With school still out and kids on summer break, I’m reminded of some interesting and formative summer experiences of my childhood, growing up in a small, rural farm town in South Jersey (Don’t believe there’s farmland in New Jersey? Well, my hometown’s name is “Vineland”!).
Most Vineland kids whiled away the summer days, playing around at their leisure, unless they were forced to attend summer school (to make up for too much playing around during the school year). Fortunately, I was always a straight “A” student (as my Dad demanded, “Or else!”). So I never had to attend summer school. Instead, I enjoyed my elementary school summers goofing off with the neighborhood boys, mostly spending our days playing basketball outside, or darts or cards or shooting pool inside in one of our cool basements (which were still horribly sticky with humidity). Occasionally, we went bowling or to the movies (mainly for the air conditioning!). After several years of that caused what I called “boration” set in, and I advanced to junior high school, I decided (after some additional prodding by my parents) to spend my summer time more productively.
So, starting when I was about 13 years old, I worked every summer. Little did I realize I was actually enrolling in a different kind of school, one that my grandfather Sam fondly called the “School of Hard Knocks”. (You see, he was educated only through 6th grade, then ran away from home and made a success of himself through his “street smarts”.)
Only now, looking back, can I clearly see how those summer work experiences and the powerful life lessons I learned helped shape the person I became and am today.
My First Summer School Course: Hard Work 101
My grandfather built, sold and sometimes rented houses for a living. He assigned me to be the “assistant” to his handyman, Jack Pierce (I remember his name because it was spelled out in big, bold letters on the side of his old, beat up van, along with the words “Will Work” and his phone number). I recall Jack was an unkempt man, with a rugged, weathered face, who spoke only very basic English, which possibly was the reason he was so shy and talked sparingly. A gruff guy when he did speak, he eventually befriended me, even though he wasn’t enamored of being stuck with me following him around, when he preferred to work alone. I went along with him everywhere he went, getting rid of the mess my grandfather’s builders left behind so a house could be sold or, worse yet, deep cleaning rental homes that were vacated, so that the next tenant could move in. The latter entailed everything from scrubbing out baked on crud from ovens for over 3 hours (using steel wool and lots of elbow grease!), to cleaning up toilets the condition of which I don’t dare describe here, and tossing out the other unspeakable “stuff” that sometimes squatters left behind. It was a very dirty, disgusting, laborious and exhausting job. I spent a lot of time together with Jack on that first summer job and observed and emulated him by just quietly doing what had to be done and at the end feeling a sense of accomplishment, no matter what the task.
Up until that point, I had enjoyed a well-off, privileged life in an upper middle class family with a father who was a lawyer, and mother who had a live-in maid to help her do all the house chores (so I didn’t have to). I fully expected I would have a professional career someday just like my Dad and unconsciously thought some jobs or tasks were “beneath” me. I learned that summer that no job was beneath anyone. I gained tremendous respect for Jack and others who perform the hard, necessary, daily labor, quietly trying to do the right thing, struggling to make a living and take care of their families. This realization would stick with me when I later hired people in my business to do what others may call “ministerial” or “menial” jobs; I’ve never regarded them or their jobs that way and have treated them with respect.
Next Course: Business Operations 202
The following summer, my grandfather (whom I called “Poppop”) gave me a promotion and had me work as an “apprentice” to one of his carpenters. Poppop would drop me off at the crack of dawn at a job site to get started before the summer heat and humidity picked up. I was a skinny kid without a lot of muscle and suddenly had to do a lot of harder labor than I did with Jack, including moving concrete blocks, lugging roof tile and carpeting, hanging drywall, picking up and holding boards for the skilled carpenters to nail them in place, and many other heavy duty tasks. There were always a variety of workers at each site, such as specialist contractors working on the plumbing, flooring, roofing, electrical systems, etc. It often seemed to me like pure chaos! Once Poppop dropped me off, there was absolutely no management or supervision and, often times, there were mistakes made because things were done out of order, and tasks had to be done over again. In fact, it was complete pandemonium! I recall one time when a spark from one of the pipe welders caused a fire and since this was during the days before cell phones and we were stuck out in the middle of nowhere, far from any other house or a fire station or even running water, all the onsite workers (including me) just took a seat on our coolers outside the house and watched it burn to the ground! Needless to say, Poppop was not too pleased when he came to pick me up later that day! I remember his astonished expression and inimitable, dead-pan, almost comical words, “What happened here?” Remarkably, he didn’t get angry or point a finger at anyone, he just shrugged it off and moved on. He was a businessman, it was a momentary setback, and he wasn’t going to allow it to deter him.
It was through this job that I learned the importance of managing and supervising people that work for you. There needs to be someone that’s daily leading, guiding, and overseeing the work to ensure that things are being done efficiently and effectively. Oh, and sometimes “stuff happens” and you just have to roll with it!
Next Course: Working Conditions 303
Another one of my more memorable summer jobs was as an “inspector-packer” for a large glass factory. It was a tough job in entirely different ways. The temperature in the factory was never less than 90 degrees and it was extremely humid due to the fumes emanating from the melting glass. Imagine this. We all had to wear thick pants, heavy shirts and gloves in that ridiculous heat and humidity! That’s because the job entailed picking up white-hot glass that just came out of the furnace, before it raced by us on a conveyor belt, holding it up to a near-blinding fluorescent light to quality check it for any defects, then packing the good ones before glass neared the end of the belt. Any glass with defects was discarded by violently tossing it onto another conveyor belt going back into the furnace, resulting in glass chips flying everywhere! (And we weren’t given any protective eyewear!) The furnace was so loud that nobody talked, because nobody could hear you. Supervisors would show us hand signals to let us know it was time to take a break or a very loud, piercing whistle would blow when our shift was over. My ears were ringing for hours after I would leave work. (They didn’t provide ear plugs, either!) Accidents often occurred because it was so loud that people wouldn’t hear the fork lifts (which resulted in pallets falling on unsuspecting coworkers). I was determined to stick it out, even though it was a grueling job, standing on my feet for hours and enduring that hostile environment, because it paid well and my goal was to buy my first car at the end of that summer, which I did with all the money that I earned (a brand new Ford Pinto, paid up, for just $2,000!).
