Wednesday, January 24, 2018

283. Here's to our small business owners

Growing up, our family had two distinct sources of income.

Primarily, my father worked for General Motors. As part of the auto workers’ union, he received good pay and excellent benefits. He worked hard, rarely missed work until later in life, and provided for his family. We all knew that our lifestyle was dependent on my father and his employment at General Motors.

The other was small business. My parents ran several very small businesses, mostly retail, in the North Eaton area. In fact, all of the businesses were located in the same little shopping center. My father, ever the entrepreneur, was not afraid of risk. My mom, always the willing partner, ran the businesses. We started with a doughnut shop/restaurant where I often spent time earning a few dollars after school selling lottery tickets and eating bacon cheeseburgers. Putting to use what I’d learned in an art class, I was proud to design and paint the business sign. It was the first of our community business, where you really got meet and know the people that made up your town.

Then — my father’s champion vision — we open a video rental store (we started with both VHS and Beta). We it built from scratch and I remember putting the final touches on the place while watching the NCAA Final Four on a small television. It was my favorite business because it provided my friends and me with thousands of free movies. I also opened my own sports card shop within the video store, which was my first venture into entrepreneurship. I worked there many summers and evenings.

When video started losing steam, my father got excited about screen printing and bought a small business. I would come home on weekends and build screens for my mom. Archaic in the way the printing business works today, it was a lot of work and pressing deadlines.

Finally, my mom went to cosmetology school and became a beautician. We bought the local hair salon, which included tanning beds (and of course free haircuts). When she retired from this business, she did so having successfully managed several small businesses.

It is not surprising then that I have a special place in my heart for small businesses. For most, they are family businesses with everyone contributing, and often surpass the notion of a 40-hour week. Many family meal discussions focused on the way to improve business or the brainstorming of new ideas. Small businesses are the heart of our communities, and ours was no different. I remember the excitement of my parents hosting my sister’s softball team at our restaurant for breakfast before a tournament game.

Over several years, I got to interview and write about more than 100 small businesses in Lorain County. From barber shops to pet-sitting, it was an assignment I embraced as much as I was tasked. Many of them were the same stories I grew up with — the pursuit of ambition, debating ideas, taking risks, and realizing dreams. Some of the businesses were well considered and destined to thrive; others I cringed at the unlikelihood of success. I never want to see a business fail and the dreams die. At times, I wanted to start a small business consulting business, putting to use my experiences growing up in combination with my studies in business and law.

And that is the real point of this column. Managing small businesses, particularly new small businesses, is hard work. They are subject to all the same challenges of large companies — industry regulations, overhead expenses, insurance, employment laws, marketing, accounting — but have to do it with fewer resources. They are inspired by passion as much as profit but often compete with those only chasing profit. Small business owners work long hours and there are no such thing as sick days or paid vacations. For many, they have little room for error, often sweating payroll or losing sleep over next month’s rent. They rely on employees they often can’t offer benefits and suppliers willing to sell small quantities at reasonable prices. But most of all, they rely on customers. They hope that customers will make the effort to consider their business, even if is an extra stop or costs a few more dollars.

There is perhaps nothing more powerful than where we spend our dollars. We decide which companies succeed or fail. Our purchases should reflect our values and we need to place a greater value on the economic heartbeat of this country.

From retail and service businesses to small manufacturing, they deserve our business.

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