Leadership, Opportunity, Integrity and Cancer
Profile on: Herb Buller: Co-founder of Midland Concrete Product, Kitchen Craft of Canada and Norcraft Canada.
Today is a day of celebration for Erna and me. Exactly ten years ago today we were in the Winnipeg Clinic at the ophthalmologist. I had just been subjected to a bunch of tests on my left eye. After looking into my eye with his various instruments including an ultrasound the Doctor gave us his diagnosis.
“You have a large cancerous tumor in your left eye and the only treatment is to remove your eye.”
I was stunned and all I could say was, “I think I’m going to barf,” while Erna asked, “How do you know.” I had the distinct feeling that I would faint if I stood up.
I sat there with the garbage can in my lap as Erna took over the conversation.
The drive home was a blur as I lay in the passenger seat totally shocked. We couldn’t talk–both lost in our own thoughts of impending doom.
A second opinion a few days later confirmed the diagnosis of choroidal melanoma, a tumor at the back of my eye that had to be treated by enucleation, i.e. removal of the eye.
However, we learned that there was another option; radiation, which could not be done in Winnipeg. Within 2 weeks of that black Monday we were in Philadelphia for radiation. The radiation did its work as it slowly fried the tumor. My eye was saved but I lost my vision because the procedure damaged my optic nerve which had been expected.
Before I was discharged from the hospital we had a session with a counselor. I was again my usual jocular self, but she pulled me up short with the words:
“This is not about your eye, this is about your life. You have melanoma and it can easily metastasize to your brain, your lungs or your liver. You have to distress..”
Theodore Roosevelt in a speech in Cambridge, England in 1910 said,
“of course a man has to take the advantage of opportunities but the opportunities have to come. If there is not the war, you don’t get the great general; if there is not the great occasion, you don’t get the great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would know his name now.”
My life has been filled with opportunities. This was the most challenging one of all.
Frankly, I did not initially see this as an opportunity at all but as time went on and particularly now that I have the privilege to look back, it was a great opportunity and it still is.
Transparency with employees
I had always believed that a leader should be transparent and should keep the employees informed. Regular meetings were common in our business where we shared the latest news including topics like; profit share, areas that needed improvement and future goals. This was a completely different kind of sharing. It’s easy to share good news but bad news is not what anyone wants to hear especially about the boss. I was encouraged by some of our people to wait until I really knew what was happening.
Erna and I both knew, we had done the reading, we had talked to the right people and we knew how serious my cancer was. However, I knew that if we didn’t share with our people the rumors would be worse than the truth.
At that time we had more than 1000 employees and before we went to Philadelphia for treatment I shared my story. I said to them, “I know that many of you pray and I ask you to pray for me in this time of need.”
Because of my candor people did not avoid me in fact they kept telling me that they were praying and that members of their extended families were praying as well. What a blessing it was for us and still is. The support was overwhelming; To this day people still ask me how my eye is doing. Cancer is not a word people feel comfortable saying.
Many leaders believe that they should be the invincible supermen and they miss the wonderful experience of people caring and that they want to help as much as they can. Leaders do not have all the answers, in fact it is the people in the trenches who know more than anyone else and yet leaders think they are a failure if they admit that they need help to solve a problem.
Since my diagnosis I have had many meaningful encounters with others who had cancer. One of them was already in the advanced stages of this terrible disease. He contacted me after he heard about my cancer. Interestingly I had tried to touch base with him before I knew about my cancer to encourage and pray with him. He had not responded, but now he came to MY rescue.
Another one asked me, “Herb, how did you feel when you found out that you had cancer?” That began a deep time of sharing.
A third one was diagnosed with melanoma in his eye as well. This was highly unusual because cancer of the eye only affects 6 people out of one million. We were able to talk at a very comfortable level about similar treatments and how we were doing.
Four of my cancer buddies have already died and all were younger than I. By the grace of God I was able to help them along in their spiritual pilgrimage. I am confident that I will meet all of them on the good side of the other side some day in the future.
Furthermore I have a special bond with anyone who has or has had cancer. We are a special group.
What a tremendous opportunity my cancer has given me and I am so grateful that I did see this as an opportunity to help others. The proverb:
“He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed” is certainly true for me.
