Robert Haws (Dad) is no stranger to this blog. He pops up in various stories, and I’ve touched briefly on his work life. This week we’ll take a more complete look. The quote above is taken from a poem he learned in high school.
Dad’s Navy discharge papers included a box for “preference for additional training” he would be interested in. “Comptometer (refresher)” and “accounting” were typed in. Unfortunately, there were tens of thousands of other guys returning home at the same time, all vying for jobs; plus he had a pregnant wife. Time out for education was a luxury he couldn’t afford—he needed a job. So he went to work for Mr. Marshall (Taxes) while they lived with Mom’s parents. Housing was in short supply, too!
In 1946, Dad made the decision to start an independent rug cleaning business, initially partnering with his brother, George (Comedy). Their dad had been on some construction jobs in Hinsdale, and thought the area was affluent enough to support a rug cleaning business. They acted on that suggestion. It took some time to find a place to live, so Dad set up a business phone line in Hinsdale, and had someone take messages until they could move. In pre-Tri-State Tollway days, it was a one hour drive from Deerfield, on the days they had work. Rug cleaning equipment was loaded into the back of the station wagon to go to jobs.
In early 1947, Mom & Dad finally found a first floor of a house to rent (above). Toward the end of 1947, Dad had bought out George’s share of the business. By 1949, a
new different truck (below) had been purchased, nicely lettered! The early trucks were all used, I believe, because new would have cost too much.
Rug cleaning initially did not keep his schedule full, so as shown on the hood above, “Wallmaster Service” (wall washing) was added to have enough work. As a kid, I remember seeing a large, wooden box (bigger than a trunk) in the basement workroom with that lettering, and asking Dad about it. The wall washing equipment was stored in it, but by then he had discontinued using it.
A home with a family business run out of it is different in so many ways. Work wasn’t a place you went to—it was part of everyday life. I understood at a fairly young age there was no guaranteed paycheck every week. If Dad didn’t work, there was no paycheck! It was never a source of worry—there was always money set aside—but it was a reality.
We were the only family I knew of (until high school, at least) who had two phone lines—and six phones! Of course, one line was for the business, which we kids would NEVER touch, unless it was to answer a business call. Each floor of the house had a phone for each line. We needed to be properly instructed before we were cleared to answer the business phone. I would never say, “My dad isn’t home . . .” It was always, “Mr. Haws isn’t available right now . . .” While most people who called for appointments knew it was a family business run out of our home, we always needed to sound professional.
That also meant if a business phone rang, the noise level dropped to zero. The first floor business phone was in the dining room, so if it was dinner, five children were immediately silent. There was no silverware clattering on the plate and no, “Pass the mashed potatoes,” while Dad answered the phone and asked the customer to wait so he could get his appointment book. While he went to the office in the basement, one of us would listen for him to pick up the line down there and make sure he was talking. Then the button was held down (to disconnect) before replacing the hand set. No hanging up noisily! Dinner returned to normal.
Dad was not the least expensive rug cleaner. He always said he could never afford to have a sale. Either he’d lose money on the job (expenses wouldn’t be covered), or his reputation would suffer because he’d have to cut corners. Neither option was acceptable to him.
When you are the owner, the day doesn’t end at 5. Sometimes after dinner Dad was in the basement, catching up on paperwork, or cleaning an area rug picked up that day. We kids knew where he was, and could always go down to ask him something or say goodnight. Sometimes we got roped into helping with something (Father’s Day). My sister recalled getting “shampooer rides” when she was pretty young, if a rug was particularly dirty. Dad would have her sit cross-legged on the shampoo machine to add extra weight so it would scrub deeper. I never got that lucky.
We kids also got “hired” to sort the paid invoices. Each month was simply sorted by date, so didn’t really pay much. At the end of the year, though, all twelve months were merged and sorted alphabetically. That paid $10, but was a lot more work, deciphering Dad’s handwriting. It was good preparation for reading census records, though, and I learned that Llewellyn did actually start with 2 Ls.
The summer after freshman year of college, Dad hired me occasionally. My work hours had been cut at the jewelry store, but he was usually able to schedule one job a week that could handle a 3rd worker (me). I didn’t use the machines, but helped with moving furniture, hand scrubbing the edges of the room, and any other job he gave me. It was an interesting experience, watching him at work not in our basement!
None of us kids followed Dad into the rug cleaning business. My dreams at age four of a “Haws Sisters” rug cleaning business fizzled when Carole decided to become a teacher. I don’t know if it bothered Dad that no one carried on in his footsteps. I’m sure he would have welcomed it, but he never laid on a guilt trip, that I recall.
Growing up in a family business, I learned firsthand things I would later hear in college business classes—and some things that were never mentioned:
- Be honest, and treat people fairly.
- Pay yourself first (AKA “save for a rainy day”).
- If you make a mistake, fix it.
- If the customer is unhappy, fix it (even if it wasn’t your fault).
- Stand by your principles. The husband who sent a check for less than the written estimate? Dad mailed the check back and wrote that full payment was needed. The guy stiffed him, so Dad never worked for them again.
- Respect others in the business. I once made the mistake of calling the other rug cleaner in town “the competition.” Dad corrected me, saying they were “colleagues.”
- Help out the new guys. People helped him when he was starting out. They may know something you don’t, or have a new idea worth listening to.
- Keep learning. I watched him take night classes to earn a real estate broker’s license when I was in junior high. That said more than any words would have. So when he bought a PC at age 70, it didn’t surprise me!
- Do your best. Always. Your name and reputation is at stake.
The work ethic I “caught” at
home work far surpassed anything “taught” to me elsewhere. Thanks, Dad!