For Jim Proulx, success means learning what you don't know
Jim Proulx, 51, runs a family business with about 40 employees that began in 1944. He is president of Proulx Oil & Propane in Newmarket.
Question: What was your first job?
Proulx: I was a newspaper carrier for The Exeter News-Letter in the early 1970s. I took over a route from my brother, who took it over from a neighbor. I started with 33 customers and ended with something like 72. I credit my dad, Maurice. He knew every house in our neighborhood from selling oil and heating equipment and he would let me know when someone new moved in.
Q: What did you learn from your paper route?
Proulx: We bought the papers for 10 cents. The posted sale price was 15 cents. Most customers gave me a quarter. When the price went to 15 and then 20 cents, that quarter wasn't quite as lucrative a tip. Steve Mazurka was the desk guy at the News-Letter and Harry Thayer and Charlie Thayer were the owners. Steve was great about encouraging me to grow my route; he'd give me "comp" copies to offer new people who just moved in. I closed quite a few of them.
Q: Did you always intend to work in the family business?
Proulx: No. I went to Maine Maritime (Academy) and got a B.S. degree in marine engineering. In my first job out of college, I went to sea on a tanker ship carrying No. 6 heavy oil from Venezuela to Baton Rouge, La. I was 23. I had my Coast Guard license. It was the bee's knees.
Q: What made it so great?
Proulx: I had power. I loved it. One day, an engineer with 30 years of experience and a wealth of knowledge about the ship took me around and asked me questions. There was no way I'd know the answers because I didn't have enough experience. But I thought he was testing me on what I knew, so initially I tried to guess the answers. He told me it was OK to admit I didn't know. So I started saying, "I don't know" and he'd reply, "Good. Let me tell you."
Q: What did that teach you?
Proulx: The ability to say, "I don't know" is humbling and empowering. You learn so much more when you ask what others know rather than talking about what you know. People tire quickly of only listening and not being able to share what's on their mind.
Q: When did you join the family business?
Proulx: In 1987. Before that, I worked in operations at the Seabrook nuclear plant. Then in 1987, my father wanted an exit strategy. He had seven kids. Four of the seven of us entered the family business.
Morey Stettner is author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill) and editor of Executive Leadership (www.execleadership.com).