Five years ago I was a 42% survivor with my type of cancer. Today Erna and I are celebrating 10 years of being cancer free. I continue to be tested every three months and my results continue to be very good. Praise God.
It seems to me that I have been in leadership most of my life.
- captain and coach of the high school hockey team starting in grade 10
- moderator of our church for more than 15 years
- owner and cofounder of several businesses
- board member of numerous organizations
- mentor to other leaders
When I look back it seems to me that I slowly drifted into leadership and the role suited me quite well.
Are leaders born?
Are they made? Do some have leadership thrust upon them? Yes, yes, and yes. There seems to be no definitive route into leadership. No one particular personality determines who will be a leader.
When I reflect on my journey in leadership I realize that I do have some innate qualities that suit me for leadership. Those would include encouragement, charisma, a strong drive to succeed, steadiness, and patience and risk taking.
I also have learned much from watching other leaders, I read a lot, and of course trial and error have been my greatest teachers. I have not been afraid to try something new. If the idea fails I make sure that, that won’t happen again.
Many people have encouraged me into leadership. They have done that by choosing me as the leader. I guess one could say that I have had leadership thrust upon me.
So who can be a leader?
Well, if you look at leaders in government, churches, businesses, schools and colleges you would think anyone could be. The meek, the mild, the opinionated, the cruel, the rude, the gentle, the optimists and pessimists, the cheats and liars are all in the ranks of leaders. You name it you’ve got it, for better or worse.
It’s like jazz. It’s all over the place, anything goes, sometimes it’s pleasant and sometimes it’s not.
If you are a Christian, we have a great challenge. The biblical standard is very high and whether we are leaders or followers we cannot succumb to the often crude and unethical behavior of the world. Sadly, too often we have Christian leaders who are the worst examples of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Sadly this not only includes leaders of secular businesses but leaders of Christian organizations as well.
In his book, Finding Flow, the author (Mealy Csikszentmihalyi) talks about the tension between our work and our times of leisure. The conundrum is that many people don’t find joy (flow) in either one. How do we find flow? He says, “it is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur , or to something resembling a work of art”.
Clearly, all of us want our lives to be a work of art that is pleasing, we want to paint a wonderful picture with our lives but too often our work of art IS a blur. The headlines are full of examples of ordinary people and leaders whose work of art is a formless blur.
If you are a Christian, you have no option but to paint a pleasing picture. We have to do our best to emulate his teaching in our daily lives.
My parents were immigrants from southern Russia, now the Ukraine, arriving in 1924 in Manitoba, my father 20 and my mother 15. My father was a maintenance man all his life and it was his dream to own his own machine shop. It never happened. It seems to me that he did not have the courage and confidence to pull it off, but I do know he had the reputation and talent to forge out on his own. I believe he also had the connections to help him financially and he certainly was well known as the man who had the golden hands to repair any machine that was broken.
I fulfilled my parent’s dream of getting a University degree and entering the teaching profession.
Herb’s first business ventures
I had financed my way through University by running a small business with a friend pouring concrete sidewalks and driveways and even while teaching, this business was going strong during our spare time after school, weekends and summer holidays. Of course the business shut down during the cold winter months in Manitoba, Canada.
However, I was restless. Even though I enjoyed teaching, I felt restricted working in a very controlled environment. I loved the outdoors, the independence and the challenge of business. I had also learned the power of multiplication on the bottom line when one has employees.
And then an opportunity appeared. A small precast concrete manufacturing plant which included a 30ft by 40ft building, a cement mixer and some molds was for sale. I took that opportunity to quit teaching and go full time into business. Together with one employee we manufactured concrete lawn ornaments, flower pots, bird baths, concrete laundry tubs and sidewalk blocks.
The risk was minimal; I had my permanent teaching certificate so I could easily get back into teaching if the business failed. My partner continued to teach, working in his spare time on sales without his salary affecting our overhead. I would be earning the same salary as I would in teaching.
My wife Erna encouraged me to give it a try. She was a registered nurse, so of course she could keep bread on the table if our earnings were meager. Our needs were not great, we had a moderate bank loan to finance the business, and we were idealistic like I know most of you are. It was perfect. We just knew we would succeed and yet we were cautious.
