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Margins

Slow and steady wins the race, but it can be hard to do. © Can Stock Photo Inc. / iqoncept

“It’s beautiful, Joe,” I said. “God bless you guys in this new home.” He acted indifferent and sort of shrugged his shoulders as he gazed up at his sky lights. “Yeah, I always wanted to build. I wanted my house, my way, you know?” I nodded. I always wanted the same thing but it was expensive. I could afford a mortgage and I loved the home we’d picked out as newlyweds but no, we didn’t have the money to build to our specifications. Cindy left the cake on the table and we wished them good fortune.

Backing out of the driveway I couldn’t help but go over the figures in my head. I knew what Joe made and I knew his wife wasn’t working anymore since the baby. His dad had passed on a few years ago but he had been a modest man who lived the same way, I doubted there had been any big windfall other than perhaps an investment that had performed well. Cindy must have had the same thought. She knew Joe’s tendencies to be impulsive, a bit brash; “Maybe he’s a good saver, huh?” I tried to stay positive and smiled and nodded as we backed out of the long driveway.

It didn’t take long for the chinks in the armor to begin to show. Cindy ran into Joe’s wife Donna at the local muffler shop and she was working out payment terms with the proprietor that was not too happy that Donna hadn’t told him of her money shortage until after the car was done being serviced. Cindy was in for an oil change and approached Donna by saying we had forgotten to buy them a house warming present and could she split this bill with her. Donna graciously accepted and walked out with her head high but as confidence between women is often without pride or prejudice, they were no sooner in the parking lot when Donna broke in to tears and began to tell the story.

Joe had been unable to finance the house as the “add-ons” occurred and her parents had to second-mortgage their house to back up the loan the bank had required. They were one paycheck away from losing it all and if not for her parents backing them up, they’d be in an apartment at best right now.

Fact is Joe had no business buying that house. He didn’t have the money to make the purchase let alone anticipate problems from exploding in his face. One misstep and it was a dive off a cliff and his family would be forced to follow. This risk he took was on the backs of others. He did have the money, when he began to build, to buy a regular house off the market though. What makes people take that extra step and push the margin closer to disaster? Why do they assume it is okay to assume others will make up for their indulgences?

Nick was from the old school. He was my co-worker on a summer crew and was 10 or 12 years older than the rest of the guys. We worked manual labor jobs for a landscape company and he was the most colorful guy. He was always mocking the younger guys that we didn’t know about what it took to be a “real man.” At lunch we would break out sandwich wraps and water bottles and he would chug a full gallon of convenience store iced tea and eat a “hoagie” loaded with salty lunch meats and cheeses. He’d belch and gag his way through lunch taking bites too big to swallow and halfway through the afternoon he’d fatigue as his body was working to process all that food and sugar.

When his son graduated high school he invited all the guys to the backyard graduation party and there he put on the same show. He ate like it was his last meal and drank more than iced tea. He was asleep in a lawn chair when we left and his wife had a very worried look on her face. “He lives life to the fullest,” she smiled as we thanked her for the hospitality.

The following spring I went to apply back at the landscaping company for summer work and I learned that Nick had suffered a heart attack and died that winter. His son had to put his college plans on the back burner as his mom was now alone and had nothing to live on. The boy had gone to work and he and his mom were sharing a two-room addition that her sister had erected on the back of her house.

Fact is Nick’s party was at his family’s expense. His intentions to save some money and get a solid job never panned out as he indulged himself and frittered away savings. Now his wife and kid were homeless, his wife had to live off the grace of her sister, which was causing tension in her house, and the country took on another welfare client because of his simple, reckless neglect. I learned that the landscape company owner thought highly of the work Nick did and would have considered hiring him on full time with benefits but Nick behaved like such a risk, they were never compelled to extend the offer.

His sloppy lifestyle depended on others taking up the slack for him. His margin was narrow but it cost others more than it cost him. He never lived long enough to even see the mess he left behind for those he supposedly loved.

In July 2013, a jet from a Seoul-based airline crashed in San Francisco. South Koreans took it personally. Their president issued a statement of regret. Asiana Airlines' chief apologized not just to passengers and their families but to all of South Korea. The average South Korean citizen expressed shame and embarrassment about how it would reflect on their country. Clearly the successes and failures of big South Korean firms are intimately linked to this small, proud, recently developed country's psyche. When errors are made there is a collective sense of national shame, even for South Koreans who have no connection to the company beyond nationality. Now in this example the margin, it would seem, would be wide. Citizens could distance themselves from guilt but rather they choose to take it on as part of a collective responsibility that expects highly of each other and expects solidarity with their people in times of challenge or error. Does this not seem like a better way to approach life in general? Sharing responsibility and diluting blame instead of hoping others will back you up whenever you obliviously disregard what’s needed. I think it’s simply called maturity – these margins.

As I draw nearer to retirement, I often am witness to plaques being handed out to my peers at the end of their careers. I have found a stealth population of those retirees who made it to a certain level and then hit a career plateau for the final years with the company. Often these are very qualified people who attempted that last promotion but failed. In most cases they become the most important person to the newly hired manager above them and they are ones that make their new supervisor look so good.

They teach them the job they would have had. I can’t think of one case where that person chose to shun the new supervisor and make him/her learn it on their own. That is such a show of selfless character to swallow the insult of not getting the job yet believe strongly enough in the company to make sure the new guy is capable of doing the job the best they can. That’s a margin of confidence that illustrates the kind of maturity that will likely allow this person to retire handsomely, comfortably and successfully. This person will have the ability to look back at the career they once had and know that they contributed to making the company and what they offered a little bit better by their being there.

That integrity comes at no one’s expense and “pays it forward” for many who simply rely on the good nature of others. The payoff is the ability to look back one day at the culmination of your life and when you get to the career part you are able to say, “Hmmmm – not too bad, old boy. Not too bad.”

Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.

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