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Insights and experience: Lessons learned from former small business owners

By Linda Segall   

By viewing the old we learn the new — Chinese Proverb

It has been said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Jacksonville Small BusinessCover_0210_4x Advantage talked with three retired small business people who reside at Taylor Residences, a community of adults age 62 or older, to discover if that adage is true. What they told us showed that although some things in the business world have changed (technology and workplace demographics, for example), others (such as credit problems and a need to work long hours) have not.

Louise Register, Connie DeLoach, and Ellis Touchton shared some “senior moments”—memories of their years running a small business— as a way to help a younger generation appreciate how business has changed as well as how to take a shortcut to success.

Our retirees

As co-owner with her husband (deceased) of Register Sod & Turf Co., a sod and landscaping company that was located, until recently, on Beach Boulevard, Louise Register, age 94, was active in the company for 47 years until she retired in 1985.

louise1.small“My husband and I got into the business accidentally,” she said. “He didn’t like to work for other people, so he started landscaping and cleaning up yards for other people. We’d buy shrubbery and go down south to buy sod. People started coming over and asking to buy some of what we had, and pretty soon we were making enough to pay for our load. Then we began to get more landscaping material and developed a backyard nursery. We stayed in one location for 20 years. Sometimes we had upwards of 20 employees during the season.”

connie deloach.smallConnie DeLoach, 78, is a retired realtor whose business, First Class Properties, was located in Daytona. Like Louise, she “fell” into her business. She was a stay-at-home mother to her three children, but when the last of them went to school, she began working as a secretary in a property management office in Jacksonville. “I got my broker’s license, never thinking I would have the opportunity to use it.”

That changed when Connie moved to Daytona and began to work for a developer of Pelican Bay. “When the builder went under, the Pelican Bay advisory board asked me to stay as its property manager and agent.” For two years, she worked onsite. Then she opened her own office and ran it as a sole proprietor for a couple of years. As she grew the business, she hired agents and took in partners. She ran her company for 10 years before moving back to Jacksonville in 1992.

touchton.smallAlthough he was not a small business owner, Ellis Touchton was a vice president with Skinner Dairy Co., and worked for the company for 37 years. He achieved his executive position in a classic manner—by working up through the ranks. “I started off loading the trucks, about 3 o’clock in the morning. Next, they gave me the order processing for the next day. Finally, I was put in charge of a few routes, four or five of them. Jacksonville was growing tremendously fast back in those days, and we had to keep putting on more routes… I was asked to be a sales manager.

He explained how he became a vice president in the company: “The owners often flew around in a company airplane. They were fearful that if they had a wreck and were all killed there would be nobody to run the business. They made me vice president so there would be somebody to run the company.” Retiring from the dairy when he was 65 in 1981, he held that position with the company for 15 years.

Challenges

Advantage: What was your biggest challenge as you ran your business?

Connie: Computers! It took me three years to let go of paper. I just could not figure out how the computer worked; I didn’t trust it. I’m one of those people who have to know why something works. It was tough, but I finally got to where I really liked using computers, but it was the hardest thing.

Louise: Sometimes it was hard to make payroll and pay the bills. When the weather was bad, business was bad. We had to borrow money and work hard to pay it back. Sometimes we just broke even. We had one man [a banker] who was real good about loaning us money. We’d even mortgage our house. It was hard; sometimes we’d do without. If a payroll was hard to make, I would do without my salary so the men could have their money. But we managed and did all right. We even bought enough property to build our home and bought the property on Beach Blvd.

Ellis: One of my problems was that I was a little younger than some of the other people. As the promotions came, I had to go over older people, who didn’t like it. We had to make some “adjustments” [firings]. The boss called me in and said, “If so and so gives you any trouble, we’ll just pay him three months.”

Biggest surprise

Advantage: What was the biggest surprise you had as a small business owner?

Louise: It was hard to balance my time. I worked from daylight to dark at the nursery, then came home and worked. And when I was home with my five children, I was close enough they could get me if they needed me. I was sales lady, bookkeeper, everything. I even propagated the plants. It was hard to manage everything.

Connie: The hard work and long hours. I worked by myself for the first two years, from 9 to 9. I didn’t even have a secretary. My husband had been in sales. I never understood why he didn’t like to take phone calls at night, because I figured that was money calling. But after being in business with rental properties, I found the phone rings at all hours and you have to get up at all hours and do things I never thought I would have to do, especially when the maintenance man wasn’t there.

