You may have heard the line, “Too many cooks in the kitchen.” It’s a phrase not usually offered as a positive observation when trying to reach a goal. I’m reminded of it now, in the throes of an annual collaborative effort to gather as much food as possible for people in need in my community.
This particular “kitchen” is crowded with A-type cooks. And yet it works.
I’m in my third year as part of the organizing committee for the Business Cares Food Drive in London, Ontario. It’s taken me until now to fully accept and embrace that this committee runs counter to most others I’ve experienced. While this three-week-plus sprint to raise food and donations for our local food bank has many different activities and agendas as part of it, the whole thing seems to steer itself in a common direction, driven by good feelings and genuine positive efforts.
I believe there is a strong lesson in it.
The brainchild of Wayne Dunn (current committee Chair and owner of County Heritage Forest Products in London) and Ed Holder (Member of Parliament, London West), Business Cares was born 15 years ago and has since seen all kinds of companies from this area come together to reach a common goal: feeding people in need. Wayne leads by setting the example, creating the timeline and then empowering people to run with the ball. To his credit, Wayne runs harder and faster than anyone else. But when someone comes along with a new idea that could help bolster the overall effort, not only does Wayne not micromanage them to fit the brand or to mold their efforts into the way he might do things, but he is likely to have encouraged and empowered that person or group within moments instead. By doing so, he gives these people a sense of ownership and pride in their end of it. And so they go, and it all rushes forward in a gush of hopeful inertia that concludes by feeding a lot of hungry people.
As a person who works in marketing, I sometimes get antsy sitting at the committee table as we continue to splinter off the main “brand” (Business Cares) to create other off-shoots that are smaller (but very important) parts of the bigger goal. Usually, you want to keep to one defining brand name and stick to it, otherwise you risk confusing people. But the many cooks in the Business Cares kitchen have their own unique ways of contributing and a lot of terrific sub-brands have been the result. Some examples are “Be a Fan, Bring a Can” (where sports fans are encouraged to bring food donations to the Budweiser Gardens arena prior to select dates for the IBL’s London Lightning basketball team and the OHL’s London Knights hockey team), Golfer’s Care” (a one-night event that gathers local golf enthusiasts for an evening of fundraising and entertainment) and what has come to be known as “Metro Weekend” (a two-day volunteer effort of canvassing in front of several local grocery stores). Each of these activities could be their own brands and/or stand-alone efforts in their own right. But they aren’t. It could all end up being confusing. But it isn’t. It’s all part of the machinery and magic that is the larger effort called Business Cares. And it works.
You’ll sometimes hear negative things about big business. You may hear some not-so-nice things about small business, too. And yet I believe that the world of business remains similar to people in general: most of them are good and decent. A select few sometimes cloud it for the rest. But when something like this rolls around, I’m reminded of just how kind-hearted and hard-working most people can be.
Businesses of all kinds get involved. Over 400 companies find a way to contribute what they can to Business Cares. Some challenge other industry competitors to raise the most food. Some rally their staff and adopt the cause as their own. And some simply display a poster and drop box for food. All of it is valuable.
It will all wrap up at County Heritage Forest Products on Tuesday, December 23rd. There will be last-minute cheque presentations and other eleventh-hour surprises that morning. There always are. It is, for me, one of the best parts of Christmas and a reminder that the true spirit of the season does still exist. It is genuinely heartwarming.
Wayne says that “Taking care of business means taking care of people.” Ironically, it’s people that have to take care of any business. And in this case, the businesses come together to help more people. And when those people are empowered and truly believe in what they’re doing, they work, put their egos aside, and are well-equipped to successfully arrive at a mutual, positive goal. Business Cares is proof of this, and I give Wayne Dunn and everyone who participates loads of credit for it.
In my experience, it usually doesn’t work to have “too many cooks.” But this is a crowded, happy kitchen that thrives because it’s driven by genuine good feelings and honest efforts.
You’re welcome to join us.
Please bring more food.
One of the things I enjoy most about my work is that it puts me in the path of some wonderful organizations. I was thrilled when my journey took me back into the office of the Southwestern Ontario Lung Association about three years ago. I’ve been working with them ever since, in my capacity as a marketing consultant at Bell Media Radio in London. However this project transcends those day-to-day necessities.
