Think you’ve got problems? Try being your own boss!
Think you’ve got problems? Try being your own boss!
Independence is the bright dream that, for many who try it, turns into long work hours, constant worry, with modest returns and the haunting prospect of sudden disaster. But for garageman Ray Stapley, who is self-employed, it’s something more; being your own man, the only way to live
AT FOUR O’CLOCK on an October morning in 1936. I sat on the running board of a truck on Toronto’s Jarvis Street and felt like weeping. I was twenty-three years old. Three times I had tried, and failed, to repair that truck’s transmission. Soon dawn would break and the truck was urgently needed by eight o'clock — a construction contract depended on it. But for me at that moment, my life as a businessman, an automotive repairman, was over. I was exhausted and beaten.
Today, twenty-nine years later, 1 look back on repairing more than twenty thousand vehicles, many of them much more frustrating than that first truck. Í have taken in about a million and a half dollars and have paid out in rent, parts, taxes and w'ages about a million and a quarter. In all, I have employed about a hundred men and have. I hope, made a contribution to my community.
All this has happened because.
sitting on that truck’s running board, I remembered what my father had once said: “You will never be free unless you strike out on your own. Never work for anyone else!" I climbed back into that truck, drove it back to the repair shop and, for the fourth time, took it apart. I tested it. Perfect. It went to work by eight o’clock and I was still in business.
I mention this because, in retrospective mood at fifty-one, I begin to realize the significance of my relatively humble and, apparently, insignificant life. As a small businessman in Canada today, I have persistently run counter to the mood and direction of our times.
I have no security, no pension plan, no guarantee of any income increases. I may double my working hours, and see my income halved, in times of recession. I have the responsibility, sometimes crushing, of a dozen other people's lives depending directly on me. I work in the shadow of giant enterprises — the drive-in repair chains and the ever-lengthening new - car warranties provided by the car manufacturers. I am at the mercy of any quirky changes in customer habits, manufacturers’ techniques, or the laws governing the use and maintenance of the automobile in our society.
There are more than four hundred thousand small businessmen like me in Canada. According to a survey conducted by The Independent Businessman, a Toronto publication, three quarters of us operate businesses that produce an annual volume of two hundred thousand dollars or less. Married for an average of twenty-two years, we are about forty-eight years old and have about three children. We have worked as independents for an average of seventeen years and are not big spenders; in a given year, ninety-five percent of us sink about thirty thousand dollars into capital investment. Ninety-one percent of us spend about five hundred dollars a year in entertaining customers.
In all parts of Canada we can be found working stubbornly, sometimes pathetically, trying to resist the trend to bigness. Almost daily we fight the danger of being absorbed or of being wiped out. We win and we lose. When one goes down, another independent rises to take his place.
Why do we make the effort?
An easy answer would be to say that every man is looking for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But there is more to it than that. I estimate that I have earned about $2.70 an hour during the past twenty-nine years. As a skilled mechanic I can get more than that in almost any garage in town — and rid myself of the endless responsibilities that weigh me down as an employer.
The Independent Businessman survey gives some idea of the kind of men we are. Ninety-four per-
cent of us own our own businesses outright. A hundred percent of us make our own buying decisions. Sixty-seven percent of us own our own premises. Whatever it is we're looking for, we want it to be ours. Because we came up the hard way, sixty-three percent of us plan to send our children to university. And, according to Dun & Bradstreet, about six thousand of us were forced into bankruptcy in the three years preceding 1964.
Most people expect their security to grow as they age, but the small businessman lives with the expectation that the opposite may happen. Regardless of how carefully he may tread, each risk taken is, for him. a big one. He hasn’t the financial resources or the marketing and legal departments of the big organizations. Often he is hindered by the lack of both academic and business education. He goes it alone — frequently unwisely.
