My World

A rough looking Chevy 2500 pulls into the farm. Muddy tires. Work bed full of buckets and water hoses and empty plastic pots. Shovel and rake handles poking up through the tangled mess.

A tall drink of water unfolds himself from behind the wheel and extends his hand. “Hey there, my name’s Ronnie.” He has a thin growth on his upper lip pretending to be a mustache. When he stretches for the sky to work out the kinks, the waist band of his drawers peaks out above his belt.

“Sure is a beautiful place you got here. Quiet. Peaceful. Nobody to bother you. Must be nice to own your own business. I’m gonna own a place like this in a couple years.” And these are his exact words, “I’m tired of working for the man.”

Ronnie is maybe 22 years old.

Well, Ronnie, you probably won’t ever read this, but I have a few things for you to consider.

Running a small business is the easiest way to lose your ever-loving mind. All it takes is twenty years of sweat and sacrifice in order to be an over-night success. According to the SBA, out of every 100 small businesses that start up each year, only 10 survive the first 12 months. After ten years there’s only one left. We made it past 20 and I can’t remember my name most days.

Next, make sure you hire good people. I’ve never had more than 10 employees, which tells you just how small we are. We are barely a blip on the E-Verify radar. We have a few great employees. Some have been with us for 15 or more years. But every January we send out somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 W2s to the folks who come here and just couldn’t find their calling.

Among the many reasons for leaving that I have listed in a file somewhere:

“My arms hurt. I can’t feel my hands.”

“I think the sun is making my head swell.”

“I’m moving to New Orleans to cut a record.”

“I have a rash from all the trees.”

I’ve had employees quit via text message, quit by lunch on the first day, and quit without ever saying a word. One guy got his mama on the phone to call me ugly names. Another guy called me from jail to tell me about how far he was behind on child support. He said to me, “I don’t reckon I’ll be to work on Monday.”

Remember, finding the right employees will be the key to your success.

As the business owner, be prepared to wear all the hats. Ronnie, this is not about sitting back in the big chair and watching things get done.

Here’s your typical phone call. “May I speak to the person in charge of shipping?”

My standard reply. “Ma’am, you’ve got the guy in charge of about anything that goes on here. I oversee the accounting department, shipping logistics, and corporate meetings. I handle the supply chain and the logging chain. I clean toilets and make sure there’s a fresh roll of TP available. I work at the loading dock. I sign for deliveries. I’m in charge of irrigation and aquatic engineering. I sign the checks. And I handle all of our HR and DOT and IRS compliance. What’cha got for me?”

This is the way the mom & pop shop has worked since our ancestors were shoe cobblers and bakers and carriage makers. No secretary. No frills. No personal expense account. You make what you earn. You treat people right. And at the end of the day you sleep well because you know you’ve put your heart and soul into every ounce of what you’ve done on any given day.

Most of all, learn to serve your customers well. Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them. I have met some of the best people on the planet in this business. Some of them are good as gold. Some need a little bit of hand holding. Some leave me in stitches. A few leave me wondering why I’m not an orthodontist.

Customer walks in the door. “Yes sir, I bought three trees from you about 10 years ago. I was wondering if I could get one more of those?”

Well, that was about 4,000 phone calls and 75,000 trees ago. I have no clue.

Or this.

“My friends neighbor said you did some work for them and that I should call you. I have an area in my back yard that is kind of shady, but it gets full sun, and sometimes it’s wet but mostly it’s dry in the summer. I’d like something that has nice fall color and is pretty in the spring and doesn’t drop its leaves. What do you think I should plant in my yard?”

I’m thinking a plastic one from the craft store.

By far, most of my customers are the kind that have a lot of common sense and they know their jobs, which makes my job a whole lot easier. There are perhaps hundreds of guys and gals all over the southeast that I have spoken to and know by name over the phone but have never met. We talk like we are best pals. And these are the ones that make a business thrive. Do whatever is required to take care of them.

Finally, get to know your salesmen. These are the men and women who show up at your door driving pickup trucks and Honda Civics which look like they have been through the streets of Detroit during the riots. They have traveled the dusty backroads of Georgia and Alabama and South Carolina in search of commissions that will keep their kids in soccer cleats for one more year. They carry three ring binders the size of a Steinway. They have samples in the trunk and behind the seat that they have been trying to give away since their last job in Memphis.

Some of them are really knowledgeable and you have to be a biochemist to stay up with the conversation. Some of them are kids just outta of school who wouldn’t know root rot from a pile of horse pills if they saw it. I’ve tried to coach a few of the young guys along the way. I’ve learned a lot from the more seasoned reps.

Get to know them. They may just save your behind one day.

There you go Ronnie. This is my world. Rain. Trees Cold. Heat. Long days. Good people. I don’t own a second home. I buy my clothes at Wally-World. I’ve seen a lot of sunrises and sunsets on this job.

There are tens of thousands of us out there who hold this country together. We are the backbone of our communities. The foundation of our economy. We don’t leave fortunes behind, but we do leave legacies. Trust me.

I hope you do take the leap. The risk is high, but worth the sacrifice. And as crazy as it is at times, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I hope, one day, I’ll come buy a tree from you.

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