First, a little background:
I’m a lifelong asthmatic, though you’d hardly know it to see me now. Treatment has come a long way in forty years, and I’ve also outgrown many of the daily symptoms (though allergies and other irritations still chase me at every turn, but that’s another story). When I was a child, I was very sick with asthma. I was in and out of the hospital and doctor’s office on what seemed like a regular basis. A big turning point in my life was when I was sent to a facility in Toronto that was better equipped to monitor and treat asthmatic children. I lived there, weekends excluded, for three months when I was seven years old.
At that time, my family was very involved with the Lung Association, as my parents and family doctor would do anything they could to gain access to any resources that might assist them in helping me. I’ve never forgotten that, and whenever I see the Lung Association’s red cross logo, I automatically think of others with asthma and other breathing problems.
Much later in life, after the worst of my asthmatic days seemed to be behind me, I wrote a song called “Broken Breath,” which is essentially sung from the perspective of a child with asthma who can’t breathe, doesn’t understand why, and wishes for something – anything – to help. The song also touches on the subject of my parents having no choice, for the sake of my own health, but to “send me away” (to that hospital in Toronto).
I remember when I wrote the song. It’s dated 1997. I was going through a phase of listening almost exclusively to artists like Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, and wanted to have a track of my own that fit the mold of many of their acoustic, introspective songs that tugged at the heart. To be more direct, I wanted to write a song somewhat like Springsteen’s “Shut Out the Light” (originally a B-Side from the “Born in the USA” era), which is the story of a Vietnam veteran who is haunted by his experiences well after returning home, just looking for comfort, calls for his mother to “Throw your arms around me in the cold, dark night. Hey now, Mama, don’t shut out the lights.”
“Broken Breath,” obviously, doesn’t sound much like Springsteen’s song. But from an emotional and narrative standpoint, I feel I succeeded in capturing something similar. I’ve always been proud of the song.
A couple of weeks ago, I played “Broken Breath” for my two curious sons, who also happen to be my biggest supporters. It left Eddie, my 11-year-old, in tears. His reaction was a compliment in a roundabout sort of way, although I was sorry to see him react that way. He said he was sorry he got upset, but that he thought the song was touching and that he didn’t know I’d been through any of the things I sang about. His reaction told me that the song may indeed be able to kick open some doors for some people to have a better understanding of the kind of work the Lung Association actually does.
So here’s the plan as it stands: my friends at the Southwestern Ontario Lung Association have asked me if I would perform / MC as part of their “First Noel Preview Night” for their annual “Festival of Trees” event, Tuesday, November 25th from 6pm to 9pm at the Covent Garden Market here in London, Ontario. They would like me to debut “Broken Breath” that night, so I’ll do that along with, perhaps, a couple of other songs. And I’ll happily MC and help out however else I can that night.
Whether we record or videotape the song that evening is still unclear. And plans to make a studio-quality version of the song are also very much up in the air, depending on time and cost. Ultimately, it would be great for the Lung Association to be able to use the song however they like in an effort to create more understanding and support for all they do.
I’m also trying to recruit a friend or two to come along with me to make the night more special on November 25th and give the performance more impact, but if that doesn’t work out, I’m happy to do it on my own, as the song was written for just acoustic guitar and one voice. That said, I tweaked the lyrics and melody just a bit to create a bit of a sing-along element to it toward the end of the song, so it would be great to have company that night! We’ll see.
For now, it would be wonderful for you to consider attending the “Festival of Trees” at some point this holiday season (it’s free, and it’s a great display that kids will love). And if you’re so inclined to assist the Lung Association, perhaps consider their Christmas Seals program or at least keep them in your thoughts or spread the word.
I well remember the Lung Association’s phrase, “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”
It’s true. I know what it’s like.
Maybe I can help.
I’d love your feedback, please.
For months, I’ve been thinking of creating some sort of music video for the songs “Deja Vu” or “Bilge Rat Blues” from this year’s “Solo: The Return of No Schedule Man” EP. Though either one would be very much homemade, I think it would be a lot of fun to work on, particularly if I could get my kids involved.
