Are you Stuck in a rut?

A few days ago, I was enjoying lunch at one of our Lake Norman restuarants while catching up my reading on the week’s events.  Two people settled into the booth behind me and were having a very engaged conversation about business.  Actually, one was complaining about their business in particular.  I overheard as this individual ticked off all the reasons the “store” was experiencing problems.  While I’m not making light of their troubles, I think we all know times have been tough for all of us. With each positive suggestion, the despondent retailer would point out all the reasons they could not do that – cost too much, didn’t have the staff, they had tried it before, not quite their market.  At one point I wanted to turn around and tell them I thought the biggest reason for their lack of success might be the face they saw in the mirror each morning when they got up!  They dripped in negativity.

Granddaddy Russell with my cousin Chris at the farm - 1982

Granddaddy Russell with my cousin Chris at the farm - 1982

It reminded me of a story my Granddaddy Russell told me a long time ago.  Granddaddy didn’t go to college and I’m not sure he ever owned a copy of any leading business book of its time.  But he did have a heck of a career.  He drove a taxi, worked in a textile mill, spent most of his liesure time, if you call it that, tending the farm where he raised cattle and produce, and studied his church “lessons” at night.

My Granddaddy Russell owned a farm in Rock Hill where he raised a couple of dozen head of cattle.  He passed away in 1999, but not before he left me with a treasure trove of little stories and a lifetime of wonderful memeories.  On one particular weekend, Granddaddy Russell and I were walking through some of the trails behind the house checking the fenceline.  I was fresh out of college and gainfully employed at a local office supply and furniture company as a salesman.  I was making the sales calls but my commission check certainly indicated my lackluster performance.

After listening to me grumble about how my customers weren’t buying and I wasn’t getting the support I needed from my company, granddaddy looked over and asked, “Doc,” (one of the many pet nicknames he had for me but that’s a different story) “Did I ever tell you about that little bullfrog that fell into the deep, muddy tractor track?”  Without waiting for my reply, he began, “A couple of days later he was still there when his other frog friend happened by and found him…urging him to hop out.  He made a few feeble efforts, but he remained stuck in the quagmire.”

“Over the next few days, his fellow frogs tried to motivate the little frog to escape the rut, but they all gave up encouraging him and hoped back to the pond.  The next day the little frog was seen sunning himself contently on the shores of the pond.  “How’d you get out of that rut? ” he was asked.  “Well,” said the frog, “as everyone is aware I could not.  But along came that big red tractor again and I had to!”

Granddaddy looked over at me as we walked down the road waiting for his point to sink in.  “You waiting for something to come along and get you out of the rut?” he asked.  I do not know that I ever became the super salesman my manager hoped I would be but the point granddaddy made was not lost on me.  The ability to overcome my obstacles and rise to the occassion was within my means the whole time.  Most of it was my own personal attitude.  The bottom line:  you can motivate yourself or wait till outside forces do it for you.

I sure miss the long walks grandaddy and I took together, but I never forgot the lessons he shared.  Daddy still lives out on the farm and often we take walks together still checking the fenceline.  Occaasionly we will happen on an old tractor rut dug deep into the soft southern clay down by the creek.  I might even hear the splash of a little frog as we approach.  It brings a smile to my face as I think about all the wonderful times I’ve spent at the farm.  Perhaps an old farmer knows best, when there are so many reasons why you cannot be succesful, you succeed anyway.  You simply accept nothing less.


Regionalism – From a Clown’s Point of View

Joey the Clown

Joey the Clown

Tom Peters, Stephen Covey, Kenneth Blanchard, Brooks Lindsay….Brooks Lindsay?  While the name Brooks Lindsay may not be recognizable as a leading authority on business acumen, mention “Joey the Clown” around those of us over 40 with roots in the Charlotte region and we remember the smiles he brought to children every afternoon on WSOC Television.  Lindsay passed away six years ago this month, but not before he made a lasting impression on a generation of Charlotte children.

I was one of those who had the opportunity to participate in a neighborhood buddy’s birthday party that was hosted at Joey’s “Clown Carnival”.  Each little boy or girl had a chance at stardom when Joey let us introduce ourselves on his show.  It was a really big deal for a kid to appear on the Joey the Clown Show and I can still recall all the family relatives who commented on my “first television gig”.

What many may take for granted now – Lindsay’s program was one of the very first racially integrated shows from the beginning.  At the conclusion of each show, Joey ended his program by reminding the kids on the program and out there in TV Land – “Boys and Girls, when you grow up, remember be nice, because all we have in this ‘ol world is each other.”

One of the underlying principles of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce from its inception in 1987 is the concept of regionalism.  More than two decades ago, business leaders from Cornelius, Davidson, and Huntersville began working together to foster the business growth and well-being of our region.  Long before “regionalism” become a buzzword, Chamber leaders encouraged our political and community leaders to look past the rivalries and municipal boundaries that inhibited our growth as a region and as a community. 

