I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then

I have always been a big fan of interesting song lyrics. The coining of a phrase that says more than the few words used in the song make it memorable.The above title comes from a Bob Seger song “Against the Wind” as he laments it was more exciting not knowing some things when you were younger about love and life. The following sample lyrics are not necessarily my favorites, but they are a few that represent my fascination with good wordsmithing.

“See, the number on the matchbook is old and faded,” is a line from Jim Croce’s song “Operator.” He is struggling to find the number of an old girlfriend who ran off with his “best old ex-friend Ray.” Since it was written on a matchbook, it means it was probably written down in a bar, maybe when  she let him know she was leaving.

“Just like a paperback novel, the kind the drugstore sells,” comes from Gordon Lightfoot’s “If you could read my mind.” He has several like this in the song, but to me he describes the cheesy romance novels you can buy in a drugstore where the hero saves the day. This is a melancholy song about people who can’t reclaim the love they once had, so the hero references are fantasy and not reality.

“Clowns to the left of me, joker’s to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you,” is a Stealers Wheel song whose title is the last phrase of the song lyric. The song can mean so many things, but it shows that we are in this together and we need to ignore the fools on either side telling us what to do. It is also a good metaphor for our political stalemate.

Bob Dylan wrote and sang “How many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry.” The song made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary’s rendition sung on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial beside Martin Luther King is called “Blowing in the Wind.”  There are great references throughout this song, but I like this one the most as African-Americans have been maltreated for so long and it seemed to resonate more.

When people think of Rush, they do not first think of lyrics, but their many songs are replete with excellent wordsmithing. In the song “Free will” the words that resonate with me are “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” I found this very poignant as many do not realize that by not doing something, they are making a choice. A good example is choosing not to vote believing it makes no difference. Yet, by not voting, the lesser of two candidates can be elected making a problem worse.

Of course, no list would be complete without some reference to a Beatles song. In “Lady Madonna,” Paul McCartney sings “Lady Madonna, children at your breast, it’s a wonder how you manage to feed the rest.”  This line speaks volumes of the difficulties in raising children, but especially in poverty or near poverty when you are a single parent.

Let me close with romantic song from David Gates of “Bread.” The lyric goes “When my love for life has all run dry, you’ll come and pour yourself on me.”  This lyric from the song “If” resonates with me as we pick each other up. He has done all he can and needs help, so his lover comes and pour herself on him to bring his spirits back to life.

I would love to hear your reaction to these and for you to share some of your favorites. These were top of mind, so I have overlooked many great lyrics.

 

A few basic truisms

In our omnipresent world of marketing, whether the product being pitched is one you eat, use, drive, invest in, finance with or vote for, spin-doctoring is also ever-present. Precious few things are as good as advertised, so we often need to step back and look at what is being pitched with a more jaundiced or skeptical point of view. You could call it a “you don’t really have to buy anything” perspective. So, some basic truisms will help frame the context on whether to believe what you are being marketed.

- Very few things in life are really free.

- You will fail at something. The key is getting back up after you are knocked down.

- Talk is cheap. Actions matter. What did you do?

- The less the commercial talks about the product usually means it is not very good.

- The value to your buying something is inversely related to the fervor and frequency in which it is pitched.

- The reason women’s fashion changes is to get you to buy annually a new seasonal wardrobe.

- You can tell when a politician is lying. His or her lips are moving. Unfortunately, this is more true than it is not.

- Politicians are hoping you are not paying attention. Hypocrisies can easily be found and you really don’t have to look that hard.

- Since it takes so much money to get elected, do not be surprised when a politician makes decisions that benefit a favored few.

- I would listen less to the opinion of people who have vested interest in any decision. This is especially true when they are feeding you their data.

- A community or country’s freedoms is directly related to the freedom of its press.

- There are very few 100% communication problems. It takes two people to communicate and it rarely is one person’s total fault.

- If every where you worked has been a problematic environment, please remember you are the lone constant in the equation.

- It is harder to find excellent customer service in any service industry. You have to be the navigator of your own customer service. Help them help you.

- A community’s greatness is measured on its capacity to help those less fortunate. A great man said this.

- An old Chinese proverb is “women hold up half of the sky.” A community will flourish if it treats all citizens well regardless of gender.

- Religion is generally a good thing, but remember it is at its best when it is inclusive and at its worst when it excludes. If the practitioners of your religion look to divide and demonize, you may want to look elsewhere for those who heed the last lesson below from someone whose words can be found in all religions.

