Don’t Toss In the Towel

For most of us in the building materials business, and for owners of any business across America and around the world, our work becomes our lives. We look to our work as a means of supporting our families and the families of our employees. We know that our communities depend on us for our products and for our philanthropic stewardship to the places where we live. We have a large, sometimes unhealthy portion of our self-esteem vested in the business, even to the degree that there is little else in our lives but wood, windows, and nails. Life-long friends are people we see each and every day across the counters in our stores. Our fellow employees see us more than our sons, daughters, husbands, and wives. Christmas card lists include vendors with relationships decades long who have served not only us directly, but who were partners to our fathers and our grandfathers. We have witnessed weddings and funerals, celebrated births and suffered divorces, hired and fired friends and foes, and put our blood, sweat, tears, and our very soul into our work.

Then for some of us, one day something begins to peck at us like a woodpecker on a rotten tree. Quiet little infrequent pecks grow to a pervasive thunder pounding over days, weeks, months, and years. We begin to suspect the unimaginable, that it is simply time to go. “What am I thinking?” you ask yourself. “What else would I do?” “Too many people depending on me.” “This business has been in the family for years so I can’t even consider quitting, not now, not ever!” The voices ring ceaselessly in a weary head with seemingly reasonable self-administered advice. But, deep down inside you know it is time.

But do you leave? You are not running away even though you believe that others may say or think it. So you stay and stay and endure the peck pounding in your head until something, finally something, usually a disaster of some kind, acts as a wake-up call. The clear choice has been right in front of you for a while now. Maybe the alarm is the arrival of a gorilla-sized national competitor. Maybe it is a sudden personal health issue causing reflection on your own mortality. Maybe one day you come home and your husband or wife, if you are even still married, looks at you like you are a stranger and you see a change in that gaze. It is time for change. Change NOW. The bottom line is that sometimes it is time to toss in the towel. It is healthy and natural to consider all options when managing a business. And there are a few principles that can guide us in this huge and important consideration.

Let’s face it. I am your business coach, so it is in my best personal and financial interest to look for ways to keep you in business or I will have to find something else to do. So the first step I take with each client who is courageous enough to say that there is something wrong (i.e. the woodpecker on the head) is to explore why the woodpecker is there in the first place. Even when someone has been too busy or inured to feel the poignant attacks on the skull, I have learned to recognize when there is a woodpecker pecking. We lumber folks are a stubborn breed. We are talking after all about the “Independent Lumber and Building Materials” sector here. We have earned the title of “independent” in every way, God love us, but it is true. We are hardheaded to the degree that even the most relentless attack by the venerable peck-bird will go unnoticed until we are bleeding from the wound. If I readily sense that someone is harboring a deep and unspoken consideration to sell a business or close a store I will tease out that topic. Why? Because it is what’s up, that’s why. That woodpecker is there, acknowledged or unacknowledged, and once it is confidentially admitted in bare bones truthful terms then we can work together on what to do about it. If what’s up remains unacknowledged then nothing, no amount of training for staff, coaching for the executive, refinement of business process, or invention of marketing strategy, nothing in the world is going to make a tinker’s damn of difference in the success of a business. My job is to help people be more successful. The truth has to be the foundation from which all other effort is built. Otherwise eventual failure is inescapable.

Don’t Quit Until You Know Why You Are Compelled to Do So

I have worked with hundreds of employees and clients to look to understand what is behind the desire to quit. When all of the superfluous debris is cleared back from a person’s mind so that the root issue is revealed, here is what I find. A person is tired, scared, disinterested, or financially at risk. Any of those may be reasons to toss in the towel, or else reasons to arrange for some serious growth and development. Let’s consider some particulars surrounding each of these reasons.

People are tired, even exhausted, from years of overwork without enough rest and rejuvenation. They usually look it. It cannot be hidden. Everyone knows it. Their families have watched it happen, degree by degree. Their employees and customers see it and are concerned. Their exhaustion is showing up in unhealthy ways in every facet of their business from operations to finance. The good news is that these folks don’t need to toss in the towel. They just need to rest. They also need to learn new skills that allow for business success and sufficient personal time to rejuvenate and to maintain freshness. This business of ours is really demanding physically, mentally, and emotionally. Not even one of us is so superhuman as to be able to endure the deeply challenging demands of this almost impossible business without sufficient rest. I am not talking about a brief vacation (that usually leaves us more tired afterwards). I am talking about rest every day, every week, every month and every year, routine retreats and sabbaticals to get well and stay well. We must realize that our personal and professional responsibility is to maintain vitality for the sake of our families, employees, customers, and our individual selves.

