Work On Your Business, Not In Your Business

John Vena - Wholesale Market

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.‬