My Column from the Nashua Telegraph – 02/18/15 on Annual Small Business Challenges

The first months of a new year can be tough for business owners. First, there is the weather. My business is not a retail business, so I really have no standing to complain. But it weighs on me, and that weighs on my business. Plus, for business owners the beginning of a new year brings with it the same question: where will my revenue come from this year, and what do I need to do to make more of it?
I was staring at the piles of snow on Main Street contemplating this question when it dawned on me that I could use a spark. A refresher was definitely in order. 2015 will be my thirtieth year of practice, a thought that in and of itself gave me pause. What I needed was not mentoring. The itch that needed scratching was not a legal one. I needed business wisdom, and in my view you get that from people with two important qualities. The person needed to be experienced, and the person needed to understand sales and selling. Read More »

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Milennials Make Terrific Entrepreneurs – From the Nashua Telegraph, January 14, 2014

From the day I graduated high school I was on a conveyor belt. Four years of college. Three years of graduate school. Take the bar exam. Get a job. Get married. Have children. That pretty well sums up my path during my twenties.
It wasn’t a bad path. It was the path. If you were fortunate to go to college in my generation, that was how it went. Granted, not all went to graduate school. The ones who didn’t simply stepped from college right on to the career conveyor belt. They just had a head start on me.
The adventurous and wealthy among us might have squeezed in an adventure during our college years. Some might have spent a few weeks one summer touring Western Europe via rail. Those were the risk-takers of my generation. Nobody went to Eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall stood tall and strong in those days, and the other side spelled danger. Looking back, it was all pretty tame.
I am reminded of my own path all the time whenever it crosses the path of a Millenial. My path looks nothing like their path. Millenials are generally defined as those individuals born between 1981 and 1993. According to a recent advisory from Deloitte Consulting, LLP, Millenials are the largest generation after the Baby Boomers. There are approximately 75 million of them, and they seem poised to make a substantial impact on the world’s future.

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My December 17, 2014 column from the Nashua Telegraph……………….Villa Banca Closes

It was very sad to see Villa Banca abruptly close its doors in downtown Nashua a few weeks ago. We can only hope that a new occupant will arrive on the scene who can add some energy to a downtown that has absorbed more than its fair share of body blows during the last couple of years. So what happened to Villa Banca?
Obviously I do not know specifically what led to its demise. However, there are a number of reasons that downtown stores and restaurants continue to struggle. First, it is hard for an entrepreneur, imbued with the intellectual and emotional energy of starting a business, to come to grips with just how difficult that challenge can be. It takes stamina, and lots of it. It requires energy and the ability to work long hours. But it also requires financial stamina.
In my experience, it takes roughly three years for a new business to gain traction in the marketplace. During that time very few customers just walk in the front door, especially on Main Street. They need to be given a reason to come. Maybe the place looks interesting and unique to passersby. Maybe an advertisement got their attention. Maybe they were friends of the owner. Maybe it was word of mouth. The point is that something draws them to the business. Few wander in unsolicited.
If in three years the business is still alive, enough repeat business will have been generated to sustain the enterprise. That means that the business must have enough capital to sustain itself during that difficult three year period. We see so many small businesses open and close on Main Street within a relatively short period of time. Often the reason is a simple one. They are undercapitalized.
So how do we explain Villa Banca, which certainly had a following and a good reputation for a number of years? Unlike Aubuchon Hardware, whose closing constituted another blow to Nashua’s downtown this year, Villa Banca was locally owned. It was not a casualty of corporate restructuring. Obviously, it did not have enough customers for the owners to justify keeping it open. But why was that the case?
I suspect that Villa Banca, like many closely owned businesses, may have fallen victim to the shrinking middle class in America. Economic study after study has demonstrated that the purchasing power of what we think of as the middle class in America has shrunk, and is continuing to shrink. There are simply fewer patrons able to visit Villa Banca regularly enough to permit it to sustain itself and grow. Folks can afford Applebee’s or Chile’s, but they cannot afford Villa Banca. It is the new reality.
I know I see in my law practice that my small business clients are, with a couple of exceptions, merely treading water. For most there are no significant growth plans on the horizon. Few of them are contemplating acquiring a competitor, or buying a building. Few of them are doing very much hiring. Most are not making much more money than they were ten years ago. From all of that one can fairly easily deduce that if anything, these same folks are eating at restaurants like Villa Banca less often these days. The middle class is getting squeezed.
I have neither the inclination nor the time here to get into a political discussion about which party is to blame for this predicament. Truthfully, I swore off allegiance to either one of them some time ago. I am curious to see, however, which party might recognize the plight of the middle class and actually come after its votes in the 2016 Presidential election.
Up to now, the Republicans efforts on tax relief have focused on big business and the wealthy. It seems pretty clear that the benefit of those tax cuts have failed to trickle down far enough. Will the Republicans shift gears and propose some substantive tax relief for the middle class? I think it would win votes. Could it not be justified on economic grounds?
As for the Democrats, their major legislative achievement during their time in control of the White House and at least one branch of Congress was health care reform. I appreciate their efforts. I understand clearly that health care was in the process of swallowing our economy. Who knows, in time it might even prove to have been the right choice. But has it helped the plight of the middle class? If the evidence is in, I have yet to see it. So I have the same question for the Democrats. The middle class is ripe for the picking. Will you be the party that offers it substantive tax relief so its plight improves? Would that sort of legislation not be good for the economy, and generate votes at the same time?
I guess only time will tell whether either party will have the common sense to leap to the defense of the middle class. Until one of them does, however, it will continue to be tough sledding for this vital population group, and for our Main Street businesses that serve them. In Nashua, we have the Broad Street Parkway on the horizon. Let’s hope its arrival breathes some additional life into our downtown community.

