Iconic newspaperman makes his point about small business risk-taking
Because ClarkCountyToday.com Editor Ken Vance referred to me several times in his recent editorial about small business entrepreneurs and their value to our economy, I’d like to respond. And I want to make a point about risk-taking.
Ken stressed the contribution that small business owners make in providing wages and benefits to their staff members. He said society should not begrudge those employers some benefit in the recently-approved tax overhaul. By inference, he put me in the “wealthy” category. Hold on.
I did what he described. I bought a business seeking a different lifestyle for me and my family. I wanted to benefit from the fruits of my own labor. The effort resulted in 30-plus years of highly satisfying endeavors, much of it due to the skill and hard work of my staff members. It’s a two-way street.
Before buying the Battle Ground newspaper, I was employed for about 11 years with the U.S. General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of the U.S. Congress. I moved from my native Oregon to Washington, D.C., and then to Seattle, doing the work of that agency and training others to do the same. The result was seemingly endless travel around the country and being away from home and family over half of the time.
I had no newspaper experience when John Dodge agreed to sell me The Reflector in 1980. My wife Anne had confidence in me. We sold our Seattle home, took out whatever federal retirement I had accumulated, added in the balance of our savings account, and spent it all on the newspaper and a Battle Ground home. It took 12 years to pay my debt to Mr. Dodge. But things went well, and we were able to build a new building — and hire more people.
I went from being age 36 to being almost 67 while working as much as 70 hours a week. Then I placed the paper in the hands of other people.
As Ken noted in his editorial, there are benefits to society from small business operations. Our staff members earned salaries and medical insurance, and received profit sharing investments. I may have worked many hours each week, but the entire effort would not have been possible without the skill and equal hard work of the staff.
A key point I want to make here is one I have spoken about many, many times: owning a business is not for everyone. Ken pointed out that owning a business is not one of his ambitions. I fully understand that.
The principal element is risk. Small business owners put everything at risk including their entire financial stability. In my case, I left a very secure, reasonably well-paying job, for a very uncertain future. I had a wife and three small children all age 10 or under. Buying a newspaper put it all at risk, especially a newspaper that was not showing a profit.
The easy thing for me to have done would have been to keep doing what I was doing and eventually retire with a pension. That’s the choice that small business owners face. They, too, could work for someone else and have a much easier life. They could just earn a salary and benefits, not think about business every night and on weekends, take vacations, and enjoy leisure time. In general, small business owners do not live that way. They work enormous hours, think about business activity day and night, often work weekends, fret over staffing issues, and keep tabs on the bottom line. And they must fund their own retirement plans.
If all goes well, the picture looks as you described it — nice cars in the parking lot, salaries paid on time, and medical and profit sharing benefits. But it’s all because someone was willing to risk everything to make it happen.
As Ken reported, I also hear complaints about the “wealthy” not paying enough taxes and about changes in tax laws benefiting big business. More frequently I hear general unhappiness that some in society are much better off than others.
I guess such complaints might have some merit for people who inherit nest eggs and don’t need to work. But according to statistics, most of those in America who are well off got that way through hard work, frugality, education, investing, and inventiveness. Maybe the Kennedys and Rockefellers inherited wealth, but there was a hard-working entrepreneur in their lineage. Gates and Zuckerberg were impoverished college students not that many years ago.
It is well known that small businesses create the vast majority of jobs. Business ownership has many benefits that are not just financial. It’s very satisfying to be able to work hard, apply education and experience, and be successful. And I’d put interaction with staff members at the top of the list of satisfiers.
An important element in all this: I was born in America where education, hard work and inventiveness make many things possible. Despite making some mistakes, I look back on my business years and can’t imagine how the whole experience could have been any better.
Marvin F. Case is the publisher emeritus of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.