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Tucked away in a corner of a thriving community, Eckloff Enterprises was a prosperous business that fabricated metal parts of all types for containers and automobiles. The owner, Bruce Eckloff, was a quiet gentleman who was dedicated to improving the working environment for his employees. I served his occupational safety and health needs for over 25 years and was saddened by his untimely death which resulted from an automobile accident. He gave me several unsolicited referrals, which helped me to secure some of my best clients. He was a master at designing and building things out of raw materials that looked like they came from the local dump. He had the ability to purchase these materials at the bottom of the price cycle, store them for years, and make huge profits because he had what was needed when no-one else did.
This company was established in the early 1930's, and was located beside a seldom used railroad track. During one of my first visits on a hot August afternoon, I performed a safety survey and general walk through. I routinely walked around a client's building just to determine if any potential safety hazards existed outside. The only access to one side of the building was the railroad, and while walking along the tracks, I noticed a huge amount of water. There was no smell, but there seemed to be a layer of oil on top of the water. The source seemed to be from a pipe buried under some of the stone ballast of the railroad. Because wooden railroad ties are saturated with creosote to retard wood rot and decay, I thought nothing of the oily water I saw. When I walked around to the other side of the building and noticed water running from a pipe that came through one of the walls which emptied into a drain, I figured that might be the source of water on the tracks. Further investigation revealed the oily water did indeed come from inside the plant. What an ingenuous place to dump oily water - on oily wooden ties where no one would be concerned. At the time I found the dumping place, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had just passed legislation that made such dumping illegal; fines for such practices could be up to $25,000 a day. "So you discovered my secret," he answered when I told him what I found. He smiled and continued, "It took me several months to figure out what to do with that waste water years ago and now ... I guess I'll have to purchase an evaporator." The fluid being dumped on the railroad tracks consisted of a mixture of about 5% cutting oil and 95% water. The evaporator would eliminate most of the water. The mixture would then consist of equal parts of oil and water that could be hauled away as a regulated non-hazardous waste for pennies a gallon.
Little did I realize how seriously he took my suggestion to physically clean-up his building. Two months after my discovery of the water and oil on the railroad tracks, he started building a beautiful new facility which ultimately housed an up-to-date paint spray booth, water evaporator, and drum storage area. The storage space was large enough to house all of the fluids used in the manufacturing process; nothing that could produce an oily runoff when it rained was left in the open. Inside the original building, he completely rearranged the equipment used to produce the various parts that he sold and generally fixed up everything. The old paint spray booth, which was an absolute fire trap, was eliminated and several old oil tanks were dug up and replaced with modern inert fiber tanks. He painted the inside walls of the plant a bright off-white and gradually replaced all of the old lights with modern, energy efficient vapor lights. In all, he spent about $400,000 to upgrade his business and wound up with a modern, efficient operation. It was a treat to visit this plant during the construction phase to see the progress that was being made.
My staff and I were allowed to establish a safety committee, prepare a safety manual, and implement a complete safety program. This program included a respirator maintenance program and a hearing conservation program. There were many bumps along the way, but ultimately their yearly worker's compensation premium was about two-thirds less than it had been. Planning and training paid dividends by greatly reducing the number of accidents; employee morale and pride increased dramatically. It was a pleasure to work with this individual and help him accomplish the improvements that he made to his business.
It was interesting to visit Eckloff Enterprises because Bruce usually had a pet project or two underway in the rear of his shop. One day, the two of us walked up to an unrecognizable pile of metal. Bruce laughed and said, "Scottie, what do you think that is?" I looked and hesitated not knowing what to say. Before 30 seconds passed, he laughed again and told me, "Why it's what's left of a Model A Ford. I'm going to fix it up and enter it in competition." All I could see was a pile of rusty metal. Over the next nine months, the Model A rose from that rust pile. When he was finished, he had $78,000 invested in that vehicle and two months later he walked away with first prize. When I saw him after he won, the first thing he said to me was, "Scottie, walk with me to the back of the shop." I walked up to another pile of rusty metal to be told, "This is a 1951 Chevy pick-up truck. I'm going to fix this one up and enter it next year." He did just that and assembled one of the most beautiful pickup trucks I had ever seen. This time he spent $56,000 on the project which included a "butcher block" wooden truck bed. In a five year time span, he built five different vehicles and placed first three times and second twice in whatever competition he entered. I lost a real friend when he passed away.
