Taking Root

The day after the movers unloaded the contents of our small business into our new building, my husband's first official act as president was to find a plunger.

After he unclogged the toilet, he washed up and tweaked a proposal for a client, crunched some search engine optimization data for another and answered questions from the carpenters still finishing the conference room.

Such is the glamorous life of the Main Street entrepreneur.

We started out 20 years ago, right after our first child was born, taking a leap of faith and borrowing from our 401(k) to buy into an established North Canton advertising agency. We had both spent some years working in cubicles and later negotiating mahogany-lined halls and boardrooms. We both have a healthy respect for well-managed large organizations, but small business ownership better suits our skills and temperaments. My spouse wears the mantle of responsibility for the livelihood of a dozen families with less angst than he spent on corporate politics.

Owning a business opened our eyes. Even as managers in the corporate world, we didn't see the top brass sweating over balance sheets. We didn't lie awake nights wondering if we'd have to lay off the guy who supported his ailing mother.

When the economy nosedives, advertising agencies are the canaries in the coal mines, first to smell impending disaster as corporate marketing budgets are slashed. In 2007, I watched my husband dig deep, mining his inner resources to respond. The business moved to smaller quarters in our rented office complex. He scrutinized every expense and cut his salary. He marshaled efforts to retain existing accounts and even secured new clients in markets less impacted by the downturn. By April 2009, when we became sole owners, his efforts were beginning to bear fruit.

"When you're the owner of a business, you can't just walk away from it, even on the days that make you sick and tired," he said recently. "You can't go looking for something more interesting and exciting someplace else."

Last summer, after two decades of renting space, we bought a building to house the agency. Another leap of faith, another measured risk and a transition both exhilarating and sobering. In our 50s, as some friends talk retirement, we have rooted ourselves more deeply in the business. As electronic communications allow companies to rely less on bricks-and-mortar headquarters, we've invested in an office and a community.

The office complex we used to rent sat back from the road, a series of Williamsburg-style structures designed, ironically, to look like a small village center. It served our needs well enough, but in the 20 years we did business there, neither we nor the other tenants ventured out of our look-alike doors to know one another.

Now I'm walking up and down Main Street introducing myself, hoping to recapture the sense that we're all in this together.

As the endless unpacking continues, we're sensing another change. Even while juggling business demands, much of our energy over the past 20 years has focused on our tight little nucleus of home and family. Now loved ones are moving out of that intimate sphere: our frail parents folding into themselves, our children poised for flight. In response, our circle is widening. More than ever, our definition of family includes our employees, the people we count on for our livelihood.

The stresses of sole ownership and tough times taught my spouse that if he walks into the office with a storm brewing on his face, the whole place responds. He might be ticked off because the Browns blew a fourth quarter lead, but for all anyone knows, there could be bad news on the horizon. Employees may appreciate an employer they can talk to and share laughs with, but they need a captain who stays calm in rough waters.

My husband stood among the boxes one recent evening, scanning the freshly painted walls as we closed up shop to go home. "I want this place to feel like a safe haven," he said.

"For creativity? For risk-taking?" I asked.

"Yes. But also, come Monday mornings, I want people to come in knowing that what they do here matters."

In my mind, it's no accident that our new office is actually a big, old house, a parsonage built in 1898 for the church that still thrives down the street. I wonder about the prayers layered onto these thick plaster walls, the worries paced out upon the mellowed oak floors, the hands extended in joy and mourning.

During the Depression, church archives tell us, the property was lush with fruit trees. Sacks of apples, peaches, cherries and pears were handed out from the back porch to any hungry citizen who knocked on its door.

I have my ear to the walls, waiting for guidance from the good souls who have passed through these doors. Maybe they will show us how mature trees continue to bear fruit and remind us to share the harvest. I'm listening.

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