The other day I was hanging out with my one of my friends here in South Florida. He leans to the Republican side and works maintaining computers not far from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach. I asked him what he thought of Trump. He told me he’s heard Trump is slow paying his bills to locals, but “I think the country will be better off with a president who understands business.”
But what does it mean to understand business?
Food—and drink—for thought
To some, like Trump, it means making money. To others, and in my experience, to most successful businesspeople, it means doing some sort of good in the world, while trying to make enough money to keep doing it. What Trump doesn’t understand, based on his widely-reported history of enriching himself at others’ expense, is that making money is a means of doing good in the world, not an end in itself.
To understand the difference, take the case of Jim Koch, the founder of the Boston Beer Company, the brewer of Samuel Adams. While building his own brand, Jim also helped build the craft beer industry. When there was an industrywide shortage of hops a few years ago, Jim had secured more than enough for his own company, but some of his smaller competitors could have gone out of business.
A guy who thinks business is only about making money might have said “tough luck.” But Jim decided to sell his extra hops at regular prices to his competitors, so they could keep on building the industry and help improve the quality of American beer overall.
Or how about Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, who helped build that company doing what was thought to be impossible: high-quality food, good service and low prices. After Trader Joe’s, Doug started Daily Table in Dorchester, Mass., a nonprofit grocery store that recovers food that would have been wasted and prepares healthy meals that can be sold at the price of fast food.
Doug and the folks at Daily Table understand they have to make money—so that they can build more Daily Tables in other struggling neighborhoods.
Memo from Fezziwig
People who understand business aren’t only CEOs of big companies. In fact, far more of them are owners of small businesses—those house painters and car mechanics and restaurant owners who every day show how much they can deliver for a dollar, rather than how little. We love to share the names of such people and establishments with our friends. They bring joy to our lives. These people understand business.
And finally, there are the millions of employees we encounter who also understand business. People like Heather, whom I was talking to a few days ago. Heather works at a major car rental company, which shall remain nameless just in case this might get her in trouble. I needed to extend my rental by a day. Heather clicked a few keys and said, “No problem. There’s a little fee for changing, but I’m going to take care of that.”
“Wow, thanks,” I said. “You’ve just made a loyal customer!”
Heather understands business.
Not many people remember the name Fezziwig. He owned an accounting practice, and on one Christmas Eve long ago, he told everyone to stop work and clear the furniture away so they could have a dance. But everyone remembers one of his young employees. His name? Ebenezer Scrooge.
Scrooge and Trump make for memorable characters. But this country will be built, as it always has been, by men and women who understand what business really is.