The market crash of 1929 kicked off a period in American history known as the Great Depression. My grandfather's home construction business weathered the first few years but finally succumbed to a market that had all but dried up by 1932. To make ends meet for a family of eight, he and my grandmother started a residential laundry in their home. A 1924 Ford truck that had been used for construction was pressed in to service for laundry pick up and delivery.
The business grew from a home operation in their basement to plants in the neighboring cities of Syracuse and Rochester, New York. My dad's oldest brother Brud, eventually took over the Syracuse operation and my dad took over the second plant in Rochester.
As I look back on my dad and uncle's businesses, it's a great study in the difference between an entrepreneur and a laborer. In David Thomas Roberts' book, "Unemployable!" he points out that an Entrepreneur may be someone who visualizes a new concept or they take a proven idea and improve it and bring additional value. In contrast, a laborer is someone who looks at a business concept and focuses on the constraints of the status quo rather than looking beyond those constraints. Ronald Reagan once said; "Status quo, you know is Latin for 'the mess we`re in'." Entrepreneurs don't see constraints, they see opportunity.
My uncle was the classic laborer. His 1,800-square foot plant in Syracuse was a store front operation that perfectly fit the mold of every other laundry in town. Dad's operation was initially the same size but when the neighboring car dealership closed its doors in 1948, he quickly made an offer on the 10,000-square foot building. The extra space enabled him to add a modern dry cleaning operation for the growing middle class of white collar workers. The increased laundry capacity also empowered him to go after the local high school and college sport uniform cleaning and repair business.
He then added a covered drive-through so customers never had to get out of their car. In 1949, it was probably the first drive-through laundry/dry cleaner in the US. As a customer drove through the drop off lane a car hop, dressed smartly in black slacks and a white shirt with a black bow-tie ran out to the car with a hot cup of coffee. Later that day, when they came back to pick up their laundry a car hop met them with a cold drink of their choice. While they waited for their laundry, a second young man was cleaning their front windshield.
Dad's operation was a model of efficiency. Eventually he rebranded it as "Toth's 3-Hour Laundry." A customer was guaranteed that they could drop off laundry in the morning and pick it up at lunch. Dad understood that his product offering was not only of greater quality but the level of service far eclipsed his competitors and as a result, he was able to charge more.
In 1978, as I was driving to Syracuse with my dad to see his brother, I asked him the $54,000 question. "Dad, why is Uncle Brud's business so small and yours is so huge?" Like most Socratic teachers, he answered my question with a question. "What do your Uncle's hands look like?" He asked me. "They're black. Almost like they are stained with grease" I said. He smiled and said; "When we get to Uncle Brud's plant, he'll have a wrench in his hands and he'll have his head underneath a press that he's repairing. Brud would rather save $40 and fix a press or a washing machine himself than pay someone to do it for him. I would rather pay someone to make repairs so that I can plan about how to grow my business.
Entrepreneurs know that to grow a business, they need to spend as much time working on their business as they do working in their business. My dad and his brother were workaholics, but dad was very disciplined at making sure that he allotted time for planning and vision casting and it paid off.
My dad is 90 years old now with his workaholic days behind him. I called him the day after Christmas and he closed the conversation with this: "Steve, shoot high and keep your standards high and be prayerful about all that you do. Oh, and the cheesecake Babette sent was awesome."
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