I recently decided it was time to have a piece or two of furniture re-upholstered. I called Arnold, whom I’ve known socially for more than thirty years and invited him to come by, look over the situation and make an offer.
Arnold is like myself- a self-employed businessman. We have a physical location as our official office address but basically work out of virtual space. Our cell phones are our main method of communicating with the outside world other than email. In Arnold’s case, however, he admits that all he can do is open email, read it and reply. He doesn’t understand the more trickier task of scanning a document and attaching it to an email instead of the old-fashion form of faxing.
After Arnold and I finished with the business of discussing what he would do for the furniture and how much it would cost, we got to talking about how he got to this point in life. I mentioned that I knew that the business was originally run by his father. I wondered if he had intended to work with him or if he had planned on doing something else with his life. I mean, how many middle class white guys born in this country who speak only English are still in the business of offering a trade?
Arnold confessed to me that he did not want to be doing what he was doing but that circumstances dictated it. He had gone to college, majored in accounting and had received an MBA in post-graduate studies. His father along with an uncle (his father’s brother) had started the business many years earlier but not too long after his uncle found something more interesting to do and left the burden of the business all to his father.
After college, more than thirty years ago, Arnold was working in the downtown Chicago Loop area for a bank. One day, his father called him and asked what he did during his lunch hour. Arnold told him how he every day prepared a bag lunch and ate it in the office. So, his father asked him a favor.
His father said, “You get- what forty-five minutes or an hour for lunch? If I gave you a whole bunch of business cards, could you go to the various office buildings down there while on lunch break, introduce yourself to the management people, drop off my card and mention that if they need any furniture re-upholstered, that I’m the guy?”
His father offered to give him a commission on whatever business he got out of it. It was a win-win situation. Arnold said that he agreed to do it and just like that his father started getting calls and was soon inundated with more business than he could handle. He practically begged his son to quit his job and to go into partnership with him. He promised a decent enough salary to make the transition worthwhile.
Arnold agreed and found that it consumed his life. All the training he received in higher business education was nice but not really needed. He was doing business the old-fashioned way and was being the main determiner of how much money he would make. His father died unexpectedly at a relatively young age- in his early sixties, leaving the business to Arnold after only working a few short years together.
Arnold then made a tell-tale poignant statement: “I’ll be honest with you, with my lifestyle- if I cannot make $150,000 a year, I don’t break even. I have five kids. Some are still going to private school as well as a couple who are in college. My wife and I help with the college tuition. We don’t want our kids saddled with big loans to pay off for years after graduating.”
He further stated, “I know some people will shake their head if I said that if I make $120,000 in a year, it means I have to borrow from my savings or cut down on our expenses.”
I probably exhibited body language that wondered if his pricing factored in his need for a pretty good lifestyle. Then again, I knew that he was fairly priced for the work he did. It made me wonder how many deals he needed to make during the year.
It would be easy to tell someone that nobody put a gun to their head and forced them to have five kids and to move a few years ago from a practical sized house to a much nicer larger one in the east side of the village that I live in. Nobody demanded that his kids had to go to expensive colleges and get a fancy education. Arnold was entitled to his choices in life and if he was able to achieve them financially, then it was to his credit. If not, it was his burden.
Yes, Arnold is in the business of doing coverups, but he is a straight-forward, honest upstanding guy. As with many other self-employed baby boomers, he awaits each week for an opportunity to cut another deal while thinking about not just his own so-called retirement years but the choices in life his own children will have to make.