Our business grew quickly and within one year my teaching partner joined the business full time and we took the opportunity to purchase a well equipped precast concrete plant that was for sale just down the road from us.
Around that time I established my business philosophy: I will glorify God in my business. I will do that by applying Biblical principles in everything I do.
Since then I have come to realize that the best principals to run a business really are Biblical, be the business secular or Christian.
This was certainly an idealistic goal. I failed often; blurring the picture I was painting making it plumb ugly. You can imagine the blur with poor colors, jagged lines. I think it is called dissonance.
I cannot understand the present lack of integrity and the deceit that is so prevalent in government, business and so called religious enterprises. Yet at the same time I can see how easily it can happen. The temptation to stretch the results to please the bank or shareholders, the ego that must be fed, the fear that bad news will ruin your reputation with loss of employment. The greed to earn exorbitant profits motivates us to compromise what we say and what we believe. “After all,” we say, “we’ll correct our little lie in the next quarter.”
But the lack of integrity should come as no surprise. In a recent survey of 632 students at thirty two graduate business schools in the USA and Canada, 56% admitted cheating. MBA graduate students are the greatest cheaters. Cheating can help them get great internships and high paying jobs at big name companies. (USA Today, Oct 10 Business with a Higher Purpose)
The writer goes on to say that the real problem is that business needs to serve a higher purpose than making a lot of money.
For sure that has always been a big challenge for me in my years in business. The bottom line is money and if a business does not generate a profit it will fail. This is as true for schools, colleges and religious organizations as it is for business. Excess expenditures over receipts will on the long run signal the demise of the organization.
I quote Alan Giagnocavo from his article in the latest Marketplace magazine published by MEDA. He says the following, “I love making money honestly and with integrity. I love the results money can bring.” I resonate with that.
Our businesses have always been profitable. We have never had a year showing a loss but there were some close calls. At those times Erna would say, “I thought you said that this would be year that we were really going to do very well.” Pressure!
We were blessed and early in our life we were always able to give money away to worthwhile causes encouraging others in doing so.
I remember the excitement as we began our first contract under the fine business name of BULLER AND RADEMAKER CONCRETE CONTRACTORS. ED4 3816 and LE3 2296
We were calculating our hourly wage as the day wore on. In the first hour we already knew that we were earning twice the salary that we had earned working in our hourly job. As the day passed it only got better and as spring turned into summer we were into big dollars. Life was good.
And then one morning the supervisor showed up. He was livid. His face was red, he was gesticulating wildly and of course he was shouting almost incoherently but the message came through loud and clear. “If you guys do one more shoddy job like this one, you have lost the contract for the rest of the project!”
You can imagine our shock and concern. This was our only customer. He had given two teenagers the opportunity of a lifetime by giving us the contract to pave all the driveways and sidewalks for all his houses. The loss of this contract could mean disaster for us.
And now we had an opportunity again, this time to prove to our customer that we were worthy of his business.
The next driveway was a new ball game. We paid no attention to the time it took rather we paid detailed attention to the quality of the work that was expected. We watched Willy the foreman’s face as he inspected our work. He smiled his approval and walked away. He became our greatest fan and steered more than one customer our way after that.
I have never forgotten that lesson. Do what you say you will do. Under promise and over deliver became our motto. Since that lesson in integrity (because this really was an issue of integrity) we would hear the compliments again and again about our workmanship and when we did falter we were told that we were the only sub trade that responded to service calls. We always made sure that we corrected the problem.
The concrete business was good but the problem was the winter months. That business is dead in winter and the only thing we could do was to build inventory stretching our bank loan to the limit. Of course it was a good time for holidays as well but we were aggressive and wanted to keep on growing our business.
A friend in the furniture business suggested an opportunity in manufacturing kitchen cabinets. We jumped at this opportunity. It made a lot of sense. We had experience in business, we had gained some confidence in our business skills, the customers who used our concrete products also needed kitchen cabinets, one of our new partners was building apartment blocks so he would be a captive customer, and our other partners were in furniture manufacturing They could give us all the help we needed to learn about wood.
Thus in 1971, Kitchen Craft of Canada Ltd. was born and today even though we sold the business it continues to be a leader in supplying quality cabinetry in Canada and the United States.
