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Monthly Archives: November 2013

By Tom Demerly.

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All families have history. My family’s is part train wreck and part adventure novel. I hadn’t talked to my mom in 12 years. Until this Thanksgiving.

Dad suffered from depression and landed in a mental hospital. Mom battled addiction. One sister married early and left, the other moved to Ethiopia with the Peace Corps. I stayed in the basement and read books until I could join the Army after college.  After that it got interesting.

That’s the bad stuff.  But our family is also a collection of remarkable characters.

My dad worked for Boeing in WWII on the B-17 and B-29. Afterward he earned a high-level security clearance and worked on the first nuclear powered submarine, the USS Nautilus. My mom worked in the shipyard in WWII then went on to manage two printing facilities and kept a house as a single mom while I grew up. She put me through college. My two sisters earned degrees in chemistry, nursing, education and law. One is an advanced nurse; the other is a retired attorney. Her daughter teaches English in Japan, her son an artist in New Orleans.

Our family is weird. I won’t even begin to tell my story. You would never believe it.

This Thanksgiving I saw my mom for the first time in twelve years. We had a falling out over a girl I was engaged to over a decade ago and didn’t talk for over a decade. The girl is long gone.

I was worried about my mom’s reaction after 12 years. It has been the talk of our small city, Dearborn, Michigan, hometown of Henry Ford. People at the fruit market checkout wanted to know if I had seen my mom. A waitress at my favorite restaurant asked me if I had seen her. My friends told me she asked about me. So I mustered the courage to call her. She’s 92 now and legally blind, lives in a big house on a corner. The house I grew up in.  I had no idea what she would say as I dialed the phone.

“Tommy?” She calls me that. “Tommy? Why… Good God… Is that you?” I assured her it was.  I told her I was in Dearborn now.  For good.

The phone went silent for a long time. Her voice sounded weak and hoarse.

“Well… I’ll be. Can… you come over?”  I told her I would be there in thirty minutes.

My mom is smaller now. Her skin is white. The house is identical to when I left 32 years ago. Same paintings, same furniture. Frozen in time. Blind people need familiarity. We chatted. All sins were forgiven, and then laughed about. How trivial these past disagreements truly were. Twelve years, gone. What a waste.  But this is a beginning, and a time to be thankful.

I brought a book to read to her, Robert F. Dorr’s Mission to Berlin about B-17 bombers in WWII- the plane her husband, my dad, worked on. She listened intently as I read. I was careful not to read too long, just a chapter on one of the missions in the Flying Fortress. She hung her head when I recounted how only one crew in a flight of bombers returned from a bombing raid over Germany.

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Left, A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress breaks up over Germany in 1943. My Dad was a draftsmen for Boeing building the B-17. Right, a top secret super-bomber built to end the war, the B-29 Superfortress, crashed into a meat packing plant near Seattle. My mom told the story of how they would not let the firefighters in because the plane was so secret. My dad worked on the B-29 project.

“I remember that. They kept it secret. But the wives… the wives got telegrams or a visit. We all knew. Everyone knew. We were losing the war.  God knows how we eventually won. It was a miracle.” Her voice trailed off. “It’s time to eat.”

The connection a family has with history is a vital link to our past, and the key to our future. No family is perfect. Every family has their skeletons. But the ability to put their differences aside for even a short time and give thanks for the history we’ve made and survived, suffered and created is the essence of family and the meaning of thanksgiving.

This year I was particularly thankful I made that long trip home.

Notes: Author Robert F. Dorr is a friend on Facebook. He wrote Mission to Berlin and Mission to Tokyo about the history of the men who flew in WWII along with nearly 70 other books. Mr. Dorr worked in the U.S. diplomatic service for years. He just came home from Inova Fair Oaks Hospital in Fairfax, Virginia, where he underwent surgery. He would appreciate your best wishes on his Facebook page here.

My mom is doing well but suffering from a heart condition that may require a pacemaker, a risky proposition at 92. She still lives in her big house. An army of generous people pitches in to help make her life easier. She also is afflicted with chronic stubbornness and a propensity to tell stories, both conditions I’ve inherited.

By Tom Demerly.

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Here we go; Holiday Shopping Season. Black Friday, Cyber Monday. This is the 25-day period when retailers earn their net profit for the year and consumers do most of their buying.

Before the gun goes off this Thursday at midnight (and even before) let’s take a brief look at what customers should demand in the post-recession economy.