Americans can now boast that we have surpassed the Koreans as the most overworked people in the world. The average American is working over 150 hours more per year than 10 years ago. This number is even larger in senior management positions. And we are simply not resting. Numerous medical studies indicate that stress related illnesses constitute over two thirds of the sickness in America. Frankly, in pursuit of our work we have sacrificed ourselves, our actual and metaphorical hearts, for the sake of productivity. Not efficiency. Productivity. Accomplishment, “what ever it takes.” How often have you heard this mantra and personally used it as a fervent prayer to accomplishment? If you are like me at all, this war cry has been wielded like a sacred sword since childhood, a banner to achievement, as we grow more and more weary. Finally, the war cry becomes a whimper from our down-turned lips as we wonder what in the world have we wrought.

When I see someone tired, so tired to be not thinking straight, so tired to be sure it is time to sell the business, here is what I first advise. Rather than time to sell immediately, it is time for rest, for a new set of behaviors and attitudes that perpetuate a healthful work/rest ratio. Usually it is time for the development of a leadership structure within the company to spread responsibility across all the available talent. Certainly it is time for elimination of dead, Dead, DEAD practices within an outdated proprietorship model of business, vestiges of misplaced devotion to ineffective traditions that have never been questioned let alone broken and adjusted to operate in today’s social and economic climate. Those who can adopt a new way of thinking, behaving and leading can do well. Those who cannot adapt will one day be forced to quit as physical and emotional health erode, taking toll on business affairs and on family relations. If you cannot change what is exhausting you, then you need to toss in the towel before what exhausts you kills you.

People are scared for several reasons, most of which can be addressed without tossing in the towel. Scared because of competitive changes in their market, like when a Depot or Lowe’s comes barreling into a previously insulated market, or what we thought was insulated. No one is safe from these two gorillas any more. Small-town, hometown America is going to get big box stores and keep on getting them. Small-town America is more vibrant and filled with opportunity than ever before as the population trend continues to move from urban to rural settings. This is evident across the nation. This spells business opportunities for all businesses old and new, even in the same business sector, and even if the competitive issues are tough. The arrival of a big box store is not sufficient reason to quit. But when the big box arrives you have to change some things. You have to make some things better than ever. Service has to be red carpet. Redefine what good service means to your company and make that happen. Handle materials with less damage than ever before to maintain margins and to provide top quality goods. Update warehouses, pave yards and get materials under cover. Delivery execution has to be immaculate, as customer demands will intensify as all local competitors respond to the national competition. You won’t be able to count on being better by default because ABC Lumber across town historically offered mediocrity on the menu for any operational standard. This is especially true for delivery service. A ten o-clock promise means that delivery occurs at ten minutes to ten and not one minute after. Market demands after the arrival of big boxes generally extinguish mediocrity in service, which should never be tolerated in the first place.

But fear is not limited to the arrival of a national competitor. People are scared when a local competitor first wakes up to the rewards of excellence. People are scared by the recognition that staffing is not right, with the resignation that seemingly nothing can change circumstances. You can be afraid of a weak financial performance, and sure enough the bank begins to ask what’s up. I have found that far too many owners in the independent lumber sector have never developed a short term or long-term business plan with an active budgeting process in place. One day the bank asks for this and no one has any idea how to do it. One day an owner realizes that even if the bank doesn’t ask for it, a plan is necessary for continued success now that the business has grown from one of humble beginnings to one of enormous magnitude. This stuff is scary. It requires that we become a new kind of leader who has the courage to depart from the proprietorship model and to develop and install a professional management structure equal to the social and economic culture of today. And that is really scary.

The loss of absolute control? Turn business decisions to others? Let someone else participate as a peer or partner? Admit that someone might be able to help me achieve? Admit that I have to become merely influential in the business effort instead of sole participant in it if we are going to grow? Step back and let my heirs really run the business, since they are going to do so one day soon anyway? Become a coach myself instead of continue as quarterback? What will I do with myself?” Scary as Hell.

But the answer is to change now. The time comes when all of the fears of the traditional lumberman have to be addressed and how we answer determines a future for an entire industry. I remember my grandfather once saying that the reason people go into business for themselves is because they couldn’t possibly work for or with anyone else anyway. Maybe he was right, which is pretty sad, but there have been numerous changes over the years. Today, even a small independent lumber and building material dealer is probably turning a volume of millions through the efforts of dozens of employees at one or more locations. We were called to change a whole lot as the business grew, and change we did. But often enough, it wasn’t enough, and now it is way past time for a departure from incremental change. It is time for transformation of our business models, management structures, and professional skills. Those who make such changes will reap unimaginable financial and emotional rewards. Those who don’t, well those are the ones who will one day have to quit anyway, so I suggest explore change for the immediate future. If your market, your customers, and your employee base is calling for updated business practices, better warehousing, updated equipment, renewed professionalism and even a basic business and financial plan you had better make these changes to stay in the game. If you don’t have the desire, the courage, or the financial ability to do this maybe it IS time to toss in the towel.

