To A Son, On His Entering The Business

By Family Business

"Advice is seldom welcome," Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son, "and those who want it the most always like it the least." And yet generations of fathers have, like Chesterfield, offered words of wisdom (sometimes fatuous ones, admittedly) to sons starting out in their careers. We think one of the best examples of a business owner's advice to a son who was to succeed him was penned after World War Il by Martin L. Davey Sr., president of the Davey Tree Expert Co. The year was 1945 and 29-year-old Martin L. Davey Jr. had just returned from service in the war.

The company was founded in the 1870s by John Davey, Martin Sr.'s father, who virtually introduced the science of tree surgery in the United States. As a small boy growing up on a farm in Somersetshire, England, John Davey was continually urged by his father to "Do it right or not at all."

That became the slogan of the small company he established after emigrating to Ohio, When John Davey arrived in the United States, forests were routinely cut down for farmland and the notion that trees could be "sick" and need curing was practically unknown.

Davey earned the sobriquet "the tree doctor" after he wrote a scientific treatise with that title on the subject of surgery on shade trees. He was responsible for introducing many surgical techniques now commonly used, such as cutting out diseased cavities in trees and filling them with concrete.

After Martin Sr. joined his father as a full partner in 1907, the company, based in Kent, Ohio, began sprouting branches all over the country; within a few years, it was in 31 states and Canada. Martin Sr. was a dynamic salesman and a shrewd judge of people. Besides building the company, he also had time for a political career: He was elected to Congress and later served two terms as governor of Ohio.

Despite setbacks during the Depression, the stature of the company grew along with that of Martin Sr. Davey Tree was called upon to save historic trees — and to work on the grounds of the White House and the Capitol as well as the Canadian Parliament. The company's Institute of Tree Service in Kent trained generations of professionals in the latest tree care techniques.

Martin Jr., nicknamed "Brub" (he had called his brother "Brubbo" as a baby), worked briefly for the company before leaving for the army in 1943. Brub, who studied botany and business administration at Yale, led the company for 15 years and was succeeded by a brother-in-law and then a son-in-law.

Today, Davey Tree Expert is a $165 million company with 4,500 employees, but it is no longer a family business: When no successors in the Davey line came forward, the company in 1979 sold ownership to its employees under an ESOP in which no shareholder owns more than 4 percent of the stock.

The new leadership insists it hews closely to Martin Sr.'s business philosophy, laid out in a letter to his son. Because we believe the letter contains some good old-fashioned advice for sons — or daughters — assuming positions of responsibility in a family business today, we are reprinting salient parts of it. For Martin Jr., the letter was a poignant legacy: His father died three months after writing it. -Ed.

My son, Now that you have returned from Army Service, it is my desire that you take over the active management of The Davey Tree Expert Company, with whatever help and advice you need from me ... To the building of this business I have given forty years of my own life. It has not been easy to bring it through all the trials and vicissitudes of that long and rapidly changing period. You will be the third generation to carry our business and professional banner, I hope your most zealous ambition will be to carry it forward, unsullied. I hope, also, that you will take to heart the following advice because, my son, there is no substitute for experience.

Above everything, make your word good. But, and this is terribly important, be very careful about the promises you make. Take time to get the facts, weigh each matter carefully on its merits, then when you make a commitment, keep your word — under all possible circumstances and at whatever cost. If you ever find that it is impossible to keep a promise, for perfectly valid reasons or because of things beyond your control, then don't delay, tell the other person promptly and frankly.

Next, I would say, is to think of your clients before everything. They are your lifeblood. Make it your business to see that they get honest value, quality workmanship, and diligent, conscientious service. They will continue to pay a fair price for that kind of service, sufficient to yield a moderate profit with proper management.

Nearly all of our clients are good people. Therefore, if a client makes a complaint, see that it is promptly and fairly investigated, for the purpose of equitable adjustment. You should assume that the client believes he is right, and let him know by our conduct that we mean to be right. It is very rare that one of our clients has ever tried to chisel or defraud us. In such unusual cases, make him pay, and never serve him again.

How can you give such good service? Just don't try to run a reform school. You can't make good men out of poor ones. I tried it many years ago, and it simply will not work. If a man is lazy, let him go. If he is careless and indifferent, let him go. If he is dishonest, let him go. It follows, quite naturally, that you have left only men who are diligent, careful, interested, and honest.

