A department store credit card on which I’ve kept a zero balance for years recently jacked up the annual interest to 57%. The store also made a dunning call for a bill of less than $40 – on the same day payment had been received.
At a well-known local deli, I saw the owner – who inherited the business from his father – stand in a corner while his staff worked maniacally. When a customer had some grievance, he told him he didn’t like his attitude.
Yesterday, an executive who is paid seven figures to run a not-for-profit organization called me personally to tell me a report I had spent weeks writing was “baloney” and wanted his money back.
These events happened at around the same time the titans of finance testified that they had no idea their actions had created the financial crisis. They also insisted they weren’t “fiduciaries” – they have absolutely no duty to protect their customers. I disagree; they do the best job on the planet representing the second syllable of that word.
I often think about the retribution that may be visited on such sultans of smugness. I’ve decided that the best punishment is to hand them a ball of yarn and make them sell it.
I have spent the last six years in the yarn business, co-owning Unwind with my wife. Stephanie runs the front end, day-to-day operations. Since I can’t knit and couldn’t sell missiles to Hamas, I stick to the glamour tasks of filing the sales tax returns and chasing after the woman who wrote $1,500 worth of rubber checks when we happened to be out of town.
I know a little bit of why all those people mentioned above are so nasty; running a business is a humbling experience. Enjoying some success – even if it’s not all yours – is exhilarating.
Well, sometimes. Four years ago, Stephanie called me in tears during the annual Super Bowl Sunday sale, certain that the line of people snaking around her store to buy merchandise would deplete her inventory and put her out of business. I reassured her that as long as she didn’t accept lead ingots for payment, that was unlikely to happen. (By the way, this year’s sale begins on Sunday morning).
But that pleasant, competent, ready-to-help and slightly self-effacing tone has created something remarkable – a cadre of customers willing to help. They fill in for Stephanie on a regular basis. They help out for special events. More than a dozen showed up on a recent Sunday morning to help take inventory. They get some yarn in return, but that’s it. If one of the volunteers complains about something, another usually puts them in their place.
I have written about business for nearly 20 years, and have not witnessed anything quite like this. True, the yarn business is focused on women, who tend to be more giving than men. It also promotes the collegiality of a group activity. But usually “friends” of a business owner find a way to sponge off of them. These friends freed up enough time so Stephanie could focus on the most difficult part of a retail enterprise in an economic downturn: recalibrating inventory and managing cash flow.
Meanwhile, the Great Recession picked off local yarn stores at an alarming rate – at least a dozen I am aware of. They’ve closed in Eagle Rock, Valley Village, Santa Clarita and the San Gabriel Valley.
Our store’s 2009 sales were flat compared to 2008. If two big-spending customers hadn’t left the area, last year’s sales would have been a little bit ahead. At any rate, 2009 and 2008 kept pace with 2007, which had been a growth year. This achievement will likely be one of the signal events of our marriage, comparable to my keeping my portion of the bathroom counter clean.
Despite the fact that our little business is poised for a recovery, there are still a million things to do. The sign outside needs to be spruced up. Some of slipcovers on the furniture are threadbare. The website and webstore need a redesign. Slowly and methodically, they will get done. They always do.
In the meantime, if Forbes or Fortune decides to write another article on the most-widely admired CEOs – why not pass over another sleazy investment banker and put Stephanie on the cover instead? Or, if not her, all the small business owners who toil away in obscurity, don’t bully their customers, and show up on their own every morning to unlock the front doors.
By the way, I run my own businesses as well. Here are links to my sites:
Payers & Providers (a healthcare publication)
RFS Consulting (a healthcare communications firm)