September 19, 2014 9:01 am Published by

At a family gathering celebrating my parents 60th wedding anniversary last month, my aunt recalled their days as new immigrants to Canada. As opportunities to gather seem to become more and more seldom, I found myself listening more intently than I may have in the past. One particular story, and more specifically one phrase, struck a chord.

As was, (and is) common amongst new immigrants, families often pooled their resources to purchase their first homes. In our families case, my parents teamed with my aunt and uncle to purchase a large yellow brick home on the edge of Elora, just beyond the reach of municipal water services. The home was serviced by a dug well and pump- until the day the well ran dry and spit up sand. As luck would have it, a local well driller, Charlie Hill, lived nearby. As was also common amongst new immigrants, money was tight, and the family lacked the available resources to pay Mr. Hill. Yet Mr. Hill proceeded to drill the new well, with only the request and subsequent promise to ‘pay when you can.’ It was a promise sealed with a handshake.

‘Can you imagine!? Marveled my aunt. ‘What businessman today would ever dream of doing such a thing?’

Indeed, the gesture was one of remarkable generosity and even more so -trust.

This all occurred, some fifty years ago – half a decade at least before I was born. Years later, as an adolescent beginning to take a vague interest in what my parents did for a living, I have many recollections of Mr. Hill coming to see my father who by then had opened his own real estate brokerage. As I come from the last of the- kids are to be seen and not heard generation, I have no first hand memory of their conversations. But I knew enough to recognize that my father had a deep respect for Mr. Hill – a respect that had it’s origins in Mr. Hill’s leap of faith in our family. He would have had no particular reason to conclude digging a well for a bunch of new immigrants who could barely speak the language would result in anything other than bad debt. Only when his gesture was repaid through repeat business and future business dealings, would Mr. Hill have had reason to reciprocate the respect. Which, I have no doubt, he did. In short, a man showed trust when none had been earned, the trust was respected and reciprocated. And both men were better for it in the long run. Or, articulated as an equation, TRUST + TRUST = BUSINESS.

My aunt, and rightfully so, marveled at the trust initially demonstrated by a stranger. It is a gesture that again I agree, would be less common today. What I am less sure about however, is which part of the equation was the first to break down? Was it the businessperson unwilling to show faith? Or was the consumer unwilling to prove the faith was justified? Either way, it is an unfortunate evolution in how business is conducted. Over the years, society has replaced trust with written contracts. Where a handshake would have been sufficient, we now need witnessed and notarized documents crystallizing our intentions. In and of themselves, contracts are not a bad thing. But a good rule of thumb would be to never enter a written contract with a person whose handshake is insufficient. Despite what your lawyer may tell you, it is still the best way to do business.

Thanks for reading,

Jeff Neumann

p.s. As the youngest of five kids, the best part of the story, is that the well drilling bill was repaid with the families monthly baby bonus. Had it not been for Mr. Hill, my parents may have stopped at four!