It is natural for an elected official to protect his or her district.  Politicians are rewarded for “bringing home the bacon.”  However, we now live in a global economy and the markets of Asia and Europe dramatically impact the United States economy.  Closer to home, a corporate business expanding in Davidson will impact the residents and businesses of Huntersville and a new company locating in Mooresville will benefit the Town of Cornelius.

In 2001, the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce commissioned an economic development study performed by the firm of Leake Goforth.  The study made recommendations for the potential commercial growth of our region.  Our 2000 Strategic Plan called for the Chamber to examine the possibility of creating an economic development authority and in 2002 we began lobbying the towns of Cornelius, Davidson, and Huntersville to consider creating a regional Economic Development Corporation (EDC).

It wasn’t easy.  The long time turf issue reared it’s head on many occasions, but at the end of the day, leaders in all three towns approved a public – private partnership spearheaded by the towns and the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce.  Today, the region is served by three regional economic development agencies:  The Lake Norman Chamber, the Lake Norman Regional EDC, and Visit Lake Norman.  All three work together to promote the economic growth and vitality of our region.

If we are to succeed and prosper as a region – we must work together and support projects in other communities which will in turn benefit the citizens and businesses of neighboring communities.  It’s as simple as that.

Thirty-five years ago, a man dressed up in grease paint and entertained a generation of children. He made us laugh, appearing as a loveable Hobo.  He also made a lasting impression.  To many of us, he reminded us everyday to work together…because after all…”all we have in this ‘ol world….is each other.”

Tax Freedom Day – 2009

     This week marks an annual anniversary that Americans from coast to coast would rather not celebrate.  No – I’m not alluding to April 15th – but close.  This year, on April 13th we will celebrate Tax Freedom Day.  According to the Washington, DC based Tax Foundation, that marks the day of the year when Americans have earned enough money to pay off their total tax bill for the year.  In essence, every day you have worked through that date has been for Uncle Sam.  I have often wondered, if taxes were not taken out of each check throughout the year, what would the average American’s expression be when they wrote that check to the federal government covering the first four months of the year?

          When I was in second grade, I went trick or treating with two of my neighborhood friends – Mike and Jerry.  Mike’s mother, Mrs. Tucker, volunteered to drive us around the neighborhood.  I was never sure why it was necessary as we ran from house to house.  But looking back now, I now know it was to keep an eye on us mischievous little tikes.

         I have always been fond of candy and I will say without shame that I dashed madly from one house to the next.  I’m sure the legendary Secretariat would have had a difficult time keeping up with me as I rang bell after bell, announcing my “Trick or Treat” war cry as loudly as possible to be rewarded with handfuls of hard candy.  I was also mighty proud of my “Batman” costume that my mother had sewn by hand.  Mike and Jerry had a difficult time keeping up with me as I tore through the neighborhood in my quest to fill my bag to the brim.  Mike did his best but he fell far behind as did Jerry who never seemed to have his heart in it. Perhaps it could have been the clown mask instead of the gallant super hero but Jerry shuffled slowly from one porch to the next uttering his faint if not feeble “Trick or Treat.”

Jerry, me, Mike and Brent - Brent was the smart one who didn't go with us!

Jerry, me, Mike and Brent - Brent was the smart one who didn't go with us!


     The competition ended with the loud honk of Mrs. Tucker’s horn and we all headed back to the car.  When we arrived she gushed how successful we all had been but when she carefully examined the bags she noticed while mine was nearly overflowing, and Mike’s contained a plentiful stash, Jerry’s little brown sack was extremely meager.  Mrs. Tucker gave a look only mothers can give, when she exclaimed, “Why Jerry, you hardly have any candy at all.”  With that, and much to my chagrin, she took healthy handfuls from my bag and a portion from Mike’s and gave us all equal amounts.”  “There now,” she said.with satisfaction, “Now you have as much as Billy and Mike.”  I remember to this day the dejection I felt riding back home as Jerry sat in the back seat eating my candy with a smug look on his face.  In a single act, Mrs. Tucker had taken a real swipe at American capitalism and crushed my incentive system.

      As we celebrate April 13th this year – Tax Freedom Day – it still surprises me as a nation we take pride in the great strides we have made yet we do little to protect incentives that reward those who work harder and take more risk than the rest of the country.  Mrs. Tucker opened my eyes to the concept of redistribution of wealth.  It was an important lesson to learn.  On another note, I also learned never to go Trick or Treating with her son again.

Legislature Takes Aim at Joe Camel

Last week, the North Carolina House of Representatives approved a bill to ban secondhand smoke from restaurants and other businesses where children might be present.  The vote was approved 72 to 45 and next will be sent over to the Senate, where they expect a limited ban to be approved.  The Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce has taken no formal position on public smoking.  In 2007, a Focus Friday program was held on the topic with both supporters and opponents sharing their views on on a proposed ban at the time.


