This month, I will share some of the history of the company I run. I suspect many of you will have similar stories.

My father, Ken Secor, worked for the National Cash Register (NCR) back in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s. He made decent money (I’m told $100 per week was decent in 1967), and had health benefits, a company car, vacation, etc. I guess it was enough to support myself and my three brothers along with our stay-at-home mother. Dad worked as a cash register mechanic (tech) and eventually got into sales.

When I was old enough to notice, I realized my father was a good mechanic and a great salesman. Dad lost this job in 1973, I never knew why. Soon afterward, he got a job for a computer company; they did something with roughly 15 inch “floppy” discs. That job was great, but only lasted about two years before the company went belly up. Dad did odd jobs for the next year or so, this included roofing, window replacement, auto repairs, garage door repairs, sewing machine repairs, etc. You name it, Dad could fix it. I guess with a family of six, you do what it takes to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead.

In 1976, the original (1952) General Electric oil-fired boiler that provided heat and domestic hot water for our house sprung a leak. My father called the local oil company that sold oil to everyone in the neighborhood. The tech came out and said, “Sorry, we don’t work on GE boilers anymore, the guy that used to service them died.” Next came the salesperson from the oil company, he gave Mom and Dad a verbal estimate that they could not afford. By now, our family of six was probably a little ripe and in desperate need of a shower. Fortunately, the fireplace gave us some form of heat.

Desperate and out of a job, Dad decided to try to repair the boiler on his own. After half a day of struggling and snapping off the bolts that held the leaking tankless coil in place, he learned there was a rubber gasket in place that failed. He drove to the local hardware store and bought a roll of gasket material and a bunch of bolts. He used the coil plate as a pattern and formed a new gasket into the shape he needed, punched out the bolt holes and installed the new gasket. He then reassembled everything, turned the boiler back on and we had heat and hot water again.

Since Dad was working at many of the neighbors’ houses doing odd jobs, word got out that he could now fix GE boilers. In addition, one neighbor had a service manual for the exact model that was in our house and the entire neighborhood of Levittown-style Cape Cod homes. Within a year, there were a total of 14 oil companies in New Jersey that called on Dad to take care of their GE oil burner accounts.

I am the second oldest of the four boys (I was born in 1967). All three of my brothers would work with Dad when we were teenagers, but I avoided it like the plague. I preferred not to get dirty, work with my mind instead of my hands, plan on going to college, etc. None of my brothers lasted that long working for our father. I always felt my siblings were (and still are) very strong-minded and none of them would be considered easy-going. The summer I graduated high school, I signed up for the local state college. My parents and I had an agreement that they would pay for all the college expenses if I did well. If I was not doing all that well (they knew I was capable), I would have to chip in for part of the tuition. Let’s just say by my fourth semester, it was getting very expensive for me, and for my parents, it was getting really cheap. I started to realize I was not willing to put in the time and effort required to do well in college.

By this time, I started working in Dad’s business full-time and going to college part-time at night. Then, I stopped going to college and decided to put all my efforts into the heating business. Looking back, this was one of the best decisions of my life. When I started working with my father, his business was still in the early stages. Dad owned an older work truck that he converted from a manual three-speed shifter on the column to a floor shifter. Unfortunately, when I came aboard, the first gear was missing. Thankfully, things got better, and we got a new van. We rode together for the first few months I worked for him. When I was the passenger, I was either being quizzed on theory or diagnostics, acting as the navigator by reading a map, or bouncing around the back of the van, putting tools and fittings away (yes, while he was driving). This was a crash course; I learned a whole lot in a very brief time. After about three or four months, I was doing tune-ups on mostly residential oil burners. We still worked together on most of the larger commercial jobs.

I have tried the “figure it out yourself” method a few times over the years, it rarely went well.

Dad pushed me hard. Early on, I can remember calling the office phone from the customer’s landline while I was trying to troubleshoot a no-heat call. Dad would give me a minute or two of theory and then tell me to figure it out. This scenario occurred two or three times before I realized I’m better off not calling the office. As a result, I spent many nights working much later than I wanted to, but I was able to figure out the problem and come up with a viable solution. I made a conscious effort to study the books that were lining the shelves in Dad’s office. Dad signed me up for every seminar offered in our area. I finally realized just how powerful it was to crack the books. It’s amazing how much one can learn when your pay is based on your capabilities. I was planning to buy a house and hoping to get married in the near future.

I saw my father attempt to push other employees the way he pushed me. Early on, he tried it with my three brothers, and then, with the other employee he hired. The “figure it out yourself” method backfired on every one of them. My brothers and co-workers did not have the same drive or desire to be independent that my father and I had. I suspect my father saw some potential in me and knew just how hard he should push me.

Fast forward to 2005 when I purchased the business from Dad when he retired. I have developed a much different approach in my management style. If an employee is struggling on a job and calls me for advice, I immediately offer any help I can. If I spend a few minutes on the phone and he figures it out, I consider this a win. I didn’t have to drive to the site, spend an hour or two on the job and run back to the shop. Hopefully, next time the employee will be able to figure it out himself. Yes, with my style, I often get interrupted throughout the day, but I don’t have to go to every job (or lose employees too often). I consider this a good compromise. I have tried the “figure it out yourself” method a few times over the years, it rarely went well.