At the close of the Inaugural Small Business Survival Summit last week, I was drawn to reflect on many of the highlights. While critics might bemoan the smaller than anticipated attendance, it would be a mistake to dismiss the event’s closing! All I can say is, if you missed it, you… missed it!
The crowd was treated to real-life pearls of business wisdom from such notables as Alan Elkin of Advanced Business Systems, Rick Huether of Independent Can Company,Ken Potter of AgraCo Technologies International and Bob Wolfgang of Wolfgang Candy Company. It was my pleasure to moderate the panel. While these men represent different industries, have varied backgrounds and interest, common threads continuously resonated throughout the comments they shared. Words like ‘integrity,’ ‘commitment,’ ‘teamwork,’ and ‘loyalty’ were used consistently. These legends had no advance knowledge of the questions the audience or I would ask, and yet their answers were eerily similar.
One in particular that stands out is the difference between employees now and employees who started working for their companies years ago. Work ethic is a struggle for many small business owners trying to hire today. In spite of the fact that the unemployment rate sits at 9.1 percent, many Americans simply refuse to do what they deem a “menial task” such as domestic, custodial or other blue-collar jobs. The conclusion: many would rather sit home and collect a check than put in an honest day’s work!
A testament to the dedication these entrepreneurs have to their business, employees and family: when I informed them attendance might be low for their 75-minute session, Alan Elkin said, “if it’s only two people, they still deserve a good show.” It was then I knew the crowd was in for a real treat!
What the audience and I heard from these men was total dedication to customers and employees. Ken Potter and his wife even paid for and provided legal and financial services to their employees free of charge! Elkin has one employee who has been with him for more then 40 years (whose name is not Elkin). Treat your employees like family, and they will never leave. Rick Huether said in the event a layoff occurred, it was a Huether family member let go before and employee was given a pink slip.
On more then one occasion, these modest, soft-spoken men received spontaneous applause from the audience. My sense is the crowd could really hearken back to a bygone era where the philosophy these men live by was a badge of honor for all companies. Almost gone are the days when any employee is still around after 15, 20, or 25 years, let alone 40!
The evening ended with a spectacular video from the event producer, VPC and its President Eli Eisenberg. From the second the crowd entered the ballroom, they were overcome by a sense of the patriotism and grassroots struggles that drive so many to turn this economy around, as only small business can do. The event idea itself was the brainchild of small business owners Pat and PJ Chambers and Web IXI, a small web design firm in Harford County. Tired of the legislative and regulatory handcuffs put on many business owners, the Chambers felt compelled to step up to the plate.
While first year events are always a struggle to pull together, particularly in a down economy, the hope is the event will grow in size and stature. Fortunately for events like this, there is a need for small business owners to share ideas and best practices, in economies good or bad.
Noticeable by their absence were any of the mayoral candidates or, for that matter, anyone in local civic leadership positions. Who is the candidate waving the, “I’m for small business” flag? A huge disappointment but not an entirely surprising one, as I have touched on in previous messages. For Baltimore to turn things around, we cannot have more of the same lip service. My sense is the audience at this forum would have rather had anyone of these four business leaders running the city than the crop we put up to run!
Let’s hope that the founders of this event can in fact regroup, restructure and assemble their team to tackle this again next year. Much like the Grand Prix, first performances can be the most difficult. Is there an Off Broadway audience for events like this?