1,000 of credit.” He pre-approved my credit application; all I had to do is fill it out, while I drank his coffee.

As I filled out his application on a rainy day in 1978, I realized he did not volunteer as a hockey dad to gain business. He had a lot of business because he was a decent man. I have been a friend of Jerry’s for almost 40 years now, and he has been nothing but decent. Our local soup kitchen needed three concrete flower pots. “We will have the truck drop those three pots off for you on Friday,” was Jerry’s answer.

Sadly, he now has Alzheimer’s. Yet, he still has a big smile for me. He’s not certain who I am, but he knows that I am a friend. That’s good enough for me. 

I have written that this past year was my 40th season in the trade. I will testify, from the top of the mountain if need be, that this trade of ours is filled with decent men and women. Kindness prevails, and a willingness to help is present. There is no denying we have those peculiar types within our trade, and I am trying to be civil, that will donate nothing. It is noteworthy they are the same people who are always complaining. Pick a topic, from government to seed suppliers, and their negative energy will wear you to the nub of your essence.

We had a greenhouse operator in Regina, many years ago, who rarely came out to trade meetings. One afternoon he showed up. We were trying to organize a group advertising plan to save money. We asked if he would participate. His answer: “Well, we have our own plan but I can talk it over with my board of directors.” The man who doesn’t have the proverbial pot to pee in, turns out to have a board of directors. Give me a break! 

We have also within my city, a fellow who gives nothing to anyone.  He knows his stuff.  Yet, on a personal level, ask him to buy two tickets to a charity event, “Absolutely not.” Ask him to put up a poster for The Kidney Foundation, “It would devalue my windows.” When this fellow passes away, I think I will check his coffin to see if he really took his money with him. 
When I travel, I often run into readers of this magazine and they tell me, “We have a guy in our community just like the guy you wrote about!” We really do share common experiences. 

I prefer not to dwell upon the negatives of life, but look at the positives. I have been fortunate to have surrounded myself with positive people from the business community. My friend Nicky is a fellow who got off the boat from Greece in 1964, and wound up in Regina, speaking only five words of English (four of which he could not say on television). Today he is very much a success. Besides the obvious hard work, Nicky has always been the first to volunteer to help someone out. He shows up at so many places, and so many people know him from his volunteer work, his restaurant is always packed. He once told me his customers are not customers, “They are my friends.” A positive attitude, and a willingness to help, is a winning formula.  

Now, onto the downturn — something that has been on many minds. I have been listening with great interest: Alberta has been hit harder than other areas. This spring, my wife and I went to Calgary to visit our oldest son and his wife. There is a highly-rated restaurant closeby. It would often take two weeks to get a reservation. This spring, our son calls at 4 p.m. and we have a 7 p.m. reservation. He told me it is easy to get a reservation now, because 70,000 people are laid off from the oil industry.
How does that story affect the rest of us? I have been through downturns before and the best of our trade will survive, no problem. Who will struggle are those who over financed, something I have warned readers about in previous columns. Personal or business debt should never be so large that in a bad year, interest cannot be paid. Those who have operated as if nothing would ever change are delusional, and have left themselves open to being hurt. The late Bert Rutmann from Minneapolis said it best: “Always prepare for that bad year as it will show up one day. The good operators are ready for it.” 

In a slower economy, I have found gardeners still landscape their yards, but they do it in installments, not all at once. I also found smaller plants had an increased appeal to consumers. They comment “it will grow,” when homeowners are reluctant to toss money around just to show off for the neighbours. 

Seminars, here I go again, are even more important to retail — teaching homeowners how to plant everything from veggie gardens and hanging baskets to caliper trees. Information is easily your best selling tool: Use it. 

Those operations who built their business upon regular customers and repeat business, do much better than those who took the opposite approach and built nothing. 

In 1979, I was chatting with a reputable framing carpenter. A building boom was on and fellows who owned a hammer were now operating as framing carpenters. I asked the reputable carpenter about this phenomenon. He told me during boom times, these come-and-go carpenters appeared, as the good carpenters could not get to all of the work quickly. “During the more difficult times, the good carpenters keep working, as their reputations precede them, whereas the marginal ones disappear.”

Why I share that story from so long ago is simple. So many new companies claim to be experts in our trade, and know nothing. I have had these people tell me you can spray Roundup and then rototill immediately, and others don’t know that you take the plastic growing pot off before you plant. The slowed-down economy will whittle these people down a lot quicker than the good operators. In a slow economy, the good operators will be able to get to their customers quicker. That’s what it has meant in the past. 

If you want to stay on the road to success, remember that faith and fear are not compatible. You are going to be okay. 
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.