How Businessmen Think: My Dad

Business people sometimes make the mistake of hoping other people will sympathize with them, when what they should really hope for is that people will understand and maybe appreciate them. Because, to somebody who has less stuff, the guy with lots of stuff is unlikely to cut a sympathetic figure.

I am the son of a small business man. For the first 45 years of his life, my father was, first, a farmer, then an office worker, then a welder, then a sheet-metal fabrication generalist, then, finally, the owner of a small sheet metal fabrication shop. Along the way, he build 1 house from the ground up on weekends and evenings, remodeled or added to other houses and, for a few years, owned a family-run grocery market.

So, the first thing to notice about this man is his energy level – high. Next, his confidence that he could get stuff done, a trait I think he shares with farmers in general. If something breaks or a problem arises out on the farm, you fix it or come up with a work around, and you do it now. So, when I was 12 and we moved to a an old house a couple blocks away, Dad built railings for the deck, a spiral staircase, and put in a large brick patio as if these were the most natural things in the world to do. There’s a dark side to this: sometimes, his solutions seemed in retrospect to be way more involved than necessary, because he would just execute without really thinking through the cost benefit – but, hey, it got done. 

My Dad converted to Catholicism right after marrying my Mom, circa 1940. He would volunteer to help out around the parish. If it involved a bunch of volunteers working together – say, landscape cleanup or a gardening project – he would it end up in charge.  If you wanted to actually get the  job done, putting my dad in charge would work.

So, at the age of 45, he decided to put to use this talent and start a company. From the age of about 3 to 12, I didn’t see him much – he was at the shop when I got up, and came home, ate and went to sleep in the evenings. But the shop thrived. He ended up employing a couple dozen people including, at various times, his 5 sons. I sweep the floors on Saturdays starting when I was 12, and eventually learned quite a bit about sheet metal work. (But, sadly, never learned to weld.)

Of course, our world involved other business men as well. Dad particularly liked the scrap man, who showed up in his truck with his helper every week or two and paid Dad a few dollars per 50 gallon drum of scrap metal. What dad liked about the guy was that he got his hands dirty – and drove a Cadillac on weekends. That seemed meet to him.

There are hundreds of thousands of small businesses in this country, and those business owners share most of the characteristics of my dad, or they don’t stay in business long. So, how does the world look to people like my dad? First, they come to realize that in some important ways, they are different from other people. Some may see this difference in ‘better than’ terms, other may see it as merely a ‘it takes all kinds’ difference.  Either way, they notice that most people can’t get much done unless the tasks and goals are highly circumscribed. Show up at 8 and file these papers or sling this hash until 5 – a lot of people can handle that. But: do whatever it takes and work as long as required to make this business succeed in some way: most people can’t handle that.

Now, many business people in my experience embrace their gift and take joy and pride in exercising it: they are the bringers of order, the makers of things, the payers of people, the root causes of much economic activity. At the same time, they tend to take criticism from those who do not have or understand this gift very poorly: when told that they, whose efforts have created jobs and buildings and desirable stuff, are somehow greedy or otherwise evil, and are the cause of all sorts of social injustices, that doesn’t go over well.

Two caveats: Giant corporations are rarely run by businessmen in the sense I’m using here – they are owned by heirs and stockholders and run by MBAs – totally different animals. Second, of course there are some greedy, evil business people. Business people tend to view them the same way people view bad cops – we should take steps to weed out and prevent bad guys, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need cops or that most cops aren’t honest. I contend that just being a business person doesn’t incline one any more toward greed and evil that humanity in general.

One trait that may not be obvious: because of their goal orientation and their high energy level, business people tend to compulsively analyze and prioritize. If you ask a business person ‘how do you measure success each day?’ you are likely to get an answer like: we need $2500 to hit the registers each day we’re open to cover overhead, after that, we can start making money. Or: We need to sell 50 dozen donuts a day. Or: it costs us $80 per hour per person to run this operation, so that sets the daily revenue floor.  It works in more complex things as well: If we spent $1 million and 6 months to develop this product, we need to sell it x times at y dollars within 12 months to break even.

Every time a business man looks at anything, he’s running the numbers in his head. It’s a compulsion. It’s how he stays in business.

One final thing that seems to contradict the way most people think of them: business people are generally shrewd judges of people. Upon a moment’s reflection, this should be obvious: business people are driven to succeed, and more often than not, success depends of getting people to act in some desired way – to buy what you’re selling. Successful business people invest a lot of energy in understanding what motivates their customers. Sometime, this understanding can be very narrow, sometimes very broad, but always, business people possess some insight into human motivation – or they fail.

Next Post: we’ll apply this understanding of how businessmen think to some current events.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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