A Parable

It was many years ago that I began my bakery. I was always interested in baking  from the time I licked the bowls  my mother had used for different kinds of  wonderful cakes that she made.

I took advantage of a redundancy package my company had been offering and purchased ovens and other equipment, new business. At first I worked from home  but soon I got my own premises,  again using my redundancy nest egg. I made buns and pastries for various restaurants in the city and gradually built up a staff of five people and a delivery van driver. It was a very simple business. The van driver took orders a week or so in advance and also collected the raw materials based on those orders. We had no formal quality control department or function, but the van driver continuously checked with our customers regarding our product and brought back feedback, be they either complaints or suggestions for improvements, to the rest of the staff. He had a great relationship with all our customers and  got on great with them.  Many times he ironed out all kinds of issues just by talking to people in our restaurant clients. The staff more or less did everything and worked things out among themselves. I didn’t get involved and let them at it, even though I gave a dig-out sometimes as well. That’s when I wasn’t talking to potential new customers and to my bank occasionally. Gradually the business grew and we all knew that we could do with a second large oven. However, everyone also understood that we weren’t going to get it until we could afford it. I shared all the information with staff and, I have to say, they were great in terms of doing everything to be as productive as possible and to reduce costs so that we could afford our second oven. Sometimes, when we were very busy  I had to virtually order them to go home. At Christmas and end of year we decided to be a little irresponsible and reward ourselves with a good party and a bonus. It was all a bit haphazard but it worked…or I thought it did!  Yes, there were  exciting times, sometimes nearly too exciting. We sometimes took on more than we could chew but we always made it in the end. People got behind whatever it was and behind each other and made it happen. I can still remember the high-fives well into the night after one of those victories.

Becoming a Real Business

Then, one day, I was approached by somebody from an enterprise board who recommended I talk to a business development consultant. The consultant was quite appalled at how the business was being run. “Why are you waiting for a second oven?” he asked,  “Why not borrow some money and buy one immediately? You could be waiting years and losing out on a lot of business if you keep going like this,” he told me. He also told me that he could put a business plan together would not only get me the loan now needed from the bank or banks for investment, but would also qualify me to get some government grants. I did – or rather we did – as he recommended and it got my business onto a completely new footing. There were virtually no problems getting the loan from the banks because they used the premises as collateral. We soon got our second oven but the business consultant  had other wonderful ideas about how to convert the bakery into a top-class business, a really professional one. We quickly went from six of a  staff to twenty which included a Quality manager, a Sales manager,  a manager of Operations, a Finance/HR manager  and a Purchasing/Logistics manager.  The previous disorder was eliminated and staff were given  contracts which included up-to-date working conditions and guidelines. Now everything is much better organised and sales have risen substantially.  Previously the staff came and went as they wished.  Now, I have to admit there was never a problem and people worked all kinds of long hours, whereas now we have good controls on people and we tightly monitor lates and absenteeism. They have been going up in recent times but we are now going after some of the big offenders and that should bring them down again to reasonable figures. Profit margins have remained steady if a little disappointing. We do, however, have plans to improve them, one of which is to reduce the amount of overtime being worked.  This is due mostly to product being rejected either by Quality or by the customer. Customers have got very demanding and downright unreasonable. We have tried to introduce some new products and we hope to do so next year if we can get the agreement of the workforce to cooperate with the changes that will be involved. The addition of a new van and driver we needed for deliveries only has also been an added cost. About a year ago we had a slump in our business and the banks refused  to continue to fund us until I offered my own house as collateral. I have  every confidence of being able to  retrieve the deeds to my house in the near future.

The New World of Big Business:

There are times when I stand back from my bakery and admire the wonderful and sophisticated business it has become. My mother, who is alive and well thankfully, seems equally in awe of it.   I know she thinks a lot of it is over the top and unnecessary but she doesn’t really understand what running a company or business really involves.   She has no idea how chaotic things were in the past compared to the controls and systems we now have in place where we have all the information at our fingertips.  Previously, people had to work out so many things for themselves. Now, virtually everything is planned for them and all they have to do is turn up and do – work! . But even that seems too much for them sometimes. I certainly don’t have time for any bowl licking these days nor am I very often in the bakery  because there is so much planning  and reviewing to be done and so many meetings to attend. I have become a bit distant from the staff as well because, over the years, they seem to have become suspicious and the new recruits don’t have the same interest and commitment that the older people had at the beginning. We have had one or two disputes over what they claimed were health and safety issues and, to be honest, they were being quite ridiculous. In a way, this is a pity as I used enjoy those Friday nights and the impromptu celebrations we had when we delivered our first order to a new client.  It was mad!  But, that’s the price that has to be paid if you want to grow and be successful, I suppose. Maybe they are resentful of the fact that I drive a Merc, but when you are president of the Chamber of Commerce, you can’t very well turn up in a Corolla. Being a member of the Chamber  and being on Rotary are important. It’s important to give back to society and we do a lot of good for many charitable causes. Apart, altogether, that is from providing jobs, good jobs. Not that this is appreciated either. When I sent out a message some months ago that the Company was in risk of failure, I heard comments back that some said they didn’t care if it did  fail. I was shocked. Try telling them how things were initially and they would only laugh at you.  We tried to have a Christmas party  one year but nobody turned up, apparently because they were annoyed at getting no bonus. But, how could you pay a bonus when we also much and can’t pay the banks? They don’t understand that. Amazing how people can change.

Losing my Company

Anyway, all that doesn’t matter too much. The Business Consultant has spoken to our bank and they say that there is a large chain interested in buying my business. It would certainly take all that pressure off me.  They have told me they will ‘keep me on’ so I can continue to work in the Business, which would be good as I wouldn’t like to have nothing to do with myself.  Today, at the funeral of a former employee,  I ran into one of the first employees to join the Company.  He had been around in the early years and I told him I was, in effect, losing my Company.

“But you lost it a long time ago.” he replied.

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“You lost it when you decided to be a ‘real business’ compared to the united and spirited Company we were prior to that. You lost it when you moved from trusting to controlling, from being one team to being managers and employees, from being driven by an exciting goal we all shared, to being driven by profits and returns, from what was meaningful deciding what happened, to bosses deciding what happened. But,” he told me, “you didn’t just lose your Company, you lost your friends, your mates, fun, excitement and real passion.  You lost your life.  And we lost ours too in the process.”

He didn’t say any of this vindictively but sincerely and with some sadness.  I wasn’t sure if the tear in his eye was for the loss of the life of the friend whose funeral we were attending  or was for the loss of his own life and the lives of his mates when the lovely bakery became just another business.