Friday, 30 November 2001 09:00

A lesson from ol Henry on not getting stuck in ruts

Written by Dick Strom

"Take it off, Honey!" I pleaded with my wife as we ended an early-morning walk. My request concerned the doubt she'd just voiced that she could afford to take off just six workdays from her extensive office duties at our shop. It's a phobia common enough among business owners - the fear of who knows what awaits their return from enjoying the fruits of their labors: The fear of loss of control!

It certainly isn't a question of whether a vacation is needed or deserved, or whether a few days away from her work would benefit morale at work and home. 

Her aggressiveness in everything she pursues, including keeping our books squeaky-clean, has kept us profitable in spite of insurer-steering for our non-DRP stand. But her vigilance has taken its toll: like many other entrepreneurs, knowing full well the many benefits of time away from the daily grind, yet unable to see beyond the piles of paperwork that modern business demands, we sometimes feel trapped within our own business. Ironically, a prime motivation for owning our own business was the prospect of being able to take off whenever we pleased.

The present bone of contention is a road well traveled - whether our shop world would implode without our ever-presence to take a long-anticipated drive down the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway in our elderly autos to the NSRA Street Rod Nationals in Pleasanton, California.
Before cell phones were common, I recall the torrent of shop owners and managers from NACE seminars to any available pay phone in order to "put out shop fires." It's still being carried on, only now with irritating cell phones during seminars (progress, I suppose). Entrepreneurial pressures do tend to reduce us to "control freaks."

Henry Ford was a case in point. Among his characteristic traits were idealism, engineering genius... and a tyrannical death-grip, nearly to the point of suffocation, on the reins of control of the auto manufacturing business he had created. His fear of losing control was one borne in affliction: Having twice recovered from being aced out of auto manufacturing business partnerships in which others held controlling interests in the ventures Henry engineered, he took extreme measures to assure it would never happen again. His dominant, inflexible style of management at times threatened the existence of Ford Motor Company, and was a constant source of shop and family discord, especially with his son and heir-apparent, Edsel, the man credited with moving Ford styling beyond the "tin Lizzie" rut in which Henry seemed forever mired.

One can only imagine where Ford Motor Company and the entire auto manufacturing industry would be today had Henry allowed, even encouraged, Edsel and other able engineers and craftsmen to reason and use their talents freely without fear of being belittled or summarily fired.

Whereas Henry had mechanical engineering genius, Edsel and others in the company had an eye to the future, perceiving that 'thoroughly modern Millie' (feeling her independence-oats having, among other women's victories, recently won the right to vote) had become a prime influence in auto purchase decisions. And she was more interested in style and creature-comforts than in a vehicle's ability to successfully traverse primitive rutted roads, many which had been paved by the mid to late 20's. Henry's "good enough for gramps" mindset convinced him that style and creature comforts were just frivolous passing fads.

While some Ford ads of the period depicted Fords in feats of strength and agility (one, a Ford front axle twisted like a corkscrew without breaking; another, a Center-door sedan climbing a steep flight of stairs), progressive thinking auto manufacturers honed their advertisements in on what really caught the eye of Millie and Max… the pleasures that ownership of the right motor vehicle could afford. "Won't you ride with me, Lucille, in my merry Oldsmobile?," one popular song coaxed.

As Henry strove to maintain in his product "a car for the masses… in basic black" that would "last forever," fashion had invaded the empire of the motorcar to stay, and along with fashionable autos came built-in obsolescence. Progressive auto manufacturers cut deep furrows through Ford's market share by continually improving on the design and comfort of new vehicles, promoting a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the older models.

While Edsel purchased and studied the design of popular vehicles of the day to analyze what made them outsell Fords, Henry belittled him. Henry Ford's phobia of losing control of the business he alone had created and nurtured to stunted maturity is aptly described in Robert Lacey's Ford: The Men and The Machine, in which an early Ford eye-witness described an incident that occurred in 1912.

