Reflections on retiring hard work and the future of small business

September 11, 2011
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I am sitting on the deck at my family farm near Cheboygan, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. At age 69, my life, like most people’s, has revolved around work. My other interests have been the family farm, small business advocacy, and reading — mainly history and biographies.

A man said to me a while ago that as you age, the runway gets shorter. That’s a nice way of saying you’re getting closer to being on the other side of the sod.

I have the good fortune to own a piece of property on a river that is situated in such a way that we have no visible neighbors. The view from the deck is a large lawn, rows of grapevines, a river about 500 feet wide, and a 240-foot dock at the end of which sits my fishing boat. A normal day includes an eagle, osprey, Caspian tern, blue heron, loon and an infinite variety of ducks. Deer, otter, coyotes, beaver, muskrats and an occasional bear wander by. I have 150 grapevines, 160 berry bushes, 20 apple trees, eight plum trees, 10 cherry trees and a vegetable garden the size of Rhode Island. Adam and Eve did not have much more going for them than my wife, Chris, and I have.

That all sounds idyllic, and it is. The problem is that there is more to life than sitting and watching the sun runs its course. There are some people who already were planning their retirement when they turned 18. For them, moving to the farm would be a no-brainer. But for people who grew up with a father who believed that working anything less than 60 hours a week was loafing, it’s a little more complicated. In my father's eyes, the worst thing you could be was useless. So that's where things get complicated.

Very few people in this country own businesses anymore. To those of us who do, retirement is a little scary. I did not suffer through 30 years of a job I hated in order to take early retirement. It is exceedingly difficult to retire in your early 50s if you're a small business owner.

The payoff is that you can look back with pride at what you have accomplished and how hard you worked. In a world whose financial foundations are in danger of collapsing due to the womb-to-tomb mentality, you are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

The easiest political message for a politician to give his or her constituency must be that they don't have to work hard because “if you elect me, I am going to take assets from the hard workers and give them to you.” The current occupant of our national residence does not value you or your efforts. Deep down in his psyche, he recognizes that he needs your efforts to provide the manna for the masses. He knows it, but he hates it.

We sometimes forget how much satisfaction we get from peripheral activities that come with owning a business. For some people, it is golf outings, cocktail parties, educational opportunities or marketing opportunities.

I have had a long and satisfying relationship with the Michigan Association of CPAs, Small Business Association of Michigan, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and National Small Business Association. I would heartily advise any business owner to be involved in such organizations to advocate for the future of small business. The people you meet through these organizations are the heroes of small business. These are not the whiners or the complainers. They are the doers and movers.

I have a fear, considering the current administration’s hostility to free enterprise, that our grandchildren will not have the opportunities we have had to live our lives as free individuals. The current administration caters to the people who want to receive the most with the least amount of effort. The above-mentioned organizations’ staffs and members put out an enormous effort on behalf of the concept that you get to eat what you kill.

You can thank Michigan's small business advocacy organizations for helping us elect the current politicians controlling Michigan. The Small Business Association of Michigan has played a huge role in advising and promoting Gov. Snyder's pro-small business agenda. For many years, we labored in the darkness, struggling against the majority of politicians in Michigan who disdained small business. The big three were all that mattered.

I think we all know that's over now. The future of Michigan lies with entrepreneurship, and we have politicians in place to help us get there. It is a gratifying experience to see the results being attained by the people now advocating for small business.

I don’t know when I will move to the deck permanently. One of my employees put a banner at the top of my computer screen that states: “Do you really want to work forever?” I think my answer is yes, but, practically speaking, things don't work out that way. I guess I really don’t want to be carried out of the office, so I will spend more time on the deck.

Sometimes I may become a little bored, but I can always get on the Internet and enjoy the successes and challenges of the new generation of entrepreneurs. Many people have worked long and hard to make those opportunities available.

Paul Hense is president of Paul Hense CPA PC, a local accounting firm. He also is past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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