- No one is perfect. Remember, there has been only one perfect person who walked the earth and we killed him.

- But, do remember that person’s words. Treat others like you want to be treated and things will work out better for all of us.

Thanks for stopping by. I would love to hear your reaction to the above or any other truisms you have experienced.

 

 

 

Campaign commercials can perfume a pig

While I tend to mute campaign commercials, I do prefer the ones where the candidate is speaking about themselves. I find them more preferable than the attack ads that tend to be funded by outside groups and more often than not take liberties with the truth. Yet, even these commercials can perfume a pig, as words and visuals are cheap. Actions are what we should pay attention to – how did you vote? what did you promote?

In these commercials, the candidate speaks of his or her upbringing and career. He or she will speak of early on jobs that shaped his or her character giving off an “I am just like you” feel. Yet, the underlying actions are avoided, so as not to offend. He or she won’t speak of areas where he/ she might have deviated from this rosy picture.

We have an elected official who comes across as a gentle grandfather airing commercials with family. Yet, the candidate failed to mention he participated in two votes where he had a financial conflict of interest. This is public knowledge and on the record.  Since the legislation would have affected his personal and business investments, he should have recused himself from those votes (leave the room when the votes were taken). Since he stayed for the votes, his behavior is unethical at best. This may sound like a small thing, but we cannot have public servants passing legislation that will benefit them personally.

There is another commercial where an official looks very compelling. If you did not know his background, it could lead you to vote for him. But, what he does not tell you is he led a General Assembly to vote for a restrictive voter law, cut unemployment benefits, reduced environmental protections, pushed through a fracking bill, reduced public funding for teachers only to claim hero status after being pressured into raises by teachers and led a vote to not expand Medicaid when the financials are so compelling for the state and those in need. This and for like reasons is why we have “Moral Monday” protests in my state.

He also does not tell you that when the budget was not able to pass one year, he sent everyone home at midnight, secretly told his party to remain close at hand and then invited everyone back in at 1 am to vote. The vote passed since the naysayers had left to go home. He also does not tell you he would not allow a representative to change her incorrectly entered vote, as what he wanted to pass did so by her one vote. Finally, he went on a radio show and said people who disagree with him are “whiners and losers.” To me, this is unprofessional at best, with the first item being unethical in my view.

In New York city, we had a mayoral candidate who had to resign from Congress for sending pictures of his private parts to girls he liked. I personally do not care what a candidate does with his or her private life, but sending nude pictures of yourself shows you lack maturity and good judgment. Both of these attributes are needed to be a public servant. Fortunately, the New York city citizens concurred. In my home town, our Mayor had to resign three months after being sworn in for the first time as he was receptive to bribery to curry favor. The FBI had been investigating him for some time, yet he polished up the apple and got elected. He did a great job of hiding that he was a crook.

Getting underneath the hood takes time and effort. It also takes paying attention to reputable news sources. The politicians count on us not paying attention and voting for the party line. However, the party line is wearing a lot of perfume. We need to do our homework, wave away the perfume and get out and vote.

 

And, the less than great bosses…

One of my more frequented posts is a “Tribute to a Great Boss” which I believe many folks check out as they want to see the attributes of someone who does the job well, as so many do not. This boss is also very humorous, so his many sayings are worth the read.* Yet, even though he was the best boss I ever had, he was not perfect. Nor are the many other bosses I have had the pleasure of working for. Some of their imperfections stood out more than others, but I have been blessed not to work for any screamers or tantrum throwers, which unfortunately exist.

My second favorite boss was a terrific story-teller and was supportive of me and others. His stories were so riveting, we would end up correcting them as he retold them again and again to new audiences. Our office flourished under him and the three years we worked together were memorable. Yet, his Achilles Heel was impulsive decisions and he left his role out of frustration, a decision he later regretted and put a strain on his marriage which ended in divorce. We missed him greatly after he left.

My favorite story of his is when he arrived at a meeting with someone he had not met before the administrative assistant had arrived. He was waved in and the guy proceeded to tell him about a legal problem. My boss is a great listener, so he is taking notes and is rapt with attention. When he finished his story, the guy said “What do you think I should do?” My boss said, “I think you should hire an attorney.” The guy looked at him and said “Who are you?” The guy had mistaken my boss for an attorney he had a meeting with next.

