December 23, 2013

Overcoming fear


Fear, concern, worry, consternation — regardless of the word we use, each affects our emotions and sense of well being. If we take the time to look at the emotion of fear on a rational basis, it can have its advantages. Fear keeps us driving on the right side of the road, as the consequences of the opposite behaviour are quite severe. As with all emotions, fear is a double-edged sword.

This column is about overcoming fear and finding your way through the elaborate maze toward success.

I am not immune to fear. I have gone through all sorts of emotions while building my business and rest assured, fear was a part of my life, especially in the early days.

I had worked out of my back yard and then on some rented land for the first eight years of my operation. Wade Hartwell from Golden Acres in Calgary had warned me of the pitfalls of renting land, and I had hoped against hope, that the horror stories he told me would never become a part of my personal, historical narrative. My hope held out for a few years until the landlord sold the property that my garden centre occupied, and tried to evict me with two weeks’ notice. To turn this into a bona fide horror story, this eviction notice was supposed to occur in the month of May!

Looking back on risk
I survived that experience, barely, and I was determined never to allow it to happen again. I found two acres of scrub land on the edge of the city and bought it. Over the next winter, I worked diligently to open my garden centre in its new location. All I had to do was grade the land, pave the parking area, put in culverts for drainage, erect a fence and gates, build a few greenhouses, install the pathways and get enough stock to accommodate my customers’ needs. Did I mention that this project used up all of my money? I even assigned my house to the credit union in order to get a loan. I was maxed out.

It was April and things were coming together. One night, I closed my eyes and fell into a deep sleep. Around four a.m., I woke up screaming. I had had a really bad dream. What if I built this brand new garden centre and no one came? I had no reserves left. I was tapped out and by the middle of May, the bills would be coming due. I was sweating profusely, unable to return to sleep. That was fear, at its worst. Thirty years later, I can still recall how it shook me to my core. What if I built a garden centre and no one came?

The first Saturday in May, I planned a grand opening. A big ad in the local paper (purchased on credit), radio spots, free coffee and donuts, balloons for the kids. We put on a brave face and there were lots of staff ready to serve the hoped for swarm. The gates opened at nine a.m. No one was there to crash the gate. By noon, only a handful of browsers had popped in and sales were perhaps a couple of hundred dollars. After lunch, I grabbed four of the staff and we headed out to a nearby planting job that I had booked earlier in April. I thought we might as well keep busy landscaping, if not waiting on customers. We were gone around an hour and then the mobile radio went off. The instructions were hurried, “Bring back every one, right now! We are swamped.” Back we went and glory of all glories, the parking lot was full and there were customers all over the place, buying everything we had on display. Don’t you love a happy ending? I never looked back after that day, as we always had a loyal contingent of people wanting to shop in my place. I never woke up filled with fear, ever again.

Control what you can control
Here is what I have learned over the years: You can always plan the event, but never the outcome. The outcome will vary, but you can skew things in your favour by paying attention to details. Customers who shop at independent garden centres appreciate that attention to detail. They also appreciate good service, clean surroundings, quality signage and inspiring displays.

You should never max out your credit, leaving nothing in reserve. I did it, once, but never a second time. The consequences are too severe if you have nothing left to bail yourself out of a rainy spring or any slow start.

Always do the math first, before finalizing any decision. If the math doesn’t work, then don’t do it. It is as simple as that. You can never eliminate risk but you can minimize risk by ensuring that if you do succeed, at least there is an upside. To rephrase, for every risk there must be a corresponding reward of greater value.

When ordering new products or product lines, I always like to ask the basic question: If this does not move, then how much will it cost me to reverse the situation? If the cost of bailing out is affordable, then I do it. A good example of this was selling concrete statuary.

My staff and I took in a trade show in 1986 and I fell in love with some wonderful, good quality statuary. Not the rough stuff made in a back yard, but well finished material. No one was selling this line in Regina. I was ready to pounce. My staff said “No, no one else is selling it, and there has to be a reason.” I went ahead with the order because I did the math. The first order was for only ten birdbaths, three fountains and a few statues. We could afford that minimum order and if none of it sold, it would become a part of our display feature. I just didn’t see a downside and if it did sell, I could see some decent profits. The stock sold, and it sold quickly. Customers who would have never thought of purchasing a fountain or a birdbath were drawn to the excellent quality. The reorders were sent and sent yet again. After a few years, our sales were around $60,000 a year, just in statuary. The upside was quite lovely.

Over the years, I learned to live with the fear of potential problems. My friend Jan Pederson, who ran Shelmerdine’s in Winnipeg, told me that due to a rainy, cold spring, his June had been bigger than his May. I had never heard of that occurring before but in this business, the unusual has a way of happening. When it came my turn to have that killer spring, I didn’t fret as much, as it was my 24th year. It was 2002, and as had happened in Winnipeg, the May shoppers showed up in June. With strong summer sales, we actually finished slightly up for the year. Now, I am the first to admit, given a choice, I would much rather have my money up-front rather than have to wait. The point is that the customers came. They had a gardening itch to scratch and we were there to scratch it.

Faith kills fear
Did you know that faith and fear are mutually incompatible? If you have a lot of fear in your life, faith is often lacking and if you are strong in faith, then fear is usually reduced. I am not talking about religious faith. I am talking about faith that things will work out, not always as planned, but they do work out.

As I developed experience, my faith that things would work out increased. I had a friend who was a bank manager (not mine). He would drive by my garden centre and fret because there would be 2,000 bales of peat moss in my back compound. “Who are you going to sell all that peat moss to?” he would demand to know. “Someone will buy it,” I responded, “and if they don’t buy it right away, it will keep, and they will buy it later in the season.” I took great delight in phoning him in July and saying, “Corky, I just phoned for another truck load of peat moss, as I am running low on inventory.” He worried, I didn’t.

You cannot live your life in fear, as that is not living, at least in my books. You have to develop confidence and trust that things will work out. If you cannot find your way to develop that faith, that sense of optimism, then you are probably in the wrong business and need to find employment with a higher level of security.

Many years ago, my wife was a student nurse, working on the veteran’s ward at her training hospital. It was a quiet night and the ‘old boys’ were settled in. She took the time to go from elder to elder, asking, “If you had your life to live over again, what would you do differently?” Good question. Great question! The aging soldiers, to a man, answered the same, using different words of course, “I would worry less, and it always works out in the end.”

Overcoming fear is a mandatory part of staying on the road to success.

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.