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Give and Take

By Joe Greco

Why is supplying the uniform industry different than manufacturing for the retail trade, and why is this business attractive to me? Manufacturing uniforms for the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict is how my present-day company was founded by my father, who had been an inspector for the Quartermaster, as the Defense Logistics Agency was then known. He knew how to successfully bid contracts and produce profitably for the military. When that war ended and government uniform contracts dried up, he made the transition to civilian clothing. That put us in the realm as a contractor for manufacturers selling to retail.

That change to the civilian markets kept us busy for years producing for the nation’s largest manufactures. And then in the ’90s, I had more than 80 percent of my business with one retail chain, a public company. I made men’s suits, and a few years later, this major client declared bankruptcy. Losing money and a major customer is quite an experience from a vendor perspective and one I trust most companies have avoided. What made supplying retailers so risky, and what does the uniform industry offer as an alternative?

As a manufacturer, unless you sell a “must have” brand name such as Ralph Lauren, you are probably at the mercy of the retailer’s demands for continually lower prices. Buyers at retail are incentivized to purchase at the lowest cost, not necessarily to add the best overall value to the bottom line. If the retailer did not make their numbers in a given year, a request for help with “mark-down” money came as no surprise to the vendor. Pay up or jeopardize future business. This mode of business did not fit my personality or my sense of good judgment.

After the customer bankruptcy, I devoted my efforts to the uniform business. The uniform industry provided the opportunity to manufacture garments and deal with a reasonable customer, one who will pay for what they order and appreciate and continually develop a healthy vendor relationship. The driving motivation for uniform buyers is not typically the lowest cost, as would be in retail. Yes, prices have to be competitive, but reliability and performance is much more essential.

Why did my personality not mesh with serving the vagaries of the fashion industry? Not many people enjoy paying the same price twice. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, well we better get some useful knowledge. My antennae are usually up for self improvement and keys to solving issues based on lapses of competency that I didn’t know I had.

Luckily I came across Give and Take written by Adam Grant, Ph.D. and professor from Wharton. Grant reveals an approach to identifying three common reciprocal behavior styles. He explains the benefits and pitfalls to help us catapult our success and avoid disastrous outcomes. I will share with you the principles of the concept along with a personal story of a business failure directly related to lack of awareness of these insights.

The three styles are givers, takers and matchers. There is no one behavior for all situations but there are dominant styles to which we default. We learn how these styles impact success or lack of it. Grant notes that “success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. Givers foster an opportunity to make a difference in the domains of networking, collaborating, evaluating and influencing.” He explains in detail how “givers are ‘other-focused’ and tend to give more than they get while paying attention to what others want from them. Givers put other’s best interest ahead of their own.” In a zero-sum game, giving rarely pays off, but most of life is not zero sum. We can be creative and increase the available pie.

He writes, “Take advantage of existing and accessible human capital of others to be able to connect to their contacts and determine how you can be helped. When the roles are reversed, you have little idea how someone else can help you and you must ask. One of the value-added tasks is to ‘reconnect’ with people and reactivate dormant ties.” You have already built credibility and trust, which would enable the relationship to get re-established quickly.

“Givers are much more comfortable expressing vulnerability; they’re interested in helping others, not gaining power over them, so they’re not afraid to expose chinks in the armor,” Grant writes. People will feel more comfortable dealing with someone not afraid to exhibit normal human personality traits. The most successful sales people are expert at asking questions and listening to their clients. Challenge yourself to listen twice as much as you speak. You learn only when another talks.

Beware though. Givers can wind up on the bottom by becoming doormats or pushovers. The key is to be sure to take care of yourself interspersed with your efforts to help others.

Grant describes the second type this way: “Takers tend to be self-centered by first evaluating what others can offer them. A taker will help other people strategically when the benefits outweigh the costs.” Clues to recognizing takers include “characteristics of being more self-promoting, self-absorbed and self-important. When your relationships and reputations are visible to the world, it is harder to achieve sustainable success as a taker. Takers tend to worry that revealing weaknesses will compromise their dominance and authority.”

Few people are purely givers or takers. We tend to become matchers by attempting to establish an equal balance of giving and getting. We find that, as Grant summarizes it, “most people are matchers as their core values emphasize fairness, equality and reciprocity.” Reid Hoffman, founder of Linked In said, “If you insist on quid pro quo every time you help others, you will have a much narrower network.”

My dominant style is a giver, and here’s how I got in trouble from lack of knowledge of this reciprocal system. About ten years ago I was producing work clothing for a client in a startup business. After a couple of years, my client found himself to be undercapitalized. Motivated as a giver to help this client, I extended credit terms beyond a rational point. The client was a taker, and I allowed myself to be duped. My inclination to act as a giver blinded me to properly assess the risk at hand. I lost money and the client went out of business.

Neither the image apparel or retail markets are without risk. I just prefer working with clients who value my service when I deliver as promised, independent of the risks they assume with their customers as is common in retail.

After reading about this approach, I reminded myself of the Rabbi Hillel’s questions: “If I am not for myself then who will be? If I am only for myself then what am I? And if not now, when?” The lessons learned from this book will help to both avoid detrimental errors in judgment and support greater success than you can imagine.