Case Study: Case of the First Lady

The following story is based upon a number of situations. Names, locations, and other facts have been changed to illustrate and simplify the case presented. As such, any resulting similarity to any one business or person is coincidental.

The rules change in our kinds of businesses. There are some 20,000 companies that raise capital on the stock exchange, but there are 12-15 million of us whose money is raised from the family: from cash, credit, or sweat equity. Our big company brethren have rules everyone lives by and so do companies our size. But they are not the same rules. Take the case of Michael and Lisa and their press operator, Denzel.

Mike, in his prior life, spent 20 years in advertising and public relations for a Fortune 500 company in Atlanta. This job brought him in constant contact with printers, and in his last post within the company he was the print buyer for the public relations department.

Lisa was a communications major in college and was working for the same firm when she met Michael. Even though they didn’t hit it off right away, their three years of working on substantial projects together gave them enough time to smooth over the rough edges. They were married in 1990 and began a family, which now includes a 14-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter.

A New Beginning

Although both were making substantial salaries and they had the weight of raising young children, the concept of “working for the man” for the rest of their lives began to wear on them. So, in 2002, Michael had an “entrepreneurial seizure.” Why couldn’t they move to a small town, run a business, and live happily ever after? After all, it’s certainly easier than working the long hours for the big corporation. They both decided that they would do almost anything to be their own boss.

Their destination turned out to be Helen, GA, which is nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains on the Chattahoochee river, less than two hours away from Atlanta. The town appealed to their artistic instincts as it is a re-creation of an alpine village, complete with cobblestone alleys and Old World towers. Perfect.

One of the best things about it, they decided, was that there was a small print shop for sale. Actually, the house was for sale and the owner happened to run a print shop in the downstairs area, street-side. So they bought the house and the print shop was free.

One of the advantages, they thought, was that there were no other printers in town. Hmm. They seemed to overlook the fact that the town only had 400 permanent residents, although there were many events and festivals throughout the year which brought in tourists by the tons—especially in the fall when the leaves were changing. That gave it the appearance of a much larger market.

With the print shop came Denzel. He was the press operator and truly was protective of his Ryobi 3302. Fact is, it was the cleanest press Michael had ever seen. But then, Michael really didn’t know what he was looking at.

Silver Cloud, Gray Lining

So the couple got the kids settled in school.  Lisa took over duties in the print shop as the graphics and writer-type person, while Michael dealt with the big picture and Denzel printed. This is where it begins to get messy.

Oh yes, there were problems with the market being too small to support everyone, let alone a family with two teenagers. And yes, there’s the question of how to run a print shop, as well as the countless technical issues Michael thought he was prepared for but really wasn’t.

So in this one story, there are many stories. The one that is most significant, however, is Denzel. Denzel is not the easiest guy to work with, even though he is being paid $26 per hour. The wage is a remnant of the previous owner who paid Denzel handsomely since the owner was retired in place and willing to let Denzel do whatever he wanted. Denzel believes he is the press operator and shouldn’t have to do anything but run and maintain the press. Lisa believes he is sabotaging her authority with customers and making it difficult to do her job.

Michael, for his part, doesn’t like confrontation. He reluctantly talked with Denzel about six months ago and thought it was getting better, but really he was ignoring the problem. Instead of directly attacking the issue with Denzel, he used the “hint-hope” method and suggested that Denzel should be nicer. He even ended up giving him a raise in order to encourage him to be nicer. That was six months ago. It didn’t stick.

From Michael’s view, he cannot afford to lose Denzel for Denzel is the press operator. Denzel knows what needs to be done and cannot be replaced. Michael, of course, does not know how to print, which is a significant drawback in a small press shop.

From Lisa’s view, they cannot afford to keep Denzel for he is rude, confronts her in front of customers, and does not even follow her directions on which jobs should be done in what order. What to do?

This is where the rules change.

Taking Charge

In the large corporation where Michael and Lisa previously worked, people were expected to do their jobs and follow the organizational chart. It’s the same in small shops as well, but with one caveat.

As they were organized, Denzel reported to Michael and not to Lisa (which was an error in our view). Nonetheless, that’s what was done. Michael protected Denzel, not because of his stellar performance, but out of Michael’s fear of the unknown. As a result, there is stalemate between Michael and Lisa.

This is where the “First Lady of Printing” has a trump card. If there is anyone working in an organization who disrespects the “First Lady,” regardless of their position, that’s intolerable. Denzel has to change or go.

Of course, one should give Denzel an opportunity to change, and it doesn’t appear that Michael really did that. But, in my opinion, he probably won’t change anyway. So, although Michael needs to really have a “do or die” talk with Denzel, he also needs to immediately get on with the task of looking for alternatives to Denzel so that he will have the backbone to discipline (or discharge) Denzel when the time comes.

Now back to the rule. In businesses like ours, we have many valuable employees who are to be cherished and nurtured. However, anytime an employee is disrespectful to the owner or their spouse, that is breaking a fundamental rule and their behavior must change or they must be terminated.

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