A View from Here

Bill's Sisson's weekly Trade Only blog

The swamp Yankee school of business

“So what do you know about business?”

That’s a legitimate question to ask not only reporters and editors but also television prognosticators and other self-appointed experts and dispensers of business advice.

I received a traditional liberal arts education, which included economics, math, political science, English, art and journalism, but what I really learned about business I learned years earlier working beside my father, who operated several successful small retail businesses until he retired in 1991.

At the time, David M. Sisson was a spry, smartly dressed, tart-tongued 71-year-old who owned a men’s store that a magazine writer described as a “mini-Brooks Brothers” and who loved verbally jousting with the salesmen who called on him.

At various times he operated four or more businesses in the summer resort village of Watch Hill, R.I., where he and his sister owned and managed a block of stores, guest rooms and a parking lot on a parcel of land just over 2 acres.

A quintessential swamp Yankee, my father was frugal, taciturn and independent as hell. He didn’t put on airs, and he didn’t suffer fools. He did things his way. He was financially conservative. If he didn’t have the money for something, he didn’t buy it. His credit was always good. And when it came to business, he ran a tight ship.

When I worked for him as a kid, my father ran a large variety store that carried everything from hardware, souvenirs and over-the-counter remedies to cigars, postcards and penny candy. I started out sweeping sidewalks, cranking awnings up and down, and shadowing potential shoplifters, and I wound up running the registers and placing orders and working hard to be judged productive.

I learned the proper way to wash the large storefront windows and wipe them clean with a squeegee without leaving a streak so they could pass his inspection; to mark the price on an item in a neat, clear hand with a grease pencil; to properly count customers’ change back to them; to correctly bag their purchases; to neatly stack merchandise; and to open the doors on time and never wonder aloud when we were going to close for the evening if there was a “live one” still left in the store.

It seemed I was destined to learn every lesson the hard way. What a pain in the tuckus, I thought at the time. I couldn’t do anything right. It all had to be done his way. Later I came to appreciate that no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential a job may seem, it should be done not necessarily my father’s way but the right way.

In a summer resort colony where a well-heeled eccentric might come into our store dressed like an island castaway or a fashion shipwreck, he taught me not to judge people by their clothes or demeanor.

I learned the customer comes first; the importance of a neat, clean, well-organized store; the nuances of merchandising; and how the foundation of a business is built on hard work, fiscal discipline, intelligence, experience, rapport, luck and the ability and courage to change with changing times. He weathered fire and hurricanes and three sons who came of age in the early ’70s.

What else did I learn?

In much the same way that lawyers avoid asking a question if they don’t know the answer, I learned that when a customer lowers his voice to ask for something I shouldn’t shout it out for the entire store to hear, especially if there is any confusion about what exactly he might be looking for. On the particular afternoon I’m remembering, my father happened to be sitting at his desk in the back of the store.

“Dad,” I sang out in a loud, clear voice, “do we sell pro-phy-lac-tics?” The customer turned red, my father appeared in an instant, stepping in front of me to assuage the embarrassed gentleman, and I learned an important lesson in discretion, not to mention linguistics.

A child of the Great Depression, my father graduated in 1942 from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in business administration. He was a sergeant in the Army Air Corps during World War II, serving in North Africa and southern Italy.

Old school in the best sense of the word, my father was born to be a merchant. He passed away last Tuesday, Dec. 27. He was 91.

Comments

17 comments on “The swamp Yankee school of business

  1. John Underwood

    Bill — Sounds like your business education was started and finished the same way mine was — at my father’s sometimes stern guidance. He treated me to to a mechanical engineering degree and an MBA back in the late 50′s, but I learned a lot of the really crucial stuff about the critical minutiae of running a business from him. You can’t beat the curriculum, but it’s hard to pass on. it’s sort of pleasant to be out of the fight now, but I sometimes miss it.

    I like what you are doing with the magazine. Keep it up. Let me know if you need a reaction piece on something that is happening in the industry. I miss the writing I used to do as much as anything.

    Cordially, John Underwood

    (Past Chair MRAA and former owner of Lockwood Marine)

  2. Dudley Dawson

    Bill,

    My condolences on the loss of the fine man that you were blessed enough to have as your father. I, too, had a dad who, though older than yours, survived both the Great Depression and WW2. I think it fostered a certain spirit not found elsewhere, a determination to succeed that they were bound to pass on to their children. All my best to you and your family, with hopes that the memories you’re already cherishing will sustain you in your loss.

