January 14, 2014
To paraphrase Tolstoy, every successful small business shares the same traits. And they all begin with high-quality employees. I’m thinking of three local establishments where I’ve traded for years: an auto repair garage, a dentist’s office, and a one-size-fits-all country store where I buy cattle and horse feed.
The aptly-named “Toad Suck One-Stop” carries everything from crickets and minnows to motor oil, pain remedies, kitty litter and homemade sandwiches. If you get up early enough, they’ll even fix you breakfast while somebody else loads feed sacks into your truck. (Toad Suck is a place name designating a long-ago ferryboat stop on the Arkansas River.)
It’s much the same at George Jett’s auto garage down in Little Rock; also at my dentist’s, whose name is Lamar Lane. The first thing you notice is familiar faces. People who work at these places stay for years. And they do so because they’re well-paid, earn decent benefits, and are treated respectfully. So they like their jobs, take pride in their work, and are glad to see familiar customers.
Now I’m not going to lie that I love going to the dentist. But I do like feeling among friends, even if it means hearing Dr. Lane carry on about his LSU Tigers. (Because my wife was born in Baton Rouge, where her daddy played ball, I get a double dose.)
Something else: How a business treats employees also tends to be a reliable predictor of how they treat customers. Dr. Lane does high-quality work and stands by it. If a crown breaks, he replaces it for free without asking if you were shelling pecans with your teeth.
My man George Jett hires good mechanics, values their skills, and guarantees their work. If the rattle’s still there, he’ll drive the vehicle around the block and then put it back on the lift to figure out why — also at no additional charge.
Jason down at the One-Stop isn’t exactly a philanthropist — at least not where Bermuda grass hay and Canadian night-crawlers are concerned. Keeping a business with so many moving parts running requires constant attention to detail. New hires that stand out back smoking when shelves need restocking tend not to last. Loyal long-time employees won’t cut them much slack.
Gas is cheaper at the Wal-Mart across the river in Faulkner County, but the One-Stop’s pumps stay busy. It’s the community’s unofficial town hall. If you want to know who’s looking for a lost blue heeler or how Holly’s orphaned baby raccoons are doing, it’s got to be the One-Stop.
Ordinarily, such commonplaces would hardly be worth recording. So there are friendly folks at the country store.
Who’d of thunk it?
Unless, that is, you live in the United States of America, a large proportion of whose tycoon class appears determined to drag us back to the Gilded Age.
If they gave a Scrooge McDuck Award for the nation’s greediest knucklehead, the 2013 winner would be Home Depot’s billionaire founder Kenneth Langone, a Catholic who voiced public alarm at Pope Francis’ seeming enthusiasm for the gospel of Matthew 19. That’s where Jesus observes that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Pope didn’t cite that verse, nor discuss politics as such. However, his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium did warn against “crude and naive trust in the … sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
What, not worship money? Never mind that this is elementary Christian doctrine. Langone warned that American plutocrats don’t want to hear about it even in church.
You may not be surprised this same worthy also regards President Obama as “petulant” and “unpresidential.” His hawklike visage appeared prominently in a Forbes photo lineup of “Anti-Obama Billionaires.”
Scrutinizing the list, I noticed that almost everybody on it made his pile either by manipulating money or squeezing minimum-wage workers dry: casino operators, real estate speculators, corporate buyout scammers, hedge fund geniuses, fast food franchisers, big box retailers and Donald Trump.
Not a creator or manufacturer in the lot. This is our would-be new American aristocracy, largely bereft of — indeed actively hostile toward — the retail virtues I’ve celebrated. (None of whose practitioners necessarily share my partisan views; I’m talking morals here, not politics.)
But the good news is that, according to Adam Davidson in the New York Times, old-fashioned business ethics may be making a comeback. According to Davidson, the going thing in corporate circles is “The Good Jobs Strategy,” a book by Zeynep Ton, an MIT business professor.
Ton argues that what some call the “Costco strategy” of hiring better-trained, better-paid employees “will often yield happier customers, more engaged workers and — surprisingly — larger corporate profits.”
As I was saying, who’d of thunk it?
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.