On the flip side, my first boss out of college was a great salesmen who was promoted to management, a very common mistake. Great salespeople do not necessarily make good managers. He was not an exception to this rule. He went out and bought 23 management books and read them all. One of his rules was to have a “quiet hour” from 9 am to 10 am, so no client calls or internal meetings could be had. Now, mind you, our business was to consult with clients, so not taking a call from them during that hour was not good for business. Eventually, the other senior folks in the office suggested he cease this practice. Unfortunately, he was asked to leave about six months after I got there, so the company lost a great salesman. We missed his excitement and passion to go see people.

I also had a boss that was a very good subject matter expert, but whose people’s skills left something to be desired. I learned a great deal from him both good and bad. I learned the subject matter in a practical way and he taught me how to dive into new things. Yet, I also learned how not to act as some of his mannerisms would make you feel awkward. He was like our Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.” He is very smart and we remember him fondly in spite of his mannerisms. One of his shortcomings was small talk at client meetings. You wanted to make sure the meeting stayed focus on the issues. He was excellent with the issues. One of my favorite stories about him was in a client meeting when a key contact of our client was arguing over a legal issue with someone in the client’s general counsel office. My boss used both hands to inch the legal plan document over to the attorney and said what was written here says otherwise winning the argument for our contact. To see him push the document slowly over to the attorney was priceless.

One of my least favorite bosses was on the arrogant side, but he also was cheap. He would spend the company’s money on himself, but he would be quite frugal with his own money. An easy example is we would have year-end holiday parties at his house, with a secondary purpose to stock his liquor cabinet, as he would over order supplies. In spite of these traits, he had a congenial side and he contributed to our success, so we tolerated his behavior. We had a great run under his guidance, but it was more due to the caliber of people we had working under him. Yet, he would tell others in the firm how he harnessed these horses underneath him to achieve the success we had. That was a stretch.

Through my earlier years, I worked with a mentor who was one of the best consultants I ever worked with. He was never my boss, which is good, because he would have been horrible at it. He was a great consultant because he did not tolerate anything less than perfection. Unfortunately, no one is perfect, so he would have had issues with lesser talented people. I had to redo a lot of work at his suggestion. Yet, not being my boss, we could tease him about some of his habits to work very well with him. He was not my boss, but he had a great influence on my life and career. He is a lot like the final person I worked for at a small firm. He also pursued perfection on client issues and had a great reputation, but he was not a very good business person around time and expense management.

Each of these bosses I remember fondly to varying extents. I learned a lot from each, but none could be construed as perfect. Of course, neither could I.  I guess one piece of advice I would give to someone starting out is recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your boss and manage up. If you need face time to ask questions, schedule it. If your boss does not take the time to communicate well, help him or her using words comfortable to you. Also, where you can, discuss possible solutions and not just the problem.**  If you help this navigation process, then you can survive and flourish. And, don’t ever work for a screamer. If you do, keep your resume up to date and begin searching for a new job in case nothing is done about it.

* You can check out this post with the attached link: http://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/tribute-to-a-great-boss/

** There is a great article called “Who’s Got the Monkey?” which will help you in managing up through offering possible solutions rather than passing the problem back to your boss.

Houseful of kids – we love the chaos

We always wanted to have a house where our kids felt comfortable in having their friends come over. Well, we have that house, and at times we laugh at the chaos, but would not have it any other way. My wife says we provide a soft place to land, but in essence we provide a haven where we do not judge; we just ask questions and listen. So the kids and now young adults keep coming by and it makes our lives and that of our kids much better. But, we have to be pretty flexible to make it happen, as gatherings often happen without much planning.

Our kids have benefitted, as they tend to be more introverted than extroverted, except with their friends. So, by having friends in our house for a weekly night of role-playing games or just impromptu electronic gaming or movie watching, makes them feel even more comfortable and inclined to ask others to do things. Plus, twelve years ago, we built a pool adding to a hot tub we already had. The final straw in the decision to build the pool was a friend said if you build a pool you will get to know your children’s friends. What is interesting, the hot tub is the final destination as kids will sit on the side, with some in the hot tub, and end the party with conversation and joking.

Another benefit for our kids is it gives them safe place to be themselves. We fortunately have a game area upstairs where they can gather. The greatest joy we have as parents is hearing our kids laughing with their friends through closed doors. Plus, they share their friends, so sibling rivalry is minimized. My middle child has benefitted greatly as he leads a role-playing game and has done so for over four years. Half the time, the kids are just hanging out, but he has kept it interesting enough that they continue to look forward to it. This has helped him be better organized and pursue his creativity. The sad part is with him at college, we don’t get to have the many friends over to play and make our house louder and more fun. So, as the summer ends and everyone heads back to college, it will get quieter.

