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When closure found the small firm down the hall

Rochester Business Journal
August 17, 2012

Closure came to the people in the office down the hall last week, and it wasn't a pleasant experience for any of us. The final couple of weeks were highlighted by the afternoon when four guys showed up with a rented truck and wrestled all the office furniture down the stairs and out the door. Then it became clear that this was a life-changing situation.

Before the computers and other office equipment were disposed of, the people down the hall were occupied for hours with emptying files, filling garbage bags and shredding documents. They locked the door for the last time on a Friday, then returned the keys to the landlord and said goodbye.

When a big company closes, it makes headlines. That kind of news has often been preceded by layoffs and cutbacks, which are usually reported in the news. Those stories detail the expectations as well as the problems. Thus, when the end finally does come, people often are not surprised. They are sad but not shocked, because they have been prepared for the ultimate gasp.

It isn't that way with small businesses. It is just the opposite. They can vanish and only a few will note their passing. They often operate within a confined circle of customers, suppliers, delivery services, competitors, landlords, relatives, friends, neighbors and the mail carrier.

The people down the hall were functioning in a relatively complex and time-sensitive business with deadlines that were always described as urgent. Like most such operations, there were rarely any relaxed assignments in which the day or even the hour of the delivery was not an issue. In that setting, they arrived for work each morning at an early hour; their place was already humming by the time I arrived at a more reasonable 9 a.m.

They did whatever work needed to be done, maintaining contact within their small circle using either the telephone or email. It was just a three-person office, with the owner and two employees. The boss had been handling that type of work for more than 30 years, about 25 years in the space down the hall. The least senior employee arrived later in the morning and stayed until 6 p.m. to deal with any late calls or messages.

But those late calls came less frequently in recent months. In fact, the whole operation was running at a much slower pace. It was obvious-so obvious that one day Joe, who operated a delivery business that served the people down the hall, knocked on my door:

"What's going on with them?" he asked.

"I don't know. Ask them," I replied.

That wasn't true. Of course I knew. The business was fading, and fading fast.

For years it had prospered, initially serving a handful of regular clients. But as the years passed, the client list devolved into one major client with substantial needs, major requirements that sometimes required evening or weekend work. The work flow was so regular that the people down the hall had neither the time nor the inclination to search for other customers.

Then the worst happened. After successful years of following the same strategy, that one client's needs changed. Splat! It didn't need the people down the hall anymore.

Suddenly closure was inevitable.

Until just a few years ago, "closure" was one of those words that was in every dictionary but in very few active vocabularies. Then it soared in popularity, often linked to dreadful events. It became a favorite cliche describing a status people were seeking as a means of coping with a terrible occurrence.

If such persons could somehow find closure, so the experts were claiming, they would gain a degree of satisfaction and contentment. Closure was repeatedly portrayed as a positive status. Yes, it had a negative history because closure was frequently connected with some terrible incident. For the people down the hall, the recent developments qualified.

My recollection is that "closure" surfaced in popular rhetoric after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. It was then that the term came into prominence, especially for the families of victims, the survivors and others directly involved, as well as the rest of the country.

"Closure" can be applied in a multitude of cases. Typically it involves death. That was the finding in this matter; a small business died without notice, mourned only by a few, especially those people who for years worked down the hall.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime Opinion page contributor.

8/17/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 5855468303 or email service@rbj.net.

 

 

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