Father Knows Best: How My Dad’s Advice Can Help Your Business

My dad, Steve Ferres, started working at the NAPA Auto Parts in my hometown of Bellevue, Ohio, when he was 18 years old. He needed a job, but he couldn’t leave town because he didn’t own a reliable car. My aunt happened to work at the store, and she could vouch for him.

More than 40 years later, he’s still working there.

Dad’s been “the boss” of the store for 28 years, but Bellevue locals fondly refer to him as “the NAPA man.” He’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t have to look up part numbers — he’s basically a human encyclopedia of automotive parts.

His job has been a big part of our lives. When I was too young to stay home alone, I’d go with him to the store and set up box forts in his office while he worked. I vividly recall scrubbing down with the sandpapery soap in the store bathroom after I’d covered myself with permanent marker stains. Dad even drove me to baseball practice in his big white van with a yellow NAPA hat on the roof.

Our home phone often rang on the weekend with calls from customers who needed emergency parts, and my dad would always open the store to help them out. Despite Bellevue being a tiny farm town of about 8,000 people, my dad’s store is frequently recognized as one of the top NAPA stores in terms of revenue.

Needless to say, I’m proud of him. After many years of observing my dad, I’ve learned countless invaluable lessons about running a business and managing people.

The Times, They Are A-Changin’

Back when my dad started working for NAPA, running a company was admittedly different from the breakneck speed of today’s business world.

For one thing, people used to stay with companies much longer. Jobs were careers rather than gigs or “tours of duty.” In 2008, 75 percent of college graduates under 31 expected to have between two and five employers in their lifetime. In 2011, only 54 percent expected the same; more than a quarter of respondents believed they would have six or more employers.

I’m not saying either approach is superior; things are simply different today. With the on-demand economy, the ability to work remotely, freelance opportunities, and low unemployment, it’s much easier now to find a new job or make a career transition than it once was.

Another change from back in the day? Nobody referred to it as entrepreneurship. People were simply business owners. I’m not sure anyone could even spell “entrepreneur” — the same was true of me until after I’d earned a bachelor’s degree. Going into business for yourself wasn’t as sexy then as it is today. There were more barriers to starting a company, and information and advice weren’t as readily available as they are now. The internet is a wonderful thing.

Beyond that, businesses once required a brick-and-mortar space. Employees showed up to an office, put in their hours, and went home. When I started my first company, Bouncehost, I thought of it as “side work” until we had our first office. The concept of working from home was basically nonexistent. (In fact, my dad is still flabbergasted that I can run a company from his couch while watching one of his favorite “NCIS” reruns.)

Timeless Lessons From My Dad

The business world has clearly changed from when my dad joined it. But as philosopher George Santayana noted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The lessons my father taught me over the years still ring true, particularly for the modern entrepreneur.

1. Letting people go sucks.

When I think about my dad’s advice, one memory sticks out for me. I was a young kid, and my dad came home from work in a somber mood. I could tell he was having a rough day.

“What’s wrong, Dad?” I asked him.

“I had to fire someone today,” he replied. “He was a good man.”

“Why did you fire him, then?” I asked.

“It’s the hardest thing you have to do as a boss, but it’s important that our employees are honest and follow through with their commitments,” he said. “He broke one of our rules.”

Now that I’ve been an entrepreneur for a while, I truly understand what he was saying that day. Terminating employees is the worst because you’re dealing with people, their families, and their livelihoods. I’ve had to fire best friends and brilliant individuals for any number of reasons. Every single time, my heart races, and I feel sick to my stomach. It’s not fun, but it’s a necessary evil when you’re in charge of a company. With great power comes great responsibility.

2. Take care of your customers, and they’ll stay with you forever.

“The No. 1 thing you need to be successful is high customer satisfaction,” my dad says. He’s always been passionate about building long-term relationships with customers. Remember those weekend calls at home? They’re part of the reason my dad has customers today who have been with him since he was 18. When Advance Auto Parts came to town, he wasn’t worried — his clientele was secure.

Customer satisfaction might seem like Business 101, but most organizations don’t talk about it enough. If anything, I hear companies ranting, “We don’t need a sales department,” “Outsource your customer service,” or “Force everyone to use our online chat support system!” The best scale-ups out there today are obsessed with customer service and prioritize human relationships.

3. Be one with your word.

People like to work for people who have integrity. People like to buy products or services from people who have integrity. People like to help people who have integrity. My dad always told me to “do everything you say you’re going to do.” I can still see the look in his eyes when he lectured me after I wanted to quit football during two-a-day practices.

While it sometimes seems rare today, running your business with integrity means you’ll have a viable model five years down the road — not just five weeks from now. Once you develop a reputation for not being true to your word, don’t expect customers and employees to stick around.

4. Don’t be afraid to lead.

My dad coached Little League in Bellevue for more than a decade — he even coached me when I played. He was a great leader. He always said, “Work as a team, and help each other out.” I remember rounding third base one game, despite him telling me to stop. Let’s just say I got an earful after the game.

He runs his team at work the same way. He knows when to discipline employees, but he does it to help them improve. Employees look to their managers for leadership and guidance. By not setting clear expectations and providing feedback — even if it’s constructive criticism — entrepreneurs are doing their team members a disservice.

As our startups become scale-ups, these leadership lessons are even more critical. I’ve been working with my personal coach for more than a year on becoming a better servant leader. It’s been a hard adjustment, but the results are incredible when this approach works.

5. Treat your employees well.

Training new people is both challenging and stressful. I mentioned earlier how transitive workers are today, but what’s truly shocking is how much these transitions cost companies. One study estimates it costs about six to nine months of an employee’s salary to recruit and train her replacement. Another study puts the cost of losing a highly trained employee at up to 213 percent of her salary. If an experienced chief technology officer making $100,000 a year quits, the true cost to your company could exceed $200,000.

The cost and stress of losing employees is staggering, which underscores the importance of treating your employees well. Pay them fairly, develop strong company values and a positive culture, and spend time getting to know people. Also, keep in mind that Millennials highly value personal learning and development, as well as flexible work hours.

I regularly chat with my dad about life and business. After I told him about the concept for this article, I asked him to give me one key piece of advice for a young founder who’s about to make his company his life’s work. His response? “Keep your customers happy by providing them with the best service available.”

I guess you’re never too old for a little advice from Dad.