Leadership: Putting Insights Into Action – May/Jun 2022

Rubbing two sticks together to make fire

By Paul Hogendoorn

Its tough starting a business. Its not for the faint of heart. The first challenge is the biggest – getting it started – but then keeping it going, and then growing it, becomes an ongoing, relentless challenge that only occasionally lets up for momentary reprieves before new challenges present themselves.

Outdoor season is upon us once again, after a long-drawn-out winter made even more dreary by the restrictions and persistent messages of worry and concern. But with the nicer weather, comes outdoor times, recreation, adventures, and campfires. The first campfire of the season brings new life to my soul.

It got me thinking about the many small businesses I’ve visited over my career, most of them manufacturers, and in the last 10 years, most of them were small companies – sometimes a one plant, one shift operation, sometimes a multi-plant, multi-shift operation. Some are family owned, some were family owned and are now owned by investors, and some have been owned by founding families for generations. Almost all of them though were started by an individual with an idea to do something different, or to do it in a different way, or to do it for themselves. These, in my mind, are the campfire starters, the people that collect a little bit of dry kindling, squat on their haunches and patiently and persistently rub two sticks together until they make fire. The fire warms not just them, but many people, offering protection for them, and a heat source for the preparation of their food. The small companies that the founders started, mostly armed only with and an idea, a belief in their ability, and an unquenchable desire to see it done, end up benefiting many families, sometimes for generations. These are the campfire builders of our society, the true entrepreneurs – people that create something from nothing for the economic benefit of many.

Sometimes the entrepreneur is an individual, but in most cases, the entrepreneur had early help; someone to fetch more twigs, people to chop down trees and split wood, and someone to find and lay stones around the early flames. Such was the case in my case; I had the privilege of starting a couple companies with people eager to see what we could build together and willing to do whatever was needed to be done to get those fires started. And once started, they grew nicely – warming, protecting, and feeding many, many people, creating an estimated 2500 years of employment and $125M of salaries and wages, plus about a quarter of a billion dollars in commerce. Not bad for a few folks rubbing two sticks together hoping to make fire! Over that span of 40 years, a lot of homes were purchased and college kid’s tuitions paid for, and hopefully a few more campfire builders setting out to pursue their dreams and see what they can start.

Springtime is also the beginning of tradeshow season – a time when industry comes out of their winter shell. One of my favourites has always been the EWPTE event in Milwaukee in May. That show, and indeed the whole industry, is filled with many companies that were started the same way and continue in one form or another to this day. They were not only started by people with passion, commitment, and pride, they continue to be operated by similarly minded people that understand the importance of what they are doing and the impact their organizations make in people’s lives. Sure, they make great products, and sure, they make money for their owners, but they’ve done far more than that – they’ve built an industry, and they helped people look after themselves, their families, and others. I loved exhibiting at the show and being able to talk with people outside of their individual plants. Yes, they were there to look at new technologies and ideas, but they were also there to meet others in their industry that they have so much in common with. They all seem to be familiar with their company’s roots, and at this show, for 2 or 3 days, they revel in it, celebrate it, share it, and seem to motivate each other to ensure it continues for the next generation to benefit from.

When I look at all the great companies in this industry (some are customers, some are ‘not yet customers’, and some are even competitors), its easy for me to see that a few small campfires can go a long way! And in this industry, indeed they have.

Celebrate your campfire builders, and if you’re not one of the people actually rubbing two sticks together to try to make a fire, be one of the people that collects twigs, chops and splits wood, and helps build it.

Enjoy the season folks – and enjoy this year’s EWPTE!

Paul Hogendoorn can be reached at [email protected] or