Parents that have this kind of house probably have a smile on their face as they read this. If you are reluctant to have one of these houses, don’t be. The joy and camaraderie will far outweigh the negatives of less order. Plus, you and your kids will benefit. We know our kids’ friends and they know us. It is delightful. Trust me on this.

 

A few financial odds and ends – companies need to invest their cash

I was reading this morning that Berkshire Hathaway stock is now worth $200,000 a share. Of course, investing with Warren Buffett’s guidance has been very fruitful for those who did so. It was noted that he very seldom will repurchase shares from the market preferring to use the funds to invest in his portfolio of companies’ growth. This premise is very telling as I have been a believer that a company repurchasing shares of its stock is sign of weakness and not strength. The fact the Oracle of Omaha has done it only infrequently seems to support this belief. *

Why is it a sign of weakness? To me, it usually means the senior management cannot think of anything better to do with their cash. It also means senior management may be propping up Earnings per Share (EPS) by reducing the denominator, since they cannot improve earnings in the numerator. A higher EPS ratio means they may make their bonus targets. This sounds less than altruistic, and it is, but is also not uncommon. So, if you see a company doing this, you may want to reconsider whether you want to invest in them long term. With that said, there are some more legitimate reasons to do this, but I wanted to offer these thoughts for consideration as you do your homework.

Right now, many companies have been sitting on cash. My thesis is if you cannot think of anything better to do with it, then give it to me through dividends. With interest rates so low, a steady dividend payor tends to be a brand name, highly capitalized company and provides a nice yield. Since the higher dividend payors are more solid companies, it is a way to replace those low paying fixed income investments and retain a modicum of safety. (Please note equity investments are not secure if a company goes belly-up, but my point is solid brand names who are highly capitalized let you rest a little easier. In bankruptcy, fixed income investments are prioritized as debt, so you may still get some money back). Yet, a good investment need not be a high dividend paying company.

I have seen several CEOs cite uncertainty over Obamacare or the tax code as a reason not to invest their cash. On the flip side, I have seen people like Buffett say, uncertainty like those reasons has never gotten in the way of a good idea. Saying it another way, those excuse makers are just that and, their Boards of Directors should be questioning that strategy. Invest more of your cash in your business. You cannot shrink your way to greatness and you cannot just sit on the sidelines. While you may be cutting expenses in some areas, you still need to invest in the higher growth areas in your company. And, even your more mature businesses who are the cash cows, need investment to be maintained. The key is to manage this yin/ yang balance. If you don’t, you may step over quarters payable next year to pick up nickels today. Then, you will wonder why you are not growing.

Finally, do not forget your most important resource, your human capital. Wages have been suppressed during the downturn and people do not have short memories on this. Now that the economy has picked up, people are voting with their feet as company loyalty was killed by the companies themselves. There is a story in New England where a family grocery company fired its extremely successful CEO for investing too much in his people. This company had great performance, paid its people well and had some of the lowest prices in the business. Yet, a disgruntled family member who controlled just over 50% of the shares wanted a huge dividend and fired the CEO when he said no. Right now, this very successful company has grounded to halt as all the employees and many customers have stood by the fired CEO. I have noted before the Nordstrom model which inverts the pyramid, placing customers at the top, followed by those who interact with the customers and shareholders at the bottom. If you treat customers (and those who support them) well, then the shareholders will make more money.

The ending to this story is still being written. But, at the end of the day, you must serve your customers well. You must pay attention to those serving your customers. You must invest in your business to serve your customers in a sustainable and efficacious way. If you sit on your cash, you may just end up with less of everything.

 

* These opinions are those of an investor. I also do not own any Berkshire Hathaway stock. I am not a financial advisor or investment consultant or broker. So, please do not rely on my opinions to make decisions. Do your homework and speak with an advisor to get legitimate counsel from someone who knows more than me and is registered to give advice.

 

 

Every rose has its thorns – a few miscellaneous thoughts

With the world in justifiable tither over events in the Gaza Strip, Iraq, Ukraine and West Africa, I want to highlight a few news stories, including some of the above, that need some airing.

