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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hennings Local, Restaurant and Pub - The Original Sin

I start businesses.  And I grow them.  In an area with a very shallow labor pool - be it professional or 'in the field'.   It's not easy.  And it takes a lot of work, a lot of patience, a lot of effort.  A lot of perseverance in the face of investments and risks in people who don't work out - but you gotta keep trying because there are diamonds in the rough out there, just waiting to be honed and polished and valued.

A few years ago, I realized part of any success in sticks is how much shit can you eat - you have your moments of success and failure, the general business existence depends on dealing with the nonsense of country ways and mannerisms (i.e. spite your nose off your face type of thing).

Okay, maybe this is a little overboard even by my standards, but I'm supposed to be on a first class flight to CA for a 16 day vacation with my right hand man, which I have now cancelled.  I'm supposed to be a plane right now, somewhere over the Rockies, heading for Sacramento, where Leo from college who now lives in Santa Rosa, was going to pick us up, and then we were going to hike Yosemite for the 8th time in 10 years and then hit the base camp town of Sonora on the way out of the hills, to where a convertible mustang was waiting for me and my wingman so we could travel west to the coast, grab Route 1 and head South to Venice Beach.  So, for those who hate my occasional confessionals, stop here.

Of course that was before I found out he quit, without notice, to work for Henning, who was offering him unsustainable wages, Henning - who I employed for over a year, who I introduced to many people as my friend, who I introduced to more or less everyone who helped him with this opportunity, who I wished the best for as he launched his quixotic reopening of the Eldred Preserve.

Now, you got to understand, Henning, of Henning's Local, is from the Netherlands, where a fair-minded capitalism-socialism is a time-tested success.  Moms get a ton of time off, vacation is a multi-month affair, health care and education is free.. . So to see Henning from the Fatherland pull out the hard-core capitalist employee poaching strategy, well, let's just say it is unexpected and to be explored fully in this missive.  I even respect it in way, but you have to expect some blowback.

It starts a few years ago, as we were building Cottage 24, Cottage 20, Ranch II, DIY's blog cabin ranch and Farm 12 (which I just did some swimming this wekend in their new pool this past summer).  I hired this guy - I can't even remember his name.  Which makes me reflect on how far we have come, just based on who we hire for what.  I hire this guy to do some siding and stuff and arrives with the most basic of tools - a crappy chop saw, a road un-worthy trailer, a broken down truck.  He also arrives with two helpers.  Anyways, it's winter, not unlike the Russian Winter where Nazi Germany launches Barbarosa, and they show up and somehow get it done.  They have small fires going with their scrap wood to warm their ill-clad extremities, they work when the sun is shining, they show up, they get it done, barely.

Ken - that's right - his name was Ken.  He was overweight, talked too much, had limited skills.  But his wingman was a guy no more than 25.  So, because our labor pool is so shallow, and because this small company actually showed up and helped us in a busy busy time, we kept them on for a few houses - however imperfect they may be.  And I tell this to people, our clients- we insulate you from the drama, the toughness, the struggle to get it done.  We wage that battle - you can pick out the light fixtures and paint and door knobs.

So anyway, weirdly, in my boots on the ground way, I got to know this young kid - redneck, didn't say much, seemed to have some skills (with their broken down ladders and crappy equipment) - but the guy was polite, knew how to say thank you, knew how to use a computer (rarely do I get a computerized invoice).  So after a few houses of course his boss (actually his girlfriend's dad whose basement he was living in) started to underperform, cause us issues, etc...  it was to be expected but you milk it as long as you can because you have to.  There aren't 5 companies around the bend vying for your business.

As a sort of amateur talent scout who has built a business taking risks on people, pushing them, training them, elevating them, this kid was a great candidate, mostly because he had a fair amount of politeness and common sense, uncommon traits, believe it or not.  Got him out of the basement, into a house, into a job, into health insurance, into a leadership role, into a credit-worthy position - and wallah, one day he's gone - not even a phone call, he's no more.  And like Lisa said, it's because he knows he is doing something dastardly that he has forgotten the respect that attracted me to him in the first place.

Anyways, I could go on and on and on, which I planned to but know I'm not going to -

In the end, Henning - who I helped, assisted, was generous to - decided that this kid - who I helped, assisted, was generous to - could help him grow his business (which is not easy up here by any stretch of the imagination).  And they made a deal.  Or Henning, who claims he can't control what someone else wants to do, like as an employer he has no control over who he hires, offered him temporary money to fill in the holes of his growing tiny business.  I love the thought Henning Nordanger keeps throwing out in self-defense - "I can't control what he wanted to do" - like if his wife was coming on to me, I couldn't turn her down, according to his logic.

In the end, it's a simple story - a small business person was faced with a dilemma (fast growth) and did what he had to to keep the business rolling.  That may work better in a big city, but here in the middle of nowhere, smart businesspeople keep their hands off of their associates' employees - it's just the respectful thing to do, no matter how tempting that easy offer can seem, and believe me, it's tempting.  You don't hurt another business to help yourself.  Or if you do, you don't act like you didn't know the consequences of your actions - that's just insulting.  When approached by another's employee, you let that employer know - that's how it's done up here, even if in the end the employee leaves, at least it's handled respectfully between professionals.

So Henning - who I see at Pecks a lot more than I see at the local Farms his menu claims to be supplied from - gets to plug that hole in his dam by taking from someone who helped him (me)- and he actually may do just fine.  But if you commit such an error in judgement so early, it probably bodes poorly for when times get real tough, like the Winter months in the Catskills.

And it just makes me wonder what goes through their minds as they inconvenience all their fellow employees at Catskill Farms, and the multitude of homeowners who depend on us.  He's already rich, so what will it hurt?  His company is big enough, he can deal with it?  Everyone says he's a dickhead, so what's the harm?  I mean, my ex-employees tend to do well for themselves  - they come out of our company well-trained, hardworking, disciplined, - but my business associates who end up hiring them wait until they leave my company - they don't entice them while employed.  Sure, you can say 'that's the way it works', but it's actually not the way it works up here, for the most part.  It's what the amateurs do.

So the next time you wonder why we fall behind, or can't get your project, you will remember the example of Hennings Local - where you take what you need from whomever you need it from.  I loved it when I called Henning out on it and in his big goofy netherlandish way was like 'what, what did I do?  He hired himself.  I didn't do anything wrong.'

It's not like we here at Catskill Farms won't survive and prosper and reinvent ourselves.  But this is a real heartbreaker - neither of these friends thought it appropriate to take me out for a drink and break the news to me.  They played me like a fool, while it's all unfolding around me.

The Original Sin - where all success is derived from a dastardly no-good original deed.  Believe me, I get it.  I am faced with the same dilemmas daily.

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