Treat your employees as human beings. Good men are ambitious, frugal, and trustworthy. Therefore, you should reward the better men as they earn it, when and as they prove themselves, and before they have to ask for it. Be on your guard against the men who recommend themselves too loudly and aggressively. I have found that some of the best men are a little too modest to push themselves forward. It is part of your job to find that kind and reward them.

I have always felt that good sales representatives should make good money, and have always been happy to see them do so. Make sure, however, that they sell and deliver the kind and quality of Davey service that represents true Davey standards, principles, and ethics. I do not quite agree with Emerson when he said, "If a man makes a better mousetrap, the world will make a beaten path to his door." That might be true in a small community, but not in a great country like America. You can't get anywhere with a sizable business without good salesmen. No matter how good the thing is which you produce, you must sell it or go out of business. It goes without saying that the thing which the salesman sells must be really good or he is soon out of employment.

Watch your credit with a jealous eye, every phase of it. Don't ever let a note become overdue, unless there is no way to prevent it. Pay your notes on time. Pay your bills promptly. Take all cash discounts. Make it one of the first orders of your business life to protect your credit, pay your bills, and have enough money in the bank to meet payrolls and all other proper and necessary business expenses.

This brings me to the next thing of great and equal importance. Watch expenses like a hawk. Question every expense that is not clearly necessary and wise. Bore into these things with determination and relentless purpose. Never hesitate to order an unnecessary expense eliminated and see that it is done. Any money that is wasted must come from the clients or the employees or the stockholders. Many people will give ideas of how to spend money — other people's money. Most of them are bad. Occasionally you will get a good one. Put every such suggestion to the acid test "Is it a good and necessary thing for the business?" One of your most important jobs is to say "No," and make it stick. On the matter of expenses, I have had a rule in effect for the last several years that no one could incur any new expense or increase any present expense without my definite prior approval. Experience has made this rule necessary; results have proved it wise.

There is an old saying, "When in doubt do nothing." There is some merit in it. Many a time I have waited to think things over, get more facts, and weigh the arguments pro and con, and by so doing have avoided some bad decisions. Earlier in life I was guilty of making some snap judgments that were rather costly. Please understand that a necessary part of your daily work will be to make decisions and I am not advising you to put them off. Quite the contrary, you must make decisions every day and get things done — you understand, get things done even if you make a few mistakes. But don't make snap judgments.

You must make a reasonable profit if you expect to stay in business. There is no Santa Claus for private business. When your profits disappear, you are on the way out. Therefore, it is part of your job to know your costs, all your costs, and all your sources of revenue, and to know whether your revenue is adequate to cover all your necessary and proper costs and leave a fair profit. If and when you have made a reasonably good profit, and when you have the money in the bank, you can afford to be a little extra generous with the employees who helped you make it.

I would advise and urge that you stay out of the banking business; that is, lending money to employees, unless it is unavoidable. There always have been and always will be many such requests. It is quite natural. Usually, it is neither wise nor necessary.

Furthermore, whenever you lend money, you create more bookkeeping, and it takes the time of home-office people that should be used on regular Company business. The average person would be amazed if he knew the enormous amount of time required of the Accounting Department by Uncle Sam's innumerable laws, rules, and regulations, payroll deductions, bookkeeping records, and reports required by all the states. Actually, I would almost dread the ordeal of starting a new business today. Unless you could afford to hire competent outsiders, you would have to be a many sided lawyer, an expert accountant with varied knowledge and experience, a financial expert, an operations genius, a public relations expert, a labor-relations expert, a diplomat, and a diplomatic driver, a leader who is willing to take a clubbing from various and sundry little tyrants representing the government or others. And you would have to have the patience of Job, the perseverance of Columbus, and the stamina of Atlas.

Now for a few other things. Never do anything while you are angry. It probably will be wrong. If you feel highly incensed by something, write it down on paper and thus get it out of your system — but put the paper in your desk or in your pocket for a few days, and then you will probably feel differently and do differently. I have made some mistakes by not doing this.

Pay a man everything that is coming to him. If he adds up his expenses incorrectly, it is your duty to make it right and pay him in full. But if he puts in more than be has coming, don't pay the excess. If he is honest, he will be glad to be corrected. If be is trying to chisel, he knows he doesn't have it coming. Likewise, if a client pays more than his bill, send him the difference.

Don't do something merely because a competitor does it, or merely because some well meaning friend or associate thinks it is a good idea. Of course, you should never be against it for that reason. It might or might not be a good thing. Judge everything strictly on its merit — calmly, judicially, and deliberately.