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My Post-Election Diatribe – Nashua Telegraph – November 12, 2014

I did not want to write this article. I tried to suppress it, I really did. I know that by the time the recent election ended, most of us were fed up with it. Most of us are sick and tired of reading about it, hearing about it or even thinking about it. I get that. Nonetheless, and with apologies to readers who may have overdosed on the topic, I need to write a post-election diatribe. Bear with me if you can.

My diatribe really is not about the election results. With a few notable exceptions, I can live with the choices New Hampshire voters ultimately made. What I cannot get past is what voters were subjected to during the weeks and months preceding the election. What I cannot fathom is the extent to which money is continuing to insidiously corrupt the electoral process and our democracy.

The sheer volume of political advertising was overwhelming. As Election Day approached, it took up more and more space inside my mailbox. My response was a political statement of sorts. I threw them out without reading them. I threw out every last one of them – before they could even enter my house. I separated them from the rest of the mail at my mailbox (without looking at them, of course), and walked to my garage to throw them in the recycling bin. In this fashion, I prevented them from even entering the premises.

Then there were the incessant, mind-numbing television advertisements. They were loud, obnoxious, ominous, dark, negative and repetitive. Eventually, I pretended to be Chauncey Gardiner, the odd chap brilliantly played by Peter Sellers in the movie “Being There.” “What would Chauncey think of this?” I asked myself as I watched Frank Guinta’s round head superimposed inside the 1950s TV set on Carol Shea-Porter’s attack ad for the 42nd time. My eventual conclusion was that the advertisements would have ruined the story, as Chauncey would have been too terrified by the portrayal of the outside world to ever leave the house.

A lot of money was spent on those ads. The Washington Post pegged the total amount spent on the 2014 election at $3.7 billion dollars. But to put that in perspective, the article also pointed out that Americans spend $7.4 billion dollars annually on lawn care. So the problem is less the total amount spent on the election, and more the source of the amount spent. According to the Post, all of that money came from only 0.2 percent of the U.S. population of 316 million. To put it bluntly, all that money came from a very concentrated, small portion of the electorate.

There is a lesson here, I think, and an important one to bear in mind when the ads start next week for the 2016 primaries. There is a direct correlation between the concentration of the funding sources that pay for political advertisements and the partisan, extreme and obnoxious nature of the political advertisements themselves.

That alone ought to be enough to get all of us on the campaign-finance-reform bandwagon. Better we federally fund elections to the tune of $10 billion than go through another $4 billion election cycle like the last one. Honestly, I’m not sure I could withstand one.

Our political parties don’t seem to be helping things, either. I tried to listen carefully to the candidates, but I heard very little of substance from any of the ones running for national office. From the Republicans, I heard nothing but negativity. From the Democrats, I heard nothing. For me, at least, the two sides’ comments were white noise. Neither party cared to inform me.

