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Small-business owners usually can’t call in sick

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By Juergen Kneifel
What happens to a small-business owner -- especially in a one-person shop -- who needs to call in sick?
It is probably one of the greatest challenges that a small-business owner faces, especially if they're wearing all of the hats for the business operation.
"I can tell you that in a service industry like janitorial, it doesn't matter if you're sick or well; the job has to get done," said Chuck Rice, who was the longtime owner of Alpine Janitorial Services in Edmonds. "People say it must be nice owning your own company and calling the shots since you're the boss. I tell them I'm not the boss; the customer is!"
Rice owned Alpine for 30 years, building the business after his job was cut during one of the many Boeing downturns. Rice needed work and decided that this was something he could succeed with, so long as he treated his customers honestly, did exceptional work and was on time, every time as promised.
Working on sales door-to-door during the daytime hours, then cleaning and caring for the customer accounts in the evenings, Alpine was a one-man show for the first two years. He landed commercial accounts along Highway 99 and businesses surrounding the old Aurora Village shopping center.
"There may have been a few times early on when I felt sick or unable to work before hiring employees, but I cannot remember a time when I called a customer to reschedule due to sickness," Rice said.
His business would eventually expand with hired staff and would serve clients in Seattle, on the Eastside and throughout Snohomish County.
At the peak of Alpine's history, Rice had 21 employees. He could afford to call in some help if needed, should he become sick, but he still couldn't think of a time where he needed to get a break from his work.
Rice noted that hiring good people is the key for establishing a "fall-back" position in case of sickness.
I visited with another Everett-area small-business owner recently who owns a printing shop on Evergreen Way. Samuel Goei owns Sam's Press. The shop is filled with equipment for everything from photocopying to an offset press.
"I don't worry about growth or making lots of money," Goei said. "I want to pay my bills, eat three times a day and take care of my family."
I asked Goei if he had any employees helping him with the shop. "No, it's just me!" he replied.
So what happens when you are sick? Goei laughed and pointed to a small poster on the bulletin board near the register. It reads, "I used up all my sick days, SO I CALLED IN DEAD."
On a more serious note, Goei shared that there are very few times when he has needed to step away from his shop because of illness or other crisis. He lives by a set of priorities that help him stay focused: God first, family second and business (money) third. If he is too sick to work, he simply closes the shop.
It stands to reason that alignment of personal values and priorities can help shape the business owner's well being. Both Rice and Goei indicated several keys that keep them from becoming sick in the first place and for being well-positioned to achieve business success.
It begins with a strong work ethic. There's no room for an entitlement attitude in a small business; a good business owner has to win the customer's trust time and time again. Never assume your customers are a lock. These days they can simply use their smartphone to replace you if they're not happy with your work.
Then, realize that customers are the boss, and treat them with due respect.
"I've had customers ask me to perform work that isn't in the contact," Rice said. While the contract is a document to be respected and referenced from time to time, real service and customer care trumps the contract. "I knew that it was in Alpine's best interest to take care of the account and build on the relationship."
Finally, small-business owners need to take care of themselves to avoid getting sick. Simple things like diet and regular exercise, setting aside time for friends and family and maintaining a positive outlook on life can help body, mind and soul.
One last bit of advice on maintaining good health and avoiding the need to call in sick: Don't forget to schedule your vacations in advance. Everyone needs rest and relaxation!
Juergen Kneifel is a senior associate faculty member in the Everett Community College business program. Please send your comments to
Story tags » Small business



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