Ralph Pontillo is the immediate past president and chief executive officer of the Manufacturer & Business Association. This column originally appeared in the January 2003 Business Magazine, and he selected to reprint it as his final column.
I must confess I have never been happier to say goodbye to a year. 2002 was not a banner year, primarily because the manufacturing recession lingered longer than predicted. Quite frankly, business as a whole took it on the chin this past year. Although pockets of optimism existed and some industries did well, overall, 2002 ended as it began — a flat line.
Remarkably, most businesspeople to whom I talk remain optimistic for 2003. I have noticed a common denominator among entrepreneurs. Despite massive odds, they continue to persevere. It is a trait I admire a great deal.
My father had that trait, along with a deep and passionate love for the American economic system. He immigrated to this country when he was 19 with little more than pocket change. What he did have was tenacity, confidence, perseverance and a desire for freedom. He would define his success, not the government.
My father left his homeland because it was oppressive and freedom was just a word. He wanted a better life for himself and for his future family, and he believed he would find it in America. Consider the barriers he needed to overcome: language; a limited education; no knowledge of the monetary system; a foreign land and people — not to mention a fair share of prejudice. Despite these obvious barriers and many more I will never know, he never regretted his decision to come to America. He often said, “This country is not perfect, but it is the greatest country on earth.” How true! When you think of all the nations, not one comes close to offering the freedoms we enjoy. American society creates an environment that allows for anyone — without regard to race, national origin, sex, religion or any other factor — to create his or her own wealth.
My father, like most immigrants, worked in a local foundry. For more than 16 years, he worked two jobs in an effort to support his growing family. I cannot recall a single time that he missed a day of work. His dream of starting a business took a back seat to the need to provide for his family. Slowly, he began to save money to capitalize his first business venture. After walking to work for years, he finally saved enough to purchase a vehicle. His reason for buying one, however, had less to do with getting him to and from work more comfortably and more to do with his need for a business vehicle.
His truck would serve his trash-hauling business, where he worked every night after working a full day at the foundry. Hauling trash was a business he could easily enter since most people viewed it as a less-than-desirable job. But what others saw as distasteful, my father saw as an opportunity. His purchase of that single dump truck — along with hard work, ingenuity and a vision — grew into his owning and operating a city landfill. With that, his business developed into partnerships with others that included a fleet of front-end loaders. My father’s business ultimately expanded into the region’s first state-of-the-art transfer station.
From that point, my father never looked back, launching no fewer than nine other business ventures, from restaurants to nightclubs to pizza shops. Although he experienced both failure and success, he never stopped participating in and believing in the American free-enterprise system. This is the spirit and perseverance in entrepreneurs that I so respect. It’s this entrepreneurial spirit that starts with a man hauling garbage or starting a business with one machine in his garage that ends up providing food, clothing and shelter for his family and ultimately, creating jobs for others to do the same.
Some nations frown upon this type of individual freedom, and when allowed, they confiscate most of the wealth created. My father was right — America is not perfect, but by far, it is the greatest nation on earth. As businesspeople, you know that in our economic system, you can win or lose. You also know that winning or losing is in large part, self-determined.
Our country is great, but not as a result of a great government but, rather, because of great people who are free. Entrepreneurs, in addition to seeking their own economic independence, also create wealth and opportunity for others. You also create products and services that add to the quality of life for people across the globe. As a result, no other nation provides for a greater standard of living for a greater number of citizens than America. It is a tribute to all of you that the American economic spirit is alive and well. Just like the American response to terrorist attacks, the American business response to a bad economy is unity, pride, perseverance and a determination to turn it around.
There are two heroes in my life. One is my father, my role model and mentor, who I think personifies the American entrepreneurial spirit. The second hero of mine is the man who wrote “We kept faith with a promise as old as this land we love and as big as the sky, a brilliant vision of America as a shining city on a hill. Thanks to all of you, and with God’s help, America’s greatest chapter is still to be written, for the best is yet to come.”
My dad and President Reagan are both right!
I wrote these words 14 years ago, and I believe then, as I do now, in America and the American entrepreneur. It has been my honor and privilege to serve as president and CEO of your Association. I also want to acknowledge and express my deep gratitude to the most remarkable group of people I have ever had the honor and privilege to know and work with. The success the Association has enjoyed throughout the years has been a direct result of their vision, intellect, commitment and hard work. The staff of the Association is truly in a class of their own. John Krahe is an exceptional person and a great selection to serve as our new president and CEO. He, along with this remarkable staff and a very strong and visionary Board of Governors, will take our Association to new heights, for I truly believe that the best is yet to come.