My question is, Which one to try first? (Note: you can listen to the tracks, below)
Thanks for voting!
Haven’t heard the tracks? Here they are.
Bilge Rat Blues:
I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.
One of those people is Dan Balch.
A man of family and faith, Dan has been a mortgage broker for eighteen years. He cheerily refers to himself as “Dan the Mortgage Man.” One visit to his website (www.bankhostage.com) and you’ll see that Dan Balch is a person who both knows his stuff and has fun while helping people with one of the biggest decisions of their lives.
Though his expertise as a mortgage planner goes back almost two decades, Dan has enjoyed many unique experiences in both business and in life that have helped shape him into the very likable and interesting person he is today. From real estate to marine biology and reptile road shows to helping countless people have the home and lifestyle of their dreams, Dan has met each challenge with a quick smile and an open heart.
Family has always come first for Dan. He and his wife, Gail, have been happily married for over thirty years. In that time, they’ve touched the lives of many young people, taking in and caring for pregnant teens in support of the Crisis Pregnancy Center. They have also built a happy family that includes six children and six grand children.
When you meet with Dan, it becomes quickly apparent that he brings the same level of care and compassion to his clients that he has applied to every other area of his life.
Here is my conversation with Dan Balch:
Kevin: Listening to you talk about family makes me feel like asking you what it was like for you when you were a kid? Did you have siblings?
Dan: Oh, gee whiz. Well, I have an older brother and younger sister. Two parents. My father just passed away about two years ago, but up to that point, great family. It was great growing up. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we spent time together. I only have great memories of growing up. That’s probably why I am the way I am. I’m a pretty easy going guy. My father was a jokester. I got my sense of humour from him.
Kevin: You mentioned not having a lot of money but still having a great time and great recollections of that time.
Dan: The problem is that we think that money solves our problems. We think that money gives us things that we need. And on a temporal basis, sure. It gives you food, it gives you other things. But it doesn’t give you the love. It doesn’t give you the satisfaction or the emotional things that a good family does. We get so caught up with trying to make money, which fuels our ego and a lot of other things, but really with the kids, instead of buying all these electronics and things, they really just want to spend time with you. They want to be able to ask you any question. They want you at home.
Kevin: You used the word ‘ego.’ Ego often is screaming at you, but that’s maybe not the voice you want to be listening to as much.
Dan: I think you’re more successful when you’re always looking outward, not inward. Meaning, you’re always trying to help other people, rather than help yourself. I think you get more out of helping people than with anything you can do for yourself, by buying stuff or doing stuff.
Kevin: There is the word ‘help,’ and there is another word you’ve been very specific about: the word ‘care.’ Talk about your interpretation of what care means, as opposed to – or in addition to – ‘help.’
Dan: Some people I can’t help, but I can care for them. I can give them good sound advice. I can put them on the road to success. So, in our case, fixing their credit or something like that. Just looking after them and trying to put their best interests before my own. It’s the old saying of, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Care is really more than just helping. It’s looking after people. It’s wanting to see them successful and wanting to see them do well also and get good information so they can make their own decisions.
Kevin: You also talked about the kind of work that you and I do, where if you don’t get deals, you don’t get paid. I’ve long felt that everybody should have the opportunity to be an entrepreneur and that it would really change your perspective on a lot of things, but that’s another conversation entirely.
Dan: (laughs) Oh, yeah.
Kevin: By that thought, you almost feel like you should be beating the bushes even harder. But it goes back to caring about people and just trusting that the results will come.
Dan: Most salespeople are transactional. They’re thinking, “I need to do a transaction,” which is usually a sale. I think there’s more to it. We’re only on this earth one time around. So if you can help someone or care for someone or put them on a different path that’s better, I think you’re far better off and they’re far better off than worrying about that one sale that may or may not happen. It’s a better way to live.
I feel much better if I talk to someone and put them on a path to getting their credit fixed so that in six months instead of renting, they can own their own house. Now, do they come back to me? A lot of them do. Some don’t. But I know inside that I’ve helped these people. And that’s good. That’s what life’s about.
