Monday, November 12, 2018

What They Didn’t Teach Me in Business School

Now, I am a reasonably well-educated man; I graduated high school with adequate marks, made it through college with defensible grades, and even finished graduate school without many notable academic mishaps.

There are, however, many individuals in southern San Juan County who are better trained than I. Our friend Bill Boyle, editor of the San Juan Record and graduate of Stanford Business School, and Kira and Grange come immediately to mind. I have always been impressed with Bill’s general knowledge and clear vision. Additionally, I had to quit poking my nose into Kira and Grange’s homework when they were in middle school, lest they ask questions I was incapable of answering.

Despite my inadequacies, I have generally pictured myself as a good businessman. I have been “successfully” plying my trade in the Navajo basket, rug , and turquoise jewelry business almost 30 years and have yet to file for bankruptcy. After all, didn’t the U.S. Small Business Administration name Twin Rocks Trading Post and Cafe the Jeffrey Buntland Family-Owned Business of the Year for 2012?

Okay, I have to admit Barry and I have wondered whether the Business Gods were playing an unkind joke on us, or whether there simply was no other available candidate for the award. No matter how nice the trophy or how often we inspect it, trying to convince ourselves we are competent, we still, for good reason, describe ourselves as “traders on the edge.”

In spite of my overall entrepreneurial optimism, I have never been able to fully comprehend the Indian trading business. Barry and I frequently comment that it does not fit the standard model, and scratch our heads in confusion, wondering at its complexities. We cannot, for example, understand why we continue to loan money to artists who will likely never repay the advance; we question our reasons for purchasing from local craftsmen even after our bankers have notified us our accounts are overdrawn; and we often purchase things we do not need, simply because it is “the right thing to do.”

Some years ago, friends gave us a copy of The Case of The Indian Trader: Billy Malone and the National Park Investigation at Hubbell Trading Post. The book contains an excellent history of Hubbell Trading Post, specifically, and Indian trading, in general. At one point it discusses the nature of this unusual commercial endeavor and citing a letter written by Laura Graves, professor of history and author of Thomas Varker Keam, Indian Trader, states, “One cannot successfully understand the trading post business with its very complex and convoluted human relations . . . from the perspective of Accounting 101 or Management 101 - the business does not work like any ordinary business and those who try to force it into post-modern business management practices will do two things: Suffer from a profound misunderstanding and destroy the business . . . .”

Barry and I have discussed the book at length and take a great deal of comfort from its descriptions of Indian trading. We are even considering it as a gift to our financial advisors, bankers , and customers, many who have concluded we are either uninitiated or simply crazy when it comes to implementing basic business principles. Insanity is the likely explanation. Anyone in this industry as long as Barry and I have been must be crazy.

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