Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sundays with Steve - Avoiding the Family Business

These Sunday's segments are written by my husband, Mr. Jenny. Here's what he has to say about his posts:

I’ve been writing these weekly stories about life in Northern Idaho, as a youngster and as growing into a young man, primarily for our family. And I'm delighted to share them with you. Just between us, I’m anticipating being cranky when some whipper-snapper who may not even be born yet harasses me in 30 years or so with 'Grandpa, tell me about when you were a boy.' That will probably be after the mad cow disease has set in and erased whatever memory is left. So these are the not-so-dramatic adventures of a Baby Boomer in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.


“Do you want a finder’s fee? Or do you want a job?”

I thought my finder’s fee request was quite reasonable: I had anticipated an argument over the amount, but at the end of the day I expected to be pleased with the fee that would be paid. The thought of a job, instead of that fee, had never crossed my mind. The job that was offered was an even bigger surprise. I was shocked.

I had been determined not to join the family business for the last six years, determined to make my way in the world without my family’s influence. I knew the day would come when I would join the group, but I didn’t expect it to be that day.

My father’s face told me he was serious, and he expected the answer that I had been determined not to give. His normally relaxed and happy face -- wasn’t. He was determined. His high forehead showed -off a hairline that had receded decades before, leaving a widow’s peak of thin black hair combed back over his dark scalp, skin that become very deeply tanned each summer after days of lake fishing and his weekly afternoon golf game. In later years, a medical condition often made him a little drowsy in late afternoon, but not on this afternoon. His normal easy going demeanor was razor sharp, and he expected answers, the correct answers, and he expected them now.

It was summer, 1976; the U.S. bicentennial was underway, the Concord flew for the first time, gasoline cost $.49 a gallon, average income was $300 per week, Microsoft was founded the year before, and my father, the former U.S. Army Colonel, wasn’t about to take a ‘no’ for an answer from his middle son.

I had left my North Idaho home town the year before, moving to the state capital of Boise. Following college and a stint in the Army, I had spent a number of years with the wood products firm in Lewiston, writing and publishing its monthly employee newspaper. I drove through the region each month taking thousands of photos for the corporate archives, and writing endless news stories of logging and the processes of turning wood into lumber and paper products. I met thousands of people over the course of the years, and often dove into their lives with the stories I wrote and the photos I shot. It was a wonderful first job out of college, but I was bored. I saw no place for advancement. It was time to move on.

I joined a small Boise public relations firm, and moved south, determined to make my way in the world without joining the family business.

At the PR agency, I brought in the Big Sky Athletic Conference as my first client. I was the sports information director for the college athletic group, a terrific part-time assignment that the conference outsourced to the PR agency. I struggled to bring in other clients. While creative in the ways to generate publicity and media operations, I knew nothing of how to sell our services and secure new clients for the firm. I hated doing that: I was shy (I know, that is hard to believe 35 years later as I write this) and insecure in presenting the PR agency’s abilities and capabilities. I really hated it.

In those years, Boise was starting to grow. It was the largest metro area in the state with about 120,000 people, and it was growing with several new electronics manufacturers locating there. Today, by comparison, around 700,000 people inhabit that area, and it consistently shows up on national lists as a desirable place to live and work. Back then, it was trying to emerge from its image as the potato capital of the universe.

I hated working for the PR agency, although I did love doing the Big Sky Conference job. I spent a lot of time trying to develop new ideas, proposals and “out of the box” projects that would work for the agency, and work for me. One finally emerged.

I had gotten to know the Boise “press corps” fairly well in 1968 when I took a part of a year out of college to work on the media staff of Cecil Andrus, who ran successfully for governor that year. When I moved to Boise, I resumed the friendships with the news crowd in the town, including several who had become long-time mentors of mine, and would influence me greatly in the future.

It was through those relationships that I had heard of a suburban newspaper that might be for sale. I called the owner and arranged a meeting at his office, some 10-miles out of downtown. What I found was a small town weekly newspaper that, like the town it was in, was starting to be overwhelmed by the growth coming its way from neighboring Boise. The owner, who had operated the business for 40 years or so, was anxious to pass the reins to a new group who could cope with the coming population and business growth.

The family business that I so studiously avoided was operating two daily newspapers and several commercial printing plants in North Idaho. My maternal grandfather and several great-uncles started the first newspaper in the 1880s, and the third generation of the family was now managing the business. My father had joined the newspapers about eight years before, after he sold his radio station business and retired.

