Matters Column

Beyond owning a small business: finding what feeds your soul

April 1, 2016
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I just learned that a man I have had a long relationship with, Phil Biggs, is still playing in the local band Mid-Life Crisis. Playing in the band has been a long-term commitment of Phil's, but he also has had a successful business career.

So the question becomes: Is Phil a business person or a musician?

I believe that many people do one thing to make a living and another to feed their soul.

I spent more than 45 years as a CPA, servicing mainly small business clients. It was a challenging, satisfying career. Probably the highest moment was when I was invited to participate in a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., with Sen. Arlen Specter, U.S. Rep. Dick Armey and Alvin Rabushka, the head of Stanford University’s tax department and author of “The Flat Tax.”

That was a real honor, but there was another spirit-lifting event in my life: when I was able to walk out into my apple orchard near Cheboygan and pick a Roxbury Russet and a Cox Orange Pippin apple. The Roxbury Russet is the oldest known variety of apple grown in the U.S., dating from the early 1600s in Massachusetts. The Cox Orange Pippin has been the most popular apple in England since 1840. They were worth the effort and the wait.

My wife and I attended a concert by Beau Soleil, a Cajun folk music group, at Frederik Meijer Gardens a few years ago. I had first heard them on WYCE and loved their music. They felt it was important to be the keepers of the traditions related to genuine Cajun music. The group had played at small events in Louisiana for several years and finally decided to turn their interest and passion into their business.

So what's my point? People are more than CPAs, attorney's, manufacturers, medical professionals etc.

Many small business owners are totally dedicated to their chosen method of making a living and that contributes to their success. Other small business owners view their business as a method of earning money to support their other interests.

For some people, the importance of these “alternative activities” exceeds that of their business.

I have an almost spiritual attachment to growing fruit. When I was about 10, my grandfather, who at that time owned the farm, said you could not walk through an orchard in June and be an atheist. I don't remember anyone making a similar statement about accounting.

Many small business owners need something in addition to running their business to make their lives more meaningful. For me, that something was growing fruit. For others it may be golf, music, art, etc.

Then there are those magical people who dedicate their non-working hours to helping others.

I recently met a couple who had developed an interest in helping people in Uganda build permanent housing. I met the father of a woman who moved to South Africa to work with AIDS orphans after visiting there on vacation. A man for whom I hold a great deal of respect, both in his business practice and as a person, coaches a girls high school cross-country team. What could be better than pursuing a non-business activity that adds to someone’s life potential?

Meijer Gardens is another example of what I am referring to. A long time ago, I heard the story about how Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park came about. As I recall, an area botanical association approached Fred Meijer, who had an avid interest in sculpture, and proposed a combination of their interests: a botanical garden with a sculpture park.

The reason I am not fond of using the term “hobby” to describe such an outside interest is that Meijer Gardens is the result of people with a driving passion for something other than business coming together to create a community asset  of incredible value.

Today’s talented young people are looking for a lifestyle as well as a job. If you are recruiting potential employees, taking them to Meijer Gardens could be the clincher.

Church affiliation is a major interest for some small business owners. For many, spirituality is the center point of their lives. The quality of our local community is in large part the result of its faith-based culture. The time people spend working within their churches to improve race relations, feed the poor, challenge cultural degradation, etc., is time well spent.

Many people tend to define themselves by what they do for a living. You may assume that, when you meet someone and ask what they do for a living, you then know who they are.

Dig deeper: They may have a fascinating pastime that would be of interest to you. If you ask me about accounting, I can converse. Ask me about antique apples and you will see excitement. That is true of most people and their interests.

There is a lot to be learned from other people’s activities outside of work. Why do they do the things they do? What need does it fulfill in them? Knowing that may spark an interest in you.

A lot of people have interesting stories to tell. I did a tax return for a man in the 1960s who pursued Pancho Villa in Mexico under Gen. Black Jack Pershing. I worked for a man who was in the Battle of the Bulge in WW2, and knew another man who was part of the retreat from the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. I had lunch with the father of an employee who lost a leg on Iwo Jima.

There are people all around you who have had fascinating experiences and enjoy interesting pastimes. All you have to do is ask and listen.

 Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and former chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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