Today is my 55th birthday, an occasion that will be noted by a small circle of intimates, but which is otherwise unremarkable. What really puts me in a reflective mood is that this weekend marks 20 years since I started my company.
I knew from the beginning that building a business is, in many ways, like raising a child. If it is healthy, it has to grow. Existing customers stay, but new customers also arrive. Founders and staff perfect their craft, have their careers and eventually pass the torch. A successful company has a life cycle like that of a person, but can last longer.
In 1992, I left Arthur Andersen, then the world’s biggest accounting firm, to start my own financial and tax advisory business. For a year, I worked alone in a small office in a converted movie house. Having very few clients left me with a lot of time, so I wrote a book (the first to specifically address financial planning for unmarried couples) and started a newsletter. The newsletter was noticed by an executive at Bankers Trust, who hired me for a series of consulting projects. That kept me busy until a large paper company retained me to help its senior executives manage their personal financial matters, at which point I knew I had enough recurring business to ensure I could make a living.
It was right around that time, about a year after I set out on my own, that a teenage boy knocked on my door one day looking for a job. At that moment I did not consider how hard it must have been for him to approach a stranger and ask if I had any work he could do. I did not reflect, until later, on how much my own good fortune depended upon the willingness of others to take a chance on me.
I ought to have at least invited the youth into my office. I could have extended him the courtesy of asking his name and hearing his story. I probably could have found something useful for him to do for a few hours a week after school. Instead, I just stood in the doorway and told him I had no job openings. He thanked me and turned to leave. But as he turned away, I saw a look in his eyes - a look of rejection and resignation and disappointment - that makes me cringe every time I remember it. I knew almost immediately that I had needlessly hurt that kid.
A couple of months later another teenager, this one a college freshman home on spring break, called to inquire about a summer job. Remembering the earlier experience, I invited that young man for an interview. I hired him for the summer, and he stayed with us, part-time while in school and then full-time after college, for 18 years.
Aided by my wife Linda, who established the firm’s recruiting and marketing functions, I have repeated this pattern many times. Most of our staff joins us straight out of school. Our goal, for those staff members who prove to be a good fit, is to keep them here as long as possible. It is a close-knit group, now numbering about two dozen. Though we are spread among four states, distance does not affect the way we work together.
We back each other up if there is illness or death in our families. When someone wants to work a reduced schedule after the arrival of a child, we accommodate their needs. Together, we celebrate marriages (I have been to eight Palisades Hudson weddings so far), new babies, confirmations and bar mitzvahs, and we help one another through the loss of parents, grandparents and other loved ones.
We relate to most of our clients in a similar way. Many have watched members of our staff mature professionally and take over the day-to-day handling of their affairs. The people we serve take a personal interest in the folks who work here, cheering each promotion and accomplishment. And they refer their friends and relatives to us, which is the highest compliment anyone can pay a professional adviser.
Our clients today include children and grandchildren of people whom I first counseled 20 or even 25 years ago, going back to my Arthur Andersen days. There are some great-grandchildren on our client list, too. They are still young enough that, apart from handling trusts and tax returns for their benefit, the majority of my service consists of buying an occasional toy or book to amuse them.
I hope to stick around another 20 years or so to see these fourth-generation clients grow to adulthood, and maybe even to be introduced to a fifth generation. Two decades from now, the oldest of our current staff will be just about the age I am today, and the youngest will be about midway through their careers.
That sounds like it might be a good time to hand over the responsibility for nurturing Palisades Hudson to the people who can get it to its own 55th birthday, and beyond.