Sadly, voters need to get used to this sort of campaigning. We may have reached the breaking point, where there is so much money at stake for those in the game that they are afraid to say anything that has the slightest possibility of compromising their chances of winning it.

For incumbents, losing an election means giving up the chance to make a fortune in the private sector down the road, perhaps as a lobbyist. For the challengers, winning an election means a ticket to financial freedom and future prosperity.

These same financial stakes drive all the candidates’ advisors, handlers and contributors. There is just so much money at stake inside the game, driving so many private agendas inside the game, that the public agenda may be become lost. Modern politics have become like the lottery: One needs to be in it to win it.

This is tough stuff to think, and to write, because I genuinely like and respect many of the individuals who are brave enough to wade into the political waters. I wish no misfortune, financial or otherwise, on any of them. I agree with Lawrence Lessig, who wrote that the people in the system are not corrupt – the system is. The money has corrupted it.

That grim realization, though, does nothing to change the sinking feeling I have that those on the inside playing the game are increasingly playing it for themselves, and not for the rest of us.

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My Take on Market Basket

 

From the Nashua Telegraph, Thursday, August 20, 2014

Is there any business more interesting than a family business? The relationships between family business owners make the relationships between owners of other privately owned companies look like child’s play. Regular business owners might have long-term relationships; family business relationships, on the other hand, are lifelong. Regular business owners have predecessors and successors; family business owners have mothers, fathers and heirs. Regular business owners have experience; family business owners have scars.

Many of us in New England are witnessing the downside of family ownership as we watch the ongoing Market Basket saga. Market Basket, one of the nation’s largest and most successful privately owned retailers, is being brought to its knees by two competing forces. Internally, the family is feuding. Externally, the employees and customers have banded together in a show of unity and support for one ownership faction that is rare – if not unprecedented.

The feuding piece is fairly easy to comprehend. Family businesses, especially ones owned by second- and third-generation owners, are inherently combustible. What is happening among the family factions at Market Basket is not uncommon. It happens all the time, albeit perhaps not on such a grandiose scale. In the family business world, what is happening at Market Basket is, in many ways, the same old fight.

For years, Arthur T. Demoulas had maintained operational control of the company because of one family member who had consistently supported him – despite the fact that he or she was related to the Arthur S. Demoulas group. For some reason, this person recently switched sides and voted to support the Arthur S. group. That was all it took to swing the balance of power at the board level in favor of Arthur S. Just like that, Arthur T. was converted to a minority voter, without management control. It may have been abrupt, but it was not shocking. In business, these things happen all the time.

What happened next, though, was shocking. It turned out that Arthur T. was so beloved by Market Basket employees that they walked off the job in protest of his ousting. Customers largely followed suit, shopping elsewhere. Was the Arthur S. group surprised by this? It might have been. Then again, the Arthur S. faction might have viewed this as a possible outcome and yet gone ahead anyway. It’s that kind of family, and that kind of feud.

While the family feud driving the Market Basket debacle is somewhat typical, the collective actions of the employees – and, to a lesser degree, customers – may be unprecedented. Almost unanimously, it seems, the employees picked their horse right out of the gate and seem committed to ride it all the way to the end of the race. They believe in Arthur T., and they believe the company should be his. But how will this race finish? It looks to me like it is going to be a very tough one for Arthur T. and the employees to win. They are a longshot.

The brave steps taken by Market Basket employees were the equivalent of a life ring for Arthur T. Their acts alone are all that have prevented him from sinking into the still waters of life as a minority owner. In that capacity, an owner can cry out, but nobody really cares. As I write this column, Arthur T. is still afloat, clinging to that life ring. His chance to regain control of the company and get it back on track is running out.

I say this for two reasons. First, the history between Arthur T. and Arthur S. demonstrates that the interests of employees and customers are not a priority for Arthur S. and company. Arthur T. believed the company’s long-term interests were best served by rewarding loyal employees and customers. Arthur S. placed a higher priority on maximizing the returns for ownership and getting cash into their hands. This, by the way, does not make the Artie S. faction evil or morally inferior. In fact, those two competing philosophies are a hot topic in business circles right now. Regardless, in all likelihood, if Arthur T. loses, the employees will lose too.