Guns and roses - the Center for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted the top ten states for gun deaths – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Montana, Arkansas, Alabama, New Mexico and South Carolina.  It also noted of the 32,351 gun deaths in 2011, about 20,000 were suicides, the number one gun death cause in all but one of the top ten states. Two statistics struck me. First, homes that have a gun have 3x the rate of suicides than in homes without a gun. Second, the states that have the most lenient gun laws have the highest rates of violent crime which is the opposite of what lax gun law proponents state.

When you add this to the Journal of Trauma and Medicine’s data that we dwarf the civilized world in gun death and child/ teen gun deaths, it paints a picture we need to deal with in a more orchestrated way. The issue revolves around several factors – lack of civil discourse, poverty, crime, entertainment violence, mental health issues, but make no mistake, it includes access to weapons as well. Dealing with this issue like parents should is needed. It is long past due. We should use James Brady’s death as a lightning rod to do something.

Where and to whom you born matters more than it should - The American Dream does not exist for many Americans as we continue to slide in socio-economic class mobility. Warren Buffett says “I was born lucky. I was born a male in a white family.” Buffett notes he had opportunities others did not have. An increasing number of the top Americans have inherited their wealth than earned it, so we have our own brand of aristocracy. But, of the top 400 wealthiest people in our country only one person is of color – Oprah Winfrey.

We have a poverty problem in our country. This is not talked about enough. There are some who believe those in poverty are less virtuous and do not work very hard. That is total bunk. In my work with those in need, I witness very pious people who only have their faith. I also witness people working multiple jobs, but they still lost their home. Yes, there are some sycophants, but they are very few in percentage. We need to help people in need with increasing the minimum wage (the average minimum wage earner is age 28) and increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit. And, keep the Affordable Care Act as it is helping people in need as well as the economy through enhanced spending of those who now have healthcare insurance. But, let more people know about the subsidies therein, as many do not know they can get a subsidy.

Democrats need a better press agent on jobs and economy - I reported on this last year with respect to jobs, but a non-partisan study was reported on by PBS Newshour last week that indicated the data is pretty overwhelming. The economy and job growth has measurably done better under Democrat White Houses than Republican ones. Even explaining away some of the timing issues, there is clear light of day between the performance of the economy and job growth when a Democrat President is in the White House. Obama takes a lot of crap about many things, but the job increases, economy and stock market have done pretty well on his watch.

Republicans use campaign rhetoric of the “failed stimulus” but per six econometric firms the stimulus bill did not fail. It was just not enough. We have chance right now to do what we should have done four years ago – invest in our sagging infrastructure. Per former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, there is no better jobs programs than investing in our infrastructure. We can still invest while we make cuts in other areas, but we need better roads, improved bridges, deeper ports and better internet and power grids.

ISIS is bad news no matter what religion you are – These guys are thugs and the worst kind of terrorists. To kill innocent people the way they do demeans any religion including the one they blindly profess. The Sunnis that sided with them early are scared of their dangerous bedfellow. Yes, the US screwed up when it went into Iraq under false pretenses. Yes, the US screwed up by bringing all of its soldiers home. But, this enemy of organized, peaceful religion is worthy of the attention of all leaders, including ours,  who want peace in their countries. So, the US and others need to help people who want to live and worship in peace. And, we need to make sure we do it in the right way supporting those who are trying to put down this group in their own countries.

No matter how justified Israel believes it is, it should not be killing so  many innocent civilians - I understand the right to defend yourself. I understand the Hamas may be hiding among the civilians, but Israel’s position is poor when so many innocent children and adults are killed. The more they kill, the worse it is gets. This is not an isolated opinion as the United Nations and Amnesty International are saying the same thing. The violence needs to stop and reconstruction needs to begin. Killing children is bad policy no matter how justified you believe your position.

Putin is punishing the US by denying his people our food – This may be the most inane thing I ever heard. I know Putin controls the media, but people have to eat. And, if they don’t  eat, then this may bother them. Russia has damaged itself in the world economy as its leaders cannot be trusted no matter how many tigers Putin poses with. If I were a business leader, I would be very reluctant to do business with someone who is not trustworthy. Russia could have avoided all of this by letting the Ukraine President, its stooge, sign an agreement with the European Union last fall. Ukraine could have been business partners with both Europe and Russia and everyone would have benefitted. Now people have died and more will still.

Those are the thoughts of this Old Fart. I would love to hear your comments. Many thanks in advance.