Although formal education provided me with the knowledge to solve many of the problems I've encountered on the job, it did not fully prepare me for my career as a consultant and small business owner. Much of what I needed to know about operating a business successfully, I learned from the jobs I had as an adolescent. My journey began by collecting old newspapers and bottles.
After World War II my family did not have a lot of money; we weren't poor, but there wasn't much left over at the end of the month. With two rambunctious boys, my parents had to find ways to supplement my father's paycheck. Our first job was to collect old newspapers. In the late 1940s, 100 pounds of newspaper would earn from fifty to eighty cents. My brother and I had a big wagon and many afternoons we would go throughout the neighborhood collecting all the newspapers and magazines we could coax from our neighbors.
One of our neighbors gave us hundreds of pounds of magazines and newspapers over a one week period when I was about ten. My father would usually wait until we had about one-half ton and then we would take them to the paper recycling company. As we were getting ready for our trip at the end of that week, our neighbor came rushing breathlessly down the street. He was a big man and seldom moved quickly because of the extreme exertion required, so when I saw him running I knew there was something very important on his mind. Before he even came to a stop, he shouted, "Have you seen my wife's high school year book." Of course we had not. My father and I took a deep breath and began moving the papers and magazines quickly but carefully out of the vehicle we had just loaded. We searched through the dusty piles and managed to find her yearbook. Our neighbors were very grateful and willingly gave us all of their old newspapers and magazines after that.
On another occasion, Mr. Saxon, one of the business owners in our town, asked me to remove all of the old newspapers from the store basement. He was a very meticulous person who owned one of the two "five and dime" stores in our town. Everything in that store was exactly where it belonged; the two sales ladies who worked for him were constantly straightening "things." He was always there and greeted everyone with "Hello, please come in and shop" in a deep, booming voice. He told me that I would find everything downstairs under the steps. After reaching the basement, I found more old newspapers, trade magazines, and old advertisements than I had ever seen before in one place. It took my brother and me over a month to wrestle that musty hoard up fifteen steps and home one wagon load at a time. That haul netted us a very nice return. Within six months, Persimmon Creek completely flooded all of the businesses in that block. After the flood waters receded and things had settled down, Mr. Saxon commented to my mother, "I never thought your boys would manage to remove all of those papers, but am I glad they did it before that flood." Even though collecting old newspapers was not glamorous, I learned that persistence does bring financial reward.
* * *
Soon after my eleventh birthday, a new highway was constructed within a few hundred yards of our house. That highway turned out to be very busy; it always seemed to be full of cars. During the first year of operation, there were about a dozen accidents at the intersection where the highway and our street met. After three deaths, a traffic light was installed which almost completely eliminated any traffic incidents. My grandfather would always remark after an accident, "Ole Joe (referring to me) I guess we made some more angels today."
One of my friends invited me to go with him after school one day to make some money. He told me about collecting bottles along the new highway. I received permission from my mother to go and off we went. I don't think we found more than ten bottles between us that first day, but in the early 1950s, twenty to fifty cents was a pretty good return just for walking along the highway for about an hour. From then on, almost every day, Herman and I would walk after school for about an hour and usually find 10-15 bottles each. During that first year, we ventured further and further afield looking for bottles, learned which spots yielded a good return, and how often to return. At the end of the summer, we had each pocketed over $100.
Herman was a tall, lanky guy who was liked by everyone in the neighborhood. His parents emigrated from Germany after World War II because his father helped the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Herman was three years older than I was and, although he was old enough to remember some things about the war, he never talked about his experiences. One side of his father's face was full of pock marks which came from a grenade that exploded near him. Herman would always say, "Living here (in the United States) was like going to Heaven." In later years, my father told me that Herman's father had to work two jobs in order to "make ends meet" and everything Herman earned at various jobs went to support his family.
