Volume 51, Issue 1 - January 2016


Earl As in Squirrel

by Lyle R. Hill

“Hill, I’ve had it,” the early morning caller blurted into my ear before I could even finish my usual greeting.

Recognizing the voice, I responded, “Earl, it’s nice to hear from you. How have you been?”

“Not very good, Hill. In fact, downright awful.”

Earl calls me about twice a year. I met him at a trade show in the western suburbs of Chicago about six or seven years ago. He had just inherited his father’s glass shop which had a good reputation in the downstate rural community that it had operated in for more than 35 years. Earl’s dad, Claude, was a good operator and Earl had grown up in the business, mostly working as a field technician.

“Well, Earl, I’m sorry to hear that things are not good with you. Can I help in some way?”

Usually when Earl calls the conversations will run for an hour. Typically he talks about something he read in USGlass
magazine or chats about politics.

“Thanks, Hill. You see, I just don’t know what to do. I seem to be between the proverbial rock and the hard place. It looks like the end for me. My accountant just said it looks like I am going to lose even more money this year than I lost last year and I barely broke even the year before that. Then just when things couldn’t get much worse, I get these price increase notices from just about every supplier I work with. I already put in about 60 hours a week so I don’t see how I can work any harder and it just seems like I am on an ever faster moving merry-go-round. It could be the end, Hill.”

I’m not sure who tagged Earl with the nickname “Squirrel,” but it seems to fit him perfectly. He has red, bushy hair, an out -of-control mustache, and a face that looks … well … a little squirrely.

“I’m sorry to hear this Earl, but the last time we talked I thought you said that business was really good and that you had to hire an additional guy to try to keep up”.

“I actually hired two more guys, Hill. I’ve never been this busy, but with the extra labor costs and now another round of price increases from those rotten glass suppliers, I think it’s over for me. I knew this would happen someday. Shortages, surcharges, price increases every year. I knew those low-down glass suppliers would get me one day.”

The Squirrel hates suppliers. Doesn’t trust ‘em . . . thinks they are all a bunch of lying, stealing, cheating thieves. I actually think that Earl believes that his suppliers get together on Tuesday nights at some dark, sleazy restaurant to plot his destruction. Of course, I personally know that this is not true. They meet on Friday nights at very upscale places and plan for the destruction of the entire industry … but that’s a conversation for another day so let’s get back to Earl and his problem, shall we?

“Earl, the suppliers have a legitimate right to raise their prices and you have to remember that most of them have not had a real price increase for several years now. Times are better, demand is up and I personally think all manufacturers and suppliers are entitled to get a reasonable price for their products and services. Come on Earl, where would you be without your suppliers?”

“You know what really gets me, Hill?”

“What Squir … I mean Earl?”

“Well Hill, what am I gonna do if I have to close down? This is all I know. All I’ve ever done. I mean, I’m the owner of the business and all but I need a job just like everybody else. That’s why I’m here in the first place. And I really am good at what I do. People compliment me all the time on my work.”

Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of Earls in the business world. They look at their businesses as a means to a job, not as a true business on its own. This usually doesn’t lead to good decisions and especially so about matters that affect growth, improvement, and long-term viability. They get caught up in the day-to-day operation focusing on things that are important at the moment but not in the long run. Owners need to manage their business and try hard not to let the business manage them.

“Let me ask you a question, Earl. When’s the last time you raised your prices?”

“What do you mean, Hill? Like charge my customers more for something?”

“Exactly, Earl.”

“Well I guess I’ve never thought about that. You know the other guy in town raised his prices a few years back and he went out of business. I guess I was just always afraid to raise mine.”

“Are you telling me that for probably six years or more you haven’t raised any of your prices in spite of the fact that you are probably paying more for your utilities, insurance, supplies and everything else you use?”

“I was just glad to have a job and hear the phone keep ringing. But I see what you’re saying. I’ve been managing my job, but not my business. Business is more than just doing things right, it’s also about doing the right things. I think I am starting to see my problem. I think I need a plan. I need to change. I have a lot to learn. Is it too late for me to do that? Can it be fixed? For that matter, can I be fixed?”

“As it has been said, Earl, a problem well stated is a problem half solved. You’re on your way my friend.”

the author

Lyle R. Hill is the managing director of Keytech North America, a company providing research and technical services for the glass and metal industry. Hill has more than 40 years of experience in the glass and metal industry and can be reached at lhill@glass.com. You can read his blog on Wednesdays at lyleblog.usglassmag.com.

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No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.