Please, please, do not try to be popular in your business dealings. You simply don't manage a business properly and be popular with everyone. Some people are inclined to slow down and take it easy; they need to be spurred into action. Some are inclined to chisel if they can get away with it; they need sharp discipline. Some few may become cocky or overbearing or impolite; they need to have their wings clipped and to be brought back to earth.

However, you should try to deserve respect. To achieve this desirable end, you should always be just and fair and reasonable, tolerant of minor human frailties. In the long run, the solid qualities of character and old-fashioned virtues are of far greater importance than brilliance or shrewdness.

Beware of flatterers. They have a cunning way of wasting your valuable time, or trying to get some thing they are not entitled to. When anyone attempts to flatter you or give you profuse compliments, put a big question mark after everything he says or does. Preferably, don't deal with him.

Save your own time, and see that all others respect your time. It is extremely valuable. Parcel it out systematically among people and things according to the order of their importance to the business. Some people talk too much and others are a bit shy. It is easy to tell the difference. Just take time to get all the essentials and then make your decision, or say you will think it over (preferably the latter) and end the interview, going promptly to the next most important thing.

Speaking of time and the necessity of conserving it, you should not burden yourself with details. You must employ others for that. Know all you can about every phase of the business, but get your information from reliable people who handle the details. No man can manage a business wisely or efficiently unless he gets his head up off his desk part of the time and does some intensive and constructive thinking.

If you expect others to be diligent workers, you must be one yourself. Set an example of diligence. Running an organization is serious business. It is not a social affair nor a fraternity t — te-a-t — te. One of the most successful men I knew said to me, "For every business that succeeds, someone must give his life."

You ought to be friendly in a moderate and reserved sort of way. I mean genuinely friendly. And always be polite to everyone. When you give orders, always say please. It costs nothing and makes the order easy to take. For many years, whenever I have sent orders by wire, I have always used the word please, even if it were necessary to pay for an extra word. Everyone with any sense will know it is an order just the same. The occasional dumbbell who thinks he can disobey because you say please, or who thinks you are soft for that reason, should be taken off the payroll.

There is one thing about business that is crystal clear. You can never coast down hill. There never comes a time when you can sit back, blandly and comfortably, and feel that your work is done, that all your problems are solved for a considerable period into the future. There will likely be fewer serious problems, however, if you are diligent, watchful, and active every day. A successful business is like a well-made and well-oiled vehicle that travels steadily upgrade.

We live and move and have our being in a selfish world. But that is not all bad. It is self-interest that makes the world move forward. Intelligent and properly harnessed selfishness is good for mankind. It is grasping, unfair, cheating selfishness that is a curse. All good business is founded on intelligent self-interest: that of the customer and the employee and the company. Those interests must all be served, if a concern is to last beyond a brief time. Those interests are mutual in many respects, and they should never be in serious conflict with each other. You must give and get full value.

In all my experience in business and in public life, the rarest types of minds I have encountered are the judicial and the creative. Most of us are the victims of believing that what we have been told is true. We accept what we have learned and go blithely on our way. That is probably the reason why there are so few original or creative thinkers. John Davey is a good example of the rare exception. During all the prior history of intelligent mankind, it had always been assumed that nothing could be done to save trees by surgical methods. His original thinking and creative action gave the world a new science and a new profession.

But the judicial mind, how rare that is! So many of us are the victims of our likes and our dislikes, our prejudices, our preconceived notions, and our own peculiar idiosyncrasies. If someone whom we dislike suggests something, we are against it. The judicial mind discards its own likes and dislikes, and judges everything on the basis of pure facts and proven merit. Therefore, I would urge you strongly to strive always to be judicial in your thinking about all things.

It is well to work earnestly toward perfection. You will never reach it, of course, in this imperfect world, but if you keep striving for it manfully and persistently, your business will be infinitely better than it could possibly be otherwise. In fact, I sincerely believe that if you do not continuously work and strive toward perfection, your business will steadily go down hill toward a deserved oblivion. The natural pull of human inertia and indifference is downward. Good management must pull steadily the other way, and pull harder than the normal laws of human nature. I am sure you are not that way by nature, but I wanted to give this special word of caution. If a man is conceited or too opinionated, he cannot think straight of act wisely. Never let success spoil you. I do not think it would, but these thoughts are a very ardent part of my philosophy. Keep yourself reasonably humble but self-reliant. Keep yourself natural and unspoiled. When difficulties or discouragements confront you, summon all your calm, determined moral courage, and keep going forward.

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May 1990


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