There are more retailers and fewer customers than any time since the early 1980’s according to industry expert Mark Ellwood, author of Bargain Fever; How to Shop in a Discounted World. That means you have more choices and retailers have to get it right.  The margin for error- literally and figuratively- is razor thin. A well-run retailer is doing well to earn 1% net profit on gross sales after all expenses at the end of the year. Also, this year, the holiday shopping season is unusually short, only 25 days, because of Thanksgiving’s proximity to Christmas on the calendar.

Stores, both online and brick and mortar, have two major tools to earn sales: Great customer service and lowest price. A wide spectrum exists between these extremes and some especially skilled retailers manage to combine the two. Whether you aspire to the Tiffany’s personal shopping experience or a Walmart elbow-throwing, door-busting footrace to the big screen aisle these are the minimum standards you should expect as a customer:

1.    You should be treated as a Lady or Gentlemen.

You’re giving away hard-earned money at the end of the worst recession in history. You’re not a number, not a commodity. You’re not easily replaceable. Life long retailer and founder of the quirky, niche specialty retailer Harry’s Army Surplus in Dearborn, Michigan, Irv Zeltzer, said it best, “Every dollar has 100 cents”.  To earn that precious 100 cents retailers should treat you with respect and reverence. Retailers should value you.

2.    You Deserve to be Waited On.

Remember when clerks waited on you? Good service means there are employees or well-designed online resources to find out information and help you with buying decisions. This is a key feature since it adds value and savings to a purchase by reducing costly errors and returns. Your time is tangibly valuable. A sales associate or web resource that helps you make a faster, wiser purchase saves you time, and time is money.  Smart retailers also know good customer service reduces returns and adds to sales and profits.

3.    You Deserve Honesty and Openness in Pricing.

There are a lot of pricing shenanigans this time of year, triple and quadruple mark-downs, fine print, weird return policies, coupons, membership buying. Straightforward pricing is a key tool to understanding the value of a purchase. Beware of convoluted pricing schemes. Remember, the time it takes you to figure out if a deal is any good just cost you something more valuable than money; it cost you your time.

4.    You Deserve Good Service After the Sale.

Retailers should do “back end” planning for their post-holiday returns and customer service. The staff should know the policies and be empowered to make decisions. Lines shouldn’t be long and waits to make returns should be short. Retailers have a great opportunity to retain customers and earn new ones with great service after the sale. They need to get this right. It will bring in customers during the other 345 days of the year.

Customers fall into a trap of using price as the measurement of quality in a retail transaction. Good value is about more than markdowns and low prices. If you are focused on what you deserve as a customer before you line up on Friday morning you’ll have a better shopping experience this season.

By Tom Demerly.

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Random Notes and Key Things I’ve learned so Far:

1. Life:

  • Friends and community are more important than we realize. Much more.
  • My Mom was right; travel really is the most opulent luxury.
  • I am not like other people. When I try to be, I am sad and look foolish.
  • Be gentle with people- both people who are kind and people who are mean to you.
  • You will have enemies. Don’t let it bother you. If you weren’t trying, you wouldn’t be making some people mad.
  • Most people who don’t like you envy your courage and are afraid themselves.
  • Be understanding of those people, their fears are real to them.
  • Difficulty can make you a better person if you decide to let it.
  • One of the smartest people I ever met, my friend Kim, told me “successful people are usually just the last to give up.” She is right.
  • It’s true. You will fail.
  • Failure sucks.
  • Not trying is worse than failure.
  • Try again.
  • Never stop learning, never lose the “beginner’s mind”.
  • If you know you are right about something and try to convince someone, but their own beliefs prevent them from listening, don’t force it. Let them be.
  • Make good choices but do make choices. Don’t be paralyzed by indecision.
  • You think you are the only person suffering when you suffer. You aren’t.
  • You can learn a lot about a person by how they treat animals and children.
  • Two key quotes:
    • “We each create our own reality” Arthur C. Clarke.
    • “Between stimulus and response is our greatest freedom; choice.” Steven Covey.

2. Love:

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  • You are lucky if you have one true love, you will also likely lose them, but you are always better for having had them.
  • Always treasure the people who have brought true love and beauty into your life. Be a respectful friend to them forever. Revel in their new relationships and happiness. Stay friends with them unless they are cruel to you, in which case, just let them be.
  • When you truly love someone the thing you want most is for her to be happy and safe. You want that more than your selfish desire for them.
  • Have the courage to walk away from a relationship that is bad and never look back. Never be afraid to be alone.
  • It is better to be in a good relationship with yourself than a rotten one with some one else.
  • Great sex is about way more than the physical act.
  • Take a good, close look at her; she is more beautiful than you (and she) realize.
  • Beauty has almost nothing to do with looks.
  • The greatest luxury in a relationship is staying in it simply because you want to be there, no other reason.