Kevin: I’m going to change topics on you. I didn’t know you’d gone to school for marine biology. What led you to that (marine biology) and then away from it?
Dan: To be honest with you, it was just kind of cool.
Kevin: You’re just like George Costanza (from the TV show “Seinfeld”): “You know I always wanted to be a Marine Biologist!”
Dan: (Laughing) Yeah. I always loved the water and it sounded like a fun thing to do. But when I graduated, there just weren’t very many jobs and because I’m a home guy and love being around my parents and my kids, I didn’t really want to move away from everybody.
Kevin: Then what happened?
Dan: I got married right out of university (U of Guelph) and needed a job. So I started actually selling real estate. I enjoyed it but I was so young. I think I was one of the youngest guys on the board at the time. I did it for about four years. I didn’t like being on call 24-7, especially with a young family. It just didn’t work.
Well, we had always had pet stores, so I started into pet stores for a number of years. I owned a traveling reptile show for about ten years and did shows all across Canada with that. We went on the road and I brought the kids along. We spent the summers together.
And then, actually a client of mine had a sick tortoise. He knew I was in the real estate business back in the day and said, “I’m looking for new mortgage brokers.” I told him I didn’t want to be a mortgage broker, and that I couldn’t charge fees to people for doing that. And he said, “It’s just changed. Now we get a finder’s fee from the mortgage company, so we work hard for the client and somebody else pays us.” And I thought, “That sounds good.” But again, I still liked what I was doing.
But then, we went away on holidays and we were down in Florida for about a month. When we came back, we’d had a break-in at our house. They stole everything, left my doors wide open and all my animals that I had from the reptile show froze. So there I was with no money. I used up all my credit on my holiday.
Well, my client happened to call me and said, “My tortoise is sick.” And I said, “Ask me to come work for you again,” and he said, “Well, come work for me!” And I said, “Okay. Sounds good.” And I started working for him, and that was about 18 years ago.
Kevin: From what you’ve described, pretty much since university, it doesn’t sound as if you’ve ever had a straight-ahead, salaried 9-to-5 type gig?
Dan: Never. It’s not in my DNA to work for someone. I think I have to be my own boss.
Kevin: Not everybody’s wired to be able to deal with that, because they need that feeling of safety, which in itself I think is a little bit of a fallacy.
Dan: It is.
Kevin: I want to talk a little bit more specifically about what you’re doing, and that aspect of helping people and caring for people because, other than what they do with their family, you’re dealing with what I think is the most impactful thing in their lives. I’ve got to feel that there’s a very high level of trust, because it’s one of the most important decisions people are ever going to make.
Dan: I’ve had people where I’ve gone through everything with them, and I ask, “Do you have any questions?” They say, “Well, no.”
Well then, I’ve done my job. Or I’ve had someone say, “Isn’t there something else I’m supposed to do here?” And I’ll say, “Nope. I’ve taken care of everything.” That’s the way it should be. It should be, “I’ve taught you everything you need to know. You’ve made an informed decision and we’re going to go on from here.”
That’s going back to what we talked about earlier: being transactional. I think that’s where I differ, though I know a lot of other brokers are that way too. I can’t say that it’s just me. But I think that with the banks, they are very transactional and they don’t say, “We want to be your bank for your whole life” or “We want to look after you, we want to take care of you.” Well, no. They make billions of dollars in profit because they’re charging you all kinds of money.
I’ve got clients that I dealt with 18 years ago that I’m still dealing with. A lot of them now have paid off their mortgages and their kids are getting mortgages from me because they know and trust me. And that’s who you want to deal with. You want to deal with someone you know and trust and you have a connection with.
Kevin: I know that, for me as I get older and my kids get older, I look for those opportunities. I become more patient. There have been times in my life when I was younger when I almost wouldn’t want to engage in a high level conversation with an expert in their field like you, because I wouldn’t want to hear what I knew I needed to hear. I just wanted to get on with it and be able to check that thing off my list. But now, I want to be able to know. And if there’s an issue, I want to be able to call, say, Dan.