I’ll never forget how. in my late thirties. I determined to improve my chance for security by expanding my business. I decided to sell used cars as an adjunct to my repair business. Within six months I had sold more than fifty cars and had, on paper at least, earned a profit of about five thousand dollars. However. I had about twelve thousand dollars in unsecured equity in the cars I had sold. In my eagerness to sell. I had cosigned many of the notes, taking a calculated gamble that, in a sellers’ market, I would not lose.
It did not stay a sellers’ market for long. In the early autumn the bottom fell out of the used-car business. My clients, many of whom had small equity in their vehicles, began abandoning them, letting the engine burn out, and so on. 1 found that I had risked too much on human nature and only escaped bankruptcy by remortgaging both my business and my house. So much for that road to security in my old age! Now when I see a new used - car lot, see the lights shining on rows of glittering vehicles, I wonder what the man-in-thestreet thinks. I’m sure he believes the owner to be the operator of a small gold mine. But, in a large city, watch how the new lots arrive on the scene and how often and quickly they disappear.
The same holds true for the public’s view of many small businesses but. very often, it’s a long and sad way from the real truth. I know. Many of my friends are small businessmen and, in general, their experience tallies with mine. Even when he shows a profit — and that’s no easy task — he may still be in for trouble.
Take H. V. Speare, a pharmacist who has run a drugstore in Toronto for the past thirty - three years. He began during the Depression and has worked from nine in the morning to midnight for six. often seven, days in the week. De-
spite the public’s belief that all druggists have gold ingots in their basements, he estimates that he has averaged two dollars an hour in all those years. He has no security other than that which he builds for himself. He is likely the only professional man who has to supplement his income by handling empty pop bottles, selling ice cream to children, girlie magazines to men. and bobby pins to teenage girls. The volume of medical prescriptions (supposedly the source of a druggist’s wealth) is not big enough for him to make ends meet. He has been held up three times, and daily he faces the outraged customer who can’t understand why he won’t sell drugs without a medical prescription.
Another of my acquaintances, w'ho now sells me car parts, once owmed three drugstores: he was forced to get out because he couldn't stand the pressure. It wasn’t just that he was compelled to work endless hours as a druggist: what really bothered him was what he called “public arrogance and outright criminality.”
He told me. for example, that many people will phone two drugstores for a dollar order — the one that delivers first gets the business and the other is canceled. Or a customer will become angry when you can't cash a hundred-dollar cheque. Then there is the recurring case of disappearing merchandise and the high cost of employing professional detectives to step the thefts. These are only a few' of an endless list of aggravations that finally drove him out of the business.
There is no one closer to the economic pulse of the small businessman than the man who audits his books. One such accountant is B. C. Goldmintz, and the following examples, taken from his experience. illustrate how closely the small independent operates to the edge of the precipice — even when things seem to be going well.
Mr. X had a retail store for more than eleven years, and each year his business showed a profit. Aside from what he used for normal family expenses, he put his profit to pay for and increase his inventory. Eventually, he had stock valued at thirty-five thousand dollars. almost fully paid far. Then a discount store opened up two doors away and he was forced to close. The thirty - five - thousand -dollar profit, represented by his stock, the product of eleven years of work, suddenly w'as reduced to nine thousand dollars because of forced sale.
Mr. Y also had a retail store, also showed a profit, which w'as used to build up and pay for his stock. Sudden illness forced him to close. His racks were filled with stylish seasonal merchandise. When he reopened two months later, the merchandise had become obsole'e. He was
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stLick with all of it and had to close permanently.
Sure, every small operator wants to become a big operator. But there's more to it than that. Maybe it's the excitement of going it alone, or that deep inner Lirge that's in all of us — the need to be our own man. Maybe it is the deep-down hope that, if we keep at it. that big bank account will be ours. But even today, after twentynine years, 1 still can't fully explain what holds me to it.
I have long since ceased to he shocked by workers who accept a loan from me to buy tools, then disappear together with the tools. I am not cynical about workers who accept their pay on Thursday (I pay for the full week through to Saturday on that day), then fail to show up again.
