Business and life lessons from my mother

Editor Nick Wakeman with his mother, Katina Wakeman.

Editor Nick Wakeman with his mother, Katina Wakeman.

Work and life lessons are all around you, especially when your mother had a great mind for business.

For my wife, my mother was a second mom, especially after the death of her own mother 10 years ago. For my sons, she was the last surviving grandparent and the one they knew best.

My mom was the one who showered them with cookies and pancakes and hugs. The farm in Luray, Virginia will forever be known as "Yai Yai’s Farm," though her father-in-law was the one who bought it in 1926.

For me, mom was "Mom" and so much more. In my twenties, she was the boss as I worked as a baker in the family restaurant. She was a great boss, tough, but fair. We laughed so much together in that kitchen.

When I decided to return to journalism, my parents sold the restaurant and retired into what turned out to be a working retirement. Over the years, they accumulated several rental properties and with 35 units to manage, that became a full-time job.

Through the restaurant and the rental business, my parents were tremendous role models and my mom in particular. The list of lessons is long but I want to share several that I hope will resonate with this audience.

The most obvious one is hard work. My parents were in their 50s and I was 24 when I started working full-time at the restaurant. They could still run circles around me and they showed me that it doesn’t matter if you are tired or in a bad mood or if there are other more fun things you’d rather be doing, do the job in front of you regardless.

Mom also taught me the importance of data. Mom used an American Express planner/calendar to track how many people we served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She also made notes on the weather, special events and anything else that she thought had an impact on the business. In the fall, this included when the Washington football team played the Cowboys and when the fall foliage was nearing its peak.

She kept these books from year to year, and several times a week she referred to the previous years to see what to expect. The data she kept influenced the ordering of food, staffing for the day and just general management. She didn’t want to be caught by surprise.

Mom also demonstrated some feistiness like the time she chased a guy who slipped behind the restaurant to relieve himself. She threw rocks at him as he ran away trying to zip his pants up.

As much as her business acumen was on display at the restaurant, I think she saved some of the best for later in life as she managed the rentals. My parents acquired an apartment building and the previous owner held the mortgage. He didn’t want to be paid all at once because of the capital gains impact.

Two years ago, she renegotiated the mortgage when interest rates were at all-time lows. Yes she could have gotten an even lower rate if she went to a bank, but she wanted to be fair to the previous owner and his expectations.

They worked it out between the two of them and signed a new agreement. Mom didn’t use a computer or a calculator and after her death, I found a notebook where she had calculated different interest rate scenarios and the impact on her monthly payment and the increase in net rental income. She was 84 years old when she did that with just pen and paper.

Another major lesson from both of my parents is that they didn’t look back and dwell on the past. Mom always saw opportunities and was an optimist until the end. But she also was a realist. It pained her that she had to hire people to do the repairs and maintenance on the rentals that she and Dad once did. But she understood her limitations.

I’ll always marvel at my mom’s mental strength and outlook. It was March 1 when we took her to the emergency room. She was in pain and very weak from what turned out to be a blood infection. But it was March 1 and rents needed to be collected.

I sat in the ER bay with a notebook while she dictated what each of her 35 rentals owed. Some were behind and she told me the plan to catch up. Others were ahead and she told me that too. One was being evicted and we are still working on that.

I do see a bit of my mom in many executives that I interview. It might be how they treat people. It might be their passion. It might be their self-deprecation. It might be their ability to connect the dots on things. I know moving forward I’ll cherish those reminders of my remarkable mother.

Katina Wakeman died March 20. Mom will be greatly missed.

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