3. The Military and Conflict:

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  • Never underestimate the human capacity for cruelty. People are the most dangerous animals.
  • There are three important truisms in the military; 1. Your training will keep you alive. 2. In the military world, your comrades are your first priority. 3. When your enemy is subdued, treat them with dignity and humanity.
  • Train relentlessly and realistically. Your training will save your life and insure the success of your mission.
  • Do not dwell on the awful things you’ve been through. Hold them at arms’ length, let them go, forgive them and yourself.
  • If you live in a safe place, protect that. It is rare on this earth.
  • Learn the skills of war, hold them as precious, but do not flaunt them or revel in them. They are an ugly but necessary set of tools.
  • When an enemy dies, do not celebrate. Instead, pray for them and ask forgiveness.
  • The least painful way to learn is from history. History is a free lesson, a way to learn from the suffering and loss of previous men. Never stop learning, studying and analyzing history; its cost was high but it is free to keep.
  • Be kind and respectful of people who have a disdain for the military.
  • Being a soldier, a guardian of peace, is one of life’s highest honors.
  • Wars fought over money, resources, politics and territory can be resolved. Wars over religion never end until one side is completely annihilated and their history erased.

4. Business and Money:

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  • See: “War and Conflict” above.
  • The Arabic proverb, “Do business as strangers, socialize as brothers” is good.
  • Pride has no place in business.
  • Trust that if you do a good job and devote yourself, you will be successful.
  • Even when (not if) you fail, if you have done the above, you have a basis for a new beginning.
  • Don’t try to bend the rules; it will bite you in the ass.
  • Your ass is going to have some tooth marks.
  • Pay yourself last.
  • Treat your employees well. Pay them first. Protect and honor them.
  • Respecting your employees as important human beings is as important as paying them, sometimes more so.
  • A harsh reality is that money does buy happiness. You can use it to help other people, keep yourself safe and healthy, travel and help animals. In the human world money is security.
  • Don’t trust banks. They are a business, a necessary tool.
  • Don’t be mean to or distrust the government or the IRS. They are people trying to do a difficult and unpopular job with few resources and huge bureaucracy. Be empathetic toward them.
  • The smarter you are the more successful you will be.
  • Learn from your mistakes. You’ll pay for them, you may as well use them.
  • Every dollar has 100 cents in it.
  • Every business is a nickel and dime business. There are no “small” losses.
  • Treat every day as your first day in business, and remember it could also be your last.
  • Failure always arrives before you think it will and is always a surprise.
  • In retrospect, failure and success both seem obvious.
  • Always call your customers “Sir” and “Ma’am”. It sets and maintains the tone of the customer/business relationship. It says you are doing business.
  • Save more money than you think you will ever need. Money is a tool.

By Tom Demerly.

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I turn 52 today. I worried about that. Getting old. I decided to stop worrying about it. Instead I decided to worry about not living. I decided to stop looking into the rear view mirror of life and saying, “I remember when I…” instead of saying, “Right now I am…”

I was most worried about not doing things anymore. That scared me about aging. About being too old. Then I decided to stop worrying and just keep doing things. It really is that simple.

There is a physical element to aging. I’ve had three knee surgeries, a broken back, too many broken left arms to remember, a broken right arm and hand, eye surgery; heart surgery, a stroke and I have a cardiac implant. Those things affect me a little, and they are a badge of experience; a life well lived. An active life. So I work around them. And the more I do the less of an issue they are. They are not a reason to stare in the rear view mirror looking at what is behind me. They are a reason to keep moving, keep doing, keep living. Because there is no denying some day something will catch up to me that will have a limiting factor on living. Until then, it’s a race to get as much stuff done as I can. There are people who, at 52, are so much less capable than I am. Actually, there are people at 23 who are.

An embarrassing element of aging is beginning to understand how stupid I was when I was younger. In my thirties I knew everything. It was amazing how smart and successful I was. Good looking too. I was wrong of course, but I thought I was quite impressive at the time. Now I know better. Some of the errors of judgment I made still sting pretty badly. The only thing I can do about those errors is own them and not make them again. Some people say they have no regrets. They must not have taken many chances. I have plenty of regrets. I’ve also taken a lot of chances. That I don’t regret. I still have time to take more. I guess I don’t regret that I have regrets. Is that possible?