While Henry and family were visiting Europe, some of his engineers designed and built a prototype car that embodied new low-slung eye-appealing lines "Lizzie" could never muster - four doors, and a daring bright red lacquer finish that screamed for attention, polished to a high sheen (a far cry from Henry's "any color as long as it's black"). As Ford Highland Park lieutenants unwrapped their new creation with great anticipation, Henry wordlessly circled it several times with his hands in his pockets, looking it over very closely:

"It was a four-door job, and the top was down. Finally, he got to the left-hand side of the car... and he takes his hands out, gets hold of the door, and bang! He ripped the door right off! How the man done it, I don't know! Then he jumped in there, and bang goes the other door. Bang goes the windshield. He jumps over the back seat and starts pounding on the top. He rips the top with the heel of his shoe. He wrecked the car as much as he could… As the years went by, it became clear that Henry Ford had developed a fixation with his masterpiece which was almost unhealthy. [The reason]: The Model 'T' had been the making of Henry Ford... (it) was central to his very identity, (and) attacks on his car were attacks on Henry Ford himself."

One correspondent, trying to reason with him to get with the times, put the problem in terms meat-and-potatoes Henry should have been able to digest: "Ford is a good name; so is wheat. But people (don't purchase) wheat when they want potatoes." But Henry's pride and stubbornness scarcely allowed reason, expediency, and creativity a chance to bloom, let alone flourish, as he deflected even the well-intentioned advice of many former Ford vehicle owners. How history might be different had it's commander-in-chief put more confidence in the advice of those around him in those early days!

Business ownership, specifically that of automotive repair, presents many problems and challenges for entrepreneurs. Heeding others' good advice might allow you more production with less frustration.

A little R&R is good business: One of the greatest hindrances to workplace efficiency and harmony is a proud, overworked, tired, frustrated, cranky employer. Gene Fairbrother, a small business consultant with the National Association for the Self-Employed in Washington, D.C., writes, "As a business owner it's hard to take a break. You've worked hard to build up your business, and the resulting business is, in many ways, you. It's scary walking away from work, leaving the keys to the office with someone else, telling your clients you'll be back in a week or two, forgetting what you have to get done for awhile. But vacations are a must for your well-being, and for the well-being of everyone around you... You'll never find the time, you have to make the time... to get away and feel refreshed. And you may find your business will actually improve if you can leave it behind you from time to time."

Don't be a control freak. "There really are others who can do some jobs as well [possibly even better than] you. Delegate more work to employees or independent contractors. While it's important to control the overall business, learn to watch the areas that really count, and allow other employees to build relationships with your customers.

Know when to turn business away. "If you have so much work you can't handle it all, you either have too many clients, or you need to hire outside help, or your rates are too low. When you try to accomplish more than your body and mind can handle, your end product will falter and you could end up with all kinds of free time because your customers will go elsewhere.

No one says a vacation has to be seven days. "Take at least one full weekend off every month. A couple days off now and then will do wonders to replenish the mind.

Get out of town when the timing is right. "Spontaneous vacations are not smart planning. Sit down with a calendar - and your family - every three months and block off a few days or a week to take off.

The key to a vacation is in truly getting away. "The energy you regain is more valuable than the business you risk losing. (While vacationing) let your employees do their job; it's amazing how well employees can do their job when they don't have you to depend on. And remember that one of the reasons you went into business for yourself was to have the freedom to do what you wanted, when you wanted. Don't let your business become your taskmaster. Take control, and take a break - you deserve it!"

I've always felt pretty comfortable leaving my normal business responsibilities in the hands of our employees while we enjoy some R&R, but the office paperwork my wife specializes in does continue to pile up. There will always be a few problems to straighten out upon your return, but you probably would have had these whether you left or not; with a refreshed mind at least you can approach problems rationally.

Two weeks have passed since I plunked out the above lines. In that time we drove 2200 miles to California and back in two of our street rods with my brother and son and their wives. We had a relaxing, enjoyable time. When the tear-drop trailer's axle cracked in Podunkville, Oregon, we discovered there still are people willing to go way out of their way to lead strangers to a welder, who postponed his family's barbecue late on a Sunday afternoon so we could continue enjoying our vacation.

My wife admitted she totally forgot about the shop while napping between pleasure reading and viewing the coastline and redwood forests from the 1937 Chevy sedan's back seat. While the Northwest was bathed in rain by the bucket-full, we got farmer-tanned and met some of the nicest people on earth as we leisurely switch backed from town to town from Washington to central California. Our crew did a great job in our absence, and we came home refreshed and encouraged.

Recently we hired another mechanic, allowing our oldest son to spend more time in the office so I can get away more. And we're actively seeking a competent person to relieve my wife of some of her office tasks, or possibly take them over completely, so she can do the things she's always wanted to do but never had time - like travel more! Mom was right when she said, "All work and no play makes Jack a frustrated business owner"- or something along those lines.

Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, moderncol@aol.com.