Ellis: I was surprised I had to get involved in the lives of the men I managed—personnel issues. A call might come in at 5 a.m. One time I got called and the person said, “You better get out here. We have a man with a gun waiting to kill one of your salesmen for dating his daughter.” The problem was that the salesman and the woman he was dating were both married. We had these surprises all the time. During my time, the ladies were invading the workplace, so there was more romancing going on all the time. The very ones you didn’t expect to have these problems were the ones who did. We even had to let people go and it fell on me to do that. I guess that was one of the worst things I remember.

Keeping up

Advantage: Times change. How did you manage to stay on top of trends?

Connie: Real estate became hard because of the regulations and paperwork. I took courses and got a GRI (Graduate Realtor Institute) in property management. Finally I hired an attorney to help me stay on top of everything.

Louise: Continuing to learn was important to our business. We had a state association, and we’d meet every so often to keep up to date. We also had one man who was really good at aerating and propagating and I’d learn a lot from him.

Ellis: You had to be willing to learn new things and do new things. When I drove a milk route, I was the first to switch to all paper cartons. Milk was delivered in glass bottles. It was a lot easier to deliver paper cartons; you didn’t have to bring back the bottles. I used to go up to Cincinnati with my boss where there was a meeting once a year. We’d find out what others were doing. For example, we found out one time they were putting milk in gallon jugs. We weren’t doing that here. So we came back to Jacksonville and starting using the gallon jugs; we were the first to do that in the city. We also put in the drive-through dairy stores. The stores took away from the route sales, but made it easier for consumers, so we sold more.

Motivating employees

Advantage: Each of you had employees. How did you engage them to do their best?

Louise: Our employees knew my husband would not fire them if they did a good job. One of the men worked for us for 40 years and retired when he was 65. My husband was good to employees. He’d go pick them up at their homes and bring them to work. He treated people with respect. They knew they could depend on him, so they would go out of their way to do right for him.

Connie: My employees were real estate associates and were on a commission schedule. When sales went up, their commissions grew. Money was a motivator.

Ellis: It wasn’t easy to engage people. We found older people worked better than young people. Employees made what they earned through commissions. We had meetings and incentives and sales contests. We sometimes brought in motivational speakers to get them to work harder and make more money. Money talked.

Insights

Advantage: What kind of advice would you give to small business owners today, based on what you have learned from your career?

Connie: Always be honest; don’t try to scheme. Find your passion and be happy in your job. It’s not worthwhile working at something you don’t like.

Louise: There is no free lunch. Go out and find the jobs. My husband had to do that when times were tough. We’d get in the car and drive around looking for where people were building houses. He’d talk to the builders about putting in landscaping and get jobs that way. 

Ellis: Don’t lie; what you did might get you into trouble at first, but if you lie, you’ll have more trouble. And be willing to start small. You can’t start out high on the totem pole.

Linda Segall, linda@advantagebizmag.com, is editor of Jacksonville Small Business Advantage. The three retired small business people reside at Taylor Residences, part of Taylor Foundation Services, www.taylor-residences.org.

 

SIDEBAR 1

What has changed?

When the three retirees were beginning their small business careers, a number of changes have occurred in business:

• Demographics. In 1950, approximately 33% of women over the age of 16 participated in the labor force. Today, that rate is approximately 60%. Among women ages 25 – 34, only about 50% worked in 1975, whereas 75% work today.

• Laws. The first civil rights laws did not go into effect until 1964.

• Technology. Manual typewriters were still used in offices, although the popularity of electric typewriters increased significantly when IBM began producing them in 1958. In 1961 IBM introduced the IBM Selectric typewriter, which permitted faster data input, since it replaced typebars with a “ball” of letters. Eventually 75% of all typewriters used in offices were Selectrics. The Apple I personal computer was first sold in 1976; IBM introduced its first PCs in 1981. Car phones grew in popularity in the 1970s, but were still considered a luxury.

 

SIDEBAR 2

What has stayed the same?

• Need for continuous learning. All of the retirees said they needed to “stay on top.” The need for continuous learning remains today.

• Credit problems. Small business owners in the past have had to find credit to make it over slow periods.

• Human needs. Workplace surveys indicate that the top employee need is to be treated with respect and dignity.

• Long hours. Hard work with little time off was the norm for our retirees, the same as it is today.


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