Letters from a self-made merchant to his son – 1

Recently, I casually picked up a free Kindle copy of “Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son” when I was feeling bored. Boy, I kept it down only after I finished it.

It’s a brilliant book – witty, simple, wordly advice from a wealthy father (Howard Graham of Graham & co, a meat packing company) to his son Pierrepont. It covers nearly everything that a man goes through in his life – management, business, money, education, college, women, love, work, speculation, etc. Most of it is solid advice applicable even today.

I realized late that this was actually written by George Horace Lorimer and there never was any Howard Graham. Still, every page is realistic and on the money.

Must read!

The book is short and easy to read. I took notes and grouped them into relevant categories so that I could refer to it from time to time. This series of blog posts is a compilation of such notes.

Graham on inducting family into business.

Well, Mr Narayanamurthy went against his tenet and inducted Rohan as a vice-president at Infy. Graham was no such man – he started his son in business at a position that befit his experience – the bottom.

“The only sure way that a man can get rich quick is to have it given to him or to inherit it. You are not going to get rich that way—at least, not until after you have proved your ability to hold a pretty important position with the firm; and, of course, there is just one place from which a man can start for that position with Graham & Co. It doesn’t make any difference whether he is the son of the old man or of the cellar boss—that place is the bottom. And the bottom in the office end of this business is a seat at the mailing-desk, with eight dollars every Saturday.”

And he is quick to reiterate that he will not dole out any ready-made success to his son.

“I can’t hand out any ready-made success to you. It would do you no good, and it would do the house harm. There is plenty of room at the top here, but there is no elevator in the building. Starting, as you do, with a good education, you should be able to climb quicker than the fellow who hasn’t got it; but there’s going to be a time when you begin at the factory when you won’t be able to lick stamps so fast as the other boys at the desk. Yet the man who hasn’t licked stamps isn’t fit to write letters. Naturally, that is the time when knowing whether the pie comes before the ice-cream, and how to run an automobile isn’t going to be of any real use to you.”

And that the son has to figure his own shit out.

“I can give you a start, but after that you will have to dynamite your way to the front by yourself.

“A man’s as good as he makes himself, but no man’s any good because his grandfather was.”


Graham on work ethics:

Papa knows it well. That you need to enjoy the process to bear rich fruit. Plus, you’ll enjoy doing it as well.

“Get the scent in your nostrils and keep your nose to the ground, and don’t worry too much about the end of the chase. The fun of the thing’s in the run and not in the finish.”

And here, a poke to remind him not to procrastinate.

“I want you to learn right at the outset not to play with the spoon before you take the medicine. Putting off an easy thing makes it hard, and putting off a hard one makes it impossible.

Well, life ain’t giving you all you need. You need to choose what you need and go after it – Mr Graham puts it neatly.

“Some get it going fishing most of the time and making money the rest; some get it making money most of the time and going fishing the rest. You can take your choice, but the two lines of business don’t gee. The more money, the less fish.”

Wanna get rich quick? Mr Graham points out the pitfalls to sonny. Life’s a long marathon – don’t get squeezed out running it like a 100mm dash. Running several sprints aint making it a marathon.

Life isn’t a spurt, but a long, steady climb. You can’t run far up-hill without stopping to sit down. Few men rush at a thing with a whoop and use up all their wind in that. And when they’re rested and have got it back, they whoop again and start off in a new direction. They mistake intention for determination, and after they have told you what they propose to do and get right up to doing it, they simply peter out.”

Well, when you work little and make a lot of noise, you aren’t going to make it big. Plain and simple. No matter what the noise, a rooster is no hen (who lays you an egg).

“I’ve heard a good deal in my time about the foolishness of hens, but when it comes to right-down, plum foolishness, give me a rooster, every time. He’s always strutting and stretching and crowing and bragging about things with which he had nothing to do. When the sun rises, you’d think that he was making all the light, instead of all the noise; when the farmer’s wife throws the scraps in the henyard, he crows as if he was the provider for the whole farmyard and was asking a blessing on the food; when he meets another rooster, he crows; and when the other rooster licks him, he crows; and so he keeps it up straight through the day. He even wakes up during the night and crows a little on general principles. But when you hear from a hen, she’s laid an egg, and she don’t make a great deal of noise about it, either.”

Think and work like an owner, not the employee who cares for little but the salary.

“I want to see you come up smiling; I want to feel you in the business, not only on pay day but every other day. I want to know that you are running yourself full time and overtime, stocking up your brain so that when the demand comes you will have the goods to offer.”


Graham on employees, hiring, customers, business management:

Graham makes it clear early on. In any business, its the people that matter the most – employees, customers, suppliers, financiers,… more than the product you sell. (He ran a meat packing business and hence the reference to quadrupeds; bipeds are, well, us :)).

“When a packer has learned all that there is to learn about quadrupeds, he knows only one-eighth of his business; the other seven-eighths, and the important seven-eighths, has to do with the study of bipeds.

Solid hiring advice. I figured it out myself in my own business too, alas a bit too late.

“Be slow to hire and quick to fire. When you find that you’ve hired the wrong man, you can’t get rid of him too quick. Pay him an extra month, but don’t let him stay another day.”

More hiring advice.

“A married man is worth more salary than a single one, because his wife makes him worth more. He’s apt to go to bed a little sooner and to get up a little earlier; to go a little steadier and to work a little harder than the fellow who’s got to amuse a different girl every night, and can’t stay at home to do it.”

