A real business education

I had a friend, Dave Clayman, who just died at 93. He was quite a remarkable fellow. He graduated from Harvard University in 1939, going to school with such luminaries as President John F. Kennedy, former Secretary of State Casper Weinberger, legendary composer and New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein and others. Dave’s Rolodex was a Who’s Who of Americana.Dave’s father had passed away when he was very young, but his mother started a wholesale candy and tobacco business in Lawrence, Mass. From a little store, this lady with very little education built a multi-million dollar business. She was very innovative, always trying to please her customers.He built a cigarette vending business, designing his own machines which were built by a local sheet metal shop. He made a fortune and eventually sold the business.As the money poured in, he built himself a house. He bought the lot from a local bank president. His mother encouraged him to buy some of the bank’s stock “to show some appreciation.” The bank was the Arlington Trust Company, and the stock really took off, making Dave incredibly wealthy. Dave went to work for Wang Laboratories, writing several books to help people understand how to use its newly developed calculators and computers, and even became a personal friend of Dr. An Wang.His heart, however, was in teaching. He became a teacher and taught math at Lawrence and Methuen High Schools. Decades later, Dave and I would often have lunch together. It was not unusual for people to approach our table, introduce themselves as former students and wish him well. He must have been a good teacher or they wouldn’t have bothered.The ‘win-win’He even served as a Lawrence city councilor in his 80s and kept close ties with Harvard, doing a fair amount of fundraising for them. Dave had a knack for business, even a Midas touch, but what I found interesting was that his business acumen came not from his studies at Harvard or even from his impressive friends. They came from his mother.I visited him at Lawrence General Hospital the day before he died. He was doing so well, I never thought it would be my last visit. He told me of a friend he was trying to advise not to squeeze every last nickel out of a deal. “My mother always taught me you can’t build a business by taking advantage of people. Both parties have to benefit equally in each transaction or it doesn’t work,” he said.Dave was referring to what we typically call a win-win situation, but long before that terminology became popular, his mother, an uneducated Jewish immigrant from Russia, understood it. Without satisfied customers, there’s no repeat business or referrals. How can you grow?Today we have consultants, management books, MBA programs and other things to help us learn. The advice they give can help, but it’s the long enduring truths that build lasting businesses.Just listen to Dave and his mother, and you’re off to a good start: please your customers, show some appreciation, teach others and go for the win-win.Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham who has had engagements throughout the U.S. and in Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871; RonBourque@myfairpoint.net; or bourqueai.com.