What's Right with American Business

What's right with American business?  Papa Jack's rules offer a reminder.

March 23, 2009


Holy Moses.

How do you explain today's toxic Wall Street environment to a child?  The unethical and criminal behavior tied to million dollar bonuses, billion dollar ponzi schemes, unscrupulous fund managers, trillion dollar tax-payer funded bailouts....it just seems to go on and on.  While you'd like to think that these actions are tied to just a few bad apples, as it turns out, the greed and corruption is inherently systematic and its effects are being felt in every corner of America.

Last week, I found myself trying to explain to my 9-year-old stepson why everyone was mad about the taxpayer-funded million dollar AIG bonuses.

"Let's say you had an allowance, or a 'salary' of $10 per-week," I explained.  "Every week, you were supposed to do your chores, and do them well: take out the trash, feed your cat and the fish, set the table for dinner, clean your room, help wash the car, and so forth.  If you did those chores, and did them well, we'd pay you for doing those chores.  If you were responsible and did your chores really well, with no sass, whining or complaining, and your chores were actually done so well they added value to the household - for example you helped saved your mother and I time so we could work harder and bring home more money into the family budget - you would get a big bonus at the end of the year!"

His eyes got big at the thought of it.

"Now let’s say you didn't do your chores.  The fish died, the trash kept piling up, the cat ran away because he was hungry, we always had to clean your room and kept finding smelly socks everywhere...all because you refused to do the work you had promised to do.  As a matter of fact, because you didn't do your chores, your Mom and I had to work harder and harder and had to neglect other things, to the point that at the end of the year, we had to borrow money to pay someone to collect the trash, we had to buy a new cat and we actually lost a lot of money.  And yet, you still expected to be paid and to get a bonus at the end of the year!"

His eyes squinted.  "You mean I wouldn't have to work hard, or do the things I promised but I still get paid and I still get a bonus?  That's a pretty sweet deal!"


My heart sunk.


"Tell the truth and you'll never have to remember what you said."

- 'Papa' Jack Weil

My good friend Steve Weil, president of Rockmount Ranch Wear, recently published a book about his grandfather entitled, Ask Papa Jack, Wisdom of the World's Oldest CEO.

You may have heard of Papa Jack.  He was the founder of Rockmount Ranch Wear and up until his death last year at the age of 107, he was considered the world's oldest CEO.  For those of you lucky to have met Papa Jack (he was still greeting customers at his LoDo store up until a couple weeks before his death) you know his life as a successful businessman was intricately tied to the simple rules of ethics, integrity, fair play, honesty and goodness.

Ask Papa Jack is a good reminder that we needn't be consumed with the cynicism and anger of the Wall Street scandals.  The majority of businesses in this country are small businesses; companies started and run by well-meaning entrepreneurs who continue to operate at the same level of ethics and integrity as outlined in Ask Papa Jack.

One of my favorite 'Papaisms' is from a story in the book when Steve was 23 years old and about to apply for his first credit card.

"I asked my grandfather, 'What do I say on the credit card application about my length of employment?  I have worked here since high school?...'  His reply burned itself into my fiber.  'Tell the truth and you'll never have to remember what you said.'..."

Ask Papa Jack contains stories and sayings that not only help define Papa Jack's philosophies and principals, but helps define a time-tested era from not too long ago that built capitalism based on a foundation of ethics, honesty, personal integrity and fair play.  Perhaps some might say it is a naive approach to business in a day where everything seems to be commoditized; where American creativity and ingenuity appears to be continuously devalued through outsourcing, global corporate mergers and acquisitions, big box discount retailing and a homogenous approach to marketing and branding. 

I keep telling everyone who will listen that our country is resilient.   Perhaps what is going on right now is a much-needed wakeup call that we all need to heed; a frantic reverse 911 to the American conscious that is reminding us that we need to live within our means and that in fact, prosperity and happiness are not defined by the, the latest technology, the biggest house, the largest car, the most expensive clothes, an iPhone, a $5.00 Starbucks or the 80-hour work week.  Could it possibly be that peace of mind is not defined by cost or expense at all?  That in fact the greatest contentment in our short time on earth is actually attributed to the simple virtues defined by friends, family, health and the satisfaction you feel from an honest day's work?  And lets not forget that we despite the endless stream of bad news about Wall Street, we still live in a country where the very real possibility continues to exist that anyone can succeed through integrity, ethics and good old fashion hard work, honesty and trustworthiness.  Read Ask Papa Jack and you'll realize how much real wisdom is packed into the mind of a 107-year-old.

To order Ask Papa Jack, Wisdom of the World's Oldest CEO, go to www.rockmount.com or visit Rockmount at 16th and Wazee in LoDo.  Steve Weil will be talking about his grandfather, reading from the book and signing copies on April 2, 2009 at the Tattered Cover in LoDo beginning at 7:30 p.m.

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