Graham about a friend who ran his business to the ground mismanaging employees.

“He had a pretty good business when I first went with him, but he would keep putting off firing his bad clerks until they had lit out with the petty cash; and he would keep putting off raising the salaries of his good ones until his competitor had hired them away.”

Well, its easy to find employees who are disinterested in their jobs. They are the ones who arrive late and leave early at every possible opportunity, says Graham to Pierrepont.

When a clerk crawls into the office in the morning like a sick setter pup, and leaps from his stool at night with the spring of a tiger, I’m a little afraid that if I sent him off to take charge of a branch house he wouldn’t always be around when customers were. He’s the sort of a chap who would hold back the sun an hour every morning and have it gain two every afternoon if the Lord would give him the same discretionary powers that He gave Joshua.”

There’s no such thing as being your own boss. Even if you own the place, you’ve got to answer to customers, employees and many more. Have no such illusion of being the boss.

There isn’t any such thing as being your own boss in this world unless you’re a tramp, and then there’s the constable.”

Pierrepont once complains about his manager to Daddy. Daddy will have none of it against his long-loyal employee from one who has just joined the firm, though he’s his own son. Loyalty is a rare commodity – you better learn to value it.

“I dwell on this because I am a little disappointed that you should have made such a mistake in sizing up Milligan. He isn’t the brightest man in the office, but he is loyal to me and to the house, and when you have been in business as long as I have you will be inclined to put a pretty high value on loyalty. It is the one commodity that hasn’t any market value, and it’s the one that you can’t pay too much for. You can trust any number of men with your money, but mighty few with your reputation. Half the men who are with the house on pay day are against it the other six.”

Never bad-mouth the place you work for. It’s plain bad manners. And never hire one that bad-mouths his previous employer.

“A good many young fellows come to me looking for jobs, and start in by telling me what a mean house they have been working for; I never get very far with critter of that class, because I know that he wouldn’t like me or the house if he came to work for us.”

I learnt it the wrong way. My first employee was a friend. When things weren’t right, I simply couldn’t talk to him on right terms and he perhaps took it easy because he felt I would be lenient because I was his friend. A big mistake. Graham knew it only too well.

“I want to say right here that the easiest way in the world to make enemies is to hire friends.”

When Pierrepont is promoted as Manager, Graham has a piece of advice for him. That he better be good at his job before requiring his juniors be good at theirs.

“No man can ask more than he gives. A fellow who can’t take orders can’t give them. If his rules are too hard for him to mind, you can bet they are too hard for the clerks who don’t get half so much for minding them as he does. There’s no alarm clock for the sleepy man like an early rising manager; and there’s nothing breeds work in an office like a busy boss.”

With authority comes responsibility. Don’t abuse it by overlooking your own shortcomings.

Right here I want to repeat that in keeping track of others and their faults it’s very, very important that you shouldn’t lose sight of your own. Authority swells up some fellows so that they can’t see their corns; but a wise man tries to cure his own while remembering not to tread on his neighbors’.

Ah! I have made this mistake myself. Graham points out well. Nothing is sweeter than praise to a man – use it liberally to get your job done.

“Consider carefully before you say a hard word to a man, but never let a chance to say a good one go by. Praise judiciously bestowed is money invested.

How often you see managers going around asking about the other employee and whether anything is wrong with him / her? In Graham’s book, that was a big no-no.

Never learn anything about your men except from themselves. A good manager needs no detectives, and the fellow who can’t read human nature can’t manage it.”

Stay close to your people, says Mr Graham here. It also helps stay close to where the action is.

“Keep close to your men. When a fellow’s sitting on top of a mountain he’s in a mighty dignified and exalted position, but if he’s gazing at the clouds, he’s missing a heap of interesting and important doings down in the valley. Never lose your dignity, of course, but tie it up in all the red tape you can find around the office, and tuck it away in the safe. It’s easy for a boss to awe his clerks, but a man who is feared to his face is hated behind his back. A competent boss can move among his men without having to draw an imaginary line between them, because they will see the real one if it exists.”

Keep your sales team on their toes. You are in business only if they bring you new orders.

“Besides keeping in touch with your office men, you want to feel your salesmen all the time. Send each of them a letter every day so that they won’t forget that we are making goods for which we need orders; and insist on their sending you a line every day, whether they have anything to say or not. When a fellow has to write in six times a week to the house, he uses up his explanations mighty fast, and he’s pretty apt to hustle for business to make his seventh letter interesting.”

Managing means both managing below you and managing above you.

“Some fellows can only see those above them, and others can only see those under them, but a good man is cross-eyed and can see both ends at once. An assistant who becomes his manager’s right hand is going to find the left hand helping him; and it’s not hard for a clerk to find good points in a boss who finds good ones in him. Pulling from above and boosting from below make climbing easy.”

And a bit of caution.

There are two things you never want to pay any attention to—abuse and flattery. The first can’t harm you and the second can’t help you.”

More caution. This time about the need for patience.

“I want to caution you right here against learning all there is to know about pork-packing too quick. Business is a good deal like a nigger’s wool—it doesn’t look very deep, but there are a heap of kinks and curves in it.”

A bit of advice against fly-by-night over-promising guys. Never hire them, no matter how good they are. Get rid of them quick.

“The swamps are full of razor-backs like Charlie, fellows who’d rather make a million a night in their heads than five dollars a day in cash. I have always found it cheaper to lend a man of that build a little money than to hire him.”

…to be continued. Old man Graham will advice you further in the next post.

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