The Entrepreneurial Spirit, a Tribute to My Father

My father was an entrepreneur. He was always starting businesses. He was always selling things.

When I was very young he operated Steve's Lawnmowing Service. He also sold World's Finest Chocolate. He carried boxes of chocolate bars with him to church, and sold them after Sunday School. I remember standing on the church lawn, waiting while Dad joked and told stories and sold candy.

He tried lots of other things, too: he was a flight instructor, he sold Shaklee, he raised nursery stock. He read personal finance books. (The Richest Man in Babylon was one of his favorites.)

Dad's first real entrepreneurial success came with Harvest Mills, which he started in the mid-seventies. He built a wheat grinder from scratch. He liked it so much that he decided to sell them. He developed a system for manufacturing them in a production line. Then, further capitalizing on the health-food craze, he developed the Little Harvey food dryer. These sold well, and soon he had purchased one of the first plots of land in a new industrial park. Harvest Mills was a success.

Dad sold the business in the late-seventies for a large sum of money. For reasons that are no longer clear to me, he never saw full payment for the business. (My memory is this: he sold Harvest Mills for $300,000 payable in ten yearly installments, but the buyer went bankrupt and somehow only one payment was made. Dad, who always had poor personal finance skills, squandered what money he had been paid on airplanes and sailboats, his expensive toys.)

The next six or seven years were tense. The economic outlook in the early eighties was poor. Dad moved from one sales position to another: selling staples, selling industrial supplies, selling boxes. He started other businesses: an accounting service (with software that he wrote in Microsoft Basic on an Apple II), a nursery (again), a wood stove manufacturer. These all failed.

On his fortieth birthday — 31 July 1985 — Dad left his job as a box salesman and founded what would become his greatest success: Custom Box Service. He worked night and day to create a business that could exploit a marketplace niche. He sold the boxes. He designed the boxes. He made the boxes. He delivered the boxes. He did the accounting. He lived and breathed boxes for a decade. One-by-one his three boys came to work for him.

Dad died ten days before the business's tenth anniversary, ten days before he would have turned fifty years old. Cancer ate his body, consumed his will. He left behind an unconventional inheritance: no money to speak of, but a growing, thriving business.

For the past eleven years, his children (and a nephew) have kept this business running. It now sells well over a million dollars a year. But none of us are entrepreneurs. We don't have that spark. Sometimes I sense a glimmer of it inside myself, but in order to prosper as an entrepreneur, you need chase a dream that you believe in one-hundred percent. Boxes are not my dream.

When I was a boy, Dad tried to foster my entrepreneurial spirit. He encouraged me to sell seeds from a magazine, but I was too shy to knock on doors. I also failed at selling greeting cards. He tried to teach me to peel chittum bark that could be sold to god-knows-where for use as a natural laxative. (He had done this himself to earn money as a boy.)

Sometimes, if I were personally vested in the enterprise, I relished buying and selling things. In fourth grade, in order to generate money for new comic books, I took my old comics to school and sold them. I took my Star Wars trading cards and repackaged the doubles, selling each thick bundle for twenty-five cents each. I sold my old Hardy Boys books to buy new ones.

Now, for the first time in twenty years, I'm beginning to feel a bit of the entrepreneurial spirit. I have an idea, a plan, a vision.

I am now ready to become an entrepreneur, too.

Thanks, Dad.

Stephen E. Roth
31 July 1945 – 21 July 1995

This is how I like to remember Dad: busting a gut over something.

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Justin
Justin
14 years ago

So what’s your business? Does it have to do with this blog, or unrelated? I love to hear entrepreneurial stories–are you going to give a blow-by-blow of what you’re doing? That would be pretty cool.

Awesome story about your dad by the way. I lost my dad at a young age, too–he was also the entrepreneurial type, and refused to save a penny. I like to think my various entrepreneurial ventures came via his genes. (Luckily I didn’t inherit his spending ways.)

Michael Moore
Michael Moore
14 years ago

Congrats!

I just quit my job last week to work full time on starting my business. I’ve been wanting to for about 2 years, and finally saved up enough money and gumption to have a go at it.

Maybe I’ll try to save some money for my kids though. 🙂

Jamie Phelps
Jamie Phelps
14 years ago

J.D., it’s awesome of you to remember your Father on such a day. If he didn’t leave a conventional inheritance to you guys, he left one hell of a legacy. Don’t ever forget that.

Joe
Joe
14 years ago

Your dad sounds like he was a great man and a truely inspirational character.

Ali@InvestmentPlayground
11 years ago

Great post. How you’re raised has a lot to do with it. Losing your father at a young age probably gave you some tough skin – which every entrepreneur inherently needs. Your dad probably didn’t make a ton of money doing what he did – but sounds like he enjoyed every step of the way.

Mark Roth
Mark Roth
8 years ago

I worked for your Dad at Harvest Mills during my senior year of high school and for a couple of years after that (as I recall). He was a good boss and I enjoyed working there, so I was quite dismayed when he sold the business and it was moved to Utah. As lead man of the assembly line, I was the last of the hired help kept on to the dreary end. I remember going to the shop and foreman Jerry and I being the only souls there. I’ve often looked back on those days and that job with… Read more »

Lucille
Lucille
8 years ago

You’re lucky that you knew your father and that he encouraged you in many ways (even if it wasn’t a good fit).
I know my father but his unique qualities are… unprintable!!

Stacey Bower
Stacey Bower
7 years ago

A friend of mine gave me a flour mill several years ago. This morning I was curious about the maker. The little brass plaque on the front says, ‘Harvest Mills, Canby Oregon.’ I googled the name and place, and found this article. Thought you might like to know there is a mill still going strong in Beaverton.

Best Regards, Stacey

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