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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

TO WEATHER THE STORM, CREATE YOUR OWN FORECAST

by Ira Bryck

Whether or not “May you live in interesting times” is an actual Chinese curse, I’d rather be plagued with that than the Yiddish “Onions should grow in your navel.” One would imagine that for that to happen, you’d need to be pretty passive, as well as not shower often.

“Interesting times” suggest we are working with the (also Chinese) “Crisis as Opportunity,” and both slogans imply that interesting times produce their heroes.

We’re also in a period of “Hope as Change,” so hopefully we’ll see heroes emerging to help. I already see them, in the ranks of local family business owners. Faced with the true workings of Trickle Down Economics (manure rolls downhill) heroes scrappily exploit resources, and precariously capitalize on circumstances invisible to the non-entrepreneurial eye.

They surely understand the conventional wisdom of weathering storms: hunker down, batten the hatches, sit on cash, and outlive the competition. One only needs to look at nature for inspiration, from humps of camels to burrowing lungfish to napping bears, on this method of insuring survival.

That sort of risk aversion is widespread right now; and easy to understand. But there are examples of local business owners who are looking to the future with intelligence and faith of what to also do:

• The endless streamlining and coordinating that businesses require often shocks the entrepreneur, hoping to pursue a passion or talent. Some become reluctant experts at the software that manages quoting, supply chain, customer relations, and so on. Jeff Glaze, president of Decorated Products, a Westfield manufacturer of custom nameplates, dials, decals, and labels, got so good at the software that he created a new profit center by becoming a master trainer, and making his company a learning lab. This not only takes advantage of Jeff’s love of teaching, but doubles as a succession strategy, starting something different to 'get out of the way' for staff and family who will be taking over in the next 10 years. His sons, Justin and Jordan, new to the business, started G4 Graphics, producing custom decals that wrap around quad ATVs. The innovation of G4, quality controls of Decorated, and software mastery of Epi-Center all cross-fertilize to build immunity to the Great Recession.

• Woody Allen said (about relationships) “a shark has to constantly move forward ... and I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.” When David Rothenberg diagnosed his “shark,” he transformed Bottaro Skolnick Interiors, a 65 year old furniture store, into The Design Resource Center NE and Corporate Designs NE. This bold shift reaches back to the company’s roots as decorators, focusing on the world of residential and commercial design; and shedding retail residential furniture, which he diagnosed as dead in the water. David says that initiating this change has given him a new sense of purpose and opened his mind to new possibilities. He’s working harder than he has in years, and is exhilarated by the challenge.

• The adage “Do What You Do Best” inspired Jack Welch to dump divisions where GE was not first or second. But this is easier said then done when every sale counts. Jason Mark, owner of Northampton based web design firm Gravity Switch has been offering the “Best” - web design and development to clients who would otherwise have to go to Boston or San Francisco for their level of work; and the “Better” things as value-added to clients. But in these tougher times, they are offering those services - copywriting, search engine optimization, improving navigation – even if your site is not by Gravity Switch. In addition, Jason has proudly only accepted customers that went beyond a technical and creative fit, insisting on compatibility with his personal and corporate values. Even now, he still would not deal with a reprehensible company, but has more capacity for customers who are not philosophical soul mates.

Survival entails getting back to basics, which entails a thorough exploration: Why do we deserve our customers’ loyalty? What else can we provide? What can we do without? What do we need to do today to get where we want to be tomorrow? How can we be better at what we do best? How can we emerge from these tumultuous times more focused and vigorous?

There is no time – interesting or routine – that you don’t need to reflect and respond. Any company that allows an onion to grow in its navel will not be around for the next crisis, or the next opportunity.

- Ira Bryck is the Director of the UMass Family Business Center, a learning community sharing wisdom, experience, honesty and frankness; the website is at www.umass.edu/fambiz

 

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