A few months after I was born, my father took a job as manager of a large farm in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains. Thousands of acres of mountains, streams and rolling hills, it produced top of the line registered quarter horses, and purebred cattle and sheep. It was a child’s dream. Living on that farm, 15 miles from the nearest town, attending an elementary school with 4 rooms for 7 grades, you might say my childhood was of a generation past. Watching my dad work 6 and ½ days a week, sun up to sun down, I inherited a strong work ethic. By his example, you learned to do whatever it took. As an added bonus, the farm owner, a famous entrepreneur, took a keen interest in me. It was from him I was to learn that no matter where you started in this life, if you were willing to work hard enough and have faith in yourself, you could make your dreams come true.
While the farm was wonderful, my home was something very different. In a word, it was dysfunctional, and as a result, I assumed responsibilities far beyond my years. While I learned to take control, especially in the midst of chaos, I also became very comfortable, enabling dysfunctional people.
At 18, just as I was about to leave home, I was in a tragic accident. I lost my smile (permanently) and had to learn how to earn the respect of others based on my merits rather than my good looks. A survivor, I recovered, and eventually became comfortable with my new reality. It wasn’t the first tragedy I would overcome, nor would it be the last.
By the time I started my own business, I had completed my MBA, from a prestigious school, been successful in two different corporate careers, was married to a great lady and was starting my own family. At 28 years old, with a deep background in finance and operations, I felt very prepared.
While I knew how to work hard, create a concept and get it done, I was much less adept at the skills needed to build a healthy organization. I had never before been responsible for developing the culture of the entire enterprise. So i had much to learn when it came to working with others, holding them accountable, building trust, defining boundaries and weeding out negative influences.
As my issues became more apparent, my wife convinced me to get some therapy. As therapy progressed, I realized I could no longer tolerate how I had been treated by my family or for that matter how they treated others. One by one I walked away from each of them. However, try as I may, I couldn’t walk away from myself. I was the central figure in each scenario, and until I was willing to look hard at my own issues, I was doomed to repeat the patterns of the past. It took hitting rock bottom, almost losing my business and myself, before I would take ownership/responsibility for my own place in life. Oddly it was the best thing that could have happened. Suddenly there were no sacred cows, everything was on the table and I was able to make some great strategic decisions. But a few good decisions wouldn’t be enough. I needed to step up, do my job better and to do that I would need to surround myself with people who could do theirs.
Building a highly functional team, I began to understand, especially in a small organization, starts at the top. It was a natural evolution. As the word went out that ours was the kind of organization where good effort and hard work was rewarded, it was magnetic. Good folks, I was to discover, attract one another and are drawn to a culture they find comfortable. As I began to get the right people in the right places, doing the right things, top lines soared and profit margins went through the roof. Work became easier. Our productivity increased dramatically as we did more with less in almost every measureable area. As a result, over time, even though we were competing with national firms, we would become a dominant force in each of the smaller/ individual markets surrounding our stores.
Years later, after the business had been sold, successfully, I found myself living the dream. I had come full circle, back to the passions of my youth. A horse farm, on the water. I was in good health, had a great wife, and my kids were happy. Eventually we would also have grandchildren who would learn to love the farm as much as we do. After 40 years, my wife and I were finally enjoying long walks and sunrises/sunsets on the farm.
However, I have always had a lot of energy, and as my wife said, “I took you for life, not for lunch”. She was right, I needed to find something to do.
When we bought our farm, I was told our open land was good for nothing but watermelons or peaches. After some study, I realized it was good for at least one more thing, Bermuda grass. Bermuda as opposed to other grasses like Timothy or Orchard, would thrive in the tidewater heat, and sandy soil and was an excellent hay for horses. A product that was in short supply in our area. What began as a hobby, soon morphed into a thriving business. Before long, we found ourselves buying state of the art equipment, building new barns, and eventually making over 200 deliveries a year to local stables.
After 10 years, having accomplished all we had set out to do, I retired once again. This time, from the hay business, and found myself in need of another challenge.
Through the years, I had consulted with a few companies in the area. While I enjoyed it, the demands of my own business made it difficult, so I stopped.
Since my first retirement, I had run into entrepreneurs who simply wanted to talk to someone who had “done it”. Their interests ran the gamut, from simply learning how to model their business, to understanding how they could spend more time with their families. I enjoyed working with them, and decided consulting would be my next venture.
It seems someone has always been there for me, just at the right time, to give me the advice/support/guidance that I needed. My first employer sent me to graduate school. My first banker supported me through many ups and downs. The entrepreneur who owned the farm I was raised on, was there for me throughout my early years.
It was in the spirit of giving back and offering the kind of guidance to others I had been afforded, that I decided to consult. I try to share my experiences with them so that they can have a better life, both at work and at home! Then I come home and enjoy the view, and when I think of all the lessons life has so generously offered, I smile.