Life and Business Lessons from Mr. Shah


My wife and I completed ten years of marriage this past November. To celebrate the occasion, we had planned a trip to Sydney, Australia. Traveling half way across the globe and over the equator for a family of four is an expensive affair and we were intent on maximizing the payback. Before leaving on the trip, Keshav, my 5-year old son, let his pre-K classmates know that he was going to pet kangaroos and koala bears over the Thanksgiving break. And I let my colleagues at work get a bit jealous by talking up my trip to Down Under. I must confess that I was trying to derive some perverse pleasure by letting others know of our extravagant plans.

So finally when the day arrived and we were seated on the Delta flight to Los Angeles, I could barely contain my glee. I shook hands with a Mr. Shah, the passenger seated next to me, and introduced my family to him and his wife. I knew that the topic of our final destination would come up and I wanted to declare to him with some fanfare that we were traveling to Sydney.

Now, Mr. Shah seemed like a modest man of reasonable means. He spoke with an affected Gujarati cum American accent. I tried to take stock of him rather quickly and came to the conclusion that he must be one of those early Indian immigrants who had only a modest education but was savvy enough to run a profitable small business. Truth be told, I took him for a person who managed a gas station or a 7-Eleven convenience store. But, if ever there was an instance of "looks can be deceiving," this must have been it, for I couldn't be more wrong.

It turned out, Mr. Shah had an advanced degree in pharmacology and used his technical knowledge and business acumen to own and run a medical laboratory with a support staff of more than ten employees in London, Ontario. He and his wife were married for over thirty years and were en route to Tahiti for their sixteenth cruise vacation! In a given year they took at least four vacations, most of which were trips to places overseas, and in addition flew to India to visit their family. I was dumbstruck. Instead of bragging about my trip, I realized that I should shut up, listen and learn from this guy. It was obvious that he was making money hand over fist in his profession.

Mr. Shah took a cursory look at my kids to assess their ages and started to give me some advice:

"Don't let your kids get accustomed to your money," he said. Let them sweat it out and learn what it means to bring money home. He told me that when his two teenage sons asked him to take them to exotic locations, he denied their requests. "I told them that if they did summer jobs and earned money, they were free to go any place they could afford." Soon they realized what it takes to visit places they dreamed of. "My oldest worked all summer and mowed the lawn for neighbors to plan a trip to Florida with his buddies. He quickly realized that what he desired was not that easy to accomplish after all.

"The next summer, both of them wanted to come and work in my lab as interns. I offered them a job at $5 an hour, while others made at least $15 an hour. Soon my kids made friends with other employees and found out that they were making much less for similar jobs. It was their first introduction to capitalism and the real world, you see. During lunch hour they started joking about a pay increase for all the employees. One day, my second son walked into the office and told me that he wanted a wage increase since he could make more by just flipping burgers at McDonalds. I did not discuss his proposal. Instead when he left my office he lost his job.

"Never mix money with relationships, even if it is your own son. I am still the same loving dad, but, as a businessman, I dismissed a potential problem employee. When my business partner asked me why I was so tough on my son, I sat him down and explained it so he could understand. You see, my partner and I were the owners of the business and it was our job to keep the business profitable, but the actual work was being done by the assistants and technicians who knew how to operate the equipment. Many of them had teenage children, too. If I set the wrong example, then the following summer Dave, the senior assistant, would want a job for his son, who will then expect $15 an hour as well. Now, after my actions that day, they would not dare come with such a proposition.

"Actually this incident set the expectations for all employees and also taught my son not to take his privileged life and, more importantly, his dad's money for granted. Even today, when it comes to money, they know that I mean business and won't part with it unless there is a good case for it.

"That brings me to the next point that I tell anyone who is willing to listen. Of all the things that I have learned, this I hold to be the most important: The day you stop writing checks for your kids, don't make the mistake of depositing the additional money in a bank. Use it to enjoy life instead. Many donít recognize this point of transition in their lives. Our mind is programmed to save whatever we are left with at the end of the month. But that is only good till you have nothing to save for!"

I was much impressed by Mr. Shah and felt very guilty that I had completely misjudged him. What he told me made a lot of sense, although I was very far away from implementing his advice. I did not feel like talking about my trip. But he brought it up.

"Is Los Angeles your final destination?"
"No, actually we are flying to Sydney, Australia."
"Oh, really? I must say that you are quite brave to do this with such small kids."
"Well, the timing is right just now. I am not sure if we will get another chance to do this anytime soon."
" You guys are young. There will be plenty of opportunities in future as well. Are you going to stay in Sydney or travel around?"
"My uncle has booked us tickets to fly to Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef."
"That's fantastic. Not many people plan on traveling within Australia. You know it is a very beautiful country. Great Barrier Reef is a must-see. If you get the chance, take the cable car at Cairns and visit the tropical forest there as well."
"I will surely plan on it. It seems like you are quite familiar with Cairns. Have you been there?"
"Yes, I have been to Australia four times. My wife and I took a cruise from New Zealand to Australia and spent nearly three weeks on Tasman and Coral Sea before landing at Cairns."
"Wow! I hope I will get to enjoy that experience with my family someday."
"You will," said Mr. Shah in a confident tone.
"Just remember not to save too much money but instead to spend it on yourself and have some fun," he added with a smile.
"Thanks for your tips and advice. I will remember them," I replied.

At Cairns, we did take a ferry ride into the Coral Sea and snorkeled near the Great Barrier Reef. And the following day we took the cable car and visited the tropical rainforest. It was a truly memorable experience. Someday, when I am done writing checks for my kids, I do plan on going back to that part of the world to take the cruise from New Zealand to Australia.

January 2010

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