Businessman Was One Of The People Who Changed My Life

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My last Air Force unit was a 21-man field training detachment at RAF Upper-Heyford, England. Like all Air Force outfits, we met once a month for commander’s call. I went through the first 12 of them, each time suggesting that we get some doughnuts in the student lounge where we took our classes on break. There were more than 125 students in the building each day and five breaks. We could get some doughnuts, I said, have something to snack on, charge the students a dime or so, and come out ahead.

Once again I heard the usual: “Uh-uh!” “No way!” “We’ll lose our shirts.” Then our aging, always sour-faced first sergeant — not my favorite person — said, “Garrett, if you’re so doggone good at business, you do it!”

With some of the first shirt’s buddies chuckling, I stood up and said, “OK, I’ll tell you what; Ski and I will do it.”

Somebody said, “Great! Go broke!”

“OK! But first everybody in this room has to agree to something: If Ski and I make any money doing it, nobody — and I mean nobody! — turns around and says that the whole detachment should share the profits!”

I made everyone of them raise his hand and agree, but you should have seen poor Ski’s face after the meeting, Johnny. Ski — Jon Jankowski — was my best friend. He frowned at me and said, “I hope you know something about business. I don’t.”

“I learned from a master,” I told him.

Poor Ski looked more and more worried as we went to the PX, bought a $250 upright freezer and installed it in my classroom, made a deal with the base commissary to supply us with several cases of three kinds of frozen cake doughnuts each week, and spent money on materials to build a nice little self-service “doughnut bar.” Totaled up, including the first week’s supply of doughnuts, it came to a whopping $573.88.

I thought Ski was going to faint, but after our first week as co-owners of the “doughnut concession” you should have seen the grin on his face.

We grossed $40 to $60 every day, five days a week for the next three years. Our operating costs were our time and the cost of the doughnuts. They cost us 4 cents apiece and sold for a dime, which meant we were splitting $100 to $125 a week, or $400 to $500 a month.

To put that in context, the year was 1971, gasoline was 31 cents a gallon, and my monthly Air Force master sergeant’s salary was just $875.

You see, I really did learn from a master. I learned from Harry Stromberg, a fine man, a rare judge of human nature, and the smartest businessman I ever saw. Harry Stromberg had a dream — to own a successful retail store. He scrimped and saved and opened his first store in 1933 at the very depths of the Depression. By the end of that year he had opened a second store. By the time I met him he was owner of a New England chain with 23 stores in it.

As assistant manager in one of Harry’s stores I went to semi-annual meetings in the head office of the chain. Before the first meeting, I couldn’t help wondering what Harry Stromberg would be like. Would he be like a few small-minded business owners I had met in my hometown? Would he be a penny pincher? A bean counter? A micro-manager? What?

You know what Harry Stromberg was?

Think of the wisest person you have ever known. Think of someone you cannot imagine lying to you about something he is saying. Think of someone who would rather send a customer across the street to get what he needs than sell him something “just as good.” Think of someone who could get up on a stage, hold up a can of motor oil with the company “H” on it, talk about what was in that can, and tell you that “when better motor oil is made it will be in a can with a large blue H on it.” And think about someone you believed in so completely that you felt you could go out on the street after a meeting and sell a can of motor oil to the first person who came down the sidewalk.

Harry Stromberg knew what sells, and he said it often.

How did I know those doughnuts would sell? All I had to do was think back to what he so often said during a meeting. “Find a good product, one that people want. Price it right and make it easy for them to buy it. And every time a customer comes in your door find a way to add to the trust between you.”

A nice fresh doughnut? For a dime? In the break room in an Air Force school where you can’t get anything else while you are having a cup of hot coffee?

And where the sign over the little doughnut counter says, “Self-Service. We trust you. Just drop your money through the slot.”

How could we not have made money, Johnny?

Thanks, Harry. Thanks for being who you were, and for sharing your wisdom.

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