Retirement for Dad lasted two, maybe three weeks. He was bored silly. He played golf every day for a week, and despaired that he would do that for the rest of his life. I learned later that my grandmother, my father’s mother-in-law with whom he had a very close relationship, had strong-armed Dad to give up his foolishness of retirement at the ripe old age of 52. She pushed him to join the family newspaper, to bring some “grey hair” to the management of the business that was being run by two much younger family members. He jumped at the opportunity, then settled into a role as the number two in the business for the next 15 years before he retired a second time.

Eight years later, it was my bright idea that the North Idaho newspaper group should jump at the chance to get into the fast growing Boise market, to broaden its business base outside of the stagnate agricultural based economy. I pitched the idea to a meeting of my Cousin Butch, Dad, Mom, the company finance manager, and several others. I had lunch with my grandmother, and explained the ideas and opportunities to her, then still very intelligent at 88 years old. All were non-committal.

But Dad and Cousin Butch then spent several months negotiating the purchase of the weekly newspaper. They built a business plan, arranged financing, and prepared to jump into a new market by converting an old established, but sleepy, product into something new and dynamic, to reflect the growing economics of that region.

I attended the closing of the purchase that day, when my father and cousin signed the purchase agreement and cut a check to the outgoing newspaper owner. There were congratulations all around. Later at lunch, I asked the question I was dying to know: About my finder’s fee.....

“Do you want a finder’s fee, or do you want a job?” My Father wasn’t kidding when he asked that question. What? What did you say? “Do you want a small wad of money that you will go through very quickly, or do you want a job,” he asked again.

“I have a job, “ I said.

“That you hate,” he quickly retorted, finishing my sentence. Me and my big mouth.

“What job? “ I just made a mistake, asking the first question that could lead down a path that I really didn’t want to travel.

“Look,” he said, “You brought this opportunity to the business, now it is your job to make it happen. Your cousins agree, so does your mother, your grandmother, and so do I. We want you to run and develop this business.“

I’m 26 years old. I can’t balance a check book. I’ve been told that I am bright, creative, and driven. But what do I know about running a business, any business? Nothing, not one thing. With a small corporate staff and some resources to help me, all located 350miles away in the north of the state, it felt a bit overwhelming.

But the time had come. I knew it and they knew it. It was time to join the family business. So I did. For the next eight years.

A month later I met my parents at cocktail party over-looking a gorgeous mountain lake at McCall, Idaho. After consuming several cocktails, my mother passed along a bit stellar advice that I still take to heart, and that I share with my business friends, and with our family: “Don’t screw it up.”

In the years ahead I tried my very best to follow her instructions.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
This publication is the exclusive property of Stephen J. Matlock and is protected
under the US Copyright Act of 1976 and all other applicable international, federal, state and local laws. The contents of this post/story may not be reproduced as a whole or in part, by any means whatsoever, without consent of the author, Stephen J. Matlock. All rights reserved.


Auntie sezzzzzz... said...

To join the "Family Firm" or not? That is a question which faces lots of kids.

I'm proud to say that my husband never put any pressure or expectations on our 3 children, to take over the family Corner Drug Store, which he ran for years and years and years.

But in the end, one did choose to become a pharmacist. And he is still running our old drug store, which first opened its doors, before the Civil War broke out. :-)


Pondside said...

I always envied friends who had a family with a business that interested them and to which they could go when they were ready. I can see, though, how the expectation that one would take up the reins might be smothering. It sounds like it turned out just fine for you - but I'll be back to find out, because I think there's more coming!

Ms. A said...

The pressure of following a path started by someone else, is tough to follow. This wasn't an issue in my family. However, I do recall my Dad frequently accusing me of "try to get above my raising". Like that's a bad thing. I always encouraged my kids to do exactly that. (but to not forget where they started)

Life@Cee said...

I remember the bicentennial year as the year I almost flunked algebra because I was too busy decorating the hallway for the bicentennial celebration. Love your storytelling.

H said...

What a challenge! I'll be looking forward to seeing how you made it all work out.

esss said...

You have truly been an inspiration.i absolutely liked reading everything that is posted on your blog keep the posts coming. I enjoyed it.
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Pat Tillett said...

I'm here from the future! I had to come and read part one, before reading part 2. Joining a family business can be a tricky propostition. Your joining the company was obviously expected. It must have ruffled some feathers when you balked at the idea.
Okay, I'm traveling back to the future (hmmm, a movie title maybe?