Because Herman was at least a foot taller than I was, he would walk along the lowest portion of the edge of the highway and I would walk along the top. If we spotted a bottle, the first one to shout "Hotsy Totsy" would get to keep the find. I don't know how we arrived at that system, but that's what we did and it worked very well. Even though we sort of competed with each other to see who could find the most bottles, our stash was pretty even at the end of each trip. We'd trade bottles we found based on who lived nearest the store that would give us the deposit on a certain type. After the trading was finished, we'd have to wash the bottles because none of the stores wanted dirty ones. I'm still amazed at what people put in discarded bottles: cigarette and cigar butts, sexual paraphernalia, buttons, paper clips, pieces of metal, and pencils. Once we found several finger nails in a beer bottle and Herman found two one dollar bills in a soft drink bottle. Once the horrible washing chore was finished, we'd take the bottles to the store to get the deposit.
During the second summer that Herman and I collected bottles, my brother was old enough to go with us. Herman didn't seem to mind, and all three of us would shout "Hotsy Totsy" many times as we went along. One of my grandfather's friends saved bottles for us, and once each week we would go to his house to pick up his offerings. Even though it was easy and profitable, I'll never forget the stench from the pig pen at the back of his house. I guess everything has a drawback. I still don't know how he and his wife could stand the odor. One day after I graduated from high school, I drove the route that the three of us usually took on our bottle adventures and discovered that we averaged about 5 miles a day on foot or bicycle. Collecting was great, but washing those dirty, smelly bottles was not much fun. We did it though, knowing that at the end we'd collect our reward. Also, I learned that you must present your product well in order for it to be desirable.
* * *
Both my father and grandfather worked on the railroad as Track Foremen. My grandfather could walk to work, but my father's section was on the other side of town, so he had to drive to work every day. On summer days that I didn't collect bottles, my grandfather would take me to work with him. When the men found out that I liked to collect bottles, they started saving them for me and my grandfather would bring them home with him. As I got older, my father would take me to work with him so I could "help run a line." I'd walk down the track with string until he told me to stop so he could check the track alignment. If it was "out," he'd assign the realignment task to some of his "gang" members the following day. On one occasion, he directed me to cross four tracks and stand on the other side. As I knelt down to position the string, I heard the telltale hum in the tracks and looked up to see a freight train heading right at me. Four feet behind me there was a thirty foot wall, and between the edge of the track and the wall was a ditch about two feet deep below the top of the rails. All I could do was dive for the ditch to get out of the way. That was the longest train I ever saw and I think my poor father almost had a heart attack while the train passed. When I jumped up after it had passed, all he could say was "Thank God I taught you how to determine when a train was coming and that you had the sense to jump." Our secret was to always be listening for a hum in the rails. You could hear a train long before you could see it because they traveled at speeds averaging 80 mph.
* * *
After the rag content of newsprint was reduced, collecting old newspapers was not worth the trouble and collecting bottles for the deposit did not provide a dependable return, so my father investigated something else for me to do. He supplemented his railroad paycheck by becoming custodian of the small church we attended and he secured a newspaper route for me.
My brother and I worked two different routes for eight years, and in doing so we both earned enough to cover most of our undergraduate college expenses. The first route was a very modest one of 50-60 weekday and 80 Sunday customers. The newspaper worked with the paperboys on a commission basis; the newspaper got the first two-thirds and the paperboy kept the last one-third paid by the customers. Of course, the paperboy bore any of the bad debts under this system. By comparison, the competing newspaper in town sold the routes. The route owners paid their newspaper boys a flat salary (about 25% of my commission), were responsible for collection, and bore all bad debts.
Delivering the newspapers every day required about 45 minutes. Because of the bulk of the Sunday newspaper, our father helped us by using the family car. This saved us from carrying half of the paper and walking 25 minutes to the route. Delivery of the Sunday paper was also more difficult because it was heavy, and because half of the paper was delivered to our house on Saturday night, rather than to the route. We had to stuff the Saturday evening section into the half that was delivered to the route on Sunday morning. Our usual routine was to arrange the Saturday evening half so the stuffing operation on Sunday morning only took about 10 minutes for the 80 newspapers. Once the papers were ready for delivery, the delivery operation took about 45 minutes.
Excerpted from Problems ... Solved by Charles Scott Copyright © 2010 by Charles Scott. Excerpted by permission.
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