Dan: Well, look at Home Hardware. Why is Home Hardware still around? I mean, their prices aren’t cheaper than Home Depot or Rona or Lowe’s or whatever. They’re actually more money. But they have that service. They have that old time kind of, “Come in and we’ll look after you and we’ll figure that problem out together” type of thing.
Some of these other small shops that are still around … why are they still around? Well, they’re still around because they’ve gone back to, “Let’s have a relationship here, so you can call me up. I’ll give you some good information.” Now, what’s that worth? Well that’s the problem. Some people think it’s not worth anything and that’s why they’ll get a mortgage off the internet because it’s the lowest rate. The only quantitative thing they can look at is, “Who’s got the best rate?” Well, who has the best pre-payment privileges? Who has the best penalties to get out of this mortgage? Am I locked in? You’ve got to know.
You have to pick up that phone and you have to call a professional.
Kevin: And you’re going to be there. It’s a face. It’s a name. It’s a relationship. It’s not just a transaction and then, “See you later.”
Dan: That’s right
Kevin: There is real peace of mind with that.
Dan: You don’t have to know everything in life. You can’t possibly. But you have to have good people around you that do. So in this case we’ll put the client as the center of the spoke. I’m just one part. I’m their mortgage expert.
Four years ago today I achieved a goal I’d held for at least a decade: to complete and release a full-length CD of my own music. It was June 26, 2010, when “No Schedule Man” was finally released with a concert at the London Music Club here in London, Ontario. Much has happened since then. And looking back, I feel proud of myself for seeing the goal through to completion, and I’m glad I have those songs recorded in some form.
It took me almost a year and a half to finish the project (I documented the whole process with a weekly journal. All the entries can be found HERE). At the time, I was not enjoying the accomplishment as much as I’d been hoping to, as I was truly hurting with sciatic nerve pain caused by herniated discs in my lower back (which actually caused a two-week delay in releasing the CD). In fact, just one week after the CD release show, I decided to cancel the rest of the appearances I had booked for that summer because I was just in too much pain and wasn’t enjoying myself at all. Partly because of that, I never really felt those songs got the push they deserved.
Shortly afterwards, many significant life changes took place, including a divorce, change of address and change in career, all of which happened pretty much at the same time. In the face of that, playing the songs from “No Schedule Man” quickly fell down the list of priorities.
For the better part of two years after all that, I didn’t even really look at my guitar, let alone go anywhere and play. My mind was only on being with my two boys, keeping myself healthy and learning what I needed to learn from the life changes that had taken place. To that end, I feel grateful for the lessons I’m not sure I could have learned any other way. But there was always a part of me that felt bad about watching “No Schedule Man” sit and collect dust.
Eventually, the urge to start creating and sharing music bubbled back up. But it was different this time. There was much more patience, and even hesitation, to move forward. As I’ve written and talked about before, it was really my oldest son, Eddie, who nudged me to start working on music again, and so last summer I recorded a handful of new songs that became the acoustic EP, “Solo: The Return of No Schedule Man.” In the process of getting ready to release that collection, I went back and started rehearsing some of the songs from the original “No Schedule Man” CD again and thought, quite honestly, that there were some really good songs just sitting and waiting for me to pay them some mind again.
Now that “Solo” has also been released, my guitar is mostly quiet again, at least for now. I’m still not sure where all this fits in the scheme of a guy who makes his living as a Marketing Consultant and Radio Account Executive. But when I burden myself with trying too hard to make sense of it all, I think back to the lyrics of the “No Schedule Man” title track and remember that “No plan is all part of the plan.”
The idea of control is really a fallacy. Change is inevitable, and this present moment is truly all we have. So I strive to be more like the character I created with “No Schedule Man,” to the extent where I’ve since adopted it as a kind of “brand” for most of the things I do, and hope to be.
No Schedule Man, the character, doesn’t aim to have. He simply wants to be.
One day, I’ll give those songs the attention I always felt they deserved. In the meantime, I can look back and feel proud that they even exist in the first place, and feel emboldened about my ability to navigate through whatever changes and challenges may come from here. With that in mind, I wholeheartedly encourage you to explore and celebrate your own creativity as well, in whatever form that may be. I did, and I’m glad I did.
