Bob Paull, physical therapist and small-business owner, is a person others naturally open up to because he’s a question-asker as well as a good listener. He believes that small-business people have the ability to lead the country out of this recession, if they don’t forget the values of hard work, accountability and excellence.
Paull learned those values growing up in a family of five children in Butte, a town that endured a painful mining strike yet never stopped working for the betterment of its children.
In a recent Wise Words interview, Paull, 53, elaborated on the enduring legacy of his Montana childhood.
•Butte was a community of immigrants. They were a lot of Irish, a lot of Italians. A lot of people from what was then Yugoslavia. And a lot of what my grandma used to call Cousin Jacks and Cousin Jennys – the English people. When they came to Butte, they almost all became miners.
•My grandmother was from Ireland. She spent half of her day helping out people. Everybody pulled everybody else up. If someone needed a shirt, or a dress for the prom, your whole neighborhood rallied around that.
•There was a strike in Butte that went from July 1967 until March 1968 – 260 days long; $34 million in lost wages. The entire Anaconda Copper Company shut down. That brings a town to its feet. The whole town held hands and walked through that. I was 10.
•My dad owned a dental supply company where they made dentures, teeth, partials, all those fun things. Never once did our parents make us worry or feel like our world was collapsing in on us, but we knew it. I remember driving with my mom and dad to a grocery store to see if they could buy groceries on credit. And we weren’t the poorest kids in the city.
•We weren’t affluent, but we always had enough. And we were darn satisfied. We got a dryer at our house one time. My grandmother came over and sat in the basement to watch it spin. They were so excited to have a dryer. Instead of buying new curtains, my grandmother would dye the ones she had. They’d be pink one time and purple the next. They made do. They took a $50 and parlayed it into $100 worth of value.
•What of that childhood experience did I carry into my adult life? Without a doubt, you have to work hard. When you get paid, you are thankful to get paid. It’s not like you owe me $50 just for showing up on time. You come early. You leave late. You might have to work during lunch. You always give more than what is expected. What we brought out of Butte, and I think every Butte kid brought this out, is that you work hard. It’s about “we” and not about “me.”
•We were all raised to be better. My grandma got to eighth grade. My mom got to 12th grade. We got to college.
•Why do so many Montana “kids” settle in Spokane? It’s the biggest town between Minneapolis and Seattle. And Spokane is a big-little town. Some come here because the opportunities are not always there in Montana.
•We’re an outpatient physical therapy clinic. We started in 1996 in a crazy time, because it was the middle of health care reform. People said, “You’re nuts to do this.” We started with three of us. No secretary, nothing. And now it’s up to 30 people and we have three clinics – in Cheney, North Spokane and Airway Heights.
•When we’re at an owners’ meeting, I always ask: “Who packs your parachute? It’s the people in the billing office, the aides, the people at the front desk. They pack your chute every day. We better treat them well.” And we took that away from Butte.
•How have we weathered the recession? No. 1, we had three therapists leave, and we have not replaced them. We didn’t replace them because business slowed down. Why? People now have big deductibles and big co-pays. So if your child sprains an ankle in a basketball game, you might be able to send them to physical therapy three times, but six times (might) be way too much money.
•If you have fewer patients, or fewer customers to buy tires, or if you have a big competition between Safeway, Rosauers and Albertson’s, you really have to provide customer service. When you call, you have to be warmly greeted and made to feel like the most important person on Earth. When you get there, you have to be treated very well, from the front door to the back door.
•Will the customer service emphasis last? When the going gets good again, we’ll likely forget it. During the economic boom, we went to a physician’s office in the Valley. They aren’t there anymore, and maybe this is why. We stood at the front desk, and there were like six of them yakking. And no one turned to say, “Hello, goodbye, what are you doing here?” It was horrible.
•Are small business people the key to this recovery? Yes, but they have to hire slowly. They don’t have to go from one person to 100 in one day. And those people you hire need to know they are not going to get paid a zillion dollars an hour, and they are part of the solution, too.
•I am who I am because of that Butte community. Now they expect me to carry it on. I try to do that in business. We’re going to deliver a good service, and I care that my name is attached to that.
•A guy who lives down the street says, “Every time I go down the street, you are out in your yard doing something.” I said, “You know what, my grandmothers and grandfathers were always doing something. They were proud. They wanted their houses and their neighborhoods to be better.”
•I hope before I die, I’ll be half as wise as my grandmother and her contemporaries. They knew who they should surround themselves with and who they shouldn’t. They knew everything from medicine to finance. I was learning and watching, and now the mantle’s been passed to me. But I’m not anywhere near where they were. I’m still way down here in kindergarten land.