Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

A friend teaches me about business

Of all the people I miss because they have passed on, the one who was a major influence on me and my views was “Lou,” a fellow I met through an atheist group that I had joined.

Lou lived in Boca Raton, in a very nice development, and I began to visit his house sometime in the late 1980s. We’d sit in his home office and talk about religion, which he dismissed as nothing more than “a business.”

“It’s the biggest, most profitable business in the world,” he’d tell me again and again. “And I know business.”

Over time, his story came out. He had not even finished high school and had joined the Navy in World War II. Sent to the Pacific, he spent the war working in supply on islands. I don’t think he ever saw any combat.

After the war, he returned to the U.S. and began a business in Newark, N.J., that made legal forms. One time, after I had started working at the Palm Beach Post, I took him to the paper. He took one look at the Linotype on display in the lobby and began to describe how it operated.

He had bought a Linotype for his business, he said, and hired a man to operate it. But the arrangement wasn’t working the way he liked, Lou said, so he watched the man for a few days as he did his work, fired the man and started doing it himself.

“He was a jerk,” Lou said.

Lou had a partner in the business, a man who was a lot more hard-edged. Lou could be pretty hard on people, he told me, and sometimes would set me straight when I was wishy-washy in my own thinking.

I felt like there was a sadness about Lou. In his garage was his car, and his late wife’s car. He never talked about her, though he did mention selling the car. He eventually bought a Lincoln Town Car in the mid-1990s, and my great thrill was the time we went up to Longwood, Fla., for an atheist group meeting, and he let me drive the car. It was really a beauty. I’m not a fan of big sedans, but that Town Car really moved well.

In his politics, Lou was hard left. He viewed the purpose of business as making money but also providing a reasonable living for workers. His partner disagreed, he told me, and often they would be sitting on the partner’s yacht while the latter inveighed against the minimum wage and other benefits workers were getting.

Lou pointed out that their business paid more than the minimum wage, and better even than the unions could get their workers. He also liked to mention that they took advantage of tax breaks, federal programs for training workers and more. While many of the employees in his company were immigrants, Lou said, there were many black people working there.

Lou tended to be a hands-on manager, and he’d clear jams at the printing presses by diving under the press to fix problems, often ruining his good clothes. “I didn’t care,” he said. “I needed to set an example.”

As I mentioned, Lou described how he kept the unions out of his shop by the simple expedient of finding out what the unions thought they could get, and beating their offers. It cost them some profit, but kept the workers loyal.

That paid off one night in a way that went beyond dollars and cents.

In reaction to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., rioting broke out in cities in the U.S. Lou was home that evening and saw what was happening in Newark on TV. He feared that the business he had built with his partner was going to burn down like so many others.

The next day, he drove out to the building, and found, to his amazement, that the building was still standing and intact. He asked a worker what happened, and was told that the workers had armed themselves with whatever they had at hand. When the rioters came to torch the building, they had defended it, telling them that their employer was a good man who didn’t deserve to lose his business.

Of course, Lou knew that they were also defending their own livelihoods, but all those years of paying good wages and offering benefits – and being demanding of his workers – had paid off in one moment during the infamous Newark riots.

It shocked him how companies exploited workers, he said. “How are these people going to live if you don’t pay them?” he’d ask. And they certainly wouldn’t stand up for you if the chips were down.

Lou said he was touched at what the workers had done for him and his partner, and it kept them in business though the late 1960s and 1970s.

I’ve never had a business or workers to supervise, but I will always remember that aspect of my conversations with Lou, and especially his memories of that moment when his workers stood up for themselves, and for him.

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December 5, 2013 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , ,

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