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Economics Employment

Personal reflections on how I became a small business owner

I didn’t have much time to reflect on the past couple years when my business first won the 2018 Small Business Award last month.

A few days after the award, my wife mentioned to me that I still seemed very stressed and busy at work. In fact, I was too busy to think much about the award, because our staffing agency had a lot of positions to fill and little time to fill them.

But since then, I’ve had more time to reflect on how meaningful this award was to me. I remember another time I was an award that meant a lot. It was in 2012, and I had just surprised myself and won a trip to New York City for a sales contest.

This award was meaningful for several reasons. One of them is because, professionally, I have predominantly thought of myself as a business person. (I make sure to emphasize that I am only referring to how I think of myself professionally. I am first of all a child of God who is saved by faith, then as a husband and father.)

I took the time to reflect on how my life took some turns over the past several years. It wasn’t too long ago that I had quit a decently-paying job to start a business from scratch.

Throughout the course of life, there are people who often influence you and help shape you into the person you become. There are also key turning points that affect how you make the decisions.

I wasn’t always going to be a business person. In college I studied writing and then switched to journalism later on.

A few years into my career as a newspaper reporter, I began to worry about my prospects in an industry that is by all accounts one of the fastest declining in the country.

My wife wanted to be a stay-at-home mother, so I began to wonder how I could provide for a family on a reporter’s salary. To make things worse, newspaper reporters were getting laid off in droves. The possibility of being a sole provider for a family and being laid off concerned me.

I had to make a change, and I didn’t know what to do. I considered several different types of career changes, but most didn’t seem feasible.

Things changed when I was a reporter for a newspaper in South Carolina. Our newspaper had been struggling for a while, and most of us worried about our future.

Things changed for a while when we got a new manager who started to influence us to take pride in our newspaper again.

Alex Saitta was that new manager, and he made the job look appealing and fun. He took pride in the position, he worked long hours, and he was energetic.

Alex was often painfully frugal, and he moved a mile a minute. When he had an opinion, he thoughtfully and methodically defended it.

Also, even though he was financially very frugal, he helped several of us get raises — a rare occurrence in the newspaper industry. And this was shortly after the Great Recession.

It was an interesting lesson to me that sometimes the most frugal people can also be the ones most likely to provide raises for their employees.

He made the position of newspaper manager (often referred to as publisher) look appealing. I hadn’t considered that position before, but I did after seeing how he conducted himself.

I remember when he forwarded us an email from an executive with our company, telling us that our newspaper had moved from one of the least financially successful newspapers to become in the top third in the company.

On the heels of the Great Recession, financial and economic matters started to interest me more. I decided to go back to school and earn an MBA.

A year or two later, I talked to the executives in my company about being promoted to a General Manager or Publisher with the company.

They took a chance on me and obliged. We moved to North Carolina, and I started a dual role as a General Manager/Editor of two small newspaper here.

When I started, I was cognizant my predominant job was to make sure the newspaper I was overseeing was doing well financially. My main job was not to write a bunch of editorials. The days in which newspaper publishers sat around, played golf and wrote editorials was over. It was time to focus on making a profit.

One of the first moves was to call Alex, who I considered one of my top business mentors. I asked him how he had helped the newspaper become financially profitable. He told me that he would look at every single invoice and question whether he should still keep that service or whether he could cut it. I followed that advice.

But I soon realized I needed to not just control costs, but help the business grow revenue. And I was fully expected to be a salesperson and work with customers, something that seems anathema to many managers.

That was a relatively frightening thought to me. The word “sales” seems to strike fear in many people’s hearts. And many managers would prefer to tell their own salespeople what to do than have to face customers.

The CEO of our company, Michael Bush, insisted that his managers interface with their clients. Ivory tower managers were unacceptable. Managers were expected to sell also. “Leadership is by example,” Michael would often say.

Our company would hold an annual sales contest. Those who sold enough would be allowed to go on a special trip to a different city each year. One year it was New York City, then Nashville, and then Chicago. Salespeople, managers, and even some executives were expected to sell enough advertising promotions to make the trip. Not making the trip would be embarrassing and make it hard for managers to motivate their own sales teams.

There was one problem for me, though. I had no accounts. I remember stepping out of my office and asking our assistant: “So … did my predecessor have any accounts?” The answer was no.

So I was given a couple options. The first was to take accounts away from my salespeople and give it to myself. That would be terrible leadership and make my salespeople angry. The second option was to just go get new accounts. So that’s what I did: I sold advertising promotions to brand new clients or clients who hadn’t advertised with us in a while.

Not only did I make the trip, but I ranked in the top third in individual sales. Our office was one of the top performing offices in the company.

What had started as a scary challenge ended up being very rewarding. Plus, I was able to win a trip to New York City. For someone who grew up in Italy, going to New York City is very exciting. Italy is very beautiful, but it does not have any skylines that are like New York City.

In New York City, I was given a plaque with a certificate on it. I remember thinking that was one of the most rewarding plaques or certificates I was ever given. I had earned a trip to New York City but didn’t have to even pay for the trip there. The beat of both worlds: a sense of accomplishment and getting something for free.

Two years later, we held a similar contest, and I was the No. 2 salesperson in a group of 187 salespeople. I also oversaw the sales and customer service teams for a handful of community newspapers and about 25 employees.

So within two years, I had gone from being scared I wouldn’t be able to sell anything to being the second highest in sales. I’m thankful that Michael Bush had high expectations.

Over the next few years, I began to have the urge to start my own business. I remember seeing an advertisement in a business magazine for a staffing company. At the time, it seemed too good to be true that someone could make a living recruiting, interviewing and putting people to work.

Over that time, I began to realize that my time was best spent recruiting good people and then training and retaining the employees I had.

I left the newspaper industry and started my own staffing business. I remember a week after I had quit my job, I was walking through downtown Winston-Salem, headed to a government office as I was preparing to set up my business.

I thought to myself: “I have no job, I have a business with no customers, and I have a family with three children to support. Have I completely lost my mind?”

However, I did have the knowledge and the ability to run a business, and I had the ability to find clients and to retain them with good service and follow-through. Alex Saitta and Michael Bush were two key people in the past few years who influenced me professionally. Alex Saitta helped me realize how fun leading a business could be. Michael Bush helped me learn that I could grow a business.

Sometimes we won’t realize who we influence along the way.

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