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The Things That Shape You

During the journey nothing seems to make sense because you are living through it in the present. It’s only when you stop and look back when it all makes sense.

I was born and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This is a rural area mostly known for being the home of the largest Amish community in the United States. In fact, 8+ million tourists come to Lancaster every year to visit the Amish. Tourists watch the Amish milk cows. Go on horse and buggy rides. Buy some hand made furniture. Eat some Pennsylvania Dutch food, and then leave. Thank goodness. 

Most people think Amish are simpleton agrarian people, stuck in the lifestyle of the 1800’s. I will tell you from experience, Amish are some of the most business savvy people you will ever meet. They have no cars, no electricity, no tv, no internet, they wear the same style of clothes, they have no debt – they have no vices. All they have is time to think. Go ahead and underestimate the mind that has this much time to think – that has no distractions. All they think about is family, God, and business. 

I was once at a real estate auction where an Auctioneer sold a farm. The Amishman pulls up in his horse and buggy with a pickup bed in the back. He unloaded six 5-gallon metal milk jugs full of cash. Pays $2 million, shakes the cashier’s hand, and rides away. 

I still remember the first time a tourist asked me if I was Amish. I was only 7 years old. I was riding bike with a friend, and we were at a Stop sign and this car pulls up and lady yells out the window. “Are you Amish?!”. I was really confused. I remember thinking, “Am I wearing all black clothes? Do I have a bowl haircut? Do I smell like a farm?”

Not everyone in Lancaster, PA is Amish. Lancaster county has a population of 550,000. 

40,000 are Amish. 

I am not Amish. 

Another odd fact about Lancaster, PA. 

In 2022 it was ranked #1 in U.S News and World Report’s ‘Best Places to Retire’. A big reason is Lancaster is also Ranked #1 for most retirement communities per capita in the United States. More than Sarasota, Naples, Scottsdale….Yes, Lancaster, PA. 

My cynical view of Lancaster is people come here for two reasons – to stare at Amish and to get old and die.  

My father was a small business owner. My Grandfather started the business in 1945. My father took it over in 1980. I was expected to take the business over. I worked at the family business since I was “knee high to grasshopper” – child labor laws be damned. It was a very small business. Two employees and my Mom did the bookkeeping. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor. My Dad earned enough to buy a new pickup every four years and put food on the table. That is how “success” is defined for 90% of small businesses. 

I was truly blessed. My parents were 100% in love with each other 100% of the time. My Mom passed away several years ago, but they are still in love. They are the pinnacle of what marriage and love should be. My parents loved me and my sister and let us both know. 

My upbringing was as American as apple pie. 

My family wasn’t Amish, but we were raised in a conservative Brethren Church. My parents were active in the Church. We went to church every Sunday. We went to Church every Wednesday too. We even went most Saturdays to help clean, mow, pull weeds, etc. 10%+ of all income went to the church. My Dad would say, “The 10% is before tax, not after tax. God gave you everything, so don’t try to give him less.”

Most of my friends growing up were from the Church. Many of my friends were also sons of fathers who owned small businesses. My best friend today is still my best friend from when I was 5 years old. 

I was expected to take over my father’s business. Everyone expected this. I was handed a golden goose. But deep inside I hated it. I felt like my life was planned for me. I still remember when I was 15 years old telling my Dad I wasn’t interested in taking over the business. I had so much built-up emotion. I had been thinking about it for months. I remember crying, like I was letting my hero down. And he accepted it with such grace. He just gave me a hug and said “It’s okay I just want you to be happy.”

It was my first life lesson – When you are stressed out about having a hard conversation. The more you worry about it, the longer you wait to address it, the bigger the problem gets in your mind. It becomes bigger than it needs to be. You should always have hard conversations as quick as you can.

We didn’t talk about investing or even business much when I was growing up even though we were always around it. We just lived it out.

The family business was next to our house in an old barn that was partially renovated into a working space. When I was 12 years old the barn was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. I remember feeling horrified watching the flames and watching the local fire fighters try to save it. When the last fire fighter left that night I was standing with my Dad staring at the ashes. I asked him, “What are we going to do?”. My Dad looked at me and said, “I’m hungry, let’s go out to eat.” 

I remember thinking: How can he be this calm? How do we even have money to eat? How are we going to make money? These were the thoughts going through my 12-year-old brain. But that was how my Dad was. He wasn’t going to sit around staring at the ashes of the past. He already moved on. His goal was to rebuild bigger and stronger. He did. 

I still remember the day the direction of my life flipped. I was 13 or 14. My parents were strict with letting us watch TV. We listened to a lot of radio, mostly a local Christian radio station. I was listening to the radio while I was helping my Dad clean up around his business, and I heard the host say, “You weren’t put on this Earth to be average.”

I don’t know why but that sentence just resonated with me. It replayed over and over in my head. It was actually what planted the seed for me to have that conversation with my Dad about not wanting to join the family business.  

What does all this have to do about stock picking? Your experiences, your environment, your past, shape your temperament and your stock picking. 

When I saw my father working hard at his business – I knew what hard work and focus looked like. 

When I saw my father taking calculated risks in business – I knew what appropriate risk taking looked like. 

When I saw my parents tithe to the Church on a consistent basis, even in the years the business barely made any money – I knew what commitment looked like.  

When I watched my Dad stay calm and not lose any sleep after losing the entire business in a fire – I knew what self-confidence and bouncing back from loss looked like. 

When you watch your parents have 30+ year love affair – I knew what conviction looked like. 

What does all this have to do about stock picking? 

It has everything to do about stock picking. 

Your environment. Your parents. Your values. They have a big influence on what you believe and how you get started. During the journey nothing seems to make sense because you are living through it in the present. It’s only when you stop and look back when it all makes sense. 

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