Tuesday, 31 October 2000 09:00

Taking care of business... and the family: a delicate balance

Written by Dick Strom
My wife and I recently became first-time grandparents. Hannah Lee Strom is her name, and flirting with my emotions is her game! This little beauty, with her pink skin so soft it defies my sense of touch, dark, wispy hair, soft facial features, cute little button nose, and tiny, delicate fingers and toes, has enchanted me.
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I've always been amazed by the realization that all the present and potential functions of human life and reproduction can be contained in such a tiny package, but this child is especially precious to me. And in the first sight of my son, Micah, gently cradling his own child I could see the same flood of emotions, expressed in his eyes, that I'd experienced when he made his grand entrance.

His first screams cut deep to my heart, and as if to display indignation at our intrusion, he gave the doctor additional reason to have his smock cleaned, I recall the lightheartedness and congratulations of the whole delivery crew: In contrast to the carnage, disease, and death common to the rest of the hospital, Micah's protest was an incredibly small price to pay for the privilege of delivering a child into the world.

As Bobbi and I held this tiny man-child in our arms for the first time, we were overwhelmed, once again, with all that had just transpired, and baffled by the additional responsibility we'd assumed. It's been said that the umbilical cord attaching a mother to her child is never really severed: The same is true for fathers, at least in spirit. As our children have progressed through life, we've experienced many special moments with them; from school and Sunday school plays and baseball games, to camping trips and street-rod runs, to their own weddings and, most recently, childbearing.

We were in the grandstands when Micah hit his Little League over-the-fence home run that gained him much needed praise and respect from his teammates, and bolstered his ambition to excel in everything he put his mind and heart to. Or was it, rather, that he hit that home run because we were in the grandstands? And has our having been there, especially during their earliest, often futile, attempts, in any way made them better, more self-sufficient individuals, and more able to circumnavigate many adolescent-age problems?
How important is parental involvement to the stability of families, and the institution of marriage? And, are stable marriages and family-oriented employees an asset in the workplace? They definitely are!

There seems to be a fairly common mindset among employers in service-provider industries to treat employees as mindless, emotionless robo-slaves.

Collision industry writer John Yoswick hit on this while listing reasons why good employees are leaving this industry in droves. One tech he quoted believes his boss considers his employees as "...just a bunch of low-life organisms beneath him." This tech continued "I wasn't able to get even an extended lunch to see my daughter's elementary school programs. Try to explain that to a child! I've ... acquired three weeks of vacation time, but scheduling it is like pulling teeth from a chicken. There's always an excuse not to take it when I want or need to,like it interferes with (the boss') fishing trips."

Not knowing all the particulars of his complaint of the conditions of his employment, he nevertheless voiced a formula for employer disaster: Discontented employees don't put out expedient, top quality work. Every farmer knows that stressed out cows produce less milk, and chickens which regularly get their feathers ruffled lay fewer eggs. A little less rigidity in the work schedule, and at least a token show of human compassion from employers could very well be the key to producing a work atmosphere where employees are
content, more productive, and less likely to incite others to riot. With increasingly tight schedules, and the incessant press for minimal down-time, work-schedule flexibility may seem like a luxury employers can't afford. But considering the many costs involved in replacing disgruntled employees, and putting out the fires they create prior to stomping out your door, work-schedule flexibility may be one of our greatest competitive advantages.

My employees know that if they work hard from Monday morning through Friday noon, and complete all their reasonably assigned work within that time frame, the remainder of Friday is theirs to work on their own projects, take on extra work, or get a head start on a family outing. We encourage them to try to schedule doctor/dentist appointments after work or on Saturdays, but if that isn't possible, a little work schedule flexibility (unless specifically written into employee contracts, schedule flexibility is a privilege) has paid off handsomely.

There was a time when many employers changed employees as often as they changed clothes, but those days are gone forever as thousands of good, faithful, collision techs, soured by employer lack of respect, move on to more lucrative, often better appreciated occupations. Any more, the employer who fails to recognize that he is nothing without good employees, is courting disaster.

Another area of family life that often plays second fiddle to business concerns is that life-partner with whom you covenanted to "love and cherish... until death do you part." Many will attest that, while their heart, mind and strength were totally wrapped up in propelling their business, their marriage was disintegrating. Last week one of our "frequent-flyer" customers told me his 20 year marriage is on the rocks. It was pitiful to hear this middle-aged, intelligent man, close to tears, warning me of the dangers involved in letting business, or anything else in this life, divide a good marriage.

An insurance industry friend, who once owned his own shop, provided this perspective concerning maintaining proper balance between work and family life: "I see a lot of owners/managers spend incredible hours at work. Are they dedicated and determined, or desperate and lacking in business skills? I can relate, because I was the same way when I was in the (collision repair) business. I pulled my share of all-nighters! In fact, that's one of the reasons I'm not in the business (anymore).

I guess when it came down to weighing it out, my family won. It wasn't worth sacrificing my family for my business. Those (owners/managers) who are just plain work-a-holics need to get their priorities straight!" Years ago I had an employee who pursued a goal of making $50,000 in one year. He'd work at my shop all day, then work nearly another whole shift at another shop, eventually getting home to his young wife, exhausted and frustrated, for a few hours sleep before repeating the routine. He did hit his goal, but by that time his wife found someone else, strapping him with $800/month child-support payments. Was it worth it?

In a personal letter sent me last year, my friend Bobby Johnson of B&J Collision in Jefferson, Texas, confided, "I've made virtually every mistake a man can make in this business, but there's one mistake I won't make again. It's faith, family, and business... those three, in that order. Everybody and everything else comes after those, if I have time." Bobby will be the first to tell us there's nothing in the business world worth risking a good marriage and family ties over!

Dick Strom is president of Modern Collision Rebuild on Bainbridge Island, Washington.