Your heart is just not in it anymore or maybe it never was in the first place. We all know people who engaged in work that they didn’t really want in the first place or that they outgrew long ago. I have known, and do know, lots of them. They are all unhappy. They usually have regrets, big ones. One day a comprehensive case of the coulda-shoulda-woulda’s settles into their souls and they are so bitter that they are intolerable to customers, employees, family members, and especially to themselves. These are miserable and pitiful people to encounter. You simply cannot hide when you are unhappy. One day the disheartened individual will no longer sustain a mask of inauthentic camouflage and the act is discovered through mental and emotional crises or through the lightening strike of illness or through an engulfing despair that hangs like a cloud snagged in the countenance. You who have secretly harbored another dream for yourselves that did not include the building material industry, I suggest that you toss in the towel now and take immediate steps to make your deep and abiding dream come true.

Financial challenges are all too familiar to all of us in this difficult industry. The seasonal nature of the business alone is enough to drive even the best of us to drink. Most of the time we weather the seasons and things improve with the promise of spring. Or a rainy day is followed by amazing weather with piles of orders being filled with tired but relieved smiles on the faces of our staff and our customers. These financial rhythms are usually endured without much trouble. We are used to them. No big deal.

Often bigger financial concerns come along, and with them the notion to sell or close the business. The principal concern is the huge cost of renovating an aged and dilapidated set of warehouses and stores to become a pristine environment suitable for our employees and for an increasingly demanding customer base. While there are some fantastically laudable companies throughout the northeast and across the nation who have continuously maintained all facilities at the cutting edge of this industry, I have visited dozens of locations in the northeast and hundreds of facilities nationwide and it is clear to me that most of us have not reinvested in order to keep our buildings safe for our staff, to keep the condition of our yards sufficient to offer clean and undamaged materials, and to keep our stores pleasant to shop for customers, both men and women. I see warehouses that are unsafe to enter due to aged and damaged racking systems, some of which are filled with tons of materials, so that when they fall (I said when not if) someone is going to get hurt and possibly lose a life. And frankly, since these typically are family owned businesses it is our very family members who are going to get hurt. Unimaginable, but true.

I recall one recent walk through a facility where a rack in a filthy warehouse on uneven ground, not bolted to the floor, was loaded with several units of plywood, with the units of lumber all hanging off the edge of the beams by eighteen inches. One third of the weight off the edge and not even bolted to the ground! I could wiggle the rack with one hand. I could have easily turned it over without any help. There were people walking around this thing, this accident about to happen, and I finally shouted “Will somebody get a forklift and change this NOW!” Can you imagine? There was unsafe racking and the yard was unpaved even into the warehouse, with mud holes everywhere, some large enough to swallow a good-sized man, and there was more disaster unfolding before my reddening eyes.

The forklift was stuck, really stuck, in this mud hole where a team of employees were digging and hooking up a chain to the lift to extract it. All of this activity, yet no orders were being filled in the swampy yard, and service was certainly non-existent since all staff members were either engaging in or observing the circus around the lift. The boom truck arrived to pull the lift from the hole, even though it was already late making a delivery of drywall to a customer raging on the phone with a member of the yard staff who was engaged in the extraction of the crippled lift. In a grand finale, the straining boom truck pulled the counter weight right off the back of the forklift that remained in the hole. The boom truck was rendered inoperable as the transmission blew from the exertion. Customers and employees looked on, shaking their heads, and the owner who was accompanying me on this educational tour of facilities said, “We have never been able to afford pavement for the yard.” Good Grief!

Yes, it is expensive to keep facilities in good repair. It is more expensive to do all at once when routine updating and repair has not been done following an on-going yearly financial and business plan. Imagine the total loss when efficiency is compromised over decades of operation in outdated facilities. Imagine the costs of product damage, the costs of injury, the incalculable amounts of money repeatedly paid in retraining costs from turnover initiated through intolerable working conditions, and finally the amount of human suffering perpetuated in a business model that is not only demonstrably costly but also dangerous. “No bad accidents yet,” I have heard. As with a landmine, we congratulate ourselves for tiptoeing around without triggering an imminent disaster, and we use that as a justification for not changing a thing. One day market factors change, someone gets hurt, a competitor wakes up first, or new one comes to town, and we have to make radical changes fast and we are looking at millions of dollars in each facility just to stay in the game. The ante just got huge, and we have to weigh a risk that we have never imagined and honestly have no experience in balancing and possibly have no desire to take. Maybe now is time to toss the towel.

