Infocus Blog

I have something weighing on my mind this week.  First, let me tell you about my grandfather.  He was a hillbilly moonshiner from the Arkansas hills who came to California in the 1930’s and worked his ass off building his business.  By the time of his death it was the largest and most successful such business in the Los Angeles area.  I remember going out with him on business deals and when his clients expected or wanted a written contract or agreement, he offered a handshake instead.  This is the way my grandfather did business.

I remember as a boy him explaining it to me.  He told me the handshake was more than an agreement to deliver services, it was also an implied understanding of the services to be performed and the duties of both parties to participate in the norm of the business practices to facilitate the deal to completion.  There were specific duties expected on both ends of the handshake.  Allow me to be more specific.

His business was a carpet factory and rug cleaning (a fleet of vans with truck mounted steam cleaners) as well as a 200 foot tower and special huge washers for the finest Persian rugs.  Let’s say he made a deal with a condominium developer to carpet 220 units with a specific grade carpet at a certain price and time line.  The handshake was made.  Now, he carried over 400 colors/patterns in that grade and had access to thousands more through the mills he dealt with.  Imagine, after the handshake, that the developer would say “well, bring over all 400 colors and patterns and keep installing them until we like one and then we’ll go with that.”  Can you imagine someone doing that?

No, instead implied in the handshake was the duty of the developer to either know what colors/patterns he wanted, or to come into the factory and check out samples and determine what he needed.  In some cases the client would give guidelines to the factories interior decorator and she would then make her selection of samples for the client to choose from.  You see, the business practices for this industry were very specific and clear and implied in the handshake.

I was raised to believe a handshake was all that was necessary to do business with people you’d really want to do business with.  That part is easy, but what about the people you seal a deal with a handshake with who don’t intend, either through ignorance or just plain arrogance, to change the standard practice and demand all 400 samples plus more from the mills, be brought over and laid in each unit until the developer liked one?

I think these people are few and far between, and you learn to write them off as business expenses.  They disappoint you, but you learn about character and you’re more careful the next time you shake someone’s hand.

Should I use contracts?  I’ve long thought about this.  Surely most people feel more obligated these days to go along with the industry norms, do their duty as a client, and cooperate as much as possible so they don’t risk their deposit the contract demands.  Yes, I don’t believe in deposits either.  Just a handshake and the word of a good man.

Perhaps I’m too old to change.  So far in three years in Bangkok, and four years running a studio in Oregon, I’ve only had one unhappy customer.  I’m proud of that.  It was worth a bad handshake.  I admired my grandfather and to honor him I’ll continue with no deposits and no contracts, just a handshake in the tradition of times gone by.  Wish me luck.