I went by my friend Burt Hanna’s new candle factory in Fayetteville the other day. Since he was kind enough to read a draft copy of my new book, “Confessions of an Entrepreneur,” and write a testimonial for it, I wanted to give him a signed copy when it came out in print.
So, I pulled into the parking lot of the Hanna’s Candle Co. plant and offices on South School Avenue — a renovated building that formerly belonged to commercial printing business Standard Register Co. — and the new warehouse Hanna built next to it. Whom do I see in the yard, covered in dirt and sweat, working on his lawn? None other than Burt Hanna himself. I asked him what he was doing out there. He said he was demonstrating to his son what hard work looks like.
Hanna is a guy who owns a company that did more than $80 million in revenue last year. When you walk through his plant, Hanna speaks to everyone. He knows how everything works and can explain every process to you. My point is that Burt Hanna is connected to his business. He is actively involved in every aspect of it, from securing multimillion-dollar contracts from retailers to fixing whatever machine breaks down that day.
As our Northwest Arkansas Vistage chair, I’m on a listserv with other Vistage chairs around the country. There is a continuous information exchange between us. A few weeks ago, a fellow chair mentioned three small business owners in their area (approximately $3 million in revenue) who needed to be working on their business rather than in it. That is a constant Vistage mantra I hear from business coaches and experts — you need to work on your business, not in it.
What is my reaction to this statement? You had better be doing both. One of the most significant causes of small business failure I have observed over my (very) long career is owners who aren’t working in their businesses. They think they can do it from afar or with hired managers or that their time is too valuable to be bothered with the mundane work of whatever the business does for its clients or customers. With three owners in a $3 million company, I sure hope they are working in the business. It’s crazy.
Only through working in the business will you figure out what your business is doing well and what it is not so good at. You will also learn who in your business is good and who isn’t. You will experience firsthand the problems your people are going through every day. And you will establish better relationships with your people who will see you as one of them — a contributor rather than an overhead cost sucking everything out of the company but not putting anything into it.
People who think they can get out of the daily operations of their businesses and become a CEO who focuses on “the big picture” or “strategy” stuff are bound to have many problems.
Mark Zweig is the founder of two Fayetteville-based Inc. 500/5000 companies. He is also entrepreneur-in-residence teaching entrepreneurship in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas and group chair for the Northwest Arkansas chapter of Vistage International. The opinions expressed are those of the author.