In my experience, businesspeople tend to be risk takers. Not all the replies in this column have to do with taking business risks, but the idea of getting near the edge of the cliff and taking a leap of faith is inherent in each of this month’s responses.
What does it take for you to move outside of your comfort zone and step into a new endeavor?
In this section, adopted from the familiar “Heard on the Street” format, we offer our responders a chance to answer the question posed in the title. These are their replies reported verbatim.
“In the fall of 1979 through the spring of 1980, my brother-in-law and I were approached by an area manager of Skelgas who said they had an opportunity with a big upside for a couple of hardworking guys.
Skelgas was getting out of the 100# cylinder business and had a unit in the Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, market that was for sale.
At the time, they were delivering about 15,000 100# cylinders per year to residential and industrial accounts in an approximately 40-mile radius.
Other than using propane on the farm growing up … I didn’t know zip about propane. That spring, we attended safety and training classes provided by Skelgas as well as a tech school provided by the Minnesota Propane Gas Association at the University of Minnesota. We sold our homes and took the equity from the sale as down payment for a business loan. We moved our families to the Duluth/Superior area and started Duluth/Superior Bottle Gas Inc. in August
At that time, business loans had an interest rate of 20%. Because of our inexperience in propane, we were able to convince the bank to take a chance and get a loan to do the deal at 20% ... plus two points. To say not knowing the business or the territory was a challenge is an understatement.
But we did it.
Three years later, the business was paid off, and Skelgas approached me with an opportunity to join their company as manager of the Skelgas branch in Superior. I sold our half of the business, and 40 years later and about 10 moves throughout the Midwest and Canada later, here we are. I’ve never looked back and never regretted a minute of it — well, maybe one day, when it was 108 below wind chill delivering cylinders.”
“Two come to mind: I started a company called NSYD-OUT, flipping homes in 2005. I had the money to invest and times were good. It was a great experience, and I was flying high, until the bubble burst in 2007. Needless to say, I ended up dissolving the business, but it taught me tenacity and adaptability. I changed directions from flipping homes to becoming a landlord, which is a whole other skill set.
The second is overcoming my fears. When I was in my 20s, I developed a sudden fear of heights. I could not even stand on the first step of a ladder — the fear consumed me. I knew I had to face it head on, so I bungee-jumped, not once, but twice. The first time I could not open my eyes, and I feared it wouldn’t stick, so I did it again. I never had a fear of heights after that, and it gave me confidence that I can overcome almost anything.”
“I think the most important risk I have taken of late is speaking out against the green movement. In my younger years, I was always taught you never talked about religion or politics because you were bound to make someone unhappy — especially when it came to customers and business. I have never been one for confrontation, but for the past three years I have stood up, even at the risk of losing customers. You see, I feel silence is [tacit] agreement, and not only is the electrification movement threatening our livelihood – but it’s just plain wrong.
Our country is being led down a bad energy path, and for me, it’s not about the money, it’s about doing what is right and standing up for what you believe in, no matter the consequences. I am just one person in one of the smallest states in the country, and if I can convince one more person to rise up and they convince one [more person]... After all, that’s how we’ve gotten to the Green New Deal — someone kept talking. I think as an industry, this is a risk we should all be taking, in my humble opinion.”
“Twenty years ago, I took an important risk when I decided to leave the comfort of my college bubble and study abroad through a program called Semester at Sea. Without any friends or even acquaintances, I boarded a ship with 600 students and set sail around the world. We visited Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China and Japan. I studied the history, sociology, government, geography, culture and customs of each country prior to arrival, but it was the real-world experiences in each of these fascinating places that impacted my life forever. Semester at Sea opened my mind, expanded my worldview and instilled a lifelong love of travel in my heart.
I chose Semester at Sea because I felt it was a unique and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’ve always tried to live by a piece of advice my grandmother gave me when I was 11 years old. The advice she shared was based on a quote by Mark Twain: ‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’”
Kara K. Tucker
Koppy’s Propane Inc.
“For much of my career, I worked for large companies looking for smaller ones to acquire. Our owners made a decision to stop our acquisition program, and I was asked to go back to commercial sales, where I had been [working] 10 years earlier. I decided to take a risk and start my own company.
My daughter was getting ready to go to college. We had a mortgage and not that much in savings. But my wife supported my decision and said I could always go back to working for someone else. Well, I drained the bank accounts and took out a second mortgage, and today we have a successful business.
That was part one of the question. Part two is the why. Yes, I did not want to go backwards in my career, but my big motivation was that I never felt good about trying to buy businesses from owners for the lowest price I could. I knew I could have paid substantially more, but my bonus was tied to buying under a target price. That never sat well with me. Many of those business owners were like my father, who worked six 12-hour days a week, and I always knew I could get them more value for their business.”
Cetane Associates LLC
“The most important risk I ever took was marrying a beautiful girl when I was 18, leaving the security of my parents’ home, and becoming responsible for this new marriage. We have lasted 55 years with love, hard work, understanding and faith.
The second most important risk she and I took together was 24 years ago when we started Shasta Gas Propane with less than $20,000 in cash. Again, through hard work, understanding the customers’ needs and a love for being self-employed, we’ve persevered through tough times and good times.
We are blessed with a business that has a great reputation in our community. We are able to support local organizations, missionaries around the world and our state and national propane organizations. We can also pass the business on to our children for their future security and prosperity.”
Shasta Gas Propane
Palo Cedro, California
On Risky Business
Personally, my life was altered forever when my dad became sick and buying his bobtail-building company seemed like the best way to help our family. Sometimes it’s good not to have a window into the risk ahead, lest we not take it in the first place.