Matters Column

Can you look back at your life and be happy?

October 27, 2017
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I recently was riding on a boat down a river I first became acquainted with in 1949. My mother’s family had settled there on the Black River in Cheboygan County in 1863. I have owned a portion of the original farm since 1988. When I took my first trip up that river, there were a few small cottages along the bank. Today, the river is lined with beautiful homes and expensive yachts. I am 75 and struggling with Parkinson's disease. As we rode along with my son-in-law driving, I realized how the runway was getting shorter. We won't be back there until next spring, and I can't be sure I will be able to make it.

As I contemplated that reality, I thought about the quality of the life I had lived. I would like to suggest that at whatever age you are, you examine what you want to feel when you approach the final runway. My passion for small business had a lot to do with what I was thinking on that trip.

An attorney working on the sale of my business to an employee asked me an interesting question. He asked, given the variety of things that I had achieved, was there anything I wished I had done differently? My answer was that I would like to have my name on a building on a busy street. He asked me what I had done to achieve that goal. I answered nothing. He said that I must not have wanted it very much. Therein lies my point.

My advocacy for small business arose out of my realization that I was not temperamentally suited for employment in a large organization. That was particularly true in public accounting, which is very hierarchical. I remember the look on Lloyd Yeo's face at Yeo & Yeo in Saginaw when I corrected him on a point of law regarding liability in accounting. He said you can't be sued for what you didn't say. I pointed out the Firestone family’s legal action against Ernst and Ernst that cost the firm millions.

Apparently, Mr. Yeo felt as grandson to the founder of the firm and managing partner he did not need my correction. He also was not happy when I had a cup of coffee at lunch while I studied for the CPA exam. Randy Robson of Rehmann Robson apparently felt pretty much the same way as Lloyd Yeo. I ran into Randy 20 years after I worked for him on a restaurant dock on the Cheboygan River. I asked him if he remembered me. He answered, “Who could forget you?” I believed the only criterion on issues was being right. If you were right in what you stated, no one could hold it against you. I wonder how I would have gotten along in the military. 

When you look back, you will realize that barring an unforeseen tragedy, your life is of your creation. Should I have changed my attitude and learned to keep my opinions and thoughts to myself? Absolutely. But I didn't. I decided that in order to be whom I wanted to be, I had to be self-employed. The decision to not modify my personality cost me the prestige and income of being a member of a CPA firm. The tradeoff was that I was able to express my feelings and opinions honestly, which led to my chairmanship of the Small Business Association of Michigan and the National Small Business Association, giving me the opportunity to stand up for what I believed in without risking my job. 

My point in all this is that at 75, I am OK with my decisions. Will you be? Look at your business, personal, spiritual and social needs. Are you being true to them?

The boat I was on was my Boston Whaler. My wife insisted I buy it because we got such a good deal on it. It isn't fancy, but it appeals to my German need for utilitarianism. It is an object. I will remember its use, not its status. I have lost four of my six brothers. My brother Jim died 17 years ago. I have a picture of him and me on the Straits of Mackinaw in front of the Grand Hotel. I love that picture. I was able to restore an 1880s vintage barn. The construction method used by my great great grandfather was tongue in grove using rehydrated pegs in place of nails. Money is not the motivation to work hard. The memories you can build using those assets will remain with you long after the material asset has ceased to exist. If you own something to impress friends, neighbors and relatives, you will regret having spent the money because nobody really cares. Spend the money to share in memorable occasions, and you will remember it as money well spent.  

The renowned local philosopher Peter Secchia answered a question of mine years ago. I asked what he thought motivated people. He said that people were motivated by what they perceived they lacked as a child. That was certainly true in my case. Due to having six brothers and being horribly nearsighted, I concluded as a grade school student that other people were smarter than I was.

One of my biggest thrills was a presentation I made on the flat tax at a congressional hearing in Washington D.C. I was on a panel with Dick Armey, then-congressman from Texas; Alvin Rabushka, author of the flat tax; and Arlen Specter then-senator of Pennsylvania. It fulfilled my need to prove to my brothers that, contrary to their opinion, I was not stupid. After the presentation, Alvin told me I was a liar. He said, “You introduced yourself as a humble CPA from Grand Rapids, Michigan. You may be a CPA from Grand Rapids, but you are by no means humble.”

So what are you pursuing and why? When you get it, will you be fulfilled? Small business people are unique. They can actually set the course of their life. With freedom comes responsibility. If you choose to be free, you will ask yourself what did I do with that freedom?

Remember that life is not all business. One of my biggest personal thrills was picking Cox’s Orange Pippin and Roxbury Russet apples from trees I had planted. Cox’s Orange Pippen has been the most popular apple in England since the early 1800s, and Roxbury Russet is the oldest recognized American apple dating back to the early 1600s. Both were worth the effort. Some people get everything they need from business. Most of us have other things we want to accomplish in addition to business.

I don't have a lot of time to complete my story, but most of you do. No smart business owner operates without budgets and projections. If you were to look back at 75, what would you want to see? Make it really good, then do it.

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

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