The money from that glass factory job was so great, that not only did I tune out the horrific environment while I worked there, I intentionally forgot about the terrible factory conditions and actually went back to work there the following summer! I was shocked to realize that upon my return, many of the same workers were still there doing the same tasks and had become so disconnected from reality that they had virtually become zombies. When they saw me, they had no idea I had even left! It really opened up my eyes to how certain work conditions and work environments can become extremely demoralizing and dehumanizing. It taught me to create jobs and a work environment in my firm that are uplifting, foster comradery and are enjoyable. I never wanted to make employees feel like they were merely machines or weren’t valued as people.
Advanced Level Course: Systems, Systems, Systems 404
I couldn’t possibly share about my summer jobs without telling you my McDonald’s story. I and everyone else there were cross-trained on all the tasks we might have to do and were given the opportunity to work our way up the hierarchy of positions.
I started out with “picking up the lot” (cleaning the parking lot several times a day, by hand, of every little scrap of food or paper until it was spotless). I then went on to make Big Mac sauce (whose quickly intolerable scent unfortunately became embedded in my fingers and nails no matter how many times I washed them). Then, I moved onto learning how to make burgers, shakes, fries, and finally was promoted to taking orders out front. Keep in mind, this was the late 60’s, before computers and cash registers that could add up the bill and calculate change. One day, I was unexpectedly asked to work the front for the first time because they were short-handed, so like the others, wrote customers’ orders on a pad of paper, added up the totals by hand, took their money, and made change. At the end of the shift, the manager customarily counted the money drawers. It wasn’t unusual for others’ drawers to be off quite a bit when he added the orders on their pads using the hand crank adding machine in his back office. I waited around for the manager to finish counting my drawer and proofing the math on my pads when suddenly he ran out and screamed, “Phil, you cheated! I know what you did. You put some of your own money in so that your drawer balanced out with the numbers on your pad.” I told him I didn’t cheat. I was just really good at math (I think I was taking high school calculus at this time!). I asked him to watch me the next day, so he did. He was amazed, almost in shock. My pad addition was not only perfect to the penny once again, as was my change, but because I could process the math so quickly in my head, my customer line always moved much quicker than others’. It was then that he took me aside in the back and encouraged me to get a scholarship to “Hamburger University” and become a future manager or restaurant owner at McDonald’s! He filled me with such praise and confidence that I went home and told my parents. Needless to say, they were not pleased. They did not feel that a job at a fast food chain like McDonald’s was a responsible or respectable career move. I listened to them and didn’t go to Hamburger U, which I later regretted a bit when I found out that a guy who did wound up owning 25 stores and became a multi-millionaire philanthropist!
The major lesson that I learned while working at McDonald’s was the importance of systems in a business. McDonald’s didn’t hire very skilled or educated workers and there was often high employee turnover. But, it was successful because of the systems that McDonald’s developed and trained its workers on, covering every little detail of every single task in that restaurant, such as the time for cooking each item, the order in which condiments were applied and their location and exact amount, how to wrap and package items, maintain inventory, clean machines, etc. Because of their almost dummy proof systems, no matter what McDonald’s restaurant customers might go to, they experienced the same taste and quality of products and same friendly and speedy service. My learning the importance of, and how to build, systems became the basis for how I’ve structured and managed my own estate planning law firm to this day. I want to make sure the best I can that my clients experience the same excellent customer service experience and receive the same exceptional work product every single time.
I could go on and on about the other summer jobs I worked. Aluminum siding warehouse stockroom boy (where I learned the power of a well-organized and clean workplace, as well as got to know people from different ethnic and economic backgrounds, whom I otherwise may never have met, understood and appreciated). Pizza delivery boy (where I learned the importance of scheduling tasks and getting paid when delivery is made, before people grabbed the pizza and slammed the door shut in my face!). Good Humor Ice Cream neighborhood driver/salesman, complete with white hat, white outfit and white truck which was fitted with unique sounding bells (here I learned how to order the right inventory each day, then market and sell it and provide cheerful customer service). Oh, and I once was a Hoover vacuum cleaner door-to-door salesman (thankfully, only for one day!).
All these summer jobs, when I was an impressionable young man, opened up my mind and heart to a much bigger world of people, their lives and work and the principles of business than what I ever knew or would have learned otherwise. These were the kinds of lessons that college and law school simply couldn’t and didn’t teach me in a textbook or a classroom.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to look back and reflect on the impact those summer jobs had on me. I realize now that I might have made life too easy for my own kids, that maybe I should have pushed them to work during the summer when they were younger like I did. I think they missed a lot of opportunities to learn the types of practical, valuable life lessons that I did, which brings me to you, the reader. Think about some of the lessons that you’ve learned over your lifetime, based on your own unique path. What experiences did you go through that made you who you are? This is the stuff we should, in my opinion, pass along to our kids, grandkids, and future generations (and hopefully I am to mine through this article). These are the non-monetary legacies that I believe will prove to be far more valuable than any financial inheritances you, and we as your attorneys, can ever pass along in your estate planning documents.