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Monday, December 5, 2016

To paraphrase Tolstoy, every successful small business shares the same traits. And they all begin with high quality employees. I’m thinking of three local establishments where I’ve traded for years: an auto repair garage, a dentist’s office, and a one-size-fits-all country store where I buy cattle and horse feed.

Along with just about everything else the aptly-named “Toad Suck One-Stop” might conceivably carry: from crickets and minnows to motor oil, pain remedies, kitty litter and homemade sandwiches. If you get up early enough, they’ll even fix you breakfast while somebody else loads feed sacks into your truck. (Toad Suck is a place name designating a long-ago ferryboat stop on the Arkansas River.)

It’s much the same at George Jett’s auto garage down in Little Rock; also at my dentist’s, whose name is Lamar Lane. The first thing you notice is familiar faces. People who work at these places stay for years. And they do so because they’re well-paid, earn decent benefits, and are treated respectfully. So they like their jobs, take pride in their work, and are glad to see familiar customers.

Now I’m not going to lie that I love going to the dentist. But I do like feeling among friends, even if it means hearing Dr. Lane carry on about his LSU Tigers. (Because my wife was born in Baton Rouge, where her daddy played ball, I get a double dose.)

Something else: how a business treats employees also tends to be a reliable predictor of how they treat customers. Dr. Lane does high-quality work and stands by it. If a crown breaks, he replaces it free without asking were you shelling pecans with your teeth.

My man George Jett hires good mechanics, values their skills, and guarantees their work. If the rattle’s still there, he’ll drive the vehicle around the block and then put it back on the lift to figure out why—also at no additional charge.

Jason down at the One-Stop isn’t exactly a philanthropist — at least not where Bermuda grass hay and Canadian night-crawlers are concerned. Keeping a business with so many moving parts running requires constant attention to detail. New hires that stand out back smoking when shelves need re-stocking tend not to last. Loyal long-time employees won’t cut them much slack.

Gas is cheaper at the Walmart across the river in Faulkner County, but the One-Stop’s pumps stay busy. It’s the community’s unofficial town hall. If you want to know who’s looking for a lost blue heeler or how Holly’s orphaned baby raccoons are doing, it’s got to be the One-Stop.

Ordinarily, such commonplaces would hardly be worth recording. So there are friendly folks at the country store.

Who’d of thunk it?

Unless, that is, you live in the United States of America, a large proportion of whose tycoon class appears determined to drag us back to the Gilded Age.

If they gave a Scrooge McDuck Award for the nation’s greediest knucklehead, the 2013 winner would be Home Depot’s billionaire founder Kenneth Langone, a Catholic who voiced public alarm at Pope Francis’s seeming enthusiasm for the gospel of Matthew 19. That’s where Jesus observes that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

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