Woody Allen made the following statement: “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” I love that line because is so true and yet so false.
The statement is true if you believe that success is just being there like a pylon on a race track not making one bit of difference in the organization. You have no desire to grow; you never want to experience the thrill of achievement, never be acknowledged for a job well done and never be surprised with a bonus or a substantial increase in salary. It’s also true if all you want is to win the perfect attendance award.
Picture of your life
But it is false if you want to move ahead and paint that extra special picture, a picture that you can look at with pride at the end of your life. It certainly is false if you want to be a leader of distinction. I have always looked for the person that gave more than 80% because those are the people who make the difference in an organization. Please don’t confuse this with people who work long hours just putting in time thinking that they are making a difference and showing loyalty by being their longer than anyone else.
As someone has said you have to show up with muscle and hussle.
In a letter to his son, Theodore Roosevelt said, “without hard work you certainly cannot make a success in life.”
I agree, and it has been my experience that hard, focused and intelligent work makes a huge difference in the success of a leader.
Hard work is another word for sacrifice and leaders do sacrifice much to make the organization successful. Erna and I remember the planned trips we had to cancel because of business pressures, the events we had to forgo due to other deadlines, the late meals while waiting for me to come home because an emergency had kept me much longer than we had planned and the numerous times Erna had to miss her events because of me. But the greatest sacrifice was the trips I made leaving Erna with our teenage boys for more than a day and sometimes even for a week. Those were the toughest of times for her and for me as well when I phoned home and heard about the latest escapade. Too often success comes at the expense of family and our society is strewn with the wreckage of broken homes and delinquent children because of it.
I must say that we are blessed with a strong family and great relationships. Thank God and thanks to my wife Erna who kept everything together.
Opportunity to give back
In the spring of 2002 we were invited to an HIV/AIDS conference in New York. It was sponsored by World Vision and we were challenged by the speakers and interactive discussions to do our part in helping to alleviate this terrible disease. This was again an opportunity for us. It moved us into a brand new arena of experiences.
We came home determined to do our part. We thought we could organize a fund raiser. Erna’s idea was to have a small group of people, let’s say 40 or 50 hear the challenge and get involved. My idea was to host a large banquet to raise a substantial amount of dollars. For a change I won and we planned a gala dinner which was sold out with more than 500 people in attendance.
The speakers included an HIV positive lady from Zambia and Canadian Stephen Lewis, the special envoy to this epidemic for the UN. We raised more than 1 million dollars that evening and all of the money is being used very effectively in an African village called Nanoko in Zambia.
A clinic has been built, health care workers have been trained, schools have an HIV/AIDS prevention program, houses have been repaired, clean wells have been drilled, animals have been purchased and the people are learning trades like carpentry, welding, tailoring and agriculture. It’s a 15 year project and because of the partnership with World Vision and the local leadership it is an ongoing success.
Even though we are supposedly retired we are very active with ongoing projects that help those who are less fortunate. I am still active in the business world as well. New opportunities present themselves daily.
I have to say as well that we are very impressed with the leaders who come to us for funding. They know what they are doing, they are passionate, they are prepared, and they work hard. Many charitable organizations are in the hands of great leaders. We are very thankful, because it is exactly that, that gives us confidence that the money will be used wisely and judiciously.
We have been blessed with the ability to help others. Giving brings us joy, for as I said before, “He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” We pray for wisdom as we negotiate the many requests that come in for funding.
I am now officially retired, as I have turned sixty-five. I wonder what my work of art looks like at this point in my life. Is it a fine work of art or is it a meaningless blur? I think my dad would be happy and proud even if my painting does have the odd smudge.
The challenging and more important question is this. Does the work of art please my God, the Creator? The question you must answer is, “What does your work of art (your life) look like? Is it a fine work of art and a meaningless blur?
If you would change the picture of your life, you can. Like Herb, you can decide to follow Jesus Christ and apply Biblical principles to your life and business. You can start today by praying this prayer.
Lord Jesus, I want to know You personally. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of my life. Make me be the person You want me to be. Amen.
Is it the desire of your heart to make this prayer yours? If yes, pray now and according to his promise, Jesus Christ will come into your life.