I have always felt I owed a large debt of gratitude to a man named Bob Abramson, a small retail store owner who interviewed a bearded, long-haired college student in the 1970s and took a chance putting him to work selling cameras, art supplies and picture framing services.
I was that student. At the time, the job meant hours more compatible with my studies (and a workplace closer to school) than the weekend and late night kitchen shifts I had been working for a local caterer. I also thought it would be easier (at least physically) because I already knew a fair amount about photography. (I soon discovered that almost any selling job is harder than it looks).
Bob, it turned out, believed strongly that any student who worked for him should come to appreciate the “small businessman’s point of view,” one he felt was sadly lacking in the liberal arts curriculum I was taking at school.
Over the hours spent unpacking shipments, checking invoices and stocking shelves, I soon began receiving frequent lectures about everything from small business practices to monetary theory. (Bob was a big fan of Milton Friedman and eventually talked me into reading Free to Choose, which had an immense influence on me later on).
As you might guess, many of these concepts were pretty foreign to someone whose schoolwork focused on reading Milton, Tennyson, Shakespeare and Donne. I’ll never forget the day when I remarked that some expensive sable brushes I was marking up at 200 percent over invoice cost seemed to me to represent an unfair amount of profit for the store.
“Markup isn’t profit,” Bob said sharply. The markup reflected the costs of stocking slow-movers that might sit on the shelf two years or more, he said, taking pencil in hand to show the greater profitability of film marked up only 25 percent, but turning rapidly.
The lecture didn’t stop there. “You can’t feel guilty about earning a profit,” he said. To show how hard that really was, he spent the next several months pointing out the store’s various overhead costs at every opportunity.
That was the year I learned terms and concepts like F.O.B., gross, net, net net, spiff, shrink and “two in ten.” I also got regular selling tips, like the time he observed, “You really talked the customer out of that sale!”
Bob explained the importance of managing receivables and credit, how buying from a distributor could be more profitable than buying direct. At the same time, he was “old school” about many issues, often characterized by aphorisms like, “If you take care of the pennies, the dollars take care of themselves.”
There was a time when Bob was hospitalized with a serious illness. As he recuperated, his ability to work long days was compromised and I suddenly had the responsibility of opening and closing the store thrust into my hands. That is probably when I began to feel I had a personal interest in the store’s success, and making a profit became a measure of it. I look back on that period today as much more valuable than any class I took on Victorian Literature or Metaphysics. It was also one that had a lasting, formative influence on my career.
Bob eventually sold out to new owners. One of the last things I remember him saying was, “This job has been good for you. You’re a lot more extroverted and a hell of a lot better salesperson now than when I hired you.”
Why write an editorial about this now, years later? Because many of the readers of this magazine will have a chance this summer to hire or work with an intern or student who needs a job but who lacks a business perspective. You have a chance to give it to him or her, and perhaps give someone an appreciation for basic business who might otherwise never gain one.
We live in a society that has an increasingly difficult time teaching the value of hard work and entrepreneurship. And in a field like foodservice, which employs many young people from all walks of life, every director should view his or her operation as place to augment an educational system that so often today fails to teach “the businessperson’s point of view.”