On Sept. 1, 2001, I started a lumber company in Memphis with only $17,000 to my name. I had borrowed everything I could borrow, we were literally eating ramen noodles again, and then the terrorists flew the planes into the buildings 10 days later.
The economy just shut off. I mean, the whole world was paralyzed. So I knew I had just blown it. I was going to be broke.
Somehow we pieced together enough business to make it through, and I bought a little piece of land in the inner-city. I went to North Carolina and bought some old broken-down equipment that was dragged out of the weeds from behind big plants and paid cash for it, brought it back here, put it together, and started working with 12 common laborers. It was tenuous.
Some people think commitment is if I tell you I’m going to be somewhere at 10 a.m. and I show up at 10 a.m. Some people think commitment is working my eight hours. I think of commitment as a whole different thing. I think the greatest measure of the success of a leader is the actions of the followers. And so if the followers are doing well, all the followers are acting right, then I’ll show you good leadership. If the followers aren’t doing well or acting right, I’ll show you crap leadership.
Sam Quinn was one of my 12 followers who became a leader.
He was almost 40 at the time, and most common laborers in our business have backbreaking work. Pulling lumber doesn’t sound like something so difficult, but trust me, 80,000 board feet of lumber coming at you in an eight-hour day where you get zero breaks except lunch, and you’re pulling 50- to 100-pound boards second after second onto a pack of lumber. It’s hard. It’s hard for a young man in shape, much less a 40-year-old, much less a 40-year-old guy like him who was living in Lighthouse Ministries, a homeless shelter.
Sam had problems with the law, problems with alcohol addiction, and drug addiction. He was a Marine who started off his life the right way, but he got sideways and got caught.
After about a week, I noticed this guy just working his rear end off and I liked him. So I gave Sam a 50-cent-an-hour raise, which I didn’t have. But I liked his work ethic. It looked like this was a guy who wanted to be part of something and wanted more than just a check.
One day our tilt hoist broke. It’s a heavy piece of machinery that lifts a pack of lumber up, hoists it in the air, and then tilts it so layers of lumber can singulate board by board by board and can come off onto conveyors and chains. But it completely broke on Friday right before quitting time, and if you don’t have a tilt hoist, you can’t do anything else. The work I was going to have to do to fix it was a week’s worth of work, but we had to be running Monday because back then every day mattered. We had very little cash flow, and I could have run out of cash. So my guy handling maintenance, one of my salesmen, and I went to work on it.
About 5:00, I looked up and Sam was standing there. And I said, “Sam, what are you doing?” He said, “I’m here to help you with the tilt hoist.” I said, “Sam, I can’t pay you more than 40 hours a week, and I sure can’t pay you time and a half overtime, and we’re gonna be here all weekend. I don’t even think we’ll go home. I can’t pay you, Sam.” He said, “It’s my company too, I want to help. Don’t pay me.”
And I said, “Sam, I don’t feel right about that, go home.” But he wouldn’t, and from Friday morning until Monday morning, we saw the sunrise four times before any of us got to go home. We briefly napped lying on top of machinery and packs of lumber, covered in grease and oil.
We literally got the thing fixed at 6:30 a.m., 30 minutes before the shift started at 7 a.m. Monday morning, and we ran all day. After all of that, Sam went to the line and pulled lumber for eight hours before he went home. And I thought, this guy’s phenomenal.
I started finding out about his past, and I started calling in some favors with attorney friends of mine so that over the course of two years we got all of his past issues handled.
All of these years later, Sam was a manager here making a really good salary, married with three children, and a homeowner. To me, that’s what commitment leads to. Because Sam saw commitment in us, he wanted to commit to being part of it, then committed to straightening his own life out, and then committed his own life to a woman and children. He was a father in an area where three out of every four children are born to a fatherless household. To me, that is the success of my business.
Success and excellence are not measured by commas in a bank statement. They are measured in so many more important, meaningful ways. And Sam Quinn is a measure of my success. And his children are a measure of his, all because he saw something worth committing to.
People look at me as a white business owner, with a book and an Academy Award and all that. And it takes them about three and a half seconds to sum me up. They assume they know who I am and what I’m about by the tags associated with my subgroup. The truth is, I grew up in lower-income Memphis, and my reality is that I know what it means to be broke. I know what it means to worry about whether you have dinner or not.
In the same respect, Sam Quinn is a 57-year-old black dude who just had a couple of DUIs, had some problems with the law, and a former addict. We’ve seen this story before. We’ve seen it on TV. There are movies about it. We assume we know who he is. But Sam Quinn was a father, a husband, a homeowner, and a manager at a business who works his butt off every day. Yet people summed Sam up the minute they looked at him.
Only a few weeks ago, I lost my friend Sam to cancer.
He fought harder than I thought any man could. Sam routinely shocked all of us as he would return to work after chemo treatments, on his feet regardless of how hot or cold or busy we were. He would schedule treatments in the early morning so he could get to work by 10:00 a.m. to manage his shift. Tough isn’t the right word to describe the man.
I will miss him dearly. He inspired me. He spent the last 23 years exemplifying what a man should strive to be — honest, hard-working, dedicated, loving, and faithful.
Sam Quinn’s imprint will forever be on my business and my life. I will miss you, brother.