On October 5th this year I was saddened to hear the news that Steve Jobs died. Steve Jobs has had a direct impact on many, many people, and has influenced countless millions of others. I fall into the first category, though Steve would never remember. I resisted writing about it in this blog to name-drop until several weeks after his passing, but I can resist no longer.

I met Jobs while attending a creativity seminar at Stanford University in 1994. He made a dinner speech to the three or four dozen attendees at the conference. Three things struck me from that day 17 years ago:

First, through a child-care miscommunication, Steve had to bring along his three year old. He explained, then plunked his son with a slice of pizza and a coloring book at a table nearby, and gave his talk. Having a two year old and infant at home at the time, it struck me how children are one of God’s great equalizers.

Second, after the talk, a half dozen of us hung around to ask some questions, and I did just to listen. When asked about NeXT, for which he was the CEO, he sloughed the question and started to talk about a really cool digital animation project down in LA that he was working on with George Lucas. Well, it turned out to be Pixar, and a year later Toy Story was released. When Steve talked about it, you could feel the excitement.

Third, I cannot remember a single idea, theme or word from his dinner talk, presumably something about creativity.

Watching Steve Jobs pacify his son, and having the scoop on Pixar was cool, but at that time the world was not all that enamored with Jobs. Later he would go back to Apple, rejuvenate the company, and eventually revolutionize multiple industries (music, telephones, etc) with a style we learned to expect from Pixar movie releases.

On the other hand, I have colleagues who worked directly for Steve Jobs. As we all have learned, Jobs was not always a joy to be around. He was demanding, arrogant, condescending and sometimes just rude. In fact, for some he was never pleasant. Sometimes being successful lets us get away with personality flaws, or at a minimum bad manners.

I have gathered a couple lessons from observing Jobs, once in person and the rest filtered through one media outlet or another.

First, all entrepreneurs, and for that matter leaders, are unique. The style differences between Jobs and Bill Gates are huge, but who can say who has the bigger impact on their world, their companies, and society. Vision is a very difficult thing to bring to reality, and anyone who leads and organization or has built a company will tell you there is no cook-book. If Jobs’ personality were different, might he have been less successful? For that matter, maybe he would have been just as successful or more if he had been less abrasive. Nobody will ever know. What impressed me about Jobs is he was genuine.

Second, a decade after I heard about Pixar, it dawned on me that when Lucas and Jobs were successful entrepreneurs “in between.” Lucas was immensely successful with Star Wars, but the trilogy of trilogies was bogged down. Jobs had left Apple, and by my assessment in 1994, wasn’t truly happy at NeXT. Together, they took advantage of an opportunity, partly by realizing their technology needed the creativity of Disney to really make it fly, but mostly (I think) because they were available at the time. The rest, as they say, is history. Likewise, while the technology to create an iPod existed for decades, it was not until distribution of music through the internet became a reality that the iPod changed the world. Jobs had the vision to drive the pieces together.

In the end, Steve Jobs has been an inspiration to me. Imperfect though he may have been, the world is a better place because he was a part of it.


The Best Time of the Year

I like this time of year. There’s a chill in the air in the morning that often gives way to warm sunshine through the day. The leaves are starting to change. The humidity is down, and it smells fresh.

It’s fall, which means high school and college football. Raking leaves on a Saturday afternoon with the football game on the radio is a simple pleasure that I enjoy each fall.

But baseball is the bigger part of the reason I like it. Changing leaves means baseball playoffs. I grew up in Minnesota and live in Wisconsin. The Minnesota Twins are my favorite pro team, but since moving to Wisconsin 15 years ago the Brewers, especially in 2011, have been a team I enjoy following as well. For many of the years in the first decade of the twenty-first century my Twins made the playoffs (though most often made a quick exit, too). This year the Twins were dismal, but the Brew Crew put together a fun playoff run.

On the last day of the MLB season this year, there were eight games that had playoff implications. I watched several of these games with some Northland employees at a local eating establishment with many large screen TVs. We felt like we were there during March Madness, except the games moved slightly more slowly. That was a very enjoyable evening for me.

People make sports analogies to compare to business all the time (“it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” “develop a game plan,” etc), but I have always thought the baseball season epitomizes business is more ways than other sports.
· While it is a team game, each individual gets his/her time at the plate with the chance to succeed.
· The fundamentals of each position are important to overall team success, yet most often the detail work doesn’t get recognized by the casual observer, or even some of the teammates.
· There is a strong focus on numbers (the statistics), made more apparent by the recent new Brad Pitt movie Moneyball.
· The most successful hitters in the game are unsuccessful most of the time, getting hits 3 times out of 10 attempts.
· The season is long, and some days it is difficult to get up and go back to the grind, often with irritating and aggravating minor inconveniences.
· No matter how bad a given day is, tomorrow is a new day, and the score is reset to 0-0. Likewise, no matter how good a given day is, tomorrow is a new day, and the score is reset to 0-0.
· There is no time clock to run out. You can keep playing until you run out of outs.