The second reason to be concerned about the outcome from the employees’ standpoint is ironic, but nonetheless compelling. The sheer profitability of the Market Basket chain over the last 50 years has been astounding. It has been one of America’s most profitable privately owned retail chains. The money its owners have made during that time is hard for most of us to even comprehend. They have become very, very rich. This is a problem for Arthur T., as the pockets of the owners may have been so thoroughly lined already that the financial pressure brought about by the employee walk-off causes Arthur S. and his group no meaningful financial pain. If that is the case, then Arthur T. simply has no leverage in these negotiations.

What about the Market Basket brand, you say? Family members must care about their legacy, don’t they? The truth is that probably some do. But for many of them, watching Arthur T. go down may be its own reward, powerful enough for them to throw the Market Basket baby out with the bathwater. Under these circumstances, Arthur T. will be hard-pressed to make any offer that is rich enough to get the Arthur S. faction to let him emerge as the hero.

I hope I am wrong. I hope that Artie T. wins the race, and I hope the employees and the Market Basket brand win this race. If they lose it, it is neither a reflection of their courage nor the validity of their actions. They have been brave, if perhaps somewhat naive. They deserve a better outcome then they are likely to get.

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Why I Hate Hourly Billing – My Column from the Nashua Telegraph – January 15, 2014

For years I have said that if someone had told me about hourly billing before I decided to go to law school, I might not have gone. Now, after over 28 years tracking my time by tenths of an hour for billing purposes, I can say it with certainty: had I known about hourly billing in 1982, I would never have become a lawyer. Why do I hate hourly billing so much? With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, let me count the ways.

            I hate hourly billing because it defies economic reality. Too often, there is little or no correlation between the hours a lawyer spends on a matter and the value of the services provided to the client. When hourly billing is the payment mechanism, the practice of law becomes that rarest of industries where one can charge $500.00 for a $59.00 toaster because it took a lot of time to build it. Read More »

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The Silna Brothers: Makers of the Greatest Sports Deal of All Time – My Column, Nashua Telegraph, November 20, 2013

            Last week one of my colleagues emailed me an amazing article from www.celebritynetworth.com, of all places. The article was written by a gentleman named Brian Warner, and was titled “The Greatest Sports Business Deal of All Time.” Since then the story has popped up on other sports outlets, and I have not stopped thinking about it since I first read it.

            The article recounted the tale of brothers Daniel and Ozzie Silna. The Silna brothers’ saga reads like the classic American success story. Children of immigrants, they took over their parents’ textile business and parlayed that into enough money to buy their way into the professional basketball industry in the late 1960’s. When their bid to acquire an NBA franchise failed, they purchased the St. Louis Spirit, a franchise in the upstart American Basketball Association. Read More »

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My Column from the Nashua Telegraph – October 15, 2013

             Every once in a while I read a news story that jars me, that causes the jumbled thoughts ringing around in my head to organize. I had one of those moments this week when I read that students at Nashua’s Charlotte Avenue School would no longer be permitted to play tag during recess. In a flash, the jigsaw puzzle came together. I knew  banning tag at recess was destroying America.

            When I was a kid, hazardous playground activity was a way of life. Tag? Tag was for wimps. We played Kill the Guy with the Ball. One kid would pick up the football and run around with it as long as he could, until he was gang-tackled in a particularly violent fashion. He would then cough up the ball, and someone else would take off with it. No sidelines, no end zones, no time limits. Sometimes kids got hurt, but that’s why we had a school nurse.

            We liked to swing on the swings at recess too. But we turned it into a competition. We used them as swinging catapults, in a game where the winner was the kid who flew the farthest off the swing. Jumping extraordinarily high was admirable, adding as it did to the danger element, but our game was about who could fly past the line in the sand drawn to mark the longest landing point. Like most of our games, it was physical, and it was about beating the other guy. Pardon the pun, but it never would fly today. Read More »

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My Column from the Nashua Telegraph – August 21, 2013

Customer Loyalty Stands Test of Time

When was the last time you experienced truly amazing customer service?

We all know it when we see it. It makes a huge impression on us. But great customer service is rare. Despite all the stuff you read about how important it is, and how it helps create brand loyalty, very few businesses are able to attain it, let alone maintain it.

I experienced amazing customer service a couple of weeks ago at one of Nashua’s landmark local stores, where management and staff went above and beyond the call to take care of me as a customer.

