Tough Enough

Are you tough enough? As an American Entrepreneur and small business owner I have asked this question of myself countless times over the past twenty-five years. I still do. I equate this toughness with the concept of “conscientious equity”. “Conscientious” because it is right. “Equity” because we all have ownership in doing the right thing.

Yet, through some selfless mentoring by people who practiced conscientious equity by tapping into their mental toughness the hard way – in the trenches of trade — they imparted to me the humility and humanity that has kept me plowing ahead at life’s most difficult crossroads. When it would have been easier to give up rather than face the challenges that beset all entrepreneurs, I recalled the life lessons that still guide me today. Never compromise on your standards, and never lose the toughness that guides you, and has guided this nation’s visionaries and successful businesses.

I founded my first entrepreneurial adventure in 1988 in a dilapidated, leaky roof building in Manila, Philippines. It was here that I began manufacturing commercial foodservice equipment. Before long I was able to secure the exclusive contract to fabricate the kitchens for McDonalds throughout the booming Asia/Pacific region. We began building more than three hundred stores a year and had over four hundred employees. Every waking moment I was completely consumed.

My job was made much more complex by my collision with history. The Philippines was going through one of its darkest moments; reeling from the upheaval of the People Power Revolution. There was massive civil unrest exacerbated by frequent right -wing coups at tempts and the omnipresent threat of communist insurgents.

However this was just the beginning. The labor unions were infiltrated by the communists who were openly hostile towards management and practiced extortion for their personal gain. There was corruption everywhere, at every level of society. It wasn’t long before this destabilization eroded the fabric of the country and the quality of life. Opportunity was replaced by oppressive poverty, and the infrastructure eroded to the point where there was daily random power outages t hat lasted several hours. My job was to manage chaos which was never in short supply.

As I learned to navigate through these challenges I got a call that would shake my world. I was summoned to an important briefing at the American Embassy. It became apparent that negotiations were going poorly between the U.S. and Philippine governments on the future status of the American military bases at Clark Airfield and Subic Bay. Recognizing a weakened American presence, communist insurgents sequestered safely deep in the jungles of Luzon began sending “Sparrow Units” to Manila to assassinate Americans. “Sparrow Units” were small cells that were heavily armed and trained in hit-and-run tactics. As I was a high profile businessman and married to a well known Filipina actress, I was believed to be a target. The Communist Party wanted Tough Enough to intimidate Americans so that America would vacate the despised bases.

The CIA officer in charge of security at the Embassy spoke in a somber voice as he warned me to prepare myself for whatever eventuality may come. I was to change my route and times I traveled each day. I must avoid crowds and traffic jams. I had to always be alert and watch for anything out of the ordinary. I was forced to post security personnel at my factory with 12- gauge sawed-off shotguns and live in a heavily guarded compound. I lived like a prisoner. Yet, my only “crime” was being an entrepreneur and creating desperately needed jobs.

One evening as I sat in the backseat of my SUV, with my driver zigzagging through the streets of Manila on my way home, I came to the realization that I had tried to suppress the one emotion that should have been natural during this entire ordeal: I was scared. Eventually every entrepreneur has a rendezvous with fear. But this wasn’t the fear of failure. It was a real fear for the safety and security of my family, me and my company. This wasn’t a situation I had ever imagined as I planned my business career. I had learned a lot about business, and I thought I knew how to handle any challenge. This wasn’t one of them. Yet, in the back of my mind, I thought back to a mentor whose lessons resonated with me throughout my life. Perhaps I could draw on these lessons and to take strength in the most important words that were ever spoken to me.

I thought back to the time when as a young dreamer I landed my dream-job at a young twenty-three years of age. The lure of working in exotic Asia compelled me to accept the position as an Asian sales manager of an obscure division of Inchcape PLC, a large, fabled British trading company whose roots go back to 1847 and the beginning of the British Raj in India. There was no better place for me to immerse myself in the most fundamental elements of international trade. Immediately upon coming on board I was on my way to my new home in Singapore.

I hit the ground running. I traveled incessantly to the capitol cities of Bangkok, Colombo, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila. I also knew like the back of my hand the backwaters of Kota Kinabalu, Medan, Surabaya,Bandar Seri Begawan and Cebu. I was fortunate enough to have achieved some early successes for my company. I was feeling invincible.

