It’s hard to understand now, but people were calling Aaron Feuerstein crazy. They said he was nuts. What kind of CEO does the sorts of things he was doing? “That’s no way to run a business!” Of course, the haters were few and far between, but to many of us it was impossible to believe that anyone could hate this guy. What did he do?
It was 1995 and Feuerstein’s company, Malden Mills, was doing great. 1n 1979, they had invented a new lightweight replacement for wool referred to as “polar fleece” and their personal brand “Polartec” was selling very well. It’s important to note that instead of patenting the concept of polar fleece, Feuerstein decided to let it be produced cheaply and widely by many vendors. That’s the kind of guy Feuerstein was. People thought he was crazy, but he did was he felt was right. Then came the fire.
It ruined his production facility and there was nothing left. He could have taken the check and moved his company to another city with better tax advantages or to another country altogether, which was something that many of his competitors were doing. But Feurstein realized that his company was a huge fixture in the small production town of Lawrence, Massachusetts and with no factory came no jobs. He cared about his employees and the town and couldn’t imagine taking the money and leaving.
What he did next is still being discussed in graduate business programs today.
Not only did Feuerstein announce that Malden Mills would be rebuilding in Lawrence, but moreover, he would personally make sure that every employee received their pay while the factory was being rebuilt. He had no production facility and no new sales of any kind, but he cared about his employees so much that he was willing to ensure their financial viability at a time when they didn’t know what the future held. THAT’S commitment to employees.
Or, you could look at the story of Hamdi Ulukaya, Chobani’s amazingly philanthropic owner (whose story of success is so amazing that I will feature it in another post) who believed BEFORE building his billion dollar empire that “…for the sake of our communities and our people, we need to give companies the ability to create a better life for more people.”
So, let’s come back and focus on orthodontics. I know there are a million reasons why we could argue that we’re different, that our smaller practices can’t be compared to these large companies. How we have such tight margins that we can’t just give to our employees. That if someone doesn’t help us, well, we don’t need them around. But is that really a fair way to look at it?
I’m not saying that we need to keep incompetent or overpaid employees on our payrolls. But, how many times has an employee asked for a day off for personal reasons such as closing on a house or to attend a child’s event and you’ve given them grief before begrudgingly letting them go (or not even letting them go altogether)? How many employees had to beg you for a raise or fight with you over amounts of money that wouldn’t impact you in any way? How many practices get rid of older, more experienced employees to get younger, cheaper labor at the advice of a consultant, throwing away years of honor, loyalty and relationship with the former employee?
I remember a time, 30 years ago, when I saw my dad (a dentist) pay to have a home phone installed for an assistant because she couldn’t afford one. It was at that moment that I realized how blessed we are to be in our profession and his example of philanthropy has remained with me ever since. We have the opportunity to help make better lives for those around us who may not have had the same financial, educational or familial opportunities that we did. To our employees, we may be the most successful people they have ever met and we need to help raise them up at every opportunity instead of ignoring or keeping them down so we can better afford them.
I’m not saying (or suggesting) that we be our employee’s best friends, but I am saying that if you treat your team like they were family and give them the respect, credit and yes, love, that they deserve, not only will your practice succeed and have a line of employees waiting to work for you, but you’ll go to bed at night knowing that you’re making an even bigger difference in this world. It’s not about having a drink with them or having a huge bonus system or a big holiday party, but rather them knowing that you care about them as people and that you’re willing to be there for them no matter what.
As my friend and iconic orthodontist, Dr. Anil Idiculla taught me, we can choose to be the socket or the plug. Are we going to be the one giving or the one draining power? Every day I try to create a positive vibe to help those around me and I come home with more energy than I left the house with that morning.
So, which are you: The socket or the plug?
All the best,
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