Happy Anniversary, No Schedule Man. I’m better for knowing you and am curious to see where we set sail next.
One of my favourite things to do is to watch my youngest son, Jaden, play hockey. In fact, I enjoy watching him do just about anything, but I’ll use hockey as the example for now. I recently realized that, in watching him play, I was also getting a great lesson in how I could better run my business, and my life.
Jaden, who is just turning 8, has a remarkable gift for going with the flow. He almost always seems to be happy in the present moment and, more often than not, he gets great results. Or at least, he seems to be consistently satisfied with the results he gets. But this isn’t about the results. It’s about how he gets them.
Jaden’s pretty good at hockey (or, as is currently the case, indoor ball hockey). But I sometimes wonder: Is he good at it because he loves it, or does he love it because he’s really good at it?
Consider that question for moment, as it relates to your business, or even your life in general.
Meantime, here are some of the things I’ve noticed from watching Jaden that got me thinking about how I might better conduct my own day-to-day work life:
He seems to take the ups and downs almost effortlessly. He enjoys, but does not boast over, his victories. He shrugs off losses as if they’re inconsequential, other than considering what he might be able to do differently next time. It’s as if he just doesn’t see any value in expending energy or thought on anything other than something positive. What a concept.
It’s as though he inherently understands that he’s going to win some and he’s going to lose some, so he may as well enjoy the experience of actually playing the game, regardless of the result.
Jaden encourages others and celebrates their successes as if they were his own. He observes his peers and competitors who are more skilled than he is and he picks up their good habits almost as if by osmosis. And yet, he never beats himself up for not being as strong a skater or stickhandler as someone else. He’ll just notice what the others are doing, he’ll work on it when he feels like it and the new skill will come along when it’s ready to. Or not. He seems content with who he is either way. He just learns through a natural sense of curiosity and always seems to be happily moving forward.
He always tries his best but does not become so competitive that it robs him of the joy of playing the game. Sometimes, he and I will be watching others play, and he’ll see someone become very upset, throw a tantrum or use some other kind of antics. When that happens, he’ll look at me, chuckle and shrug his shoulders, as if to suggest, “Why play if you’re not going to enjoy it? Why get so worked up?”
He has no aspirations of being a super competitive-level player, nor do I wish that for him. Life is going to place plenty of expectations on him as the years go by, so I see no need to start turning the screws on him now. But, perhaps, he’ll find that if the only expectations he places on himself are to show up, do his best and have fun doing it, things will almost always work out over time and life will take him wherever he needs to go. In fact, it seems he already understands this concept and is able to employ it more consistently than I do.
In business, as any entrepreneur can attest, we compete every day. We set goals, we train, we coach, and we hope to move forward. We have all known times when everything is flowing well, confidence is high and optimism reigns. And we each have experienced the intense frustration of wondering what went wrong as our competitors seem to be thriving while we struggle and flail about.
Do we do well because we like what we’re doing, or do we like what we’re doing only because we’re doing well?
Storms come and pass. Wins and losses will take their turns. Either way, we’re committed to play the game. We may as well compete with a sense of fairness, fun and flow.
That’s why I want to be more like my son when I grow up. He already seems to have this figured out. If I can too, I believe my business – and my life – will be better because of it.
I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.
One of those people is Mark Malerba.
A proud father of two children (Luca, 4 and Mila, 2) and loving husband to his wife of almost 8 years (Caterina), Mark was recognized as one of London’s “Top 20 under 40 (years of age) Emerging Leaders” just last year. Mark is also Vice President of Metropolitan Maintenance, a London, Ontario-based and family-owned janitorial service provider that has been in business since his parents, Mike and Joanne, started the company in 1980.
Over the course of more than three decades, Metropolitan Maintenance has earned a well-deserved reputation of doing business consistently with integrity and respect. As such, the company has been recognized with several awards in recent years, including the Consumer Choice Award for Janitorial Service; Best of London award for Best Cleaning Service; London Chamber of Commerce’s London Quality Award; the Better Business Bureau’s Business Integrity Award; and the Family Enterprise of the Year, awarded by the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise, among others.
