The swamp Yankee school of business


“So what do you know about business?”

That’s a legitimate question to ask not only reporters and editors but also television prognosticators and other self-appointed experts and dispensers of business advice.

I received a traditional liberal arts education, which included economics, math, political science, English, art and journalism, but what I really learned about business I learned years earlier working beside my father, who operated several successful small retail businesses until he retired in 1991.

At the time, David M. Sisson was a spry, smartly dressed, tart-tongued 71-year-old who owned a men’s store that a magazine writer described as a “mini-Brooks Brothers” and who loved verbally jousting with the salesmen who called on him.

At various times he operated four or more businesses in the summer resort village of Watch Hill, R.I., where he and his sister owned and managed a block of stores, guest rooms and a parking lot on a parcel of land just over 2 acres.

A quintessential swamp Yankee, my father was frugal, taciturn and independent as hell. He didn’t put on airs, and he didn’t suffer fools. He did things his way. He was financially conservative. If he didn’t have the money for something, he didn’t buy it. His credit was always good. And when it came to business, he ran a tight ship.

When I worked for him as a kid, my father ran a large variety store that carried everything from hardware, souvenirs and over-the-counter remedies to cigars, postcards and penny candy. I started out sweeping sidewalks, cranking awnings up and down, and shadowing potential shoplifters, and I wound up running the registers and placing orders and working hard to be judged productive.

I learned the proper way to wash the large storefront windows and wipe them clean with a squeegee without leaving a streak so they could pass his inspection; to mark the price on an item in a neat, clear hand with a grease pencil; to properly count customers’ change back to them; to correctly bag their purchases; to neatly stack merchandise; and to open the doors on time and never wonder aloud when we were going to close for the evening if there was a “live one” still left in the store.

It seemed I was destined to learn every lesson the hard way. What a pain in the tuckus, I thought at the time. I couldn’t do anything right. It all had to be done his way. Later I came to appreciate that no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential a job may seem, it should be done not necessarily my father’s way but the right way.

In a summer resort colony where a well-heeled eccentric might come into our store dressed like an island castaway or a fashion shipwreck, he taught me not to judge people by their clothes or demeanor.

I learned the customer comes first; the importance of a neat, clean, well-organized store; the nuances of merchandising; and how the foundation of a business is built on hard work, fiscal discipline, intelligence, experience, rapport, luck and the ability and courage to change with changing times. He weathered fire and hurricanes and three sons who came of age in the early ’70s.

What else did I learn?

In much the same way that lawyers avoid asking a question if they don’t know the answer, I learned that when a customer lowers his voice to ask for something I shouldn’t shout it out for the entire store to hear, especially if there is any confusion about what exactly he might be looking for. On the particular afternoon I’m remembering, my father happened to be sitting at his desk in the back of the store.

“Dad,” I sang out in a loud, clear voice, “do we sell pro-phy-lac-tics?” The customer turned red, my father appeared in an instant, stepping in front of me to assuage the embarrassed gentleman, and I learned an important lesson in discretion, not to mention linguistics.

A child of the Great Depression, my father graduated in 1942 from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in business administration. He was a sergeant in the Army Air Corps during World War II, serving in North Africa and southern Italy.

Old school in the best sense of the word, my father was born to be a merchant. He passed away last Tuesday, Dec. 27. He was 91.


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