I have even become accustomed to the endless variations of morality displayed by customers. One customer came into my shop on a day when I was absent, cashed a fifty - dollar cheque with my foreman, then disappeared. I later found that he had done the same thing in a score of businesses around town. Another man, the soul of honesty I thought, called me at midnight, said he’d left his car in the alley behind my garage and asked if I would repair his damaged body work. I thought it a strange time to call, but did as he instructed. Later I found that he’d been drunk, been involved in a hit-and-run accident.
I have learned that if you bill a customer incorrectly, to his advantage, you don’t always hear from him about it. But if you bill him in error, for something not done, you’ll hear from him every time.
Most people are all right, but there are always some who try your faith. My experiences with a “loan-a-car” service provide many examples. There are people who, for example, will use the last drop of gas in the tank. (Taking over a car just returned, I’ve run out of gas driving forty feet to the gas pump.) They’ll have flats and fail to have them fixed. (I’ve had cars returned with flats; I’ve opened the trunk to put on the spare — only to find it flat, too.) They’ll damage fenders and not mention it. They’ll get parking tickets and throw them away. They’ll drive the cars at speeds that damage the engines.
A customer can hurt you even when he doesn’t mean to. A small building contractor whose vehicles I repaired got himself involved in a big construction project. He boasted to me that he was going to make a million. He ran up a large bill at my shop. Eventually, owing me more than six hundred dollars, he went bankrupt. I didn’t pick up one cent on the dollar.
Dishonesty and bad business judgment on the part of customers are facts of life for the small businessman, something he knows he has to live with. But there are forms of dishonesty that make him downright mad, especially when they originate with large profitable organizations. One of the biggest sources of aggravation is the gimmick ad — the ad
When’s a “bargain” not a bargain?
that promises a great deal for almost nothing.
A dollar - conscious executive approached me about the price of a steering job. He showed me an ad that said he could get the whole job done for $8.95. I wanted $17.50 for the same job. He then showed me the advertiser’s estimate for all that was suggested he have done. The price foi the “extras” was sixty-nine dollars. My price was forty-nine dollars. Their trick was to attract customers with a low. low price, convince the customers of the need for extra work, then pump up the price for the “extras.”
Inevitably the small businessman is drawn into the lives of those who work for him. It can be the source of deep personal satisfaction — and frustration. You worry about their skill and their dependability. You worry about their worries: Too soon to put Charlie on brake jobs? Will his work cause an accident? Regardless of a man’s ability, his work can be affected by his personal life, his problems.
A small businessman must have in his blood the kind of oil that keeps his business humming. He must like people. He must be prepared to fill many roles: bookkeeper, public-relations man, diplomat, personnel manager.
When irritations caused by customers seem too much for me, I try to remember the man who, whenever
he came into the shop, terrorized all the mechanics. The time came when I couldn’t take any more from him. One day I dressed him down for his behavior. To my astonishment, he burst into tears, and told me of his troubles. His family was giving him a hard time. He was an amateur horticulturist, but his wife and children hated flowers and ridiculed his hobby. His wife loved traveling and literally bled him white for travel money. He apologized to me. saying. “I was just taking out my frustrations on you.”
The rewards of independence and freedom come to you slowly and it takes a good deal of wisdom on your part to realize that they are rewards. If you work hard and have some luck you make a living. But the greatest reward of all is your wide acquaintance with people. I know about twelve hundred people by their first names. About ninety-eight percent of my friends have been made directly as a result of my business, and they tend to be the firmest kind of friends.
The early dreams of building an automotive repair empire have vanished, but at night when 1 look down along those rows of shiny car hoods, feel silence settle in the deserted shop, 1 know that it has all been worthwhile. When I pull the last light switch and step through the door into the street, I know that I'm hooked. This is my business, my life’s work, what I must do. ★
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