So if you are asking, “Just who is this celebrity, Bill?” you are on the wrong path. I’m referring to the ‘classic’ 1984 Chevy Celebrity that was my first car. Four doors. A sleek black exterior. A rich, velour-like burgundy interior. Classy. And every bit of my storied history with this seductive sedan is like our industry today.
Before the car was mine, it was my mom’s car. She let me borrow her car one evening in 1987 when I was 17 and was helping to decorate for the homecoming dance. We soon realized we could get more done with a few staple guns. Since my dad was an electrician, he had more than a few staple guns to borrow for the times he was putting up Romex (NM cable.) My friend Stephanie went with me to our house, we grabbed a few guns and a couple of Mt. Dews from the fridge. About a block away from the house, my Moutain Dew slipped out of my hand onto the floor. Reacting quickly, I bent over to grab the can as the yellow gold inside leaked out. Leaning over caused my driving hand to move us to the right and straight towards the lone utility pole on that side of the street. Stephanie blurted out, “Look out for the pole!” as I was sitting up. My head was just far enough up that, when we hit the pole, it cracked that windshield. Yes, that may explain a lot. And that is the story of how I had a Celebrity to drive and mom had a new minivan.
That’s what the business climate was like last year when the pandemic hit – just like my head on the windshield. Things changed instantly. It was quick. It was scary. We didn’t know what to do at first (how do I tell my parents!) But here we are. It was a learning experience.
In my hometown of Pocahontas, IA, there was a railroad crossing that doubled as our town’s speed bump. A LARGE speed bump. Mind you, a person is supposed to go slowly over a speed bump, right? Sixty miles-per-hour is likely not an acceptable speed, but that was my speed nonetheless. Add to that the fact that the Celebrity’s front seat was a bench seat and there were three high school boys on that seat as the car was approaching the railroad crossing at 60 mph. On top of that, you have to understand we all were 220 pounds or more. (Realize that I came of age when “The Dukes of Hazzard” were on tv.) Oh yeah, we jumped that speed bump crossing and it’s a moment I’ll never forget. That seat didn’t forget, either. And that was how our burgundy interior then had a chocolate brown front seat.
That’s how we have approached this past year – eyes up, full speed ahead! We see the danger but we are going to take it on. It’s been wild. In some ways, it’s been fun. We’ve come down hard a few times, but things can be replaced when necessary. Like that car, we just keep plugging along.
That same event with the railroad? I can only think it maybe did a little more damage than the broken front seat when we came down on the other side of the tracks. Don’t get me wrong, the car ran great. I don’t wonder if maybe the alignment was bent to a point that it damaged the bearings in the front, passenger’s side. I’m guessing that because the bearings had to be replaced every 25,000 miles.
I would compare those bearings to what society feels up as we open up more-and-more. Just like the car would never be ‘normal’ after the jump, is this what our new ‘normal’ is going to be after the pandemic? Handshakes, for instance. Handshakes are still verboten. A firm handshake once was a non-verbal cue of confidence and relationship. As you approach another person for a greeting, you have to ‘mind the bubble’ of personal space. As you measure the situation, you reach that awkward moment of determining what more to do. Fist bump? Customary nod? That’s like realizing the bearings are bad and need to be replaced. The fist bump is OK, but it’s not like it should be.
As beat-up as that car was, it took me places. Back-and-forth to college for four years. That’s 100 miles between those two cities. During those drives, I hit five deer, three pheasants, and one turkey. If you’ve never hit a turkey, it would be like thumping into a Huey helicopter and hearing the windshield crack (again.) Beaten and battered. I kept my head up, but things were still bound to happen as surprises come at you from every ditch and direction.
Isn’t that like our freight issues today? I know I’ve reviewed it in ‘Brighter Days Ahead’ quite a bit lately, but it is the truth of the matter. In my 25 years in this industry, it’s never been worse. International congestion. Domestic shortages and delays. Beat-up boxes and pallets obliterated on the way. Surprises popping up out of the ditch unforeseen. In spite of that, we are finding as many ways as possible to deal with it. Replacing the driver’s seat is like finding alternative sources. Replacing the ball bearings is similar to prioritizing shipments. You have to let the turkey bounce off the windshield; you are surprised but you keep going. And filling up before you leave is no unlike encouraging people to buy before you need it because you don’t know if the gas station in that little town will be open on your way through.
Just like that 1984 Celebrity would never be the same after dropping a can of Mountain Dew (or any of those other unfortunate moments), business will never be what it was in 2019. And that’s OK. We just have to realize that we are going to get there. Not always ‘in style,’ but the point is that we will get to the next job and the next request and the next win. One way or another, we’ll get there.