The fact is that if we really cannot afford to properly manage proper facilities and make a profit then we had better get out of the game before we lose our shirts gradually over time or suddenly from a disaster. Both will eventually occur. Not one or the other. Both. And another fact is that it IS expensive to have state-of-the-art facilities in this industry. If we cannot properly manage a proper facility and make a profit then we probably should consider selling to someone who can build on a vision filled with possibility. And if there is no buyer, maybe it is just time to close the doors.

If we have to make up for years of facilities neglect all at once, the total investment will be enormous and could place our families at too much risk. Let’s face it, if you find yourself suddenly at a juncture of need to incur debt totaling into the millions, especially later in life, then I will usually suggest liquidation, particularly if you have no heir apparent to continue a family business tradition. Unless you are willing to endow for the next generation of operations, there is no reason to risk everything you have for yourself and your future. Maybe it is time to look at that retirement or that second career you have always wanted, or maybe it is time to be with family and friends, or your church, or whatever really enhances life at a lower risk threshold. There is nothing wrong with this choice, as it is sometimes the best choice.

How are you going to spend yours?

This business in which we work is noble. It is rewarding. It is challenging. It is difficult. So challenging and difficult in fact that if you bring only a piece of yourself to it day after day by leaving other more authentic dreams unrealized, then this business will kill you. In short, if you don’t absolutely love this business, then toss in the towel now.

I ask you to do a little math. Think about your family, especially your ancestors, your grandparents, your great grandparents, your aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and take a good guess at the average age your family members live to be, your family’s average lifespan. Now take your current age and subtract it from your family average. Now take that number, that number of years you have left, and multiply it by 8700. Got that number? What is it? Hundred thousand? Two hundred thousand? More? Less? That number is the total number of hours you have left on the planet. Barring unknown disaster, or welcoming longer than usual lifespan, that’s all you have left. And about one third of that will be spent sleeping. A few more hours each day will be spent driving or taking a shower or brushing your teeth. But however you spend your number of hours that is all you will ever have. I know this. Life is precious and short. You had better actively work to fulfill your dreams through any means at your disposal, or one day the horror will flash before you that you lived a life that you didn’t mean to start and there will not be any time left to do anything about it.

Certainly, sometimes there are real reasons to toss in the towel. If the business is killing you physically or emotionally or financially, give it up. If you cannot do what is required to place your business in a powerful market position, both service and facilities, then sell it to someone who can, or close the doors. If the financial risk is too great for you to run a modern business, then sell it to someone who will make the investment and find something for yourself to do that is not so risky.

However there are so many alternatives to tossing in the towel. If you’re not ready to sell or liquidate but your heart is elsewhere, then hire a manager to run the business and devote your time to making your lifelong dreams a reality. This can be a very successful model as long as you have set up structures and communicated expectations well before you begin and revisit them all along the way. If you’re staying in the game but your professional habits are outdated and your management structure is an antiquated proprietorship that smacks of inappropriate controls and insufficient depth for today’s challenges, then don’t quit, just change of your own volition before you are forced to quit anyway. If you are tired or even exhausted, then don’t quit, just get some rest. Make the proactive choice to get rest, before you get sick and are forced to rest anyway. I imagine an entirely new vocation applicable to this industry where owners and operators hire interim operational managers for a set period of time, say a year or two years, so that a full personal sabbatical can be embraced without fear. These amazing transformations are possible as the entire work model shifts from the traditional expectation of work-until-you-retire-or-die to something more wholesome and organic to our human nature. I believe creative, futuristic models will utilize a talented workforce serving shorter terms and meeting intermittent executive challenges that facilitate a rhythm of work and rest, achievement and sabbatical, that is far more suitable for a healthy and satisfying life. I am afraid that ours will be the last industry to embrace such a change. And that is sad. It doesn’t have to be that way. Perhaps it is time to explore new creative possibilities that don’t require tossing in the towel in the typical way.

We lumber folks are a proud people. Proud to a fault. Independent to the point of fragmentation. Traditional to the point of honoring outdated everything. We need to be careful of the curse that is found in the dusty corners of our work, the curse that says “That’s the way it has always been.” And one aspect is sure. It has always been the case that we don’t give up even when we should. That’s indeed the way it has always been. This is dangerous. Sometimes it is ok to toss in the towel, when the operations are too outdated to save, when the financial risk is too great, when our health or our families are at risk, or when our desire is somewhere else. Grant us the courage to admit our truth and then to do something about it before it is too late.