“The best fertilizer for any business is the owner’s footprints” – Don Hale
Lessons in consistency
Starting a blog and keeping it going is harder than you’d think. Life gets in the way (in the form of an unshakable case of bronchitis), other commitments get in the way (in the form of moot court briefs to be graded and business plans to be finalized), and clients need to be gotten and kept.
But an e-mail from my sister brought me up short this morning, or rather its attachment did. Don Hale, an entrepreneur and community leader in my hometown of Salt Lake City, died over the weekend at 93. He retired three years ago.
The coverage of his death in Salt Lake’s rival rags, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, is uniformly kind and laudatory. If you’re interested, you can read it here and here. You should read the articles and take notes.
Lessons in Persistence
I had no idea Don was a millionaire. He was Brother Hale, Mr. Hale, the guy down the street from my house, and for a while, the man who led my LDS (Mormon) congregation. He was also – other than a lot of mothers with small children – my first employer. I worked for him at his short-lived steakhouse venture, busing tables. While his drive in and pizza business thrived across the parking lot, Don C’s (Don C’s Beef – get it? He thought it was really funny.) languished against the competition from Sizzler and other chains. In my brief tenure there, I learned to recognize that aged beef is really good and that it’s hard work to clean a table and make it ready for others to eat on it. Also, how to mop a floor, organize salt & pepper shakers for quickest filling, and a bunch of other things. I also learned that Don cared more about his employees and the quality of his product than turning a profit. I also learned that you really, really need to stick to your core competency – or your core passion, if you want to succeed.
I learned to spend time with the people you serve and work with. Regardless of the day or state of the business, Don would come from Hires Big H and give us a pep talk, and stick around while the place opened for dinner. It was generally slow, but Don’s confidence and pride in what he was doing never seemed to wain. In his autobiography, Opportunity Knocks Twice, he gleefully admits that moving away from his core competency was likely not the best move. I get the impression, though, that he never regretted the effort, and was never visibly ashamed of his “failure.” He was only disappointed that a few of us had to find work elsewhere.
As I try to turn my entrepreneurial seizure into an enterprise, I can’t resist looking to Don’s example.
Lessons for business
Don started his business when he was 40, after working at the family grocer. The grocery store was started by his father during the Depression to extend the family’s income. It is never too late to follow your passion, nor is there ever a time too dark to start doing.
He retired when he was 90. He only retired because his sons convinced him that fainting at work every other day was bad for business. If you are passionate about what you do, you’re never too old. Be passionate, love what you do, or don’t do it.
Don made sure that every youth activity in our church was flavored with Orange Fanta from the drive-in and sometimes pizzas from Litza’s Pizza. Give generously of your resources, and people will remember you, if only for the fact that you gave them a brief respite from fruit punch. You will also be happy.
Don, and his wife Shirley, were unflinching servants to their neighborhood and their community. When my brother was hit by a car on the last day of his 8th grade year, Shirley showed up at the bus stop to pick up my sisters and me from school.
We had seen the ambulances and my brother’s limp body in the road on the way home, and were understandably freaked out. Mom was at the accident scene and of course was unable to calm us down. Shirley comforted us, assured us that all was well, and drove us to Big H for lunch. She talked to us about school, and Don came out to make sure we were okay. I can’t speak for my sisters, but I felt like a pair of foster grandparents had swooped in and made everything alright. I haven’t forgotten that, and when the call came a few years ago to swoop up three terrified girls who’d been separated from their parents by child services, Shirley and Don were riding with me in the car.
Use your resources, energy, and time to build the physical, spiritual, mental and emotional pieces of your life. Your business will follow and succeed. Make sure you don’t take any of the business side of it personally. Work hard at all of it. Make time for all of it. Your service will carry forward for generations.
- And the best burger in town
Hires Big H was a safe place to go after a movie, football game or on a Saturday night when my friends and I were – as usual – dateless. As a young professional, it was a place to connect with school friends and co-workers. It was a post-court neutral ground. Don or someone else we knew was always at the cash register to say hi, or keeping an eye out for table that would accommodate us all. Make your office a gathering place, where your clients are greeted warmly, and your competitors and coworkers alike can find professionalism and camaraderie.
Some people may disagree, but Don’s product was consistently good. His systems worked. His professionalism and integrity were peerless. His kindness was only matched by his generosity. When I grow up part of me really wants to be like him.
And when I’m in Salt Lake next month for the ABA’s 40th Annual Conference on Environmental Law, I’ll raise a glass of Cherry Coke to Don and Shirley on the corner of Fourth South & Seventh East.