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Harvey Mackay: Life lessons from a 100-year-old golfer

September 25, 2018

It is no secret that I love to play golf. And it’s no secret that I have conducted a lot of business on the golf course. Perhaps the worst-kept secret of all is that I have learned a lot during rounds of golf, particularly during a very memorable recent game.

My golf partner last week was the very delightful Harold Smith, who with his brother-in-law, Don Mains, co-owned a chain of 65 Tradehome Shoes stores throughout the Upper Midwest. He’s been retired for some time now, and plays golf whenever he can.

A friend suggested I invite him to join me for nine holes, and he happily accepted. On the first hole, Harold two-putted from 70 feet. On the second hole, he got down in two from off the green. I won’t bore you with the rest of the scorecard; suffice it to say, it was a great game that I will likely never forget.

Did I mention that he is 100 years old?

Harold expressed his gratitude for the invitation, because as he told me, all his friends have died. Our conversation exposed many commonalities: our alma mater (University of Minnesota), our love for sports and many friends in common. But I was particularly interested in his business philosophy, which we also shared.

The Tradehome business model is rooted in customer service and employee recognition. Their business grew at a rate of two to three stores a year. They made sure stores were performing well before expanding further. They took their time to hire the best people for each store.

Each store had five to 10 employees who had the opportunity to work their way up. Store managers concentrated on promoting from within, never going outside to hire. In the small cities where they were located, the store managers got to know the local kids so that they knew whom to hire.

An employee profit-sharing plan was started in 1955. Some employees had as much as $800,000 in their plans when they retired. Harold said the plan was a great way to retain employees.

Customer service is a hallmark of Tradehome stores. No one likes to be ignored, he said, so he told employees to focus on everyone who walked into their stores within seconds. He and his brother-in-law worked hard to stay ahead of their customers, understanding that they needed to watch the trends on the coasts that would make it to the Midwest.

They considered themselves creative marketers, offering services such as polishing customers’ shoes when they walked into the stores. They offered a liberal return policy with no questions asked. They would exchange shoes purchased from a competitor, noting that people would forget where they bought them. That didn’t matter, they reasoned, because customers would come to their stores to buy because of their service and price.

When it was time to retire in 1999, they didn’t want to sell to a conglomerate that would fire many of the employees. Instead, they sold the company to nine key employees at a much lower price to make sure they wouldn’t have to lay off people. Loyalty to Smith and Mains was foremost.

But life wasn’t all business. Family, faith and sharing their wealth were also priorities.

Harold and his late wife, Mickey, loved to travel and were especially interested in visiting places of Jewish interest. They collected Jewish artifacts from all over the world, including antique Hebrew Bibles and Torahs.

Eventually, through a friend, they connected with the renowned Minneapolis Institute of Art. The director expressed interest in their collection and his desire to establish a Judaic gallery. He also explained the funding that it would require. That meeting led to the couple donating much of their collection and the funding to support the Harold and Mickey Smith Gallery of Jewish Art and Culture. The gallery is one of only two of its kind in the country.

We covered a lot of ground that day, and not just on the golf course. You could say the game was simply a delivery method for this wealth of information. And Harold saved his best gems of wisdom for last: his secrets for a long life!

• Positive attitude toward life.

• Have good genes.

• Don’t abuse your body.

• Always eat healthy.

• Exercise often.

• Get plenty of sleep ... don’t cheat on sleep.

• Keep your mind active and stress down.

• You have to be lucky.

Mackay’s Moral: When you have the chance to golf with a centenarian, the score isn’t as important as the lessons learned.

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