Most business journalists spend their time implicitly or explicitly giving advice to business people. Most have never had to make a payroll or co-sign a loan to keep a business afloat. But for the past few years, I’ve had a first-hand taste.
In 1999, it became apparent that the 40-year old community pool my family belonged to was in trouble. It was important enough to put myself on the line. I had no idea how hard it would be.
The pool had declining membership and the attempt to counter that by raising rates drove more people away. Forget fund-raising, since the club was organized as a for-profit corporation. The club owed tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes. The club property is in a flood plain—it’s actually between a floodwall and the river. What vacant land the club owns is crossed by two sets of high-tension lines and burdened with easements for underground natural gas lines, making the surplus land we could sell virtually unsaleable. I could go on.
We’re still here and, while success isn’t guaranteed, there’s at least a 50-50 chance of survival. I could recount the problems and how we solved them. We were within two weeks of going under a couple of times. But I’d rather talk about the lessons I’ve learned.
Competent leadership is everything. A business must have leadership that knows where it is going and how to get there. Our president, a diesel mechanic who supervises bus maintenance for a school district, is a strong leader.
Recruit good people. It’s the one element you can control. (Well, usually). It helps that we recruited a CPA who is now treasurer.
Blue-collar know-how. For us white-collar types, this task is a constant reminder that the blue-collar folks are just as smart, just as dumb, just as average, just as hard-working, just as lazy, as white-collar types. They just earn their money in a different way.
Know your own strengths. Not surprisingly, I handle public relations and advertising. I’m also board secretary.
Trust your team. You recruit people with complimentary skills to do the things you can’t. You have faith they will do the work. If you don’t, one of you is in the wrong place.
Cash flow is king. My parents raised me to pay bills promptly. That would have killed us. You defer payment or make partial payments, presuming that things will be better. As our president said one night, “Pay all the bills marked ‘Past Due’ and throw the rest in the garbage.” But never lie.
Don't leave money on the table. The club does not sell admissions at the gate. It does sell daily passes for guests of members. We used to give out free passes for members who signed up by certain dates. Last year, we stopped giving out passes. The summer was hot, no one complained, and we cleaned up on guest admissions.
Ask for a better deal. Ask for a discount. Tell your supplier you are looking for a better price even when you know you can’t get it. Challenge unexplained charges on your phone and electronic bills. (Like the monthly charge for a computer we don’t have. The phone company’s explanation: “But you might get one.” I once asked a weekly newspaper for the agency discount for advertising. Well, it was worth a try.
Deal with incompetence quickly. There’s no time to retrain incompetent lifeguards in midseason.
Your vendors’ first concern is often their own self-interest. Our long-time friend, the insurance agent, who told us no carriers would give us better rates, was protecting his own sweetheart deal with one carrier. We dumped both and saved thousands.
Sweat equity is essential. We joke that our chief test for qualifications for board members is “can they mix concrete/” I use my own equipment to cut down brush and wade in to pull out poison ivy. The diesel mechanic and carpenter patches concrete. The insurance adjustor helps paint the pool. Everybody helps take photos for member ID cards.
Don’t expect gratitude. Our members largely don’t know how hard we work. They just know whether the water is clear, the restrooms are clean, the grass is mowed, and that there are enough parking spaces.
Some people aren’t nice. Members will leave trash, tear up things, block parking spots, try to cheat on their fees, and then yell at you when you challenge them. The neighborhood kids will break in, destroy things, steal anything they can, and toss stuff into the river for fun.
Don’t worry. Problems will arise that you can’t foresee. Have confidence that you will recognize them, meet them head on, and solve them.
Show progress. Customers will put up with less-than-ideal conditions if the basic service is good and they can see that you steadily work to improve facilities.
Believe in luck. Hopefully, you’ll have as much unexpected good luck as unexpected bad luck. But don’t count on it.
Believe in the mission. That’s what gives you the faith that you can surmount obstacles, the stick-to-itiveness to deal with details, and vision to recognize solutions and new possibilities.
Speaking of luck, the high-tension lines across our property are perfect homes for cell-phone relay towers. They are in existing easements. We are about ready to sign a long-term deal with Verizon and others may follow. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
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