Small Business: Backbone of the economy or slipped disc …

The Practice Collection

I grew up in a small business family. I started to go down that road myself but I had neither brains, skills nor good sense to stick with plumbing. In such times small business was a pretty good deal. You could pick your business, pick your city or town, buy a small storefront or commercial property and spend the next forty years working your assets off.

Time comes for retirement, your assets are worth more, your property is worth more and your business is worth more … you have the dough to bake, pass on or sell your own bread.

It’s a little different today.

You can still pick your own business, pick your own city or town but the chances of you buying that storefront of industrial space are pretty slim.

At best, you will always be a small business serf indentured to big business, which, in most cases will be in the life force of the commercial real estate market.   We hear a lot about how governments are destroying small business and lord knows, they could do better but there’s not a lot of chatter about how big business really has the hammer over small business.

I remember my dad’s puzzlement when he discovered that his customers could buy their own copper pipe considerably cheaper at Home Depot than he could get it from the wholesale … not exactly a big government plot there.

John Oliver did a great piece on business consolidation. In so many businesses today, the big fish just keep eating the little fish and pretty soon all that is left is three big fish and they are looking at each other with hunger or if not hunger at least an opportunity to price fix the menu. They are long past that old shibboleth of small business and free markets as core values … more like big business and coalitions are the new values … think about filling your gas tank this afternoon.

So, trying to keep positive, what sort of big thinking would we need to grasp in order to really support small business?

I had a pretty sweet glimpse of a future for small business on a recent trio to Newfoundland.

By some good fortune, we found ourselves on an old family stage (the Rock term for a dock) in the little Irish out port of Tilting on Fogo Island. Our elder host was Roy O’Dwyer, fisherman, poet and storyteller.

Good news and bad news …

Roy explained how big business and poor government policy continue to wreck havoc on the ocean. Bad enough we lost the cod and we are indeed letting it rest a bit to see if it can be recovered, but we still have to serve big business so now we fish the hell out of a little fish they call the capelin.

Trouble is, the capelin are “ground zero” for the rest of the ocean critters, the first link in the food chain … cod and every other fish have less chance of coming back if you take away their dinner.

The good news … smart, discerning and well off folks in big North American cities are starting to enjoy their food in a more organic, fresh and local fashion. So Roy and other smart fellas on the Rock are going “old school.”

They are bringing back the dory and the hand line and catching small batches of fresh fish that they then fly direct in hours to New York City for a very lovely price indeed bye …

So what if … ?

What if we considered the trawlers that drag miles of net through the ocean, mining and killing everything in its path, to be illegal and stupid? What if we rehabbed all those aging fishermen and their computer code re-trained sons and daughters, into a full tilt small business model of a new fishery? How many hundreds of hand line fishermen could earn a decent living just by owning the equivalent catch of one big business trawler?

Lord Thunderin’ Jaysus!!

Lets head to the most western edge of our country and imagine a small business approach to a big industry out there … logging. The modern logging industry seems to be more known for ugly clear-cuts, unemployed loggers and our sending fine cedar logs overseas instead of fine cedar furniture and guitars.

Imagine a small business viewpoint … as an antidote to the total corporate logging mental model.

Let’s take a page from the turn of the century agricultural model. The Dominion Lands Act brought the homesteading concept to the Canadian prairies. If you were twenty-one years or older, had ten bucks in your pocket and a big desire to farm, you were given one hundred sixty acres of land to own and farm. You had three years, however, to show accountability and in that time you had to get forty acres into crop and build yourself a little home.

If I were Prime Minister for a day, I just might suggest the feasibility of a modern day forestry-homesteading act. Unemployed loggers and young folks keen on living and working in the forest could be given lets say, one hundred and sixty acres and a chainsaw and a fine draught horse (or tough little four by four). They would be expected to produce a certain amount of hand-logged fiber plus a self-sufficient home in three years from their woodlot or it would be forfeited back to the crown.

We might all be well served by taking a closer look and Norway and other northern European countries where forest sustainability and long-term thinking have been in practice for over a century.

They went from shortage to surplus and now since woodlot ownership is practiced and controlled, forest resources have doubled. The great success is due to good policy, fine training and the obligations of the over 100,000 woodlot owners.

Clear-cutting is abandoned and biodiversity is welcomed and practiced.

This Norway thing makes me wonder if our policy makers have any Norwegian references on their history browsers.

Finally … taxes

Lots of chatter these days about taxes and small business. Frankly I think there are a number of red herrings out there on this issue. Like so many interest groups out there even small business interest seem to have fallen in love with entitlement. It used to be that tax rates, perks, assistance and support were all tied to how well you were doing. Now in the age of tax specialists, tax lawyers and tax havens, we have bought wholly into the American mental model that taxes are just plain evil and to be avoided and fought at all costs. I need the break because I belong to the club …

Does anyone remember the old phrase … sliding scale, it was a simple idea … the more you made, the more you could give back. Imagine a tax structure where you actually paid taxes on how much money you had in your jeans, not how you made that money.

Simplistic … sure buts what’s the matter with simple. Surely a doctor and an electrician could agree that one of them must surely have more money in their jeans than the other and both could feel justified and proud to give back to get another hospital built.

Just a thought ….