  3. Tom Delotto,CMM

    Bill,
    First and Foremost, the Newport Exhibition Group sends condolences on the loss of someone so important in your life. The telling of your story should be a lesson to many in the modern day.
    It was touching and reminded me a lot of my dad who was also a child of the same era, carried the same work ethic, level of dignity and sanity through his life and is missed.
    Thank you,
    Tom DeLotto

  4. Bentley Collins

    Bill I am saddened to hear of your father’s passing and send our deepest sympathies to you and your family. He sounds like a hell of a guy and your dedicating this space to him shows how much you respected and loved him.

  5. John Gear

    We are ALL merchants, and the exceptional ones recognize that the golden rule trumps everything else in the long run. It sounds like your father learned that lesson well. Thanks for sharing and celebrating his life.

  6. Scott Worsham

    Bill,
    I am sad to hear of your fathers passing, but what a testament to him you have become. You learned the lessons he wanted to teach with a tongue in cheek sense of how things work in this world. I had similar mentors in my life, and I am realising from your story that I learned the lessons you did and I am proud to say that I like the person I’ve become. I have no regrets.
    Scott Worsham

  7. Bill Coleman

    Sounds like a great guy. You were lucky to have had him for so long. My dad would be 93, but I lost him at 74. Another great guy. Unfortunately, only the passing of time and the dulling of our memories makes the pain diminish.
    Great life lessons. I am afraid the new crop entering the workforce are not getting these.

    Nice commentary.

  8. Michael Sciulla

    Bill:

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful and personal story with an audience who – although we may think we know you from your many years at Soundings – are really strangers to your life story.
    While I am sure this was not easy to write, I am confident that your father, David Sisson, would have been very proud of what you learned from him and had to say about those gifts he bequeathed to you.
    We should all be so fortunate!

  9. Allen Flinchum

    Bill,

    Sorry to hear that your Dad passed on. Like you, I learned most of what I know about business from my Dad, who passed on about 12 years ago. Learning to love my work was something he passed on to me. Learning that it is ok to make mistakes was another. I am still learning how right he was about so many things in life. I hope everyone gets to have this sort of influence from a parent or mentor,..and gets the chance to pass things on later in their lives. There are many things that you just can’t learn from a book, blog or a classroom.

    Someone once said, “we know what we know because we stand on the shoulders of giants.” I think they must have known our Dads.

    Thanks,

    Allen Flinchum
    Cypress Marine Inc.
    Severna Park, Md.
    Magothy River, Chesapeake Bay

  10. Russell Clark

    Bill,
    Amazing how your kind words about your Dad connect to so many of us. I too had the priviledge of a good education and more importantly the oportunity to come into a business founded by my father, in Boston. Nothing about it was easy, but I learned. Dad was an incredible mentor and that gave me the priceless tools to succeed in both business and life. Alvin Clark passed away May 23, 2011 at 93. He was a Marine fighter pilot in WWII and served two tours in the South Pacific. He was a great man and my best friend, I miss him every day. He taught me to enjoy every day we are here and I continue to pass on the wonderful memories and experience he conveyed to me. Through my Dad’s teachings, I was able to grow our family business, and become number one in the country.
    We can never replace these amazing father’s from the “greatest generation” but imagine how proud they would be to know that we care carrying the torch in their honor! Hang in there Bill.

    Best regards,

    Russ Clark

  11. Tom Neale

    Bill,
    Of course, I didn’t know your father personally, but I can tell that you and he are so much alike in many respects. And this is such a great compliment for both of you.
    Tom

  12. Doug Reimel

    Bill
    Sorry to hear of your loss, as you described you dad, I think of my dad and am happy he is still here. The personal touch is now old school. It won”t be long and the personal touch will be new again.

  13. Mark Corke

    Bill

    So sorry to hear of your loss but it sounds to me after reading this column that you will harbor fond memories of your father.

    All the very best to you and your family.

  14. Joan Maxwell

    Bill, I am so sorry for your loss. What a privilege to have had your dad to such a ripe old age of 97…but no matter how long they live we are never bigger than our dads! The lessons learned as children and young adults mold us into the people we are. Clearly you had a wonderful dad. Although you spoke of him in terms of the business lessons learned I’m sure there are many just plain life lessons that he taught you as well. No one will fill the huge hole he left….we only get one daddy in this life. Our prayers are with you and your family. Joan and Owen Maxwell

  15. Paul Hoppes

    Bill
    Sorry to hear about your father. I thought the following might apply to his life. I read this somewhere long ago. Keep up the great work.

    “A master, in the art of living, draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine if he is working or playing. To himself he always seems to be doing both.”

    Paul Hoppes

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