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Business Insider: Learn from the Greats

Interview with Frank Lovsin by Tormaigh Van Slyke

In 1955, Frank Lovsin, 88, borrowed $1,500 to open a butcher shop in Hinton. With five years of experience, he was just 21 years old at the time. Today, 67 years later, Freson Bros. has 16 grocery stores across Alberta, and Frank has a lifetime of business sense to share.

What factors have contributed to your success?

Persistence, focus and the initiation of action. Ideas are great, but if you don’t do anything, nothing happens.  

Boil it down for us, what does a business need to be successful?

In simple terms, the three things that make a business go are money, manpower and management. From the perspective of management, the three things are truth, honesty and respect. There will be difficult times, but if you have a solid foundation, you’ll survive and thrive. 

But really, there’s no magic formula. It’s you. You have to have persistence and focus, and you just have to make it happen.

We are what we repeatedly do. Name a habit that’s contributed to your success?

Delegating. If you’re always doing something you’re confident you can do well, delegate it. You’ve learned it, so empower someone else by teaching it to them. You’ve got more important fish to fry. 

This goes for our managers too. I don’t want them doing anything by themselves that someone else could be doing. They can work alongside someone to train them—that’s part of our training process—but if they’re going to do line work, they should use it as an opportunity to teach. 

In business, how do you handle people who can be difficult?

My basic mantra was, “If they’re better than they are bad, I’ll work with them,” but sometimes they have enough bad character or certain personality characteristics, and you can’t work with them. But then, I’m honest with them.

I’m remembering one person who used to work for me. I asked them, “What do you really want to do in your life because right now you don’t seem happy here, and as a business, we’re not happy with the results you’re getting?” We had a real honest dialogue, and we ended up parting company, but we both felt better after that.

Importantly, when you initiate that type of conversation, you’ve got to frame it, so it’s not threatening. It has to be a dialogue. You want their true opinion about what’s happening. If you frame it right, and they feel secure with you, they’ll be honest. They’ll tell you.

Six months later, he bought me a book, Taxi Driver Wisdom, and he and I are still friends. He went on to a career in first aid.

What’s the best way to manage your staff?

I always wanted to treat everybody I deal with—customers, family and staff—with respect, truth and honesty.

Give your people a goal, give them the tools they need and give them a timeframe. Then, take the time to make sure they understand, and check-in to see if they’re accomplishing what you anticipated they would.

For training, we tell them, show them, let them do it, and correct them if needed. Then, you check in later, and if you need to, you start the whole process again. Repetition and consistency are important.

Also, work tends to expand to fill the time allotted, so you’ve got to be careful and really designate your expectations.  

What important mistakes have you made that you’ve learned the most from?

I made lots of mistakes, but mostly they were little mistakes I could correct without affecting anything. Where I made major mistakes, was with people. For example, I would sometimes hire someone, and I’d be more ambitious for them than they were. Before long, we weren’t on the same page, and so they either had to move on to that page, or they had to move out.

The Pareto principle suggests that 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. This ratio often arises in business. What are some of the 80/20s in your business? 

There are probably 50,000 items we could buy to stock our grocery stores with, but for us, it’s about what we can sell. In our produce department, 90% of our business comes from 13% of our units. It’s good to have this data—our produce director figured it out for us. That ratio jarred my preserves.

Once you’re aware of it, you focus on that 13% and you make sure they’re always available and on display and properly cared for. We can’t afford to not spend time on it. However, of course, the other 87% is important too because it supports the 13%.

If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?

Back then, I borrowed 1,500 bucks from the bank. My dad didn’t have any money, but he put up the title to the house, and I said to myself, “I’m not going to lose the family home.”

I’d start the same way except I would more quickly start building infrastructure. It basically takes as much time and energy to run a large corporation as it does to run a little one.

Also, most small business owners work in the business instead of on the business. After I got it rolling, I would spend at least 75% of my time working on the business and only 25% working in the business. I had those percentages backward for a long time.  

Your business is an entity onto itself, but it won’t work by itself. It needs direction, and it needs work—physical, mental, and inspirational work. That’s how it grows.

Is there more? Do you have anything to add?

For years now, I’ve had people—some who are going into retirement—tell me I gave them their first job. 

I don’t know how many thousand staff members I’ve had in my life, but I would like to thank each one. And then, I’d like to thank my customers—some of them I’ve had for more than 60 years. I thank those two groups of people for being part of our business journey during my lifetime.

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