My new friend, Chris

by johnmccreery

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?


5 Comments to “My new friend, Chris”

  1. I’m thinking he reminds me of my younger brother. And I’m thinking if he really wants to max the intel from truckers he oughta get the cb. He can turn it off when he wants to think. But that would move him a step toward being just another trucker, which leads me to note a pattern of doing things his way / the hard way and making a virtue of the challenges and puzzles this approach presents him with. Seeking to live in the peak experience. Sounds like a really cool and interesting guy in a high stakes, tight rope / MacGyvery kind of way!

  2. Very much so. Academically speaking, I posted this description for two reasons. First, Chris is a kind of guy who is utterly omitted from many social science debates. One might say that he is like Steve Jobs in that he dropped out of college to do his own thing. But he isn’t a megastar producing transformative innovations. He’s a smart, thoughtful, ambitious guy, finding his way through trial and error, trying to maximize what he learns from both success and failure. His strategy of seeking new ways to use his existing resources in a down to earth but also consciously risk-taking manner is something, IMHO, we all might want to consider.

    Second, his approach to intelligence-gathering, a.k.a., research, has much to recommend it, especially to ethnographers. In searching for new ideas and new opportunities, he doesn’t just sit in an office analyzing data or news. He is out on the street, seeing for himself. His approach to thinking about the scrap recycling business is a good example. He spends a few hours parked outside the scrap receiving center of another firm already in the business, noting how many customers show up in a given period of time. Since his observations make the business look promising, he may, then, find some scrap of his own (used gutters from a recent home repair project) and take them in to see what he will be offered for them. That will give him a sense of how much per pound of metal the company is paying. It will also give him an opportunity to check the quality of service. He remembers from when he was starting his propane business, that one established supplier was run by a grumpy old man. It wasn’t hard to capture his customers simply by being more pleasant. Then, there will be the question, whether he should simply sell on the scrap he collects to a local scrap aggregator or think about baling, filling shipping containers, and selling directly to customers overseas. At each step he is eyes-and-hands-on. He wants to see how it works for himself, not be dependent on what other people tell him.

    Carl, I like your observation about the truckers. Chris says that most truckers are solitary introverts who do, however, wind up needing human contact because they spend so much time alone. That is what makes the face-to-face chats so productive. Show a little interest, and they open right up, even talking about things that their employers might prefer to have kept confidential. Reminds me a bit of John Le Carre’s George Smiley, but also the advice of Frank Cancian to a methods course I took at Cornell. While people do have their secrets, most are delighted to talk to anyone who takes a serious, friendly interest in what they are doing. All good salespeople know this.

  3. It strikes me he’s omitted from social science debates because he’s sociologically anomalous, by disposition and choice. He’s outside the box and social science is all about the box. Kind of an Ayn Rand poster child without the sociopathy and insufferable hubris.

  4. I wonder how far he is outside the box—except insofar as sociological theory tends to ignore the petit or middling bourgeoisie, focusing attention on haute bourgeois capitalist owners and managers and wage or salaried workers. I am trying to think of examples of largely self-educated small entrepreneurs. On the famous side of American folklore, one thinks of Benjamin Franklin. But considered as a type in social theory? I am having trouble recalling an example. On the face of it, these people must be all around us, the owner-managers of independent or franchised restaurants, cleaners, barber shops, lawn care and tech support companies—all the people who run mom-and-pop or slightly larger firms that they themselves have created.

  5. Carlo you’re the historian in these waters. I am anxiously and eagerly expecting Ridley Scott’s prequel to the ALIEN, Prometheus, and researching the hype discovered that Ridley was inspired by a certain Erich von Danichen, who wrote in the seventies or the eighties that we come from aliens. What’s interesting about this otherwise pop hypothesis is that we are the result of colonization and exploitation, not some noble or divine purpose. Would you say that ancient civilizations had such a notion?

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