One of the greatest guys I’ve gotten to know during my 30 years or so on the speaking circuit is Jurek Leon (a Scot of Polish descent seeing you ask!). He’s an absolute whiz with small to medium businesses and what he doesn’t know about how to get them making great money isn’t worth knowing. In fact I’m pleased and proud that Jurek is a regular contributor to my audio program Business Marketing. Recently he reflected on the 18 years he’s been in business and I reckon that there’s some great stuff in there for you to ponder. Read it below and then subscribe to his very valuable newsletter.
Terrific Trading is 18 years old today. We’ve lasted the distance, reached adulthood, how amazing. I never intended to be a business owner even though it is what I was brought up with. From birth I was groomed to run a business. I’m the only child of a self-made man who started a sawmilling and timber business from scratch back in the 1950’s.
My father built up a very successful business. It wasn’t attractive to me though, even though I loved timber; in fact the opposite. My father was a driver, great at building things but easily bored when they were going smoothly. He would actually create crises and then thrive on dealing with them. Once I joined him, he and I continually clashed – two strong personalities with very different philosophies. I rebelled against the all consuming nature of my father’s business, the lack of induction and safety training and all the other things I learned at business school.
The Blue Sky Way
Talking of business school, while I enjoyed my part time studies at Edinburgh College of Commerce, I actually learned far more about management while looking after my mother’s laundrette and dry cleaning business. She was a silent partner in the Blue Sky Laundrette in my home town of Haddington. In those days a lot of people didn’t have their own washing machine and a laundrette was seen as a license to print money. My mother’s partner in this business was transferred to England and at the age of 19 because I’d studied accountancy and understood how to keep the books I found myself running the business.
I was an overnight success. Turnover immediately went up 20%. What was my secret? Instead of the manageress emptying the coin-operated washing machines and driers at the end of the day and depositing the money in the bank’s night safe, I took on the task. It turned out she’d been skimming the takings. Lesson number one – always have checks and balances and vary the routine!
I also learned about handling customer complaints – especially when the local motor dealership had its showroom curtains shrunk in our machines. I learned about staffing and came to understand that the person who rushes around the place isn’t necessarily the most productive. I learned the importance of planned maintenance and of always having a back-up plan because broken down washing machines can’t make you money. I learned the importance of working in with other businesses and the synergy this can create. I learned to value supplier relationships and the role that they play in success and to appreciate my customers because without them nothing else matters.
The years growing up and working in my father’s business and joining him on business trips to England and Germany helped me understand that there is a lot more to a good business deal than price – even though that’s the part that people speak most loudly about. When you ask questions and really listen, you learn what represents value to other people, and you often discover ways for both parties to win.
I also learned about product quality and the importance of understanding how your customers use your products. Our high quality hardwood timbers would go to making musical instruments and for furniture. The lower quality timbers went to the coal mines as pit-props for building up the walls of the mines.
We had an ongoing problem with some of the mines in the midlands of England. There were a couple of inspectors at these mines who were notorious for rejecting pallets of our pit-props and chalks…. which meant that they would have to be returned all the way back to our sawmill in Scotland, a frustrating and costly problem. The view at our end about these inspectors was something akin to the home fans views about an umpire who gives a controversial decision the way of the opposing team!
On a visit to the National Coal Board HQ with my father to sort this out, I was asked, “Have you ever been down a coal mine?” I hadn’t, but nor had anyone who worked in our sawmill. We arranged for half the staff to be bussed to a coal mine at Seafield in Fife one day and the rest of the staff on the same day the following week. Everyone came back in awe at the conditions the miners faced underground and determined to ensure that every bit of timber that went on our trucks was good enough to do the job it was intended for. Suddenly, this wasn’t about product quality, it was about protecting miners’ lives. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. We don’t sell products, we sell solutions to problems.
Being young, at that stage I wasn’t aware of all the valuable lessons I’d learned. I opted out of the family businesses and in my early 20’s left Scotland for good to make my way in Australia. And the belief about being a boss that I took with me was, “You can’t run a business. The business runs you.”
Should friends become business partners?
After a few years working in HR (they called it Personnel in those days) then training and development and managing a couple of training organisations, I fell into self-employment. I had a close friend and former colleague who had set up a company the year before, Manufacturing Australia, specialising in the, at that time, huge new market in Quality Assurance. He had a small team of engineers and as a former state director of the Industrial Design Council of Australia wanted me to come in as a partner bringing my sales experience and people skills. I had another belief ingrained in me though, which was that friends shouldn’t become business partners.
Instead I chose to work for a former politician developing his training enterprise. The fact that he was keen to entice me aboard appealed to my ego. Never allow your ego to influence your decisions!
I resigned after six weeks, yet somehow this master negotiator persuaded me to withdraw my resignation. That only lasted a few more weeks. His enterprise didn’t feel right to me and after 12 weeks I secured my release. I’d already worked out with my friend that I would set up a separate company; we would share offices and see how things went. Down the track if it worked out, we would combine our businesses. And so, on 21 September 1992 Terrific Trading was born.
It turned out to be the worst day of my life.
I’d known that my friend was ill, but hadn’t realised till a few days before just how much he was suffering. He’d always had a high pain threshold and I’d become used to seeing him dealing with pain. Tragically that night he died.
So, Terrific Trading had the saddest of beginnings. I often think that if I’d joined him 12 weeks earlier things might have been so different. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been so clear about enjoying what I do and ensuring that whatever it is, it will make a difference. And fortunately, since then it has been a wonderful journey.
After a few years, another friend and former colleague, Jan Collins joined me. Every year in December we sit down by water, review the year and say, “Is this what we want to do with our lives?” And each year, we clarify what we don’t want to do and the types of businesses we don’t want to work with. It’s something we are quite ruthless about (you didn’t know we were ruthless people, did you?) Then we get a clear picture of the types of businesses and people we do want to work with. It’s this clarity of purpose that continues to ensure we have a lot of fun.
Last year it became even better, because after many years of trying to entice her on board my best friend and wife, Gwen also joined the business.
Occasionally, as I look back I can see that there have been times when the business has run me but I’ve soon moved to a far healthier perspective. In fact, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do… and if I could, I’d be doing it.
To our many customers, suppliers and business associates who have made this possible. Thank you!
Jurek Leon is a storyteller, trainer and coach who presents courses and addresses seminars on word of mouth marketing, motivation, customer focussed selling and managing the customer experience. Subscribe to Jurek’s FREE monthly ‘Terrific Tips’ e-newsletter at www.terrifictrading.com. Alternatively, email firstname.lastname@example.org.