Although he did not originally aspire to be a part of the family business, when you talk to Mark, you quickly get the sense that he has a deep and genuine respect for his parents and the legacy they’ve built, and is extremely proud to be a part of it now. Like most of us, Mark took a somewhat indirect path to his current place, but has now found a role that suits him and also benefits those around him.
While he is rightfully proud of the company’s accomplishments, Mark does not seem to be defined by them. Rather, he has always struck me as a very humble and genuine person who is sincerely grateful for the effort of everyone that makes a contribution into making Metropolitan Maintenance the great company that it is.
Here is my conversation with Mark Malerba:
Kevin: What were your recollections of your parents, back when they started this business, and what was your perception of all of that?
Mark: I remember when I was young even going to a specific site with my Dad. I don’t know why this one sticks in my head but it was a printing shop. He would clean it on the weekends and I would go with him, just because I was fascinated by all the supplies. I just loved being in that kind of environment. And so he’d take me. I wouldn’t do any cleaning, but I would just be there and just kind of watch him and spend time there.
The one thing that both my parents did was, as I was starting to grow up, I was involved in soccer and basketball and hockey and I can never remember them ever missing a game. And we traveled quite a bit, especially for soccer, all over Ontario. We even went to Italy one year and my Dad came for two weeks during March Break. So as busy as they always were, they always made time.
Kevin: What did your Dad do prior to starting this company, and how did Metropolitan Maintenance even come to be?
Mark: He came from Italy, I believe when he was 19. And he didn’t speak any English or anything. He did have some family here that helped him get started. I know he mentioned he worked for a little while at the hospital as a patient porter. But he always felt like he could do more. So he put an ad in the paper for himself, basically just advertising himself, that he wanted to do more and that he had the skills and desire to basically run a business.
One of the calls he got was from the owner of a cleaning company. He had never run a cleaning company before. So he just basically figured it out as he went. He managed the company. He did the cleaning, he basically was doing all of it. And he ran it like it was his own business. And then the point came – I’m not sure when the transition happened of him leaving that business or that owner deciding to retire, but that’s when my Dad decided to go out on his own and start this business. My Mom told him he was crazy because there was a lot of risk involved and a lot of competition at that time too. But again, his whole thought process was, “I can do more, and I want to do more.” And he worked extremely hard to get it started.
Looking back, you wonder, ‘Would I be able to do that if I went to a country where English wasn’t the first language, or where I didn’t know anybody really, and was basically starting from scratch?’
Kevin: There’s a resourcefulness there that, in my personal feeling, we’re lacking as a culture in general.
Mark: I agree
Kevin: To think about it in the context of, ‘If I were to go to some other country, and learn how to speak the language and try to figure out how to start a business from scratch?’ When you think of it that way, it really is pretty astounding.
Mark: It is. That’s how I always looked at it, is, where would you even know how to begin?
Kevin: I’d like to talk about your journey into the family business.
Mark: I’ve always been involved with the family business, but it was really in 2005 – so it’s been 9 years – since I decided to really commit full time. Now I’m Vice President.
For the first few years, I really just managed business development. I did a lot of learning. And then, slowly, took what I had learned from Ivey (School of Business), and I had worked in consulting for a couple of years prior to coming back into the family business, so I took what I learned in those experiences and started implementing them here.
And it was definitely the best decision I ever made. It was a good mix. My father’s had the years of experience of being in this industry and running the business and I bring the formal tools that I’ve learned. He wasn’t fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to university and that kind of thing so that’s where we mesh well.
Kevin: To what extent is he still involved?
Mark: He’s the President and he’s still here every day. He enjoys quoting jobs, going to visiting clients. He doesn’t have any thoughts of retirement.
I think that, slowly, he’d maybe like to start taking some more time off, but he always says, “If I enjoy it and my health allows me to keep doing it, then I want to keep doing it.”
My wife always says we’re like the Brady Bunch here. We get along. And there’s no issue on my end that he stays as long as he wants.
