Small business lessons learned from my father

Earlier this month as I was putting together our monthly issue of Good Small Business Reads, I started wondering what my father, a small business owner, would think of the wealth of business information and advice that is easily available now. That train of thought led me to thinking about the small business lessons I learned from him very early on and I want to share them today.

Dad operated a small sawmill in Pennsylvania. He managed to survive without any business training beyond having watched his own dad, who also ran a sawmill. And he did this in an industry that was often hard hit by economic downturns and in which snow-filled winters forced him to shut down for months at a time. From our little out-of-the-way rural location in south central PA, he developed a diversified clientele, selling lumber to everybody from the Pennsylvania Railroad, which needed a steady stream of railroad ties, to Amish buggy makers in Lancaster County (who were very particular about their lumber, by the way; they got only the highest grade) to local people who needed a dump truck load of wood to heat their homes through the winter.

Since my father conducted the business end of his operation from our home, I frequently heard him on the phone negotiating a deal to either sell lumber or to buy his next stand of timber. And when I was in my early teens, he started having me write out the payroll checks each Friday. Both of these were good exposure to the intricacies of running your own business.

Here are the lessons I took away from watching him operate that have stood me in good stead while operating my own business.

• Do something you love. The work my father did a dirty, hard and dangerous. A 2010 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that logging is the second most dangerous occupation in America. (Fishing is the most dangerous job). With his life literally on the line out there in the woods, it was a good thing he loved what he did.

Even as a kid, I could tell how much Dad loved being out in the woods and cherished finding good timber to buy. Cherry was his favorite wood and you could see the excitement in his face when he got his hands on furniture-grade cherry logs. I had friends whose fathers had 9 to 5-type jobs that you could tell didn’t excite them. Even as a child, I could tell there was a difference between my father’s passion for his work and what my pals’ dads were doing to earn a living. I feel fortunate to have a skill – writing – that I feel equally passionate about that has enabled me to be my own boss and earn a decent living.

• Do the right thing. If you wanted to see smoke come out of my father’s ears, all you had to do was say the words “clear cutting.” This controversial method of taking down nearly every tree on the side of a mountain was an anathema to him. I received a “lecture” on the topic any time we drove past a site where some big lumber company had clear cut a patch of mountain land. He believed that cutting down only mature trees and leaving the younger trees with room to grow was far better for the long-term health of the ecosystem (although certainly Dad never used a fancy word like ecosystem!)

The lesson I took from this was that there was a right way to go about doing business and a wrong way. And if I’m ever tempted to take a short cut (no pun intended), all I have to do is remember Dad’s rants against the clear cutters.

• Treat your small customers just as well as you treat the big ones. Whether someone was coming to Dad to buy a few boards fix their back steps or they were in the market for truckloads of lumber, my father treated everyone the same. He didn’t kowtow to the big guys and he didn’t act like the small folks’ business wasn’t important to him. This is an attitude that I’ve practiced throughout my career, and it has served me well. I’ve had small clients turn into big ones and they’ve stuck with me even though they could afford to go with a larger firm.

• Diversify, diversify, diversify. As I mentioned, my father sold his lumber to a wide variety of people in many different industries. This certainly helped him weather the ups and downs of the lumber market, which depends on so many different factors. For example, although he did not sell to the housing industry, when the housing market tanked, all lumber prices would plummet.

What I took from this was to not depend on any one industry for your livelihood. I have seen other people in my field cluster their clients in one industry only to face dire straits when that industry collapsed. Think real estate or the dot-com bubble of the late ‘90s. I’m glad my father taught me better.

These are just of a few of the business lessons I learned by observing my father. He passed away two years before I started my own business. But I know he would be proud that the lessons I learned from observing him have helped me survive for over two decades of self-employment.

4 comments

  1. Karen Utgoff says:

    Jeanne – Thank you for this wonderful profile of your father as a business owner. The lessons you draw are at least as important now as they were a generation ago.

  2. JeanneYocum says:

    Thanks, Karen. Once I landed on the topic, I really took pleasure in writing it.

  3. Your dad sounds like my kind of guy: ethical, proud of his work, and taking joy in what he did. My dad walked two worlds: he was self-employed as a chiropractor, encyclopedia salesman, and owner of an in-home Hebrew tutorial service. lager, he ran a reservation service for singles and dance weekends in the Catskills, and drew business by going to the weekends and lecturing (staff, but unpaid except for a comp weekend) on how to be a happy older single.

    But he also had a full-time job as a NYC school teacher.

    Certainly, having him as a n example brought home the reality that there were other ways to make a living besides 9-5. And may have influenced my reality–I haven't had anything resembling a "traditional" job since 1978.

  4. JeanneYocum says:

    Shel, I've been thinking of opening this topic up to others who might want to write a guest post about business lessons they learned from their parents. If you'd like to put something together, it would be welcomed.

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