I believe life is about learning.
If we can teach our children, ‘To learn, to love, to learn,’ we will achieve greatness. Growing up from a young age, I loved reading — stories of any kind. Whether they were about the cosmos or about cowboys, it was an escape into my imagination. I was fortunate that we had a library of books in our house. Our book rack was filled with hardcover books about space, science, religion, nature and wildlife. There was a full series of Readers Digest Classics, like Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. We had two sets of encyclopedias — World Book and Britannica — I guess you can never be too sure of your facts! And there were kids reading books like The Hardy Boys, The Famous Five and Nancy Drew. We also had softcover books by the Western author Louis L’Amour, a pile of Mills & Boon romance stories, and years of annuals from Scotland.
One subject that was missing on our rack was anything related to business. My mother and father were working class folk who believed in loyal service to their employers. Long-standing tenure until retirement was pursued and praised. They both enjoyed careers with the same employer for many years. To my parents, an honest day of hard work is how they believed in earning their keep. The concept of ‘ being the employer’ was never considered or discussed.
My dad however, did give me these two pieces of advice:
- Never sign surety for someone else, even family.
- Always get everything in writing, words and memories fade.
I’m sure you must have heard one, if not both, of these many times before. These are universal rules that help navigate any business dealings that involve money. Although I heard these two gems many times before, and not only from my dad, I still went ahead and ignored them.
At the age of 30 I had a successful restaurant. My wife at the time and I bought a failing fast food shop and turned it into an American Diner and ice cream parlour. It was doing exceptionally well and life was great.
A close family member of mine had a 50% interest as a silent partner.
That’s what we had shook hands on.
This close family member, let’s call him Bob, had also bought a large supermarket which he busied himself with.
After a few years, Bob had made a few poor business decisions and had mismanaged his supermarket by overextending himself with loans and accepting stock on consignment, which resulted in his cash flow drying up. At the same time, he was instructed to build a butchery as an extension of the supermarket — a condition to keep his franchise status.
In a panic, Bob asked me to sign surety to raise the capital he needed to build the butchery and resuscitate the supermarket. He was my partner, he is family…
Why wouldn’t I sign surety for him?
Not six months later, Bob sold the diner right from under me, without my knowledge and kept all the proceeds — there was nothing in writing you see.
In the meantime, behind the scenes, Bob was selling off all his assets and gathered as much liquid capital as he could, as he was taking his family and immigrating to Australia. I expected him to settle the loan which I had signed surety for, but alas, he reneged on that too, leaving me to pick up the pieces.
If life is about learning, I’ve lived well. Although I had faced adversity before, these two lessons proved to be instrumental in who I became. Learning through experience leaves a lasting impression.
My father used to say in Afrikaans: As jy nie wil luister nie, dan moet jy voel!
Roughly translated: If you don’t want to listen, then you must feel (pain)!
Looking back, I wish there had been a few books on business and entrepreneurship in that book rack. They would have been devoured and cherished like the rest. In hindsight, I’m not sure I would have acted any differently. Trust is something you give freely to someone, it is up to them to honour that and act fairly. Being betrayed is a possibility when you have made yourself vulnerable. But, by being vulnerable and trusting as a point of departure, is how you connect with people on a human level.
In my view, the alternative isn’t an option.