What My Father Taught Me About Margin in Life

And a Few Other Thoughts as Well

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of a simple word, margin, in our lives.  Last week, I wrote the first in what will be a series of posts on this topic.  It was titled Do You Have Margin in the Important Areas of Your Life?  And so we continue a discussion of the concept of margin in life, this time, focusing on early lessons from my father.

We Learn About Margin Concepts

As a business appraiser, I am familiar with profit margins.  Better margins tend to get better valuation multiples relative to lower margin competitors, other things being equal and create, well, marginal or incremental value.

In freshman economics, I learned that profits are maximized when production is expanded to the point where marginal cost equals marginal revenue.  Unfortunately, nowhere in the Samuelson text we studied did the good professor say that someone has to sell that production, or those services!

When I worked at First Tennessee Bank, I learned about one concept of financial margin, i.e., collateral.  That was a long time ago.  I was at the bank from 1975 until 1978.

At Morgan Keegan & Co. (later purchased by Raymond James), I learned about margin lending with securities portfolios, a similar concept.  I worked there until mid-1982, when I started Mercer Capital.

Of course, I learned a great deal more than about margin while at the bank and at Morgan Keegan, but these periods serve as reference points.  And I’ve learned even more in Mercer Capital’s now 35 years of being.

My Father Taught Me About Margin

However, I first learned to think about the concept of margin years earlier as a child as my father took me hunting and fishing, and then, later, taught me how to drive and to do many other things.  He didn’t use the term “margin” when we were talking and working and playing together, but many of his lessons for me related, indeed, to the concept of margin in life.

  • The first lesson he taught me was always to be aware of my surroundings and what might be there that could cause problems. By being aware of our surroundings, we are better able to anticipate problems and to avoid them.  Where are you?  What and who are around you?  What in the environment doesn’t look right or offers potential problems?  What Dad was trying to do was to help me create a buffer of safety around me based on what circumstances I found myself in.  For the most part, I pay attention to my surroundings.In November of last year, my soon-to-be bride and I were in Berlin where I was speaking.  We were there for five days, and frequented a Christmas Market right around the corner from our hotel on three separate nights. I can promise you that the last thing I was thinking about was a madman driving a large truck into that market and killing me or anyone else.  But that’s exactly what happened less than one month later when, on December 19, 2016, in what was labelled a terrorist attack, a crazy man drove a truck into that very same Christmas Market that we strolled and ate and bought things, killing 12 people and injuring 56 others.  It was sobering to realize that we could have been there, or that the crazy man could have done his deed closer to Thanksgiving, when the crowds were as large.  This got me to thinking about awareness and margin all over again.
  • I learned that when casting in a boat, one has to allow margin to avoid hooking someone else in the boat. Have you ever hooked a companion in a boat? It is not a pleasant thing to do – and it is definitely not a good thing to be hooked!
  • I learned that with guns, there is no margin for error, so safeties are important, and never, ever handle a rifle or pistol in a manner where the barrel could intersect with anyone, including oneself. These lessons were reinforced time and again by my Father.  When I later served in the U.S. Army, my father’s lessons proved helpful for me in training, and later, when I was a young officer leading often younger men (no ladies in my unit at the time!), to train that every weapon is loaded, for practical purposes, and that weapons safety is critical to individual and collective survival.
  • When walking in the woods and you must climb or step over a log or fallen tree, always look on the other side before stepping over to be sure there is no snake or other varmint there. I never received a snakebite on the back of my leg, but I saw several rattlesnakes and moccasins that could have inflicted bites had I not seen them first.  I don’t even have to think about this one, even today, many years later.
  • I learned that knives can be helpful or dangerous, and to always cut away from one’s body and not towards anyone else. This was particularly important around my father, who maintained razor sharpness on any blades he owned. This lesson was reinforced several times during my childhood because several of my friends had not learned this important lesson and cut themselves, badly in a couple of instances.
  • When Dad taught me to drive, every lesson was about margin:
    • Watch the road ahead and drive looking in the distance. If you are looking up close, you will not see the potential dangers a bit farther down the road in time to stop or to avoid them.
    • Be aware of the shoulder of the road on which you are driving. Is it narrow or wide?  Is it dirt or paved or gravel?  Is it unobstructed by signs and anything else that might create a problem?  Is it safe to use the shoulder as an extension of the road if circumstances, like a crazy driver from the other direction, require you to avoid danger?
    • Make marginal moves of the steering wheel and don’t over steer. How many times have you driven with someone who makes aggressive movements of the steering wheel to make marginal changes in direction?  It is uncomfortable and dangerous for passengers (and drivers) to make jerky over-turns of the wheel that create the need for steering corrections and re-corrections.
    • Anticipate your turns. Most turns are pretty obvious, but they can sneak up on you.  If you are watching the road ahead (see above) you will know where the turns are and can anticipate them. If you don’t, you run the danger of losing control of your vehicle and even turning it over.
    • Always be aware of your surroundings and the positions of other vehicles when you are driving. What is the vehicle in front of you doing?  Is it changing speeds seemingly at random, varying your margin of safety unless you take action with your vehicle?  Is it meandering over the road in front of you?  Is it safe to follow this car?  Or to attempt to pass it?  What about the vehicle(s) behind you?  At what speed are they approaching?  Do they see you?  If they are going faster than you are, is there room for that vehicle to pass you safely?  Remember the vehicle(s) in front of you!
    • Don’t pass a car or truck until after the car in front of you has cleared the vehicle. If you are behind one vehicle and another is at your side, there is literally nowhere to go if something happens.  What that means is that it is best to be patient and let the roadway clear in front and beside you before you attempt to pass another vehicle, if you do not have a car yet there are some very good deals at this new jeep dealership near dayton.
    • Never, ever run out of gas. It is dangerous, expensive and wastes the time of multiple people, including yourself and, in my case, then, my father!

These and many other lessons from my father made an indelible impression on me as a boy and as a young man.  That should be obvious since I can remember them so clearly fifty and more years later.

Concluding Thoughts

Margin is an important concept in our lives.  I hope the thoughts above are helpful as you think about your surroundings, wherever you may be.  In today’s crazy world, it can be critical to be aware of our surroundings.

This was reinforced again for me on January 6, 2017, when a lone shooter killed five people and shot six others at the Fort Lauderdale, Florida airport.  I have flown to and from that airport on many occasions over the last number of years doing business or fun in South Florida.  And I’m flying to Fort Lauderdale again this week.

Needless to say, I have tried to maintain awareness of things around me everywhere since the Berlin truck killings and the Fort Lauderdale shootings.  These events took on exaggerated significance for me because I knew about the locations personally and had recently been to both of them.

I hope your takeaway from these thoughts on margin is to heighten your sense of awareness of your surroundings as you go about the daily activities of your life.

And, if you need some additional margin in your business, give me a call (901-685-2120) or email (mercerc@mercercapital.com) and we can talk about what margins are important and what you might do in your interim time, between now and when you might sell or otherwise transfer your business.

In the meantime, be well!



My two most recent books are available in an Ownership Transition Bundle.  The bundle, priced at $35 plus s/h, has been attractive for many business owners, appraisers and attorneys.


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