Up Front: December 2010

Small differences

Editing this month’s Small Business of the Year package reminded me of Tolstoy’s opening line in Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That, I thought, could also describe the difference between large and small businesses.

That doesn’t mean small businesses are unhappy places any more than saying that size measures and ensures the opposite. But by its very bulk, a big business becomes a bureaucracy. Despite the difference in what they do, GE resembles IBM in more ways than not. On the other hand, a small company reflects and retains the character — the idiosyncrasies — of its owner and key players. Tom Hagen’s repeated admonition in The Godfather that it’s not personal, it’s business only proves that the Corleone enterprise had outgrown a family firm. He’d have made a great corporate counsel.

“These are companies that, facing some of the toughest times imaginable, adapted to their individual markets, each in its own distinctive way,” BNC Publisher Ben Kinney, one of the judges, says of this year’s winner and runners-up. “They had something to lose — they had everything to lose. And they took it very personally.” Taking business personally has been a theme of the stories we’ve published during the 15 years we’ve held this competition. And it’s one of the things that have made telling them so enjoyable.

“I love doing profiles on small businesses for the same reason I like watching minor-league baseball,” Contributing Editor David Bailey says. “There’s always plenty of action, and the errors on the field can be just as interesting as the home runs. Whenever I interview the owner of a small business, I expect to hear about the marketplace equi- valent of head-on collisions between the pitcher and catcher, bobbled catches in deep left field and heroic last-inning saves. But I never anticipated the sort of drama and near-death experiences that I heard from this group.

“As I got deeper and deeper into how each one of them weathered the recession, what I heard from every one of them was more like how they had very narrowly survived it. Two of the companies almost closed their doors. All of them adapted their business models and marketing strategies to a rapidly changing marketplace. And what was really fascinating is how each one of them, run by dynamic and determined individuals, adapted differently, depending on the owner’s personality, unique management style and business savvy. “These were all companies that had not only carefully prepared for the worst but were willing to hang in there when the worst was a whole lot worse than they’d anticipated. In short, they’re all survivors.”