Volume 37, Issue 8, August 2002
Even A Blind Squirrel …
by Lyle R. Hill
“Hill, I’ve had it,” the early-morning caller yelled into my ear, “and I want you to do something about it.”
Earl Dubovik … a.k.a. Earl “The Squirrel” Dubovik … calls me about once a year. The calls are never pleasant and typically he’s upset about something or another and needs to vent a bit.
“Earl, so nice to hear from you again. How are you doing?”
“Not very good, Hill. In fact, downright awful.”
I’m not sure who tagged Earl Dubovik with the nickname “The Squirrel”, but it seems to fit him perfectly. He has red, bushy hair, an out-of-control mustache and wears the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen … which don’t seem to do much good because he is almost sightless. And he acts … well, kinda squirrelly.
“Well Earl, I’m sorry to hear that, but if you’ll tone it down a few hundred decibels, I’ll be happy to listen to whatever it is that has your shorts all tied up in knots.”
“I’ll try to tone it down, but it won’t be easy, Hill, because this time they’ve gone too far and we’re not going to let them get away with it.”
The Squirrel inherited his business from his father about ten years ago and has spent the last decade doing his best to ruin it. From a business perspective, there’s not much that he doesn’t do wrong. And while most of those who know Earl just assume that his ultimate demise is right around the corner, he somehow survives in spite of himself. It’s a funny thing too, but every time I talk to him, I’m reminded of one of my grandfather’s favorite sayings … “Even a blind squirrel will find a nut every so often.” And somehow … someway … Earl the Squirrel has stumbled across just enough nuts to survive.
“Who is the them that you are talking about, Earl?”
“Those low-down, rotten suppliers … that’s who, and if they think we’re going to take this sitting down, they are in for one big surprise. In fact, if we have to, we’ll even take it to the government!”
The Squirrel hates suppliers. Doesn’t trust ’em … thinks they are all a bunch of lying, stealing, cheating thieves. I actually think that Earl believes that his suppliers get together on Tuesday nights at some dark, sleazy restaurant to plot his destruction. Of course, I personally know that this is not true. They meet on Friday nights at very upscale places and plan for the destruction of the entire industry.
“Wow, Earl. Someone must have really gotten to you cause I know how much you distrust all things governmental. What’s going on?”
“It’s some kind of a conspiracy, that’s what. I’ve never seen anything like it, but I’m telling you, Hill, we’re going to fight back. That’s why we need your help.”
The Squirrel is one of those guys who somehow feels he represents the masses. You’ve met the type … they are never just speaking for themselves but for the untold multitude of people who allegedly feel just like they do. And somehow, they feel that it is their responsibility to speak for this large group without ever really identifying who it is that they represent. Of course the idea behind this approach is, by inference, to make their position seem to be all the stronger.
“OK then, Earl, what exactly is the it that you are referring to and what specifically do you want me to do?”
“We need you to write about the conspiracy … to expose it and call the industry to arms.”
I couldn’t believe the passion I was hearing in The Squirrel’s voice. He was genuinely convinced that a great injustice was being perpetrated on the industry. But the picture was not clear to me … and an industry call to arms???
“Earl, you gotta tell me what you’re talking about, because I’m confused.”
“OK, Hill … have you or have you not received a large number of supplier notices within the last few weeks informing you of price increases?”
Of course, I had received them—a lot of them. But my general feeling was that they were long overdue. I’ve never understood how my suppliers, or competitors for that matter, could continue to cut their prices year after year in the face of cost increases.
“Sure, Earl. I’ve received some notices of price increases but you know, the manufacturers and fabricators have to survive too. Don’t you think they are entitled to raise their prices?”
“No, I don’t, Hill. I mean after all, how am I supposed to survive if they raise their prices? It’s not fair … they’ll ruin me. They’re all a bunch of crooks.”
“C’mon, Squirrel … I mean Earl. Give ’em a break. These guys haven’t had a real price increase in years, and you know that they have had labor and other operating cost increases over the past several months. They’ve been crying for as long as I can remember that they aren’t making any money.”
“So what?” he screamed into the phone. “Neither am I. And besides, I am not to blame for their problems. I’ve got plenty of my own. Can’t they see what this increase will do to me and everyone else in the business? Are they completely blind?”
I couldn’t keep myself from forming a mental picture of Earl on the other end of the line … squinting through those thick glasses of his and calling somebody else blind.
“Listen, Earl, these guys have a legal right to raise their prices. In fact, they even have a responsibility to their investors to see that some kind of a return is received for the investment that they have made.”
“I am shocked, Hill. I never thought I would live to see the day when you would take the side of the suppliers.”
“I’m not taking anyone’s side, Earl. And I’m having a fair amount of difficulty understanding why you can’t grasp the situation here. Think about it, Earl. Do you pay the same price today as you did three years ago for a gallon of gas? Or how about food … does a loaf of bread cost the same today as it did four or five years ago?”
“That’s different, Hill. Those are real businesses. They operate in a normal manner. We’re in the glass business … the most dysfunctional industry known to mankind.”
“I won’t argue with you on that count, Earl. But did you just assume that there would never be an increase? That prices would forever be the same or continue to go down? Is that how you honestly thought it all worked?”
“Well … kinda. You see, Hill, I’ve been around now for almost ten years and all I have ever done is lower my price. And the suppliers have been the same way. I mean, every now and then, some of them would send out a price increase notice, but it was usually rescinded a few days later. In fact, the last two increase notices that I got were not only rescinded, but the prices were actually dropped to a level below where they were when the increases were first announced.”
“Yeah, Earl … I know what you’re talking about, but don’t hold that against them. They are not exactly the brightest stars in the sky to begin with.”
“Anyhow, Hill … I guess I just assumed that nothing would ever change … at least not for the better. The suppliers were always dropping their prices…my competitors were always dropping theirs … so naturally, I always had to drop mine. That’s just the way I thought it worked.”
“But Earl, at that rate, didn’t you ever stop to think that you would one day be doing the work for free?”
“Actually, Hill, that did cross my mind a couple of times, but I figured I’d be broke and long gone by then … like a lot of the other guys I used to know in this business.”
“And that was OK with you? To simply allow yourself to slowly but surely go out of business?”
“Well … yeah. It’s not that I don’t like the business, Hill. It’s just that I don’t see much hope. I mean after all, how long can you survive doing work for less and less money year after year?”
“But Earl, it doesn’t have to be that way. You see, just like your suppliers, you too can raise your prices when your costs go up.”
“Are you kidding me, Hill? I could actually raise prices and nobody would think I’m crazy?”
“Maybe. But what do you care? Besides, what’s more important … surviving and having a few people think you’re crazy, or following the rest of the crowd and one day losing your business?”
“Wow, Hill. You’ve really given me a lot to think about. OK, listen … I gotta run. I want to tell Bunny about all of this right away.”
“Who’s Bunny, Earl?”
“My wife, Hill.”
I should have known. And you know, maybe my grandfather was right after all … even a blind squirrel will find a nut every so often.
Illustration by Jake Newling
Lyle R. Hill is the president of MTH Industries in Chicago.
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