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Making Meaning

June 28, 2011
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“Back & Forth” features running commentary on industry activities by Supply House Times staffers and contributors. Here’s a recent conversation between Dan Holohan and Editor Jim Olsztynski on what it means to make meaning in this industry, and in life.

Dan Holohan with Johnny White at the groundbreaking for Taco's Cranston, RI, facility expansion.


Dan:  Jim, I recently attended the groundbreaking for Taco's new addition. Much of what they're adding are classrooms for their own employees, so that their people can earn a GED or even a college diploma. Taco's Johnny White asked me to say a few words at that event, and I mentioned that while a company has to make money, it also has to make meaning, or at least that's the way I see things at this age in which I find myself.

The Taco event reminded me of a visit I made to Grundfos in Denmark a few years ago. They have a special section in their factory where older workers, or those with disabilities, can continue to work, although at a slower pace. I asked about this and they explained that it's about human dignity. It's about making meaning. That touched me deeply.

This got me thinking about magazines. Do you think a trade magazine has an obligation to make meaning in its industry, or is it just about selling ads and making money?  

Jim: You betcha! And the great thing is, it doesn't have to be either/or. A trade magazine can do a service to its industry AND make money. In fact, its advertisers are better served if there's a commitment larger than selling ads.

I cut my teeth in this industry under the tutelage of an industry giant named Charlie Horton, founder of Supply House Times and PM magazines. He passed away in 1989, which means only the old-timers remember him. That's unfortunate, because in addition to being a supreme wordsmith, Charlie left a legacy of industry dedication that I believe still lives on with his magazines under present ownership.

One of the indelible early memories of my career was of a conversation with Charlie a few months into my employment that started in 1977. Charlie was a bit annoyed with me because I cut loose with a few high-fallutin' words in an article that I wrote. I guess I was showing off my vocabulary, and Charlie chastised me with words I have taken to heart ever since.

He said to me, "Never forget this - you are not part of the publishing industry. You are part of the PLUMBING industry." (His emphasis.)

What he meant was to respect our audience and not talk down to them. I've been a better writer ever since.

The business was quite good to Charlie Horton, but he earned every penny. He reminds me of someone else totally immersed in the industry and who has given back even more than he's taken. That's you, Dan. I think more than any other single individual, you have injected esprit de corps and sense of purpose to the hydronics sector. What motivates you?  

Dan: Well, shucks, Jim, I couldn't hold Charlie's coat, but thanks for putting me in the same paragraph with him.

My father was in the wholesale (first) and rep (second) end of the business and he brought me in when he was with the rep. I was just 20 years old then but I had grown up on his stories of what went on in the supply house - the pranks they all played on each other, the camaraderie, but most of all the proud nature of the work. When I was a kid, we'd drive across the newly opened Throgs Neck Bridge, which connects Queens to the Bronx. He'd point at a group of new apartment buildings on the Queens side and say, "We built those." He'd say it every time, and I wish I could hear him say it one more time. His part in the building of these apartments was to send trucks to the job every day (he was a shipping clerk), but to hear him tell it, you'd think he was walking the steel and turning the wrenches. He taught me about making meaning.

What I've always admired about you as my editor, Jim, is that you've always let me stray into the stories. It's not just about the pipe and the pumps and the boilers; it's about the people. I think that for a magazine to have a soul, it has to be about more than just selling ads. People in this industry don't get statues in the park, but we get to tell their stories and I see that as a great privilege and responsibility. There is flesh and blood between the pipe and the wrench, and for me, the reader will always be more important than the writer. The writer already knows what he knows, and without a reader, it all dies with him. My father and his stories live on in me. To tell the story is to make meaning.

You write the best editorials of anyone I've ever known, Jim. With so much that needs to be said, especially in these tough times, how do you decide what to say each month?

Jim: First I gulp down a bunch of martinis, then let fly :)

Just kidding. That was in the old days. Mostly I keep my ears and eyes open and address topics that I think are on a lot of readers' minds at any given time, or subjects that strike me as important. (Another thing that Charlie Horton taught me was that readers don't necessarily know what they want to read. It's up to us to tell them what they should be paying attention to.)

I usually have a string of a half-dozen commentaries written that are timeless, i.e., that I can plug in whenever the Muse is missing in action. These address general topics such as customer service and so on. Probably 2-3 of my commentaries each year are drawn from these reserves. For the most part, though, I try to stay topical and current with industry concerns.

That's another lesson I learned from Charlie Horton. He always took a dim view of magazine editors/writers who wrote about themselves and their feelings. I try to avoid too many "I ... me ...my" words and address topics that our readers care about.

What topics do your industry contacts seem to be most concerned with nowadays?  

Dan: Most of the people I know are concerned about the slowness of the work that's coming in. Many of them are just plain scared. I keep thinking about Mother Nature, though, and the resilience of this business. Mother Nature doesn't care about recessions; she just continues to break stuff. We might not be able to build new right now, but that doesn't mean we can't rebuild. Some people will need to change their focus.

I was fishing in Northern Ontario with some industry buddies recently and I shared a boat with a wholesaler friend and an old guide. My friend asked me where the stories come from, and I started to explain that they came from everywhere when the guide pulled back on the throttle. We slowed to a creep and went by another small boat that held three anglers with hooks in the water. I looked at the guide and he said, "You gotta be careful these days. You never know where your next customer will come from." I turned to my friend and smiled.  

Jim: It's good advice to anyone in business to treat everyone like a potential customer, no matter what business you're in. In fact, it's nothing more than the Golden Rule applied to business. Treat folks the way you'd like to be treated.

Shortage of work is on everyone's mind, but I've talked to quite a few industry heavy hitters who maintain that the best time to grow is in a down economy. That's because most competitors are pinching pennies, which inevitably impacts service and shortchanges customers. Some are going against the grain by opening new facilities and hiring top people let go by others. There’s a lot to be said for that if you have the guts and moxie to pull it off.

Disasters are not good news, but you're right about Mother Nature providing some sorely needed work. Better to be poor than dead, however.

Back to the original topic, it's always struck me as a blessing that I've had such a long career in an industry of tradespeople. I'm a menace to society with a wrench in hand. So I've tried to use my God-given talents to boost the image and esteem of people who can make and fix things that leave me clueless.

There's a new documentary film out celebrating tradespeople that I wrote about in my June column in PM.

The director, Richard Yeagley, contacted me a few days ago notifying me that DVDs of the documentary will be sold on the film's website, www.thetradesmendocumentary.com. I urge everyone to take a look at it.

Dan: Jim, I'm glad to be making meaning with you. Thanks.

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