January 1, 2018

Cut from the same cloth

BY ROD McDONALD

“I yam what I yam” was written in 1933 as the signature phrase of the Popeye the Sailor song. Those words could also be utilized today as the theme to the entrepreneurs’ song. 

Many of us, from the green trades, are cut from the entrepreneurs’ cloth. We are what we are and it serves us both as a blessing and occasionally as a curse.

I love telling the following story. The first sign that the stewards at a race track look for when they suspect that a horse has been held back in order to lose a race is excessive sweating (on the horse, not the jockey). A race horse is trained to run. The horse loves to run and to race; it is in its breeding and its nature. To hold a horse back goes against generations of genetic selection and the horse’s temperament. A race horse, held back, works harder than if it is allowed to run.

Most of my readers are similar to a race horse. They want to run and not be held back. Going at half speed is more difficult than full out and they, similar to the race horse, sweat more when held back. We, including myself within this group, have a need to run. Not run wild but run the race. It’s who we are.

Ten years ago the medical team at our local kidney clinic held a conference. I was there as the patient. My wife was there as well as a few doctors and nurses, a social worker and a pharmacist. The lead doctor began: “It is now to the point where we must start you on dialysis. Your kidneys can no longer keep you alive. Along with dialysis, we must advise you that it is that time in your life when you have to slow down and take it easy.”

I nodded my head and said “I understand.” All of those from the medical team nodded their heads in return and the doctor resumed speaking. 

My wife interrupted. She said, “Hang on now. You saw him nod his head in agreement but all of you know who he is: He’s not going to listen to you. He’s not going to slow down. He’s going to say he will but that is just to get you to end the meeting so he can go back to doing what he always does.” 

She was right. She knows me only too well. I, like you, am cut from the same cloth. I have to run the race. There are no ribbons, in my world, for those who walk the race. In fairness, I certainly don’t run near as fast as I used to, but I am moving as fast as I can go. On my tombstone, they can write, “he got here quickly” or some other quip. 

I am not alone, nor are you. Wade Hartwell, the legendary founder of Golden Acres in Calgary, Alta., would go nonstop for days before he would crash. He wore out assistants who were half his age. Dieter Martin, regarded as the foremost horticulturalist in the prairies, is 85 and still going strong. He is in the greenhouse by 6:30 a.m. or the plants come to get him, or so he claims. Russell Boughen, from his namesake nursery in northern Manitoba, would state he was “more or less retired.” When I asked Russell how many potentilla were in a certain field, he responded 5,150.  I said to Russell, “You seem to know a lot for someone who claims to be more or less retired.” He smiled, gently, and we continued our walk around the nursery. 

We have more ideas than we do time. Our problem is that we need to ensure the projects we start are finished. To be a truly outstanding entrepreneur, we not only have to have cutting edge ideas, but also the ability to see those ideas through to success. All of us know several people who have the greatest ideas, but never quite get around to making them work. Their nurseries, greenhouses, stores and shops all need obvious maintenance. They finish very little of what they start and it does cost them money. We need to remind ourselves that we get paid for our production, our completions, not for our starts. 

I was on a local committee for a community project. There was a woman who continually suggested ideas, projects, and things for us to do, but she never volunteered to do any of the work herself. I reached my breaking point and commented (in reality I snapped) during a meeting “you sure have a lot of ideas, but you don’t seem to want to follow through.” Not nice, I know, but I had reached that point where being nice had left the building.

She laughed and said, “I am an idea person not an implementer.” That is the problem with most committees. There are too many “idea people” and not enough implementers. As business owners, to be successful we have to be both a creator and a finisher. No first place ribbons for being just one or the other. Again, we are paid for our completions not our attempts. 

My younger brother, who is cut from the same cloth as you and I, loves to get things done. His wife was ticked at him one day and she volunteered him for a committee at their local high school. The committee was to raise funds for the band to travel to Europe. My brother, who has an incredibly sharp business brain, was on a committee where no one else had any business acumen. Does this story write itself? One meeting was spent arguing, for an hour, about pennies. Not dollars, but pennies! The experience of being on a committee with no comprehension of time management aged him quicker than raising his teenagers. 

You and I have a need to get things done. We measure our day’s work in what we accomplish. Each of us might have a slightly different yard stick for measuring, but we all have a yard stick. 

My friend from the first grade is highly intelligent. He worked most of his career for the provincial government and as brilliant as he was, he could never understand my need to work hard and to finish tasks. He could not fathom that need to succeed. I acknowledge there are hard working and dedicated employees within the civil service. However, the bureaucratic process stymies their endeavours. While there are many rewards for us, there are few rewards for hard working government employees. No one ever gets fired from a government job for moving too slow. 

Many years ago I had a greenhouse manager who had, at one time, worked in a government funded greenhouse. He lasted only four months there. Another employee had warned him to ‘quit working so hard’ because he was making his coworkers look bad. “We all get paid the same no matter how hard we work,” the worker added. My greenhouse manager was cut from a different cloth and he could not handle that mentality. He had been trained, by his father, to run the race. When we are trained to run the race we don’t leave at quitting time when there are hanging baskets that need water. Quitting time is something we have difficulty comprehending. 

That mentality of slow or non-productive work explains why costs can escalate. The City of Regina closed down their long standing production greenhouses. Why? The city commissioned an accounting firm to conduct an audit of the greenhouse. The conclusion: A six-inch pot mum that I could purchase for six dollars cost the city $18 to grow. Some people get the math and some do not. 

When I am at a green trades conference I am surrounded by men and women who understand we get paid for our finishes and not our starts. The adage ‘skid row is filled with sales people who could not close’ needs no explanation when there are a dozen garden centre operators in one room. We get it and all of us want to develop our skill set so we are better closers and better project managers. 

Hold a convention, a conference or a seminar for the people from our trade and there is always a buzz in the room. The electricity is palpable with all of us talking at the same time, amped with adrenaline and pumped with new ideas. We are charged because we are in a room with people who understand how we feel and how we think. We are not alone and we are grateful for that camaraderie. 

A young man returned recently from a conference and trade show in Banff, Alta. He told me it was as if he were drinking from a hose turned up full blast. “The information, the ideas, and the debates were all so invigorating and arriving quicker than I could drink.” I understand. I have been in Banff and Winnipeg and Saskatoon and Edmonton and Calgary and Toronto. The same thing happens each and every time. I want to implement each and every new idea. I want to tell everyone about the new plants and products I have found. Time, of course, governs all of us, but if we use it wisely, we achieve more than we could if we had no dream at all. We are dreamers who run the race and we run it well. 

Staying on the road to success is so much easier when we are cut from right cloth. I don’t have to explain this statement because you understand. Of course you do.  

Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage. 

Landscape Trades,
January 2018