As John Oliver watches the economy take its toll on small and mid-size businesses, he is heartened by the ethics and values of those around him.
“Tire Guys!…this is Johnny!” I said with a rising inflection as I picked up the phone. It was the 51st incoming customer call of the day, eleven more than the target I’d created Monday for our small wholesale company. There are only three of us left. We’ve been learning to do each of the jobs formerly handled by eight people. Our general manager and his son walked out on the company last week without notice. We need to focus on small victories, stay positive and reassure our customers. So goals like the number of incoming calls are critical to my efforts to lead the company back from the brink. We’re surviving, creating new norms.
“Hi, John, this is Dierdre from J.L. Tire,” came the voice on the end of the line. After greeting the customer I haven’t met, but whose small tire shop is familiar in name, I asked, “How can I help you?” It was after 5:30 and we were in the middle of moving what remained of our tire inventory to a new warehouse and sales office nearby. “John, I’m calling to let you know that nobody from our shop can order tires on credit any longer…today is officially the last day in business for J.L. Tire.”
I was moved instantly by the call from the middle-aged woman. She had a proud, matronly voice. My mind constructed an image of a strong but feminine face, with weathered eyes, and short, salt and pepper hair. I pictured the family she built on the foundation of the income she and her husband must have earned from their business over many years. “I’m sorry,” I said calmly, sharing a moment of genuine togetherness with a person facing such a dramatic change. We talked briefly and exchanged contact information. Dierdre asked me to send her a bill for the remaining balance on the account. I wished her well, thanking her for the courtesy of her personal call. I felt admiration for her.
We’re working in Fort Smith, Arkansas. It’s a small town by the standards of the Eastern Seaboard or the Industrial Midwest. But Fort Smith is a big city to most of our customers. Some 86,000 people live here, with almost 300,000 residing in the expansive MSA that rests on the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma. Much of the ruggedness of the town made famous for its role in the settlement of the West is still alive in the identity of those that live in Fort Smith and Eastern Oklahoma. The recession continues to worsen here. The economy’s cascading effects lag the major US cities here in the country’s geographic mid-section. Unemployment is still climbing. Declining home values haven’t yet reached a plateau. We’re closer to the tail than the head of the giant caterpillar marching through its unforgiving paces.
We deliver our products mostly to rural auto repair and tire shops. Our customers typically are families. Dad works on cars with some of the guys they’ve known since childhood. Mom balances the checkbook and answers the phones. Often their payment for the tires we bring them competes with school clothes and groceries for primacy in the mind of the person managing the treasury. Consumptive behaviors are less conspicuous here than in most of our country. But people still have grown accustomed to living beyond their means. The restaurants remain full to capacity. The money to support such lifestyle adaptations no longer comes from home loans or unsecured credit. It’s being funded by the chronic co-mingling of business and personal assets.
A few weeks ago I called one of my company’s creditors. We’ve grown to be a slow payer as well. This particular company’s credit manager had impressed me with his skill in communicating. He seemed to tailor a message that inspired my loyalty to the task of repaying the debt. I asked him, “Narci, how do you strike the right balance with a business owner that owes you money?” He went on to explain to me in beautiful imagery the importance of taking your debtor “by the hand”, rather than taking them “by the neck”. His advice was prescient. But it was also rooted in a civility that stayed with me. Narci seemed to acknowledge the balance that exists between two parties working, seemingly at odds, but fundamentally in cooperation, to make a living for themselves and their families.
My business is struggling right now but will survive. Most of the working capital that was once secure in our warehouse has shifted. Last year it began steadily to move forward in the business system, so that our inventory is only a third of the value it was when I bought the company in 2007. By contrast, the accounts receivable are nearly four times their original size. The manager that abandoned the business last week is a kind and industrious man. He likes to help and please people. But he apparently didn’t have the stomach to remain for the hard work of cleaning up the mess. He sold our goods without hesitation, extending credit on a handshake basis where he wasn’t authorized. He trusted the character of the people he’s known and sold tires to for twenty-five years.
After my phone call with Dierdre ended I checked the ledger of accounts I’d printed the night before, finding J.L. Tire among the alphabetical list of more than 100 companies. J.L. Tire has two open sales orders, for $141 and $63. The accounts receivable aging report lists an additional $616 that is two months old. Dierdre and her husband owe The Tire Guys $820. My instincts tell me they will pay us what they owe. It may take time. But I can be patient. My mood was heightened by the civility of the call Dierdre made. She has courage and resolve. She is proud despite failure. I left the office with a smile for having made her acquaintance.
photo: ex_magician / flickr