Craig Webb's "Little Big Man" column (Editor's Notes, October ) urged LBM dealers to stop employing relatives or neighbors if they were doing so out of some obligation to be a community or family leader. That column prompted the letter below from a longtime LBM veteran. Because listing his name would make it easy to know who he's talking about, we're running this on a "name withheld" basis.

"Little Big Man" brought back thoughts of a recurring theme in my 33 years in the LBM business. While working on my degree in construction, I read an article that I believe was titled, "Your Son as a Partner." The article's focus was the importance for a family member to work for someone else before taking a position in the family business. The article pointed out that the son working outside the family business would learn more, not be sheltered, and take the hard knocks that he never would have to endure in the family-run business.

As I neared graduation, my father and I discussed my future employment plans. He was a managing partner in a small-town line yard chain that was operated like a family business. Although I worked summers for him and that company during high school and college, we both agreed that after graduation, I needed to work outside the company for at least five years. We later agreed that his family business was not and would never be the place for me to accomplish my goals and aspirations.

After graduation in the midst of the 1970s construction depression, my career in the lumber business started as a counter salesman and estimator for a fairly large, single-location, family-owned lumberyard. From there, I moved on to managing a small line yard owned by three partners; to managing a large home center, part of a 40-store public chain; managing a contractor yard for a privately held, 28-yard chain; then to managing a large store for a two-location, family-owned LBM dealer.

The variety of companies and positions afforded me the opportunity to view employees in a way few others see them. I was able to work shoulder to shoulder with employees that often did not know my position or my connection to management. I had the opportunity to make a comparison of various company profiles, management styles, and employee mixes.

Over and over, I saw employees, including managers, in a job for all the wrong reasons, and the reason was always a connection to "the boss" that had nothing to do with business.

There were several sons that came into a position with a title right out of high school or college. They were driving away business because they could not get the idea that their customers wanted and deserved service. They had their jobs and positions only because they were sons of the owner. After seven or eight years, I witnessed two of these sons become very valuable to their family business, some of those years hurting the business more than helping. That could have been avoided if they were forced to work outside it for a few years. Working for someone else, they would have been viewed in a totally different light. Another employer would not have tolerated an employee, especially a manager, that was not an asset to the company.

There are other members I see in family businesses that still need to prove their worth and are hurting it more than helping. In addition to the direct family relationships, there are others on the payroll for the wrong reasons. They include:

The truck driver who was molesting a co-worker but was not fired because "we would be short a driver."

The salesman that was undercharging his best-friend contractor and selling product below cost to gain added sales. Can't get rid of him, I'd hear, "he's our top salesman."

The bookkeeper that could not count and was probably stealing [but] "was too young to retire and probably couldn't get a job anywhere else."

The vice president that was juggling the books to increase his own bonus and reduce bonuses in other departments. "Well, he's a vice president and can do what he wants," I'd hear.

The partner that was in the office only two or three days a week because he was hung over the rest of the time. "He's a stockholder, we can't force him out."

Of the six lumber dealers I have worked for, three have sold out, one just closed the doors, one is operating but continues to lose sales and close locations, and one appears to be surviving but economics of the next few years will be telling. I cannot help but think that a much closer, much more objective view of positions held within these companies could have had an enormous impact on their profitability and survival.

– Name Withheld by Request

Speak Out!

Send your comments to editor Craig Webb: [email protected] or One Thomas Circle NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20005. (Letters may be edited for clarity and space.)