My Father’s Business: What I Learned But Wasn’t Taught

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Introduction

In all the serious textbooks you’ll find that “pedagogy” means child learning and “andragogy” means adult learning. You’ll also find that in general terms, the experts believe that children learn best by “being told” and adults learn by “doing”.

Maybe, maybe not: but I know that I learned a vast amount about business by simply observing my father in his business. And by having his business all around me until I married and left home at the age of 26.

Here are the major things I learned.

Positioning

Are you familiar with the book “Positioning, The Battle for the Mind” by Al Ries and Jack Trout? It was first published in 1981. I believe that it’s one of the finest marketing books ever written. It’s still in print.

My father practiced “positioning” for all his business life. His target market was small “lolly shops” and “milk bars”. They catered particularly for children with small amounts of many to spend. Officially, he was known as a “wholesale confectionery distributor”. But the only products he sold were what he called “kids lines”. Lollies and sweets made especially for kids.

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember going into such a shop with a quarter or a dime or a penny or the equivalent. You’ll also remember the open boxes of lollies or “sweets” at say, a cent or a penny each or three or five a cent or a penny. You’d choose from a large number of open boxes and try to get maximum value for your sixpence or five or ten cents. The shopkeeper would take your selection from the boxes and place them in a small bag. You’d take the bag and pay.

Today you buy such lollies in supermarkets prepacked in bags of ten or twenty lollies.

Dad specialized completely in selling “kids lines” to small shops. The shops were usually family businesses. He didn’t sell chocolate bars or candy bars or boxes of chocolates. He concentrated on selling “kids lines” to specialist shops that were frequented by children.

That’s how I learned the importance of a clear business focus, a narrow well defined target market and a very specific product. He never mentioned either to me or my brothers or sister. But we knew. Al and Jack merely confirmed, decades later, what Dad had practiced.

Business Purpose

I decided to start my own business in 1978. I discussed my plans with my accountant. His was a very successful business that he’d built over a decade. He’d started with only a handful of clients. He himself was quite wealthy.

“What are you doing it for, Leon?” he asked. “To make money, of course,” I replied. “Don’t be silly,” he answered. “anyone can make money. What would you like to be able to do in 10-15 years time that you can’t do now?” I thought for a moment: “I’d like to know a lot about Australian food and wine,” I replied. “OK,” he said. “Do it for that. You see, you must have a purpose for being in business independent of the business itself.”

I can’t claim to be an authority on Australian food and wine. But over the last few decades, I’ve eaten some wonderful meals and tasted some outstanding wines.

My father understood this idea well. He ran his business so that he could afford to take us on two weeks holiday at the seaside each Christmas and a week each Easter. My mother also enjoyed musical theatre. Dad ensured that they saw all the big musicals when they were produced in Melbourne.

He worked to ensure that his business made enough money to provide holidays and theatre visits for the family. This also meant that my sister and I had swimming lessons from an early age. And I saw a stage production of Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” when I was only 9 years old. These sorts of things pleased my father greatly.

Creating Desire

Almost every time Dad stopped his vanload of sweets and lollies outside a shop, he’d attract an audience of kids. Many knew who he was and what he sold. They’d mill around the open back door of the van anxious to see what to them must have seemed shelves stacked with boxes of gold.

Dad never told the kids to go away. He realized that they were the eventual consumers of his “kid’s lines”. He’d say, “Look but don’t touch” or “Leave some room for me”. But he never gave a lolly away for free. Had he done so he would have been competing with the shopkeepers, his direct clients.

The kids who hung around the back of the van were mostly boys. Dad called everyone “Jack”. “Keep away from the door, Jack,” he’d say or “You can buy these right now in the shop Jack”.

He was most surprised one day when a boy opened his eyes very wide and said to him, “How did you know my name was Jack?”

Knowing What You Don’t Know

Small, family run businesses were Dad’s focus. “Kid’s lines” were his specialty. He knew relatively little about chocolate, candy bars and boxes of expensive lollies aimed at the top end of the market. He didn’t care that he didn’t. He was never distracted from his core business and his target market.

People often said to him, “Clem, with customers all over Melbourne you could expand your business by selling all sorts of confectionery. But he stuck to what he knew. He was frequently approached by confectionery makers who wanted him to carry their “latest big thing in confectionery”. He resisted their approaches and their blandishments. He knew what he didn’t know. He trusted his customers. They trusted him.

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