As a kid, I remember sitting down for family dinner with Mom, Dad, and my sister Susan. The telephone on the wall would ring, and my mom would answer the phone and hand it to my father, who had just gotten home from a long day at work. After a few words, Dad would walk over and start putting his work boots back on. Mom’s question would be, “What happened?” We already knew that his dinner plate would be left in the fridge for later. No matter how long his day already was, someone needed help. If it was a brother-in-law’s hot water heater or a friend with a dead car battery, he was on his way. He would either grab tools before he left the house or stop for supplies on the way.
This work ethic and commitment to friends and family were instilled in us as the way all normal people react. I learned later in life that some other people find it strange to drop everything and help with a project when there isn’t anything in it for them. We didn’t have Instagram or Facebook, where he could post a selfie of himself helping someone. No one would ever know how many people he helped. But this work ethic came easy to Tom Teasel, as it had to his father. We continue it, and so do our children.
Ours is a family of small business owners. We have generations of small businesses; some failed and some succeeded. But the need to help, the need to try and fix something with a product or service, is ingrained in our family DNA. Small business owners live, eat, and breathe problems and solutions all day—whether at home, at work, in the shower, or at a kid’s softball game. My dad kept a pad of paper and a pen by his bedside table because he said his brain would figure out answers while he was sleeping, and he could wake up and write them down. This need to help is what drives the small business owner.
When you raise children in an environment of business owners, they get the inside scoop on the pride, heartache, long hours, and hard work. As a kid, I was at the office with my dad helping, and my children have been called on to help out at our office. Whether we were sweeping floors or helping with crunch time in the busy season, we have been drafted into our family business. While many kids opt to stay on and continue their family business, many other kids opt to forge their own path, follow their own interests, or open their own business. The family business is like a living thing that is always in the room, always on everyone’s mind; even when you are trying to be off work or on vacation, you never truly punch out. Many people who have never had any families who are business owners can’t understand the whole life commitment. It’s like having a second family.
The young woman opening a nail salon or a small bakery is working to build her dream, not operating a multi-million dollar business. When a rural farm goes under to build a strip mall, we mourn the loss of that family farm, that family business. But we can celebrate the dreams of the new small businesses who are out there taking a risk to start up a franchise boutique fitness studio or a laundromat or hair salon at that new strip mall. I look at each of these as a person who isn’t playing it safe by applying for a job but is taking a leap of faith to change his or her life while providing a service or product for the community. In the end, if successful, small business owners reap the rewards of their hard work and dedication. They get the benefits that may exceed their expectations. Yet in this modern world, we have people who begrudge small business owners as rich jerks when they are unaware of the investment and personal toll that they have sacrificed to get where they are now.
I watched my dad own several businesses—some were started by him, some were with partners, and one was his father’s business. In all of these, he had great years and other years that were a great struggle. I learned so much from these experiences, and I feel I am a smarter owner for the invaluable schooling I received by listening and watching what not to do and what works. I understood customer service by a young age. I understood hard work and the pride in completing a job. I saw heartbreak with partnerships that fall apart and learned the importance of documentation and legal agreements instead of trusting a handshake. My dad always believed that the other person he was making an agreement with was as honest and forthcoming as he was. Many times, this proved to be wrong, and he was taken advantage of. While I may be more cynical than he was, I still believe in people, but I learned that I also must protect myself. I feel like each generation of business owners has learned from the last and can hand down its experiences to the next generation.
My great-grandfather started a foundry sand and graphite business. It evolved into a concrete gunite business to serve the steel foundries in Detroit’s Industrial Revolution. This led to the evolution of asphalt patching machinery and contracting. While my family owned these businesses, we had great success, but we also saw the economic downturn that can render a product line unprofitable or a deep family rift that could tear apart a business. New businesses started, merged, celebrated success, and some eventually lost to bad partners.
Meanwhile, my husband’s family members were also long-time business owners in the manufacturing industry in Detroit. In 1998, my husband started a small machine shop in his parents’ shop, with a service complementary to his parents’ service. They did not want to expand, so he did it on his own, working long hours and missing lots of birthday parties and events. But the September 11 attacks led to a slowdown, and my husband left his family’s business to go to work for my dad’s company while also working the machining company at night. Working two 8-hour jobs—this is the work ethic of family businesses.
Our family has many proud veterans, and I believe the military also instills the instinct to help—to be the man rushing toward the danger when everyone else flees. We have generations of veterans and a current active-duty airman to proudly serve this great nation. Veterans own many of this country’s small businesses and continue to help their communities in every way.
My son reminds me of my father and my husband in many ways. He is ambitious and hard-working. He has just formed his own small business after seeing a need for repair technicians at the local paintball and airsoft field. He started repairing other people’s equipment and has invested in his tools and now offers services to his fellow players. This drive to help becomes an idea and grows into a vision. But not everyone will take the initiative to make that vision a reality and invest time and money into starting something he or she is passionate about. I wish my dad could see him now.
My father passed away suddenly in 2008 at age 57 from a complication with a routine procedure. We were left devastated, having to carry on without him. My husband’s parents passed away in 2020, and we had another family business to manage. We had to make hard choices and eventually close and liquidate it. When you close a beloved family business, it’s like burying another family member, but without a headstone. During the pandemic lockdowns, we saw millions of families make this heartbreaking decision to close restaurants and other small businesses. They are the casualties that have no cemetery.
Most small business owners find other owners like a club, and we can strike up a conversation with a stranger because we all have the same stress and problems with staffing or logistics. We understand each other. Next time you see a new small business, try stopping in and giving the owners some support and congratulations on following their dreams.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.
It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat. —Theodore Roosevelt, speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910