Rep. Thom Tillis, the House Republican Whip, has spent considerable time on this bill ensuring that while most of us all realize that tobacco smoke is a major health issue, we do not allow legislation to trump private property rights that have unintended consequences.  Tillis has stated on his website “that it is time to implement a statewide ban, but let’s implement one that’s fair, that provides reasonable protection of private property owners, one that avoids devastating businesses that depend on the sale and consumption of a product that is legal in North Carolina.”

I’m not a smoker although I have from time to time enjoyed a fine Macanudo cigar from McCranies Pipe & Tobacco Shop in Cornelius.  Fact is, like many, I don’t particularly like cigarette smoke and avoid places I think I might encounter it.  Perhaps it is time that we put more constraints on where people can light up. All that said – I still believe it should be left up to the business owner whether he or she imposes such a stipulation or me the consumer on whether I will patronize their business.

Rep. Thom Tillis

Rep. Thom Tillis

I think this whole debate comes down to those who like government intervention in their life and those who value personal freedom and property rights.  Not everyone makes the best decisions for themselves.  Some folks choose to smoke when we know smoking can lead to health problems.  People consume too much alcohol or do not exercise adequately.  Others eat foods loaded with trans fats or simply overeat.  There are those who invest poorly or choose not to invest at all in their retirement.  And then there are those who take up dangerous hobbies like skydiving, mountain climbing, or maybe bull riding for that matter.  My point is – we all get to make that choice without Uncle Sam coming in playing “Health Police” for our own good.

Those who advocate for the ban usually point to the costs associated with smoking (Medicare and Medicaid) which the public typically must share the burden of paying.  Using that logic, wouldn’t we assume the other activities I just mentioned shouldn’t also be prohibited?  What strike me as even more bizarre is that some liberal legislators have pushed for the legalization of marijuana but at the same time want to ban tobacco.  The United States Government tried to legislate behavior during my grandparent’s generation – it was called prohibition and it had terrible unintended consequences.


I applaud Rep. Tillis’s commitment to preserving personal property rights while recognizing we do need to be fair and reasonable in an approach to this issue.  I assume the Senate will approve some limited form of a ban that is less than what those who wish to ban it seek and more than those of us who value property rights wish to keep.  Maybe it’s just me but I just wish that instead of the state and federal governments always trying to find ways to limit my personal freedoms, they were spending more time focusing on our roads, schools, health plans, and economy.

In the meantime, I think I’ll head down to McDonalds and grab a Big Mac Combo, with the fries loaded with 8 grams of trans fat while it’s still legal to do so.  And I suppose I should break it to “Little Debbie” that our late night dates of an oatmeal pie and a glass of milk is being carefully monitored by the Health Gestapo.  But just one word of advice to the legislators in Raleigh & DC – I’m serving notice that I’ll not stand around and have my Pork Barbecue, hush puppies, and Breyer’s Ice Cream declared banned substances  Wars have started over far less!

Beating the Odds

John Foppe 1993 TOYA Recipient

John Foppe 1993 TOYA Recipient

In 1993, as President of the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees), I stood on stage in Tulsa, OK. recognizing the Ten Outstanding Young Americans.  The Jaycee’s TOYA program recognizes the best and brightest young people in America between the ages of 21 to 39 inclusively.  Standing on stage that night, I met a young man who demonstrated the qualities that set him apart from his peers.


John Foppe was born without arms.  John, 22 at the time, said on the stage that night, “Either God created me without arms or he created the will within me to deal with it and adapt.”  Adapt he did!  When I met John, he was sitting on the floor behind the stage signing autographs with his feet.  Later that night, when I made a toast to our recipients, John picked up his glass of champagne with his toes, hoisted it to his mouth, taking a sip without spilling a drop. John was recognized by the Junior Chamber for his humanitarian efforts.  While in high school he started the John P. Foppe Seminars and began an ambitious public speaking tour.  Proceeds from his events were donated to a Haitian orphanage.  When I met John he worked for Zig Ziglar as a motivational speaker and was recognized by Ziglar in the book Over the Top!

I watched John as he walked around the room that evening spreading encouragement and enthusiasm.  John said he looked at his limitations as opportunities.  Because of his handicap, he adapted and developed in other areas which could best serve him.

Today, our lake community and business leaders face opportunities brought on by this present economic challenge.  Companies and businesses face threats not seen in many of our lifetimes.  What we must remember, there is a correction with every economic cycle, and this too shall pass.  We are already seeing some very positive indicators which may point to our rise back up from this current downturn.

There has been strong participation in the Chamber’s many seminars, programs, and networking events.  Many businesses have taken advantage of the free counseling opportunities provided by SCORE and the SBA and will emerge from this situation a much stronger business.

John Foppe had every reason not to succeed in life.  He chose to meet the challenges head on and make something special of himself.  The things we take for granted have come hard for John.  On the stage that night, with tears in his eyes, he thanked God for the life he has and the success his challenges have brought him.

We should all keep in mind that the strongest steel is forged by the hottest fire.  It is through our many trials and mistakes that we learn and we grow.  We must live each day, adapting to the challenges we face, giving our absolute best…and like John, refuse to settle for nothing less.