My boss and mentor, Hugo Garin, was an incredible man. He and his wife Monica escaped communism under the most difficult of circumstances. Fluent in seven languages, Hugo was also an engineer, designer and a natural salesman. He was a true citizen of the world who had a never-ending repertoire of spellbinding stories. Each night at dinner he held court. I wanted more than anything to be one day like him.

My boss’s boss, John, was a dour British executive that wore cockamamie bowties and thick blue pinstriped suits who spoke the Queens English in a slow, deliberate enunciation that made me anxious for him to finish his long, drawn out sentences. He seemed to me to have a way of making things much more complicated than they actually were. In my naïve estimation John was a nice man but I did not think his intellectual skills reached the level of Hugo, nor did he merit his position as Hugo’s boss.

After one of my meetings with John and Hugo to update them on my travels I found myself alone with Hugo for a few moments. Full of piss-and-vinegar and perpetually in a hurry to hit the byways of Southeast Asia digging up sales opportunities, I remarked to Hugo with distain and mischief that he should be John’s boss. In a low voice, I leaned over Hugo’s shoulder and added: “After all John is a glorified wimp that does not deserve to be leading us”.

I was knocked off my feet with Hugo’s reaction to my obvious impertinence, suggesting that my mind “is nothing but meaningless mush”. I left his office with my tail between my legs, and dreaded a follow up meeting a few days later, where I expected one of his patented thrashings. Instead he imparted on me the most profound wisdom I have ever heard. Without this conversation I would not be here today. It lasted a few moments only but it was advice that I have replayed in my mind over and over. It was the advice that I needed more than anything in the backseat of my SUV.

He chastised me for my ill-conceived comments concerning John, admonishing me to keep in mind that youth and hard work were not enough to ensure success. In his thick Eastern European accent he lectured me “you have no idea the decisions that John needs to make every day and the burdens that are solely his. He stands alone dealing with pressures that would break most men. Any escape he has lasts only a fleeting moment. He has his moments of triumph but they quickly pass. His problems are endless and his frustrations deep, dark and omnipresent”.

Leaning across his desk with his gray eyes exploding behind his signature thick, black rimmed glasses he said

“Do not think for one second that you are tough enough to be in John’s shoes. What you need to figure out from this day forward is will you ever be tough enough?”

I did not understand how these words would come to both inspire and to haunt me.

Over the years “to be tough enough” came to mean many things. It meant the mental strength to deal with the pressure relentlessly weighing on your mind. It resembles the kind of pres sure you encounter being 180 feet beneath the ocean’s surface, when many before you have succumbed to the seeping blackness of this pressure and never resurfaced. It requires you to conjure up all the mental strength and stamina that you possess, before you feel numb and are powerless to do anything about it. You wonder if you have enough air in your tank to make it to the surface. Do you have the will to fight? It is at this point you find out if you have the kind of toughness Hugo was discussing with me.

But toughness means much more than this. It means having the wherewithal to go toe-to-toe against your European, Japanese and Chinese competitors to win business that is so essential for our American factories and workers. You take the fight to them knowing that there are barriers to your success. You fight knowing that while U.S. government support for American exports is waning, most foreign governments aggressively support their exporters. It doesn’t take long to realize that as an American exporter you wake up each day recreating the film “High Noon” – it’s just you with the personal resolve to take on all comers , even though you are outnumbered and lack the resources. You need the mental toughness to strap on those guns each day and battle it out anew.

It’s toughness buoyed by passion. Your entrepreneurial dream will always consume more capital and take longer than you anticipate. There will be countless lonely days and nights; the only resource you can count on is your passion. It is the lonely vigil of this nation’s 27 million small business owners.

Each day we go to work to sustain our piece of the American Dream. We don’t get parades. There’s no “Small Business Appreciation Day.” Heck, the President barely even acknowledges small business. But we’re out there. We’ve always been out there. We’re doing the heavy lifting for our economy and we hold the key to our current economic malaise. Each day we face daunting challenges. Yet we prevail without public complaint. We have long ago stopped looking for government support or expecting the government to remove the barriers that often makes our lives difficult and unbearable. Of the recent stimulus package approximately one percent, that’s right, just one measly percent went to support the people that have been responsible for more than seventy percent of our job growth over the last decade. That’s what makes the American entrepreneur so tough…and resilient. They do more with less.

My old boss Hugo had a strong sense of conscientious equity. And I’d like to think I do, too. I can only hope that if Hugo was still with us and he would size me up, consider what I’ve accomplished as an entrepreneur, look at me and say: “Neal, I think you have indeed learned how to be tough enough”.

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