It happened at Jeannotte’s Market, the little white grocery store that has been a fixture on the corner of Courtland and Manchester streets in Nashua for decades. Read More »

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Our Free Press Needs Help – My Column from the Nashua Telegraph, June 19, 2013

From the Nashua Telegraph, June 19, 2013

Keeping the press alive important to keep government in check

Two weeks ago, the news broke that the Chicago Sun-Times had fired its entire staff of photographers. In the future, the newspaper will rely on a combination of freelancers and staff reporters to take pictures for the paper with their cellphones. It is only the latest step in the dumbing down of that great institution, the American newspaper. It makes me sad.

I confess to being an unabashed newspaper guy. I grew up near Saratoga, N.Y., but my parents were Bostonians. So I was raised a Boston sports fan. We got The Boston Globe in the mail a day late so we could follow the Boston teams. This may be hard to understand now that we’re in the Internet era, but I remember spreading that newspaper out on the living room floor every day and scrutinizing box scores and standings. That was how I learned about the previous day’s Red Sox game.

The photographs in those sports sections were huge for me, too. Baseball games were only televised Saturdays, and the game of the week in our region rarely involved the Red Sox. Black-and-white photos in the Globe provided me with just about all of the visual evidence I had as to what Yaz and Fred Lynn and Jim Rice actually looked like. Those photos, together with my memories from our annual trek to Fenway, comprised my vision of my favorite team. For me, a newspaper without great photos really isn’t a newspaper at all.

I know I am dating myself, and I know times have changed. But the decline of the news business in America isn’t just a personal issue that affects me. It affects all of us. Without reliable information, how can we meet our civic responsibilities? Without a strong, independent press, how can we keep the power in Washington in check? Unfortunately, we can’t. Without a healthy and vigorous and free press, we are at the mercy of rumor, innuendo and paid-for partisan hysteria.

Casting aside whatever libertarian underpinnings my own political philosophy might entail, I am now asking the question: Do we need to use more of our public assets to make sure that responsible journalism survives?

The founders were not believers in big government, but they realized that without an informed population, democracy would not be effective. Washington and Madison were deeply concerned with the challenge posed by getting news to all regions of such a large country. They made sure that our fledgling federal government heavily subsidized mailing costs to encourage its delivery to everyone. Support of that nature has in fact continued at the federal and state levels. But it is declining.

There remain tax breaks for the print, broadcast, cable and Internet industries. The large media companies have been able to use their financial muscle to lobby against the closing of some of these loopholes, but not all of them. Changes in the tax code have been particularly tough on small news organizations. Reductions in mail subsidies have killed much of the magazine industry. While the federal government continues to financially support the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it does so under increasing pressure to do away with it.

Reductions in government subsidies are not the only things hurting the news business. The Internet and digital publishing also have contributed to its downfall. For example, local newspapers continue to be damaged by the transition of the legal notice business from print to a digital format. Those foreclosure and other statutory notices you see in The Telegraph are an important revenue source for the newspaper. But how much longer will publication in a physical newspaper be legally required when digital publication is so much cheaper and arguably just as effective as print?

Between the declining public support for journalism and the impact of the Internet and related technology, we don’t need Nostradamus to tell us where the industry is headed. It is headed down the tubes.

This reality should have the attention of responsible citizens in a democracy. It is questionable whether a democratic government can even function, let alone flourish, without a well-informed populace. Washington and Madison knew this. We can scream all we want about media bias and sensational journalism, but the burning question remains: if journalism continues to decline, where will we go for serious, balanced reporting of the news?

Many in the news business convincingly argue that if we had a higher quality of investigative journalism, the scandals that currently plague the Obama administration might have been nipped in the bud. Perhaps they would have been ferreted out even before substantive damage was done. The scandals could be viewed as symptomatic of across-the-board reductions in government accountability reporting. History proves that with nobody watching, the corruptive influence of power can overwhelm even good intentions. The news industry needs help, and we need to pressure the government to do more to insure that it survives.

I am not typically an advocate for increased government spending, particularly at the federal level. But this should be a priority item. Ensuring that citizens have access to quality news and information needs is vital. If the news industry fails, it will take a toll on our great republic. Washington and Madison could have told us so.

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