Lessons my Uncle John taught me

Editor Nick Wakeman remembers his Uncle John, a World War II veteran and entrepreneur, whose life is a reminder that your legacy is about more than your business acumen.

My Uncle John died in March and I flew down to Florida this week for his memorial service.

He was 90 years old and his was a life worth celebrating. He grew up in Broward County, Fla., at a time when it was mostly truck farms and swamps. He served in World War II and survived being overrun by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge.

Before he was shipped overseas, he married Lois, my dad’s sister. To do that, he had to face my grandfather, a minister in the Church of the Brethren, a strict, pacifist church. He showed up at the farm in his uniform to ask for her hand. And anyone who knew my grandfather knows that took guts.

After the war, he returned to southern Florida and started a family. In 1952, he opened an office supply business in Hollywood, which is nestled between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Over the next 40 years, the business flourished.

To me, Uncle John was always the quintessential businessman. He treated his employees with respect, with several having careers with him measured in decades. As Hollywood grew into part of the metropolis of Miami, he fought off the big box stores for longer than anyone thought possible because he understood his customers' needs. He loved his community and served on multiple civic organizations.

The big box stores eventually carried the day. Uncle John sold his business to be part of a larger regional organization, which eventually was taken over by a national office supply operation.

I know his preference would have been for his business to have continued on as an independent operation but he also understood the dynamics of the market and that change is going to come, whether you agree or not.

I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs and executives in the government market and the really good ones always remind me of Uncle John.

Like him, what they do and why they do it isn’t about them. It’s about building something. It’s about being part of the community. It’s about respecting employees and customers. It’s about giving back.

The financial rewards and other more quantifiable measures of success come if you do those other things the right way. They are never the sole motivator.

You have to have a greater purpose. For Uncle John, it was his family and his community. You can't ask for a better legacy than that.