The Best of Ed Welch: Time to Clean the Restrooms
The Business of Doing Business in Antiques
by: Ed Welch
John Lessard could not read or write. His checks had two signature lines. The top line was printed John Lessard, his mark, followed by a space for John’s mark that look something like the letter “L” crossed like a “T.” Below this line was space for the signature of a legal witness. I became a legal witness for John Lessard at the age of 17.
John had more than a dozen legal witnesses able to countersign his checks. Some were attorneys, some were bankers, and some were businessmen. John needed many witnesses because he was a millionaire who owned a large construction company.
He used me for small items such as gasoline, groceries, and every day purchases. Remember, the credit card did not exist at this time. John gave me a dollar or two every time I countersigned one of his checks. If he woke me at night, or put me out of my way, he gave me $5 or $10. This may not sound like a lot of money today but in the early 1960s, he was paying many times what the service was worth.
John always overpaid his employees. In return he commanded loyalty, commitment, and hard work. His business had a Personnel Department that vetted potential employees. However, John did all the hiring after a personal one-on-one interview. He stated flat out that he paid twice the going rate wage. In return, he expected every employee to do all that needed to be done: shovel dirt if dirt needed shoveling, pickup construction waste on your way through a job site, help direct traffic, help unload a truck, and clean a dirty restroom. “If you want to work for me,” he would say, “do your job and anything else that needs to be done.”
When you worked for John Lessard, you knew exactly what he expected. If you fell short of his expectations, he would fire you and tell you exactly why he was doing so. John once fired a vice president and a janitor. He fired the janitor for not keeping a restroom of his company’s headquarters spotless. He fired the vice president for using the dirty restroom and not cleaning it himself. John cleaned the dirty restroom before firing the two offending employees.
I write these words on a flight between Boston and Chicago. I am on my way to an eBusiness Retailing Conference. I will sit through hours of talks, lectures, and presentations. I will be exposed to all the latest eBusiness techniques and programs. I will meet with representatives of Google, Yahoo, Paypal, and other Internet service providers.
To be frank, I really do not want to be here. Computer conferences are notoriously expensive. Admission to the floor is $195 per person. Talks, lectures and presentations are priced at $350 on up. Airline tickets, hotels, and taxis services, along with convention fees, cost thousands of dollars.
I am attending this conference only because it is a job that needs to be done, like cleaning restrooms. I own two eBusiness websites and two buying websites. I also manage the websites of several dozen other businesses, most are antique related.
To keep these websites current, I must keep up with the latest innovations in Internet retailing. I will devote next months article to several new e-commerce innovations including “pushing and pulling” product attributes to and from Google and other merchandising search engines. This new technique, introduced in March 2007, can generate hundreds even thousands of sales for a given website each year.
John Lessard was not well-liked by the business community. He did not look like a businessperson, he did not talk like a businessperson, and he certainly did not dress like a businessperson. He was tolerated because he generated much local business.
John Lessard was respected by his employees. The fired Vice President was rehired as a construction worker with the stipulation that he personally clean job-site restrooms. It took him several years to work his way back into the front office.
I was a legal witness for John Lessard nearly two years. Although I was not on his payroll, I knew that I was bound by the same work rules as regular employees. When he took me to a job site, I helped unload trucks, raked or shoveled dirt, and picked up litter.
Once while waiting for John to pick me up at his office, I hosed off and washed a dirty construction truck parked nearby. John said nothing at the time. The following Christmas I received a substantial bonus with the comment, “Thank you for washing that truck.”
John is the reason that I do not pickup early when I do antique shows. John is the reason that I leave my home at midnight when I shop Brimfield. I arrive in the Brimfield area around 5 a.m. and have breakfast at a truck stop. I start shopping at 6 a.m. when the early fields open and shop to 6 p.m. When you own your own business, you must work until the show is done.
I travel often to Charlotte, North Carolina on business. My route takes me west on Interstate 81 through Pennsylvania and Virginia. Ten miles before Wytheville, Virginia, Interstate 77 crosses Interstate 81 and heads south to Charlotte.
The small village of Wytheville, Virginia is home to four large antique malls. To visit these malls, I must travel 10 miles past my turn-of and then ten miles back. I usually arrived at the junction of interstates 81 and 77 around 3 p.m. after many hours of driving. The temptation to quit work early and head to my hotel room in Charlotte is strong. However, my records show that in the past 25 years the Wytheville shops are among my most productive in terms of purchases. I have made thousands of dollars forcing myself to work until 5 p.m., when most antique businesses close.
About 50 New England dealers do the Charlotte show. About nine of these dealers make the Wytheville detour. In fact, we expect to see each other in Wytheville. From time to time things work out that we are able to get together at a local family diner. The dinner conversation bounces between politics, sports, antiques, and business. Since most of us are older, we reminisce, tell jokes, and lament the lack of young professional dealers.
Some say that young dealers are lazy and unwilling to work the long hours needed to build a successful antiques business. This may be somewhat true. However, I think that today’s young dealers are more educated than the dealers of my time. They look for ways to work smarter not work longer hours than their competition.
Never the less, I believe that John Lessard had it right. You will never succeed in business unless you are willing to work harder than your competition and willing to do dirty work such as clean the restrooms.
As many of you are aware, our friend Ed Welch passed away in October, 2012. His wisdom and entrepreneurial spirit will be greatly missed. At the request of many of our loyal readers we’ve decided to publish some of their favorite columns from past years.