I might be stretching a bit, but I believe over the course of a season, just as a baseball team will have streaks of success, and streaks of failure, any business will have good days, weeks or months, and days, weeks or months that are a struggle. But the key is to come back to work tomorrow, because each new day uncovers new opportunity. Some seasons might find you enjoying a playoff run, some seasons might have you saying “wait ‘til next year!” and some seasons might have you planning reorganizing and rebuilding.

As the days get shorter, eventually a different sports analogy will carry the day. But through October, it is time to enjoy the baseball playoffs and World Series. Next year maybe I can watch a game in Target Field, or better yet, Target Field and Miller Park.

Enjoy your fall, and good luck Brewers!

Inflation? Or maybe not.

In our house there is a division of household chores that is, probably like many households, unequal in many ways. One of the chores I get to routinely do is the grocery shopping. It started many years ago, and I like to think I am pretty good at comparison shopping while bringing home the food the family will consume.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve noticed first hand quite a few prices starting to climb. It started with certain fruits and vegetables. However, there are quite a few substitutions that work fine. Last spring before the local growing season, I recall green beans (imported from Mexico) were out of stock because of bad weather. Later a sign went up saying the southern storms severely impacted the peanut crop, so peanut butter may be out of stock at times this season. Not to mention more expensive. Then crackers and cereal started to climb. Most recently, pasta. They say this is at least partially due to the wet weather in North Dakota significantly upsetting the durum wheat crop.

On a larger scale we have seen huge increases in the price of commodities over the last couple years. Oil, corn, soybeans, metals, and other commodities affect many different things. In the construction business, almost all supplies have gone up in the last couple years, including lumber, steel, gypsum board, and accessories. Being in the business of designing, delivering and building post-frame steel structures, I am acutely sensitive to steel and lumber prices, along with diesel fuel. I get twitchy when I see steel prices 30% over 2009, and feel helpless when diesel pushes through $4 a gallon. Of course, $7 corn makes me feel a little bit better because my agricultural
customers will have a good market for their crops, and maybe buy equipment – – and storage buildings! Then I go shopping and I see agricultural commodities differently in a box of breakfast cereal.

Until this past month, though, the government reports have indicated inflation is under control, meaning on average prices are not rising. We now have data to show increases, though only at the wholesale level. Don’t the authors of these government reports have to buy groceries?
I guess what we all really want is stable prices. However, given the turmoil in the world, from sovereign debt crises in Europe to the United States deficit to the geopolitical implications of the Arab Spring on oil supply stability, not to mention the weather, we might be in for a bumpy ride for quite some time. It makes it challenging to balance costs and prices in a competitive marketplace.

Hopefully prices will stabilize on all levels as we go into the fall season. In the meantime, if I see a deal on peanut butter, I am going to stock up.

What’s time to a pig?

Many years ago I heard a story about a traveling salesman driving through the Iowa countryside, when he observed what appeared to be a farmer holding a pig over his head under an apple tree.

Curiosity got the best of him, so the salesman stopped and backed up. Sure enough, the farmer held a pig that was eating apples right off the tree. “Why are you holding that pig up to eat apples?” asked the salesman. “It’s because he likes the fresh apples right off the tree better than the bruised fruit on the ground,” came the farmer’s reply. “I see,” said the salesman. “But I’m amazed. Doesn’t feeding your pig like that waste a lot of time?”

The farmer paused, reflected, and finally said, “I suppose you’re right. But then again, what’s time to a pig?”

I like that line so much I have a desk clock engraved with “What’s time to a pig?” I think I enjoy the story so well because it underscores in a silly way how relative time can be. We live in a world in which there is never enough time.

I started working at Northland Buildings about a year ago, and became CEO this past January. Our advertising and marketing people have been asking me to write a blog for quite some time. I promised, but put it off and put it off again over several months. Because I didn’t have time, I told myself. There were always good reasons to put it off. I needed to meet with the banker, I needed to finish a report to the board, I needed to revise the strategic plan (which, interestingly, called for developing social media components of marketing, including a blog), or maybe I needed to call a customer or supplier.

The best way to manage time is to set priorities. Today I decided to make it a priority to write. I am admittedly a newbie, but here is my first blog. I have come to realize over several decades of my career that I will not wake up tomorrow with excess free time. Time is a scarce commodity, and seems to become more so with each passing year. At the end of each week, my to-do list always seems to have unfinished items that roll over to next week. Usually I say my list was just optimistic, though often other priorities materialize, and sometimes I am unproductive or just plain lazy.

I like to use a quotation from Helen Keller (also attributed to Edward Everett Hale) to guide development of priorities:
“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still can do something.
And I will not allow what I cannot do interfere with that which I can do.”

Setting priorities is important from the company perspective as well as in personal life. I joined Northland Buildings because I was impressed with the dedicated and experienced people that make up the company, and with strength of the brand. While it is apparent we at Northland Buildings cannot do everything, we can do something. And we make it a high priority to provide our customers with a quality building at a fair price. We will strive to make the time to do it right.