In the 1980s, as a reporter on the savings and loan crisis, I heard about a banking lobbyist who was having a hard time making his point to a young, but important, congressional aide. The more he talked about CD rates and lending loss ratios, the more confused she got. Then the aide suddenly brightened. "Now I know why I'm having trouble," she said. "You see, I've never been inside a bank."
It was much easier when small businesses were part of popular culture. On TV in the 1950s, you'd see Dobie Gillis' parents running a grocery store and Perry Mason handling homicides sparked by quarrels within the family business. Even on "Gunsmoke," Miss Kitty exemplified plucky capitalist spirit.
Today? You get the corporate slapstick of Dunder Mifflin and Donald Trump. Blue-collar workers get respect for working hard, but you only see them at home, where they're portrayed as pudding-headed teddy bears who somehow nabbed cute wives.
Such farce becomes tragedy when you consider that many viewers of these shows take jobs that affect your business and thus never get what it is you do. When they make decisions, they lack the background to choose in your favor. In this month's story, "Bank Shot," Wayne Carver of Stephens Inc. in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., had to take his new banker by the hand and spend weeks explaining why running a lumberyard isn't the same as managing a Safeway or slinging hash. Once the banker began understanding LBMs, Stephens got better service.
While members of Congress and the administration often have enough gray hairs to understand or at least remember small-business life, their fresh-faced staffers lack that knowledge. And it's the staffers making the lion's share of the governmental decisions that will affect you. They can cogitate faster than Vegas card-counters when figuring the odds of a bill's passage, but tell them about margins or inventory turns and their eyes glaze over. They've never had to turn a profit, especially under the conditions you face daily.
You might think your chief job today is to sell things, but I would argue that often, before you can sell, you must help people understand the value you bring. With builders, it's expertise on how to acquire and use products so they get fewer callbacks. With vendors, it's the crucial role you play in determining which products work best in your area and how best to sell those products to builders. And with the community, it's how you help your fellow citizens live in homes that are stronger and safer than ever before. It's a job that merits the public's support.
As LBM dealers, you do important things. But to too many people, if you're thought of at all, you're regarded as queen of the railroad siding, Miss Understood 2009. It's well past time for others to appreciate who you are.
Craig Webb, editor