Business Lessons and a dead dad


This past December marked two years since the death of my dad and favorite human, Tom Hilb.

My dad taught me more about organization development than any book or theorist ever could. He did all of it without ever reading a book on leadership or taking a course that I know of.

Owner of Heritage House Fabrics, which he built into a multi-million dollar business in a short period of time, he was skilled at acquisitions and brought several companies into the Heritage family during its ten-year run. Winner of the “Man for All Seasons” award, bestowed upon him by a former employer turned customer, he was called “A Valued Employee, A Valued Supplier, An Incredible Friend- Our Man for All Seasons.” He consulted for companies across the industry and even outside of it. Even his competitors had nice things to say about him.

Despite this traditional success, it was his steadfast nature and his love for food, family and the color pink that he was most revered for.

The day of my dad’s celebration of life, the warehouse and offices of a company he no longer owned were closed because so many folks wanted to pay their respects. It’s not exactly closing the stock market, but in Concord, NC, it’s pretty darn close.

Tom Hilb taught me so much about how to live well so I could do good. Here are just 7 of my favorite lessons as I miss him today:

Dad knew every client’s, every supplier’s, every employee’s, even his pharmacist’s and cell phone provider’s and 12+ doctors’ kid’s names, ages and interests. If they didn’t have children, he found some other way to connect. The check-in process was always the first step before any business took place.

Another way he bonded with people: food.

He was known for his love of food and made sure to be a host in this way. He even had a bottle of Turkish liquor at my sister’s wedding available as a gesture for his Turkish friends of many years. He knew what dietary restrictions and preferences people had and knew every greasy spoon to five star restaurant. People called him their personal Zagat for his five-star rating system on the back of cards he had carefully collected in plastic sheets organized by city.

You ask anyone, and they would have their own favorite Hilb food story.

My father made it clear that family came first for him and it should be the same for his employees. People knew this to be part of the culture at Heritage and chose fit based on this.

Fairness was another value he held deeply, along with loyalty.

These permeated the way he did business over the years, and people who knew him appreciated and expected that values guided his decisions. He did what he needed to be successful, but he was known for his predictability.

I cannot remember my dad missing the opportunity to send a baby gift or appropriate condolences on the rare occasion he could not be in attendance in person at a mitzvah, a wedding, a funeral, an award show.

And despite his work travel and my own parents being divorced, he made a point of attending dance recitals, birthdays, honor society inductions and the like.

Even through his illness, he found a way to my sister’s wedding from North Carolina to New Jersey, despite having broken his hip that very week — and held on to attend my graduate school luncheon, even buying a new jacket for the occasion.

He was this way in his work life for employees, clients and friends alike. They also knew they could come to him for sound advice whether their business was failing, doing well or ready to grow. He was just likable and paternal.

This is the quality I find most rare (and valuable) today.

Tom Hilb retained the same team for as long as I can remember once he bought his own company. He also worked with people he met along the way as a child and young adult.

Building trust is a long process and something I could speak to at length. One major takeaway: he never sugar-coated or kept folks in the dark.

Throughout the years of taking trips to the office as a little girl and even later when I worked there, I always remember laughter in the office.

For example, we loved to pick on my dad for his neurotic ways and the long talks of what would be for lunch, taking bets on how long it would be before he would spill directly on his notorious “spot.” He never made it through a meal without a stain in the EXACT same place! He had a distinct voice and some common catch phrases and gimmicks.

When my father would attend one of the sales shows every year, he and two friends in the industry would find the most outrageous fabric they could, and have it made into pants. This became something they were known for.

Every year crowds came to see “the pants guys.” It was a gimmick and a sales boost. One of many ways they made the work more enjoyable.

My dad had the most hideous floral fabric you can imagine to push out sometime in the 1980’s. So naturally, he did what anyone would do, and he found a seamstress to make him an elaborate floral wedding gown. Think: a ton of crinoline, huge bows, and matching veil. He wore this into the sales meeting in an attempt to unload several bolts.

A large photograph of my dad grinning in said dress proudly hung in his home for many years.

I had made the incorrect assumption that he pulled it off. Then, on one of our last days together — during a commercial of Matlock or Blue Bloods undoubtedly — he shouted at me, “No!! that didn’t work! Are you kidding?” He was so proud of this epic failure. I was blown away and had to grin to myself. This felt like his final and biggest lesson of all.

When it was finally time to sort through his belongings, my sisters and I decided to have a draft. This framed image was my first round pick.

Somehow it seemed that Dad knew before others what they were capable of. He was one of the most neurotic men you would ever meet and could micromanage at times.

But, if he trusted you, he wanted you to buck him. He liked to see you stand on your own two feet.

As a boss, I would hear him demand near perfection and get it. Everyone knew to do it right the first time.

As a father, uncle and friend, it was pretty much the same. In fact, everyone knew so well his high level of expectations that they sometimes liked to mess with him for sport. That was fun too. Especially if you tried to bring soda into the living room or food into his car. God help you if you opened the fridge more than once when putting condiments away. Everyone knows this is done in one fell swoop of the refrigerator door.

From him, I learned: When you set an expectation high and you yourself are prepared to remain a consistent course, people will rise to meet it and you.

When I look at these lessons I realize that none of them are about the numbers or the facts of business. Of course, this is important. Our business accountant will tell you that he was always impressed with how my dad paid attention to what the numbers told us, and this is hugely significant in business. Our family lawyer will tell you dad never had a single complaint of ethics against him, which is actually pretty rare.

Despite working in two other fields, he also knew his industry. It was in his DNA: My grandfather and his father before him in Germany were in textiles.

Running a business is an art as much as a science. It isn’t the time at your desk any more than it is the hours at long dinners or making a quick happy birthday call.

Business, like anything in life, is all about relationships, and I am so grateful I got to spend a lifetime apprenticing with a great master.

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About the Author
Positive Phil is a motivational keynote speaker and marketing consultant focusing on revenue generation and investor awareness for public companies.