Publisher's Column

Growing Roots

I own a 100-year-old building in downtown Nicollet. It’s where I started business in 1979. Around back, there used to be a thick woody vine that may have been as old as the building itself. It covered the entire back wall with clinging tendrils and broad green leaves that turned dark orange and red in the fall. The vine was tenacious and knew no limits. It slipped through chinks in the brickwork and wrapped itself around beams in the basement. It filled the spaces between windows and screens and crossed over to an adjoining building where it sent runners down the length of my neighbor’s rain gutter. Every year I cut it back, and every year it grew back even larger.

Seven or eight years ago, in the midst of utility work, I decided it was time for the vine to go, permanently. After a backhoe exposed its roots, I dug it up, tore it down and carted everything to a compost heap.

A deck was added to the back of the building, and I doubt anyone, save myself, remembers the live drapery that once hung there.

My current place of business is located directly across the alley from the old building. Three years ago, I was weeding around the foundation and noticed several clumps of familiar leaves attached to the concrete blocks. I grabbed a fistful of green and pulled. To my surprise, a “nylon-tough” root snapped to the surface of the lawn and made a bee line for the alley. Sighting down the path, I realized the root had to be an offshoot of the old vine I removed years earlier. Nuisance or not, that stubborn vine has come to symbolize something admirable.

Recently, I was running errands in Mankato. I began taking notice of empty buildings along railroad tracks and under highway overpasses, new facades that masked the original appearance of other buildings, and clusters of offices with unfamiliar names. The common link between these places was I spent a great deal of time in all them, meeting clients, helping plan marketing strategies, delivering finished work. Some of the businesses once occupying these sites were pillars of the community – major employers – major benefactors.

I no longer have a reason to go into these buildings. The owners I knew have retired, sold out, relocated or just turned out the lights and locked the doors.

“Gone but not forgotten” is a nice phrase, but one that rarely applies in business. A short newspaper story, something akin to an obituary, may mark the closure of a local business, but there’s no three-day weekend, no ceremony to retire the company’s “jersey.” Customers simply move down the street to a former competitor, and vendors scramble to replace the lost revenue. When a business goes by the way, people quickly forget who started it, how long it operated or even where it was located. I’ve engaged in more than a few debates that were started by questions such as “What bowling alley was located on Walnut street?” or “What color was the popcorn wagon on the corner of Salet’s department store?”

The details of a business are easily forgotten, but when a business flourishes for a period of years, it is never really gone. A business is as much a place of education as any school. It’s a place where people learn and hone skills, gain confidence and make connections. Businesses constantly cross-pollinate one another with ideas. When a company ceases operation, its best ideas and greatest strengths are grafted onto other organizations as former employees take up new jobs. When a company fades away or departs from its original mission, some employees take away even more, the energy and desire to carry on – to grow beyond the range of the original rootstock.

Jeff Irish

Founder and former publisher of Connect Business Magazine.