(Originally written in June, 2013)
My dad turns 60 today. If you were ever lucky enough to have met my grandfather or father, you’d know that we’re essentially the same person, just in different life stages. My grandfather Frank started a grocery store business in upstate NY in 1957. The business grew, moved and expanded a few times, and my father ran that business until it was sold in 1998. They say few family businesses ever survive three generations and for us that was true. I learned a lifetime from my father, most before I turned 16. I wanted to capture a few thoughts on what he taught me and say thanks.
Lead by doing, not by commanding
I still remember the first time you told me I was going to “manage” the evening shift on a Friday night. I was probably 14 or so, and everyone else on that shift was several years older than I was. You reminded me that it’s not much different from what I was already doing, but my job was to keep everyone focused on getting the list of tasks done before the truck showed up in the morning. Management and leadership isn’t something distinct from the work, it only differs by your perspective. You taught me that if I needed to “manage” getting a hole dug, the first thing I should do is pick up a shovel.
Leadership happens on the floor, not in the office
I remember being curious about the distinction between the type of work that you did in the upstairs office, the back room office and on the store floor. I knew that everything to do with stock, supplies and orders were handled in the back room office. The upstairs office was for finance, legal and big decisions. What took me a while to realize is that leadership happened not in either of those locations, but out on the floor.
Customer service is leadership. Leadership is the small talk with your employees while we all go about our day. Leadership is cleaning the floors, mopping up spills, pulling inventory forward and changing lightbulbs.
Experimentation is survival
I can remember every big change that happened in the store. Changes in floor layout, changes in delivery times, changes in big vendors and changes in management. I remember what a monumental decision it was to sell the business. I remember how you turned a hobby-job of being a chauffeur into a second career in transportation management. You taught me that experimentation is essential to survival and growth.
Days off are special, use them
Owning and running a business doesn’t really provide any downtime. Weekends were not for relaxing, they were the busiest days at the store. Instead, Thursdays were your day off. I remember how different and special Thursdays were. Even on days where we were just running errands to hardware stores, you always took the time to make them feel like an adventure together with Arby’s sandwiches and a little too much Phil Collins.
Prepare for everything, especially vacations
Long before I learned that the Boy Scouts’ motto is ‘be prepared’, I learned all about being prepared from you. “Work” was a time to just get shit done, but it was in the preparation that makes the difference. While everything you did involved an impressive amount of preparation, I always admired how thoroughly you prepared for vacations the most. We knew routes, distances, hotels, rest stops, restaurants and must-see sights for every road trip, long before the internet. Canoe trips were planned months in advance, and late nights laying out all of our gear before packing were my favorite.
Donuts & celebrating your team
Saturday morning, just after 6AM, from the warm summer mornings through the bitter snow-filled winters, a semi-truck full of groceries would be parked at the back door waiting to be unloaded. I loved every bit of this work. I loved using the pallet jack to move them to the back of the truck. I loved organizing the pallets, but especially the process of breaking down the pallets onto endless green carts. By the end of the day we’d have the shelves re-stocked and extra inventory packed up against the wall in the back room. Around 10AM, though, we had donuts. We’d all pitch in a few bucks, two guys would buy two dozen donuts and some orange juice and bring them to the back room. We all took a break from the intensity of the morning’s work to talk shit and rest for a few moments. You knew how important this was in bonding the early morning team. It was a badge of honor to have been there for the early shift, and donuts were our badge.
Honesty and integrity
Growing up in a small town where everyone knew who I was before I opened my mouth was… interesting. It took me years to understand how that effected me, but I spent a lot of time thinking about who I thought I was compared to who other people thought I was. In a way, our reputations always precede us, it’s just not always that obvious. You taught me to always act with integrity and to be honest. Everyone knew that if they had a meeting with you, they got it straight and direct. Friendly, with no bullshit. I aspire to live each day with that level of honesty and integrity.
Perhaps the thing that most people would say they’ve learned from you is that you constantly give your time and energy to others without any expectation of something in return. You weren’t just casually involved with us at school, you were on the school board. You didn’t just drop me off at boy scout camp, you hiked, camped and worked with us. You made college visits, and both you and mom helped me with several life-changing moves across the country. You’re support of our endeavors has been so consistent and so immediate that I think I’ve been guilty of taking it for granted in the past. Thank you.
The speaker we all need, at the hardest times
I never knew until just now, but to “eulogize” actually means “to speak or write in high praise of”. I guess I’ve been too full of tears to look that up before. It brings more tears to my eyes to even think of the names of the people you have eulogized. I’ve been sitting here for a half hour not even able to continue this paragraph. See what I mean? I don’t know how you do it, but I’m inspired every time. I wish you didn’t have to, but somebody has to, and you’re always there saying the right thing, at the absolute hardest time. If how we act in the most trying times is the core of our character, you’ve shown everyone that you are strong, honest and caring all the way through. There’s not much more anyone can ask of a friend, or a father for that matter.
Happy birthday, dad.