Smith: 90 years of wisdom from my father, the entrepreneur

My Dad – a lifelong entrepreneur – turned 90 last week.

During the three days of celebration, I asked him to break away early one afternoon to discuss the key elements in his successful career.

Dad was not born to a family with money. His parents were the first to move to the city from the farm, where the family had lived since before the Civil War.

His mother taught school, and his father ran a small printing business. They were comfortable but far from wealthy. Dad went straight from high school to the Navy in World War II, and finished college after the war on the GI bill.

He soon got married, like many former servicemen, and started a family.

That story was pretty typical for the time, but Dad was not.

The first lesson in entrepreneurship, he said, is to have a vision about a future opportunity and be ready to take advantage of it.

In his case, he saw an opening to lease cars and trucks to companies before big players like Hertz came along.

From the days of his boyhood, Dad loved cars and trucks. One of his favorite things to do as a boy during the Depression years was to sit on the curb and identify passing automobiles by make, style and year.

His other favorite hobby was numbers and puzzles, excelling at mathematics and majoring in civil engineering in college.

Not by chance, Dad had pioneered a number of leasing ideas while working for other companies as an employee. By the time that he was 40, he was tired of working for others.

So he started his leasing business in the basement of our home, and used the contacts that he had made throughout his first 20 years in business. That included America’s biggest automotive companies.

He knew the players well enough to get a hearing for his new ideas. So when he was searching for startup money, it didn’t take long for him to find believers in his vision. At one meeting, the paperwork was drawn up immediately after his pitch.

Another point, my father said, is that it’s important to have the physical energy to work hard. My dad was 40 and was able to put in the 60-70 hour weeks to make his business spring to life.

Understand your numbers, Dad said. His business was unlike many, which require lots of manual labor. His business required a knowledge of the mathematical equations that make leasing profitable.

That may sound simple. But I recently leased a car and found that few people still truly understand what’s required in a long-term lease. I was offered three different numbers on the same car by people who said that leasing is what they do for a living.

Finally, my Dad said that it’s necessary to have the support of your family. You won’t make as many Little League games, dancing recitals and birthday parties. You’ll need to travel, work long hours and rely more on your partner. In our case, my mother was the glue that held us together.

My father emphasized – over and over – the importance of my late mother in his success. She gave him brilliant ideas, consoled him during failures and – most importantly – believed deeply in him.

My Dad’s first year in the business did not go that well. We relied on savings to make it through the first nine months or so. Then, a trickle of income started to appear.

As the years moved along, Dad became quite successful. He joined many boards, and he and my mother became civically involved at a level not seen in their previous lives.

My father never wanted to retire, remaining active in business and civic affairs until his mid 80s. Now, he gives advice to friends and family in his typical optimistic, forward-looking fashion.

Toasting family last weekend, he said: “Here’s to 95!”

Randall Smith

Randall D. Smith is the Donald W. Reynolds Chair in Business Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism and is the founder of Missouri Business Alert. He can be reached at






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