Carl’s nephew, Mark, had just graduated from high school and was working as Carl’s helper for the summer. He was 10 minutes late to our house, and when he walked in, Carl looked at his watch and then at Mark.
“You’re reminding me of your brother,” he said to Mark.
Mark looked at the floor.
“I had his brother working for me last summer,” Carl said to me as Mark listened without looking up. “I had to fire him.”
“What did he do?” I asked.
“The same thing this one is doing,” Carl said, pointing with his chin. “Am I going to have to fire you, too, Mark?”
“No. I’m sorry,” Mark said. “There was traffic.”
“We live on Long Island, Mark,” Carl said. “There will always be traffic. You have to figure that into the time it takes you to get from your bed to the job. And there’s also nothing wrong with getting here early.”
“OK,” Mark said.
Louis, Carl’s everyday guy, was scraping the old wallpaper off our dining-room walls. He didn’t say anything; he didn’t even look up. He just kept working.
“Start scraping,” Carl said to Mark.
“OK,” Mark said.
Carl and his partner Phil own a wallpaper-and-painting company. They worked in our house 15 years ago and we had them back last fall because they are superb at what they do. The wallpaper they had hung all those years ago still looked good, but we had remodeled the kitchen and you know how one project leads to another project until the whole house gets rebuilt.
“How old are you now?” I asked Carl.
“I’m 59,” he said.
“Are you thinking about retirement?”
“Nah,” he said. “I started this business because painting and wallpapering are my hobbies. I don’t think I can ever stop. I like the work.”
“And you’re very good at it,” I said. “But if you did want to retire, do you think you could sell the business?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “There’s nothing to sell. The whole business is my skills and experience, and Phil’s, of course. We’re partners but things usually go my way. I’m more organized than he is. Just look at our trucks. Mine is always ready to go to the next job on a moment’s notice. It’s stocked and neat. Phil’s truck looks like a bomb went off inside of it.”
“And yet you work well together.”
“Yeah,” Carl said.
“And no one can take your place?” I asked.
“Nope,” Carl said and smiled. “No one.”
“You know, that’s the problem with a service business,” I said. “Years ago, before I wrote my first book, when I was just consulting and doing seminars, Marianne and I were in the service business. I realized after a few years that being in the service business was limiting my income because there are only so many hours I can work each year. That’s why I took what I knew and wrote it down in books. Books are a product. They make money even when I’m sleeping.”
“I don’t have a product,” Carl said. “Just a service.”
“Your employees could become your product,” I said. “You ever think of that? If you teach them all that you know about painting and wallpapering, you’ll be able to sell their service like we sold books.”
“That’s not possible,” Carl said.
“You can’t get good people who want to work hard these days. No one wants to work.”
“What about Louis?” I said. “He’s working hard.”
“Our customers want just me or Phil on their job,” Carl said. “They’d balk if I sent them Louis.”
“Have you tried that? I asked.
“Then how do you know?” I asked. “Did they ever tell you they wouldn’t accept just Louis?”
“No, they never told me. I just know. I’m better than Louis. I know it; he knows it, but most of all, our customers know it.” Louis, of course, was hearing every word of this.
“Are you better than your partner, Phil?”
“We’re both good but I’m better than he is in a lot of ways.”
“But your customers don’t mind having him on their job, right?”
“Right. But he’s a partner. Don’t forget that.”
“Do you tell your customers you’re better than Phil in many ways?” I asked.
“No. That would be crazy. Why would I do that?”
“I’m not saying that you would, or that you should. But why don’t you do the same for Louis. Teach him more; send him out and don’t tell your customers you’re better than he is. Say he’s just as good. Then Louis will be a very saleable product for you.”
“But he’s not just as good,” Carl said. “No one is as good as I am. You don’t understand this business, Dan. It’s different from any other business.”
“I think it’s a lot like the heating business,” I said. “I’ve met many guys who have companies the size of yours. Two masters driving two trucks, each with a helper.
“I ask those guys if they can ever retire and they tell me they can’t because there’s no business to sell. It’s all about them and their skills. No one can do a heating job better than they can.”
“I get that,” Carl said. “Those guys are like me.”
“They are,” I said. “I ask those guys if they teach their helpers and they say they don’t want to teach them too much because then the guy will ask for more money.”
“I get that, too,” Carl said.
“I ask them what’s wrong with that,” I said, “and they tell me they can’t give the guy more money because there’s not enough money in the job to give raises.”
“That’s right,” Carl said. “Those guys know what they’re talking about.”
“I ask why they don’t charge more so they can pay their helpers more, and they tell me the market won’t allow that,” I said.
“That’s also true,” Carl said. “You can only get so much for a wallpaper job or a paint job.”
“And you know what else they tell me, Carl?”
“That their helpers always leave them. They get a better offer and they’re gone.”
“That happens,” Carl said. “It’s the nature of the business.”
“And then the heating guys have to start all over again, looking for new helpers and teaching them the right way to do things,” I said.
“There aren’t any good young people coming into the business,” Carl said. “I’m president of our trade association. We’re down to 12 members. All the members are my age or older. What does that tell you?”
“That you’re not attracting young people,” I said.
“You can’t attract young people,” Carl said. “It’s just not possible. They all want to work on computers.” He pointed to Mark. “That’s what he’s going to be studying in community college. Computers.”
“Is that right, Mark?” I asked. He nodded, not looking up from his scraping.
“Have you ever thought about being in this business?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” he said, looking at Carl. Smiling.
Carl rolled his eyes. “Keep scraping, Mark. Keep scraping.”
“What about him?” I said. “Why not Mark?”
“You saw how he was late, right? His brother was the same way. The kids these days are no good. None of them. I know that for a fact.”
“So you’ll never be able to sell your business,” I said.
“No, and I will never retire because I love this business. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved it.”
“Where did you learn it?” I asked.
“I taught myself,” Carl said. “I read. I asked the old-timers to show me things. I hung out at wallpaper stores and asked questions.”
Mark was listening.
“Could you do that, Mark?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he said.
“He wishes,” Carl said to me and smirked.
“No one is as good as you are, are they?” I said.
“That’s right,” Carl said. “And there never will be.”
This article was originally titled “Different trade, same story” in the March 2018 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.
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