A genealogy of commerce

There was no fear of business for me. There was no unknown series of production inputs, sales engines, or distribution channels. Business had my father's face.

April 30 th 2010

My father is a businessman, as is his father and his father's father. And despite a business card from an organization more strongly connected to academics than the nuts and bolts of commerce, I am a businessman, too.

I was five years old and it was almost past my bedtime. My parents, along with my paternal grandparents and my dad's brother, owned a small bakery in Port Coquitlam, B.C. Once a week on a Friday evening my dad would drive out, tend to the tills, do payroll and manage anything else that required his attention. If I was lucky, I'd get to come.

The drive is still fresh in my mind. Over the bridge crossing the Fraser River, through a pass that wove between the foothills of the North Shore Mountains, down a busy street, until we reached the small shop near the corner of the plaza. Being five, I'd hardly be the one to be counting the float or signing the paycheques (honestly—it usually took less than ten minutes before I had found the cake icing), but being close to these things was shaping. There was no fear of business for me. There was no unknown series of production inputs, sales engines, or distribution channels. Business had my father's face.

The family sold the bakery a few years later and my father, who only tended to the business in the off hours, maintained his full-time work. The year I went off to university, the company he worked for was sold. Providence was present, and in his role as the director of human resources, he learned of the pending sale before most and was asked to stay longer than many of his colleagues. He had time to reflect on what would come next.

The decision was made: family business. My father's uncle, who was only a few years older, had started a shop that specialized in making the custom wood fixtures you find in restaurants and high-end retail. After a year of working within the company, my parents bought in. And then I went off to university and started a business degree.

As a child, I learned lessons from a genealogy of commerce that were much more cultural in nature. They were lessons of comfort around the practice of business, lessons of familiarity. These things are okay. And then, as a student in business school, watching my parents dive into their own full-time operation, I had a parallel education to complement the accounting, human resources, and marketing I was getting in the classroom. I filled in pictures from my childhood memories to match the words in my textbooks. Although I felt close to and comfortable with business, I now had a new series of lessons to be taught by the family business. The first lesson was that in the world of the entrepreneur, anything can happen. Business is never as controllable as your courses will let you believe.

It was a couple weeks before Christmas when the call came. No one enjoys answering when the phone rings after midnight. There had been a fire at the shop. Everything was destroyed—the building, machinery, and work in various stages of completion for different customers. But God provides.

The company was part of a broader association of similar shops doing similar work. Many had capacity and there was a huge rally of support. Not only did my family's business complete all of the work committed to their customers on time (despite not having a shop of their own), but the business reported record sales. As in church, family, school, and in the many places we commit ourselves, through this show of support, I learned that community deeply matters to the entrepreneur.

This whole experience led to my second lesson: the shape of persistence. A new shop was built and it was beautiful. New contracts were found and a team was assembled. The recovery, eighteen months after the fire, was largely in place. And then the recession hit.

I recall how seven years earlier, the events of 9/11 and the resulting market crash affected the family business and the work cycle. In the months following the crash, business had remained brisk and the shop stayed full. But after everything that had been planned prior to the attack had been completed, uncertainty set in. No new developments were being brainstormed and the market was far too uncertain a playground in which to muck about. Things grew quiet.

And again, this time in a new economic recession, with new machines eager for the taste of wood, things became quiet.

As we look forward to the years ahead, not knowing what God has in store for us, we continue to trust. Trust that the Providence that has cared for us as a family will touch the work of our hands. Trust that in moments of uncertainty our decisions will be wise and our actions complete. And trust that the lessons passed on to me, the lessons of our family, will be well stewarded so that one day I might share them, too.

Topics: Business Religion
 

Brian Harskamp is Senior Director, Philanthropy and Finance at Cardus.

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