The good news about being older is we may be truly smarter. Most of us. I hope. The greatest fear I live with is not learning something from my mistakes. The fear of repeating them. As a result I remind myself of them often. Another risk is being fixated on what I did wrong. Not having the confidence to take on more risk, and do it wisely tempered against what I’ve learned from experience. I suppose that’s called “good judgment”.

One of the lessons I’ve learned is that, like the lyric in the Pearl Jam song, “…that what you fear the most will meet you half way…” failure has a way of finding you if you live your life to avoid it. In the cruelest irony if you navigate life to a warm, comfortable death bed with no regrets, no mistakes then there is a tendency to realize, in your final moments, that you could have done more. That is the cruelest regret. I don’t have that one.

By Tom Demerly.

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Contrary to popular belief, rich people don’t cause other people to be poor. That’s a feeble excuse for our national condition.

There is a sentiment that the distribution of wealth in the United States, as inequitable as it is, comes from the wealthy “keeping the little man down”.  To horde disproportionate amounts of wealth- taking it from the backs of Walmart workers.

That’s wrong.  We’re not victims, we’re Americans. “The Man” isn’t keeping us down. That’s just an excuse. It’s us who let us down, and I am a perfect example.

I started and owned a successful business for over 16 years. Then lost everything. I lost my savings, my house, my car, my belongings, my income, my employees, my business, even my health… everything. There were circumstances that contributed to my loss. But ultimately I am the one responsible. Part of the proof is that two friends of mine in the same area and the same industry survived the recession. They survived because they made better decisions than me. They are better businessmen than me.

I am a reason why America failed during this last decade. There are a lot of “me” out there.

There is a reason to own this. Until we own the recession, the mortgage crisis, the banking collapse- unless we own these disasters, on an individual basis, we cannot correct them. We won’t truly recover.

The first step to correcting any problem is owning it. Taking responsibility for it. We need to take a painful and specific look at where we made bad decisions individually that led to our financial hardship. Once we understand how we got here, on an individual basis, we can get out, on an individual basis. America is built on the backs of individuals, and it fell on the backs of individuals who let it down. Guys like me.

Dearborn, Michigan, 2009 on Michigan Ave.

Abandoned businesses, downtown Dearborn, Michigan in 2009 on Michigan Ave.

What did I do wrong? Too much credit, not enough saving. Poor planning. Relying on the fact that money was easy to make and would always be easy to make. Becoming complacent, assuming business would always be good. Trusting the wrong institutions and people. Not saving enough for a rainy day. Beginning to think that earning a living was easy and success was common. Ignoring the basics. Never planning for a downturn in business. Those are some of the general mistakes I made. When you apply those mistakes to a huge company like General Motors before their bankruptcy, the banks before their collapse and the real estate market you see how these behaviors rippled from the individual through our entire culture. It was a house of cards. When the wind finally blew it didn’t need to blow very hard for it to topple.

So what now?

First, we need to own the problem on an individual basis. Look at how we failed. Individually, collectively. Then, with that knowledge, return to the basics of saving and building, working and taking risk, thinking and innovating. Our economic system, as chaotic as it seems, rewards risk and hard work with opulent success and penalizes failure with ruthless disregard and gut-wrenching impunity. It also rewards us with a second chance. It isn’t easy, in fact it is extremely difficult. My life these past few years has been more difficult than I care to share. It’s humiliating. Our system does work though. It provides a level of opportunity, however abrasive and difficult to achieve, that is nearly unmatched in the world. This is the greatest country, the land of opportunity, but it is also a ruthless arbiter.

It demands we own our past before we can earn our future. But our system also forgives.

In my case that meant a lot of tough years. Now I am certain I’ll never make these mistakes again. I’m thankful for a country that allows me to start again with what I’ve learned, no matter how difficult it is. That is the American way.

By Tom Demerly.

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Amazon.com has lead the online customer service race with their patented “One Click” buying system for web purchases. It is fast, convenient and respectful.

The single largest retail mistake is failing to make the customer experience the top priority. Every operational decision should emanate from customer service and convenience.

Modern retailers have fallen into four traps of subordinating customer service:

  1. The sales staff is very poor.
  2. The checkout process is too long.
  3. They offer repeated, hollow apologies.
  4. They try to collect too much information without a reward.

