Q: What has two legs and one wheel?
A: The owner of a small business pushing the wheelbarrow of commerce.
Vision, sweat and effort move that load. It is admittedly a limited load, perhaps just enough to support him, his family and the families of a few employees. What if something happens to him or the wheelbarrow?
When I was new in the industry, there wasn’t a truck I couldn’t unload or a pile of produce I couldn’t sell. I knew I could push that wheelbarrow up any hill. Then the business began to grow. We are a family business and as the older generation began to transition out of the business, I was amazed at all the tasks they had discharged that fell on me and our young team.
Fortunately, we had a strong core of people trained by my aunt and uncle, Anita and Sonny Fiorella, and that core had learned its lessons well. At that time our team was small, 12 to 15 people, and easily managed. The company was two departments and two shifts — day shift and night shift. We began to expand our product line with new ethnic offerings and an increased range of greenhouse-grown products. We added new services such as fruit preconditioning and custom re-packing. This growth meant we had to add wheelbarrows and people to push and pull our growing load.
Our very “flat” organizational structure began to reshape into multi-level departments. I began to spend ever increasing portions of my time dealing with the issues faced by a growing business. Hiring and training, facility management and technology selection were added to the work I was doing. It became apparent the organization itself needed attention and care. It needed someone to take its needs in hand.
The phrase “work on your business, not in your business” became the directive that pushed me to reshape my job description. But working on the business means a lot more than just the completion of tasks on a company’s “to do” list. Strategic planning, corporate culture, employee engagement, marketing and product development all appear on your plate when you make such a commitment. And, rightly so. These are the initiatives that allow your business to mature and grow and should be your focus.
My job, from the beginning, immersed me in the buying and selling of fresh produce. Spending the day on the sales floor surrounded by avocados, bitter melon and chayote and closing sales with regular customers was energizing. Planning with a shipper for the next persimmon season or the introduction of a new eggplant variety and presenting to our customers was, to me, fun and fulfilling. That is work I enjoy very much.
Preparing the multitude of forms needed for HR, comparing insurance plans and reviewing truck and forklift leases do not provide, for me, the same sort of emotional lift. Our growth forced me to begin delegating some responsibilities to others in the organization. Some work, such as dealing with our suppliers, I did not want to give up. Other tasks, such as reviewing equipment leases, I was happy to pass on to others.
To truly work ON your business, you must embrace planning, company culture and staff development. But unlike the seasonal aspects of the produce industry, the work of strategic planning, managing company culture and employee engagement is never completed. It is a journey and will be passed on to your successor. In my own experience, the benefits far outweigh the changes I had to make to my work life. Better planning, improved culture and a more engaged staff beget more progress in these areas and will add to your company’s success.
From time to time, usually when revenue falls below our target, I imagine grabbing a wheelbarrow and loading it up with sourcing and sales. I did just that recently, but not by choice. Our sales teams were busy, so I jumped in to run a deal. It was all consuming, and the work I was supposed to do was neglected. This forced me to again reflect on my real value to the company, and spending hours with shippers and customers isn’t where I need to be. But I surely loved being there, if only for a while.
John Vena is the owner of John Vena Inc., a family owned and operated produce business located in the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. Founded in 1919, the company is a fourth generation family business bearing the name of John Vena’s grandfather.