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Chip & LeroyTo celebrate a significant, but unnamed birthday of his, my Dad and I recently spent a few days driving a good chunk of historic Route 66 from St. Louis back to his home in southern California.  It was a great opportunity to see some beautiful parts of our country, make some memories and carve out some wonderful father-son time.

As is typically the case, one of the biggest treats of the trip wasn’t even on the agenda.

A few hours into our drive, we happened to pass McGinnis Wood Products.  A maker of bourbon and wine barrels and barrel staves, the cooperage was founded by Leroy McGinnis in 1968.  A bit of a bourbon aficionado myself and having just had a conversation about the shortage of barrels in light of the explosion in demand with a local distiller the night before, I just had to stop and take a quick picture of a step in the process most whiskey-nuts rarely witness.

I stuck my head in the office to say hello and ultimately was introduced to Leroy himself.  Still working daily at the age of 86, Leroy was incredibly kind and giving of his time.  He introduced us to his son who now helps run the operation and gave us a full blown tour of the facility, even driving us around some of the various buildings and parts of the property in his car.  What started with one hand built building, a few employees and some simple materials now spans more than 40 acres, multiple product lines and more than 150 employees.

Leroy had too many great stories to recount here, but the theme that stuck with me throughout the time we spent together was that in the best of times and the worst, through all the ups and downs of doing business over some 46 years was, “no matter what, just keep making staves.“  He would repeat this to his sons and employees time and again.  When they thought they might go out of business due to a dip in demand, they just kept making staves.  When the competition got tough and they weren’t sure they’d be able to navigate the waters, they just kept making staves.  And more recently when they weren’t sure if they could find enough wood to keep up with demand, they just kept making staves.

I asked him why that was always his attitude.  “It’s the only thing I have control over.  It’s the only thing I know how to do.”  I’ll paraphrase the rest, but his message was simple.  I don’t know how to determine when we should stop and I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell when we should start back up, much less get the staff and materials in place to do so.  If I just stick to my process and keep using high quality materials to produce high quality products and manage the business conservatively, I know I’ll always wind up on the right side of success.

It hit me that this was very similar to our financial planning process, investment philosophy and how we view markets.  We keep our focus on those things we can control.  It doesn’t take away the worry that comes from both good markets and bad, but it keeps our focus on the process we know helps our clients succeed in all environments.  It’s our way of following the same philosophy that has made Leroy so successful over the years.

Sometimes very modern lessons in business management, investing and doing things the right way come from strange places and unexpected sources.

Thanks, Leroy.  Oh, and some of us are thirsty.  Keep making those staves.