The Nuts and Bolts of Running a Business

By Gary Shawver, MGWC

I wrote on the difficulty of making business decisions in today’s world in the May issue of Water Well Journal. While this is true, owning and operating your business can be even more challenging.

As I look back on my career in the water well industry, there are many things I learned—many the hard way. While those lessons are not always fun, they can be of benefit and rewarding in the end. My goal with this column is to share some of the key lessons I learned in running a business.

Impactful Leadership Lessons

As a cadet at the Iowa Military Academy in the early 1970s, part of our curriculum was leadership classes. Many statements made by the instructors have remained with me to this day.

First and foremost: “You, and you alone, are responsible for everything your unit does or fails to do.” When you are in charge, you cannot look around and ask who caused a specific problem to happen. The buck stops with you.

It’s the same if you’re a business owner. While at times things happen beyond your control, you still must deal with those issues. More on this later.

Another profound statement from those leadership classes: “Leaders are not born, they are made.”

When I was in high school, I never thought of myself as a leader. When I went to college, I told my father that I was not returning to the well drilling business. After spending a year as a clerk typist in a Battalion Infantry Headquarters, there was a push to find people in the unit to enter Officer School. I was recruited and while I had reservations, I opted to go anyway.

It was one of the best decisions I made in preparation for eventually owning and operating a business. Little did I know it at the time.

The statement “Leaders are not born, they are made” hit a note with me, and I decided to learn what I could to be a responsible leader. It’s the same with your business. As the owner, you are the leader. You set the tone for the direction of your business.

How you carry yourself and how you present yourself to your employees and your customers will ultimately set the tone for how your business will be run. This includes what you say, how you say it, how you live.

For example: At the military academy we were required to have our uniforms tailored. This meant our fatigues we wore daily had to be sewn to fit our physique and they had to be starched. We were required to look the part of a leader. That attention to detail all plays a part in a leadership role.

I was always conscious of how I looked when I went to work every day, not just to my customers, but to my employees as well. If I looked sloppy, how could I expect my employees to look professional? I also spent time explaining to my employees the importance of dressing well and how beginning the day with clean uniforms set the tone for the impression they would make with our customers.

Learning to Lead

Now understand you as a business owner of your company don’t have to go to a military academy to learn these principles. But it will take some effort on your part. Learning them begins with the desire to and understanding the necessity of learning these skills. There are many books on leadership. Some are better than others, but find the books and read them.

There is an expression: “Readers are leaders.” This is true. I read many books over the years by motivational speakers and other leaders in business. I looked to see what inspired me and what I could then do to inspire my employees.

Another important point I learned at the military academy: “In order to be a good leader, you first must be a good follower.” If you can’t take orders and follow them, you will never make a good leader.

Working in a business under someone else is a vital part of your lesson in leadership. It gives you an opportunity to learn to follow instructions and observe those who lead you. Oftentimes working for someone else other than family is a great teacher.

I’ve mentioned in past columns how I shortcut my learning curve by learning from mentors. Mentors come in many different types including technical, administrative, and leadership. Most people with a certain skillset are often willing to help others get to the next level. Seek those people out and learn from them.

Business Lessons Learned

I said earlier how you are responsible for everything your company does or fails to do. In running a business, most business owners are usually going to need an accountant/tax preparer and an attorney. It is vital you find good ones and those who focus on you and your business when you need them.

I had several accountants and attorneys over the years. About halfway through my career I finally found both an accountant and an attorney who served me well. They still serve me to this day.

At one time, I had an attorney who also did my taxes. I thought this was a convenient arrangement to have one person do both. But what I found was that when I needed my attorney to act as an attorney during tax season, I had an extremely difficult time getting his attention because he was too busy doing taxes.

So, I switched attorneys and got a new attorney and a new accountant at the same time. The new attorney did not do taxes and he said, “I leave that to the accountants.” When I got my new accountant, I found my previous attorney who had done my taxes was not up on some of the current IRS regulations. I ended up having to redo some of my previous tax submissions!

This lesson taught me you cannot be good at everything and specializing in what you do is a good thing.

However, just because you have an attorney and an accountant who each give you advice, realize again you are responsible for everything your company does or fails to do. While you pay them for their advice, you must decide if the advice they give is the advice you want to take.

For example, I decided to purchase a pump business from another business owner who wanted to leave the pump market. I told the owner I would have my attorney draw up the offer to buy. When the offer was done, I sent it to the owner and his attorney for review. That offer so incensed the other business owner I just about lost the deal.

Fortunately, the business owner asked if he could have his attorney draft the offer. My attorney and I reviewed that offer, and while my attorney suggested there were some concerns on his part on how it was written, I went ahead and signed it and completed the deal. Everything worked out fine and we had no issues executing the contract.

My personal experience led me to believe that the other business owner selling his business was well intentioned and that the concerns my attorney had, while valid, were not in my best interest.

My point again is you as a business owner are responsible for everything your company does or fails to do. If I had taken my attorney’s advice and stuck with the offer he drew up to buy the other company, I most likely would have lost the deal.

I still use this attorney to this day as I have found most of his advice is sound. But I pay my accountant and my attorney for their advice, and I don’t have to always take it as I am the one who must deal with the final decisions.

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While I’ve touched on only a few areas of running your business, I have not touched on all of them as this would consume several pages. I’ve tried to touch on those that are the basics in running any business. The rewards for owning and operating your own business can be great. I am grateful for the opportunity to have owned and operated my business.

Today’s world of owning and operating a business is even more difficult than it was when I was in business just a few short years ago. Being in business for yourself is a lot of work and it’s not for the faint-hearted. But someone has to do it.


Gary Shawver, MGWC, is president of Shawver Well Co. Inc. in Fredericksburg, Iowa. He has been in the water well industry for more than 40 years and is a Master Groundwater Contractor. He served on the NGWA Board of Directors. Shawver is semi-retired, having sold his business to his employees. He can be reached at grs@shawverwell.com.