Volume 40, Issue 4 April 2005
by Lyle R. Hill
He rarely talked, and even when he did, it was very difficult to understand his fractured English spoken through a thick Italian accent. In the summer, he made wine in his basement but his favorite past time, weather permitting, was to sit on his front porch smoking an oversized, hand-carved pipe while watching the neighborhood kids play ball.
To most of the kids in our ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood back in 1959, he was simply “Old Man Vitucchi.” But to me he was much more. In spite of the fact that I was only 12 and he was well into his 70s, Mr. Vitucchi was my friend.
On hot summer days, Mr. Vitucchi and his wife would often wave me over to their front porch where he would expound upon the virtues of living in America while his wife served the best lemonade to be found anywhere. Most of the time I didn’t understand what he was saying because the Vitucchis had only been living in the states for a little more than ten years and had developed their own version of the English language.
He was also a customer of mine. He was the best tipper on my newspaper route. And I shoveled his snow in the winter and cut his lawn in the summer.
On one particularly hot June day, Mr. Vitucchi put his arm around me and told me he had a surprise for me. We walked to his garage, opened the overhead door and there stood the most magnificent looking example of American engineering and technology that a 12-year-old could ever imagine.
“Whatta you tink, kid?” he asked.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” I said.
“It’sa for you to use. You gotta read da little book first, but then sh’s ready to go. And you know what, kid?” he continued. “You now got da only powder motor in da neighborhood.”
“I think you mean power mower, Mr. Vitucchi.”
“Whatever … now you can do a better cut in half da time,” he said, obviously very proud of his new machine.
As I stared down at the mower, my mind filled with ideas. I was accustomed to cutting lawns by hand with an old steel reel push mower that was slow and tiresome. With this baby, I could cut faster and, therefore, add additional customers.
“Listen, kid,” Mr. Vitucchi continued, snapping me out of my daydreaming. “Here’s da deal. You can use it all you want, but, in exchange you cutta mine free and put in your own vasoline.
“I think you mean gasoline, Mr. Vitucchi,” I said.
“Whatever … we gotta a deal or not?” he asked.
“Of course,” I quickly answered.
Within minutes, I’d mastered the art of starting, stopping and operating the nifty little machine. I then proceeded to cut Mr. Vitucchi’s front and back yards in about half the time it would have taken with the push mower.
After I finished, my old friend waved me up to the front porch.
“Kid,” he said. “It looks great and with da bagger thing, you don’t even gotta shake da yard when you’re done.”
“I think you mean rake the yard, Mr. Vitucchi.”
“Whatever … I thinka we gotta somethin’ here,” he replied.
I was now on my way to fame and fortune. But I quickly found out that in order to entice new customers away from my chief competitor, a 13-year-old named Norton, I had to drop my price to 75 cents per cutting. Naturally, it didn’t take long for my customers to find out about the price cut and they, too, demanded the reduced price. After only three weeks, I realized what a mess I was in. Originally, I had nine customers and made $9 per week. Now that I was doing 14 jobs a week at 75 cents each (except Mr. Vitucchi’s free one) and after paying $1.10 for my own vasoline … I mean gasoline, I only had $8.65 to show for my efforts. I was actually doing more and making less.
Tired and feeling like a failure, I told Mr. Vitucchi of my dilemma.
“Kid,” he began, “you’re a knuckle-head. The new machine does a nicer job than da old kind, so you shoulda raised your price. And why you wanna be a big salami and take Norton’s customers? You looking at da wrong ting … you gotta say how much money you gotta in your pocket at the end of the week … not how many yards you cut.”
He was right. I had focused on the sale, not on profitability.
“Kid,” he went on, “I tella you somethin’ else too … you never gonna make it in the glass business.”
“I think you mean grass business, Mr. Vitucchi.”
Lyle R. Hill is president of MTH Industries of Chicago. email@example.com
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