I recently bought a new book, “The Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy Are Surviving and Thriving.” Because I have two other books I have to finish before I start this one, I’ve contented myself for now with only reading the introduction, which has sent me down memory lane.
In it, author Robert Spector reminisces about his teen years, during which he worked in his family’s butcher shop. Like the author, my working life began at a mom and pop, though not one owned by my family. In fact, until I graduated from college, all of my employers were mom and pop businesses.
But I didn’t think much about what I had learned or what made those jobs different from the other jobs in my life until now. Looking back, the two most important things I picked up from those small business owners is work ethic and personal responsibility. There are no “hours” when you own your own business. The owners were always there when I arrived and when I left. And they ultimately were responsible for everything that happened in their company, whether they did it or not. It was their name, their reputation.
I learned that last one the hard way. It was the winter break of my freshman year of college, and I was working for DiBella’s Fancy Fruit Baskets for the first time. What I would eventually learn is that the holiday season is when DiBella’s would make all of its profit for the year … or not. It was by far the most stressful few months for the owner, Jimmy, who ran the business himself the rest of the year, supporting his young family by himself. My job was to manage the store and take fruit and gift basket orders while he made baskets.
It was my first time taking orders over the phone, and in the first few weeks on the job, I forgot to write down some important pieces of information. In one case, I not only forgot to ask a key question concerning the type of basket they wanted, but I also forgot to ask for their phone number. When he realized my error, Jimmy lost his temper, and having never been yelled at like that before, I burst into tears. In the end, we both apologized, and I worked hard to get better at my job. That wasn’t the last tense moment between us – I eventually learned to yell back – but by the end of my second year working the holiday season, Jimmy surprised me with what then seemed a HUGE Christmas bonus: a few hundred dollars. I learned that when things went wrong, the implications were significant, as they were when things went right.
To this day, I take my work – and its impact on my co-workers (and customers) – very seriously. I’d like to hear from you. What was your first job? Did you work for a mom and pop? What did you learn and how has it impacted your work today?