I commute from Norwalk, CT to Hicksville, NY four days each week. 58 miles each way. 3 major traffic patterns. 2.5 hours each day. For some reason, last week as I was driving down the Hutchinson Parkway, it hit me that every day I drive right past the exit for City Island…
City Island just might be the very reason I’ve run my own companies for most of my life, because City Island brings to mind the best years of my Dad’s work life, and some of my best early memories with him. With not quite a 10th grade education, my Dad kicked around from job to job–some worse than others, but in early 1966 he scored big and bought a Snap-on Tools franchise. With that and a small box truck he was in business. His exclusive territory: The Bronx.
I vividly remember the sparkle in his eyes when he talked about “his business.” I remember his neatly organized office in the front room of our small rental house on Tremont Avenue in The Bronx. He’d come home from work and sit down to write up his product orders from a day full of stories of colorful mechanics, funny encounters, and tall-tales of sales closed and future potential orders. I was only 6 years old but I remember desperately wanting to go to work with him.
After a few months or so, he finally gave in (maybe it was me hanging onto his leg, crying hysterically every morning while he dragged me across the living room floor to leave for work that wore him down…). Wednesday was his shortest work day when his territory route took him to the auto shops, boatyards and mechanics on City Island, a small bucolic island nestled in the midst of New York City’s masses… and he said he’d take me with him.
Going to work with my Dad! Driving up to one of the boat repair shops. All of the mechanics happy to see him, coming to him with problems that he’d solve with just the right tool. Meeting all different kinds of people. I’d listen to my dad tell his jokes… Italian… Spanish… English… a bit of German… he was ready for any audience. Laughing. Having a great time. Free to do what he thought, when he thought. His own boss. AND making money doing it–more than he made at any other time in his life. What could be better than that?
I loved going with him on that truck. During the summer I’d be with him most every Wednesday. He’d let me hold the metal clipboard full of the day’s orders, a few years later I’d be in charge of the cash box–a big deal since it was mostly a cash business. And if we hit the sales goal for the day he’d treat me to lunch at Stella’s Hot Dog truck. After a hard half-day’s work we’d get those dogs in steamed buns with onions and kraut and sit on the pier looking out over the marina, talk about how bad the Yankees were playing, listening to his stories of their glory years in the ’40’s & 50’s, just having a great time. He’d watch me munch away, smiling, kicking my feet over the boardwalk and at some point he’d always say “Who’s better than us?”
Clearly, no one.
A few years passed and the crime in his territory got worse and worse (think “The Bronx is Burning”). After getting mugged once, then having his truck stolen and stripped of every last tool, and a few heated fights with corporate, it wasn’t hard to see the handwriting on the wall. With 6 kids, and now a house in Nanuet, NY (We’re moving to the country? we cried!), by the early ’70’s he’d have to close down the business. First he took a job at Sears selling shoes. Not able to make ends meet after the Easter season he had to make a move, and as the ultimate sacrifice, he took a job working in the warehouse for Xerox in Blauvelt, NY.
By then a teenager, I remember the difference in his countenance. Gone was the spring in his step. The pride in where he worked. Traded in for a steady paycheck, and great benefits. And I remember thinking I would never let that happen to me.
I started my first company in January, 1985, less than 18 months after he died of a broken body and a broken spirit. At 51 he’d been disabled for nearly 10 years. It seemed as if he couldn’t wait to leave the earth to escape to a land where there would be no more back pain. No more pressure on his chest. And no more nerve damage causing him to drag his left leg.
Why did you start your Small Business Enterprise?
I realized something important while writing this blog: running a small business is as much a part of me as the blood running through my veins. That fact has brought me a good deal of peace. Things get easier when you understand some of the “how you’re wired” and why. If you send me your story we’ll set-up a link on this blog to post them.