Italian-American, male, age 53, married, five children. Lives in northern Virginia, USA, a few blocks from where he was born and grew up. Raised Catholic. Independent who leans Republican.
Stop for moment. Ask yourself what you think you know about my new friend Chris. Did you imagine that his parents are both Ph.D.s? That having turned down and appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy, he spent two years at Georgia Tech, decided he didn’t like it and came home to start his own business?
Listening to Chris describe his businesses is to hear a picaresque tale. Having learned car repair from a German neighbor, he started with a small gas station that barely paid its way. His next idea was to buy, repair and rent out used cars. That, too, didn’t get very far. Then he noticed that people who stopped by the gas station to ask directions were frequently looking for a place to fill up propane tanks for their outdoor grills. He got into the propane business, and there he prospered. The business was going so well, he was looking to expand. He found a parcel of land in an area zoned in a way that, it appeared, would allow him to operate a petroleum distribution business on it. Then, however, he ran into problems with the county government and zoning board, which denied him the right to park his propane tankers on the lot. That got him into politics. Over the past several years, he has run unsuccessfully for several different offices, from school board to county executive, and is thinking of taking a shot at Congress. Meanwhile, he had this land and the buildings on it, in to which he had sunk a lot of his capital. He was also concerned that the propane business is seasonal. The strongest demand is in the winter, for home and construction site heating. That meant having trucks and employees underutilized during the slower rest of the year. He noticed that the building boom in the Washington, D.C. suburbs in norther Virginia had created demand for stone, for fireplaces, facings, walls, and other applications. So he bought some big stone slicing and milling machines, installed them in the buildings on the property he had purchased and went into the stone business. Now, however, the economic downturn of the last few years has crushed demand for decorative stone. That business is now running at a loss. The propane business is also weak. This year’s warm winter has reduced demand in that market, too. So, what is Chris doing? He is looking for other opportunities. In the stone business, a long-time friend and best employee has self-taught himself robotics. Chris has acquired a used FANUC industrial robot that used to work on an auto assembly line. Mike, the employee, has adapted and reprogrammed it to cut stone into complex three-dimensional shapes. The company is now working on some test pieces as it goes after a contract to supply replacement stonework for the National Cathedral in Washington, which was damaged in last year’s earthquake. That will, if it comes through, put the business back in the black. Meanwhile, Chris is still constantly looking for new ways to use his equipment (trucks, forklifts, storage facilities) and employees. He is currently excited about the scrap recycling industry, envisioning use of his once-upon-a-time gas station as a deposit point and unused space at the stoneworks for storage and bailing. Why was he showing me around his businesses? He had learned from my daughter that I live in Japan and know some Chinese, and he’s heard that there is a big market for scrap in China. Who knows? I might be useful.
Today, Chris drove his biggest propane tanker to a propane terminal located about two hours from the neighborhood where he lives and I am spending a couple of months helping out with our grandchildren. He asked me if I’d like to come along. The ethnographer in me couldn’t resist. If the heart of cultural anthropology is learning how others see the world when they have very different assumptions about it, this was a great opportunity. First, there was the experience of riding in a big, cabover truck with a big propane tank on the trailer it was pulling. I was seeing Virginia highways from a perspective that years of driving on them in a car had never provided. It was, however, riding with Chris that provided the real revelation. To me, driving the same highways, trucks were just part of the traffic, an obstacle to getting where I wanted to go. To Chris, trucks are commerce. He is constantly noting where trucks are based, checking their license plates, noting the direction in which they are moving and — wherever possible — noting what they were carrying. When we stopped for diesel fuel and then at the terminal, Chris immediately started chatting with other truck drivers, asking in a friendly way where they were from, where they were going, what they were hauling, how was business these days. Back in the cab of his own truck, he explained that truck drivers are an incredible source of intelligence, valuable information for his business. He gets ideas, hears how other businesses are doing. This is one of the reasons that he likes driving his big truck himself. The other is that, while he drives, he has a space in which he think about what he is seeing and develop new plans. That is why he doesn’t usually listen to the radio and hasn’t installed CB radio with which he could chat with other truck drivers while driving. He likes being able to see and think without interruption.
To me, Chris is fascinating. Our life stories run in diametrically opposite directions. His parents had Ph.D.s and expected him to go on to higher education. He dropped out and did what he has done, instead. My parents had associate degrees from junior colleges and credentials from nursing school (my mother) and a shipyard apprentice school (my father). They expected me to go to school, study engineering (my father’s dream) and settle close to home. Philosophy, anthropology, living more than half my life in Asia—that was never their dream. Good thing, though, I had that time working in the Japanese ad agency, so I’m comfortable talking about his business with Chris. He has spent most of his life within a hundred-mile radius of where he was born. I live half a world away. But we can talk to each other. I can even imagine that I understand what he’s talking about.
What were you thinking as you read the opening of this message? What are you thinking now?