First: Retail is at the bottom of the job ladder in all but a handful of niche markets. The pay is bad, the hours are long and the work is not inspiring.  If retailers spent more time training staff personally, not through an automated curriculum, staff quality would improve and a basic human need for the employee would be fulfilled; the need for interaction as a valued person. The most demoralizing part of being an employee is feeling like a poorly maintained cog in a machine. Everything from automated job applications to slide show training sends a clear message to employees; they’re a commodity. Personal and recurrent customer service training communicates and maintains not only the standards of customer service but also the nuances like tone, posture and other forms of subtle conduct. Retailers need to invest time in personally mentoring their sales staff. Then sales staff will mentor customers into being loyal.

Second: In a race to collect data and maintain inventory retailers have adopted checkout systems that take too long. I wrote about this here. The checkout experience has become painful. It should be quick and respectful. Two key mistakes are poorly handled defects in the transaction and making the customer wait. Customers: It’s not your fault if a bar code scans incorrectly. If even five percent of customers walked out when a bar code or checkout error occurred the retail industry would change. Vote with your dollars. If checkout is cumbersome or protracted, don’t reward that with the sale. Shop elsewhere.

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The basics of retail excellence haven’t changed in a century: Courtesy, quick check-out, owning mistakes and compensating the customer for them and respecting the customer’s privacy and time.

Third: Sincerely apologizing for a customer service error is step one, but the pay-off is fixing it. Repeatedly apologizing makes the retailer look less competent. The best way for a retailer to say, “I’m sorry” is to quickly solve the problem. If an item is incorrectly priced the retailer should deeply discount the item on the spot to compensate for the mistake and as an incentive to return. The apology has to be tangible.  Five hollow “I’m sorry”s from a minimum wage Walmartian mean nothing.

“The best way for a retailer to say, “I’m sorry” is to quickly solve the problem.”

Finally: Retailers collect too much data. This is especially true of online retailers and service providers like cell phone companies. While collecting customer data is important in diffusing frustration from a bad experience (when the first three topics in this article are ignored) retailers miss two key steps in customer data collection: 1. Customers should be compensated for their data. 2. Customers should receive an acknowledgement that their data made a difference. It is frustrating to throw your personal information and opinions into a black hole and never know what happened to them.

This list is short but each of these items forms the foundation of building a loyal customer base. That is the key to profitability.

People shop at Walmart because they have to. People shop at Target because they like to. If you were a retailer, which customer would you rather have? If you’re a customer, which experience would you rather reinforce?

 By Tom Demerly.

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Dating is dead. It has become a novel convention of the past. We’ll tell our single parented kids about it one day. They won’t get it.

The traditional template of dating, an eager male asking a doting female out for an evening of food and entertainment a few times until they transition to greater commitment, is nearly impossible now. It is only practiced by the affluent, patient or traditional.

Every aspect of relationships has been influenced by the economy, technology and society. Some of the changes are good, like acceptance of same-sex couples and greater gender equality. Much of it is bad, like a divorce rate that is accelerating even as marriage frequency is dropping from the recession and into the current recovery.

From the Huffington Post.

People are growing apart, and that is worrisome. If there was ever a time we needed each other, it’s now.

Why should we worry about this? The basis of learned social conduct comes from the family. Whether it’s gay or straight, adopted or reassembled from previous relationships. Relationships build families, families build people. People build society. Add to this the greatest acceleration in social technology ever and you have a confused culture. As a result people interrupt each other, communicate without courtesy, have different attitudes toward reproductive behavior and are forced to make up rules of social interaction as they interact. We used to learn those rules in the test setting of a family.

Perhaps the greatest casualty in the decline of dating is the conversation. This quant convention has been replaced by a quick coffee and some tandem calisthenics performed at aerobic pace in a race between orgasm and someone’s phone going off.

“If there was ever a time we needed each other, it’s now.”

As dating has died what is left is a largely unstructured format for male/female interaction. Dating websites are oddly similar to a job search or sales campaigns. People try to start and maintain dating relationships over vast distances using technology. Those are especially sad. There is no technology for holding hands over the web.

A foundation for the loss of dating is fear. Fear of weirdness. Fear of loneliness, fear of embarrassment, fear of rejection, fear of hurt and failure. These fears are valid. When you date you’ll experience all of them. Given the amount of fear that already exists in our society over the economy and our future our fear meters are at maximum. We don’t want any more fear. And because of that, dating sucks now.