I am a small business person. So was my dad. He ran the business my great-grandfather started, a garment manufacturing operation, from the day he left high school until the day he shut it down 40 years later.
The writing was on the wall in 1994, when NAFTA passed. Sewing factories in Hong Kong and Taiwan had existed for decades, but long delivery lags and irregular quality still left room for domestic shops that could turn out good product fast.
That ended when semis began moving garments across the border to distribution centers in a matter of hours. It didn’t matter if many units didn’t pass the final quality inspection. The big margins created by dirt cheap labor absorbed that loss easily.
My dad’s employees, among the last unionized garment workers in Northern California to begin with – people who had healthcare, a living wage and a pension plan – never stood a chance.
But my dad kept the business running, losing money, for 9 more years. He did this so my grandfather could drive down the hill to work every day, lunches my grandmother had made for her husband and son in hand. He did it to keep people – some of whom had been with the company for decades – afloat. He did it so people could have the dignity of work, even if that work was sporadic.
My dad had built a nest egg in the flush years. He made good money. He could do this. So he did it.
The economic gap between business owner and employee had never been canyon-sized. In an arrangement that struck me as sadly bygone even before this current crisis, a woman who operated a sewing machine in the shop lived right next door to my dad and mom in Oakland. This woman’s husband was a janitor in a candy factory.
The house these folks lived in sold two years ago for $1.6 million.
My grandfather died in 2001. By this time, new orders had dwindled to the point where rolling furloughs were the norm. A shop that buzzed with the kinetic energy of 80 people and myriad machines (button placers, fabric cutters, steam presses, an ancient, loping belt loop machine that hadn’t stalled in 50 years) had wound down.
My dad closed Boero Manufacturing in 2002. The building that had housed it since 1947 now holds a yoga studio, a high-end women’s boutique, and some sort of fancy gym.
I walk by the building often. I think to myself, no one knows.
I tell this story because the survival of my own business is threatened. Odds are yours is too. And that yoga studio likely has a lot less runway than my dad did. The devastation is hard to contemplate.
We’re all drawing strength from different places. I draw mine from my family, my colleagues, and from people older than me who have been through hard times. I think of what my father went through a lot right now.
I like to think I am level-headed, but the last two weeks have stirred the sediment at the bottom of my psyche. When you build a small business with your own money, it becomes an extension of your being in a way that’s hard to explain. The distinction between the business balance sheet and your own is just a legal concept. It’s all personal.
We (1000watt, and the industry we serve) are going to make it to the other side of this. Real estate won’t vanish like American garment manufacturing did. But we’ve got to be smart and decisive while at the same time preserving our humanity. This push and pull is intense.
I am grateful right now to have what I have. I am also grateful for role models that guide me on my mission to keep it.
Be safe. People are going to need you when this is all over.