Kevin: Can you take me back to when you were younger, even before Ivey and all of that? What were your thoughts about maybe being a part of this business? What was going through your mind about what you wanted out of the work world and what you wanted your place to be in it?
Mark: I played a lot of sports so I think that a lot of kids that are into sports think that, at one time, maybe they want to be a professional athlete. But then you realize quickly that’s not going to happen.
In high school, at one point I was thinking about medicine. But then in Grade Eleven biology, we had to start dissecting things, and that didn’t go well (laughs).
So then, for the longest time, I did have an interest in law. I did speak to three lawyers whom I’d known for a while and trusted. All three of them suggested I not go into law. So I took that information for what it was and decided that if these were three people that are in the role, and that I trust, and that have the experience and basically are telling me that if they had to do it again they wouldn’t do it, that kind of pushed that one aside too.
But you start to realize that you have all these ideas as you’re growing up.
So growing up in a family business, you always have an interest in business because it’s always there. My parents always suggested or encouraged me to do something else and not to come into the family business because the last thing I think any second or third generation should be is pressured to go into the family business, because you’re not going to do well if you don’t want to be there.
That’s why, when I went through university, I still went for my business degree. At that point I still wasn’t sure what I would do, whether I would come here or interview for different positions all over the map. And then I decided to take the consulting position at Ivey because they had a consulting group. And that was a great decision because we got to work with different sized organizations: small, medium, profit, non-profit or whatever they may be, and you get to see what kinds of issues they may face and help them overcome them. So that’s what I talked about before, about taking some of that experience and applying it here. That was definitely a positive decision that I made was not coming right into the family business but doing something different.
And then you ultimately realize that you do want to do this. I don’t think anybody grows up thinking, “I want to run a cleaning company.” It’s back to that idea that it’s not the glamourous movie star job and all these things, but once you grow up with it, it’s kind of in your blood too. It’s in you, it’s a part of you and no matter what you’re doing, no matter what industry you’re in, no matter what service or product or whatever you’re doing, if you do it with passion, then you’ll do it well. Whether you’re selling a widget, cleaning a floor, cutting a lawn or whatever it is, as long as you do it right and do it well and take care of the people that work for you, I think you’ll go a long way.
Kevin: So that brings us back to where I think we started. Rather than asking you where the passion comes from when it wasn’t something you grew up with a burning desire to do, the theme that runs through the whole thing to me seems to be one of family and partnership and integrity. To what extent is it fair to say that that’s maybe the link to the passion? There seems to be a sense of ownership and pride amongst everybody here.
Kevin: In any business
Kevin: It doesn’t happen anymore.
Mark: It doesn’t. It doesn’t. And that’s because of the respect my parents earned from the staff, seeing them work as hard as they did. Seeing my Dad sell during the day and then cleaning at night. Actions speak louder than words, right?
Employees do not feel like they can’t pick up the phone and call one of us, whether it’s good or bad, it’s like any family: if you communicate well, then more often than not, you’re going to have positive results. And if you don’t communicate in business, you don’t know where you stand.
Kevin: In my experience, communication, even with the best of intentions, can still go wrong, or can be taken a different way. And so to create and foster that sense of family and ownership, what do you need to be doing as somebody that’s responsible for operating the business to interact with the rest of the team members and foster that environment?
Mark: There are daily meetings so that everyone knows what’s going on and everybody’s on the same page. The employees will either communicate a lot of the time with our supervisors and managers. Our management personnel will visit the sites to get feedback from the employees and to check on them and tell them they’re doing a good job. We even encourage the clients to communicate with our employees directly as well, whether it’s to tell them pay special attention to a specific boardroom that evening because of a special visit, or to say, ‘You know what? Thank you so much for everything you’ve been doing for us.’
We even find a lot of times that clients invite our staff to their luncheons or parties or give them a little something at Christmas just as a sign of appreciation. It kind of trickles down all the way through. And I think that’s why we’ve been successful too is because those front line employees that are the heart and soul and backbone of the company, they feel accountable and take ownership of what they do. They feel like we’re all in this together. This is one big family and if I do my part and they do their part – if everybody does their part, then we’re all better off.
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