I've lived in the same neighborhood outside of Philadelphia for over 10 years now, and it's time to pay homage to two penny-pinchers that really get it: Jim and Rich.

Are you thinking of starting your own business? Do you already own a small business and wish you could be doing better? Forget about the experts and the pundits. Stop reading the columns and the articles. Ignore the advice from the talking heads and the geniuses. The two guys to learn from are Jim and Rich.

Jim owns Township Cleaners and Rich owns a gas station/repair shop directly across Montgomery Avenue called Wark's Auto. These are their real names. These are their real businesses.

Neither of these guys are super-millionaires. They're not building empires. They don't plan to take their companies public. I don't even know how profitable they are. But trust me, they're profitable. I'm sure, like the rest of us, they both wish they could be making more money. I'm sure they'd like to retire one day and sit on a beach. Are they happy? I don't know them well enough to say. But I do know they're realistic. They work hard. And smart. And they show up every day.

And therein lies the first lesson for fledgling penny-pinchers.

Show up. Early. And stay late.

Township Cleaners and Wark's Auto cater to people who need to drop off their dry cleaning before their workday starts and fill up their gas tanks on their way home from a dinner meeting. These guys always seem open. They start the day near dawn. They stay open late. They're open on the weekends.

And they always seem to be there. When I bring in my shirts, Jim takes them from me. When I pay for gas, I see Rich in the shop. They keep a close, close eye on things. Maybe they're micro-managing too much, I don't know. But nothing seems to get by them. They're on top of every customer, every job. They don't seem to delegate a whole lot. Which means that neither of them probably has the skill set to manage a large group of people. But that's OK. They seem to know their own limitations. So instead they manage the hell out of their small group of employees. They roll up their sleeves and sew, press, change valves and replace carburetors.

And their employees seem to have no problem with that. In fact, during the 10 years I've been living here, I keep seeing the same faces again and again at Township Cleaners and Wark's. During this same time I've managed technology projects at much larger corporations and routinely dealt with a revolving door of employees who have come and gone from these companies, whether at will or involuntarily. But at Township Cleaners and Wark's the people have pretty much remained the same.


Are the benefits superior? Are their salaries higher? Probably not. It's because these people recognize a devoted, serious business owner and have decided to hitch their wagons along with him. For better or worse. And from what I can tell, it's better.

Another thing I like about their businesses? They bend over backwards for their customers. First of all, they're fast at what they do. They value our time. Jim runs his little dry cleaning shop like a machine. Rarely am I in there for more than five minutes. I've dropped off my car at all hours of the day for Wark's to repair and then come home to find it has been delivered back to my house, keys in the glove compartment. I ask Jim to put a rush on a sport jacket and he says, "No problem." My wife asks Rich if she can run over to have a front headlight replaced and he says, "No problem." There are too many people in this world who give us problems. Township Cleaners and Wark's are not among them.

Oh, by the way: They're not cheap either. I haven't compared dry cleaning rates, but I'm betting that Jim charges more than a competitor in a less affluent area may charge. Same with Rich. But they prove that you get what you pay for. There's a value we put on our time, convenience and great service. They get that. They charge. But they execute on this promise. Maybe they could get more customers if they charged less. I don't know. But they're certainly keeping the customers they have at their current rates.

One final thing I like about both these companies: They use technology well. For too long, small-business owners have been inundated by stupid technology recommendations from stupid technology people. Jim and Rich don't have Web sites. They don't do social networking for their businesses. They don't have complex bar-coding systems. They have just the right mix of software, hardware, cash registers, credit-card machines and old-fashioned paper for them to get their work done efficiently. Jim's got every item in his shop entered into his system, yet half the time he seems to find my stuff without even referring to it. Rich's got the basic self-serve gas pumps and tools in his shop that help his mechanics get their work done. But nothing more than that. They don't need it. They get it.

Aren't these guys boring? Isn't it all so mundane? Well, that's what running a small business is all about. Sure, it's fun to read about those companies that start with nothing and become titans in their industry. And it's entertaining to hear about those entrepreneurs who buy, sell, fall down, get up, expand, lose money and make money. They are gamblers and risk-takers. They make great stories. But there are more than 20 million small businesses in this country. And many of them are boring, average, normal penny-pinchers like Jim and Rich.

Thank God for that.

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