By Mark E. Smith
Most are lucky to have one influential figure in their life, and I’ve been fortunate to have several. Arguably my closest mentor today is Poppop, who everyone in New York City and West Palm Beach knows as my grandfather.
Poppop isn’t my biological grandfather. See, I married into a traditional, patriarchal, New York Jewish family – a stretch for me coming from the wrong side of the tracks, of divorced parents, where I was raised borderline catholic at best. Yet, almost 20 years ago, Poppop welcomed me into his family, not just as his grandson-in-law, but over the years, closer to his literal grandson or son.
Poppop is the real deal, a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-and-make-something-of-yourself Jewish immigrant. He came to the U.S. as a child, and began selling leather wallets on New York City street corners during the 1920s. By the 1930s, he lugged a bag full of leather goods, selling door-to-door, experiencing tremendous discrimination as a Jew. By the 1940s, he was the top salesman of a leading leather goods company. And, by the 1950s, he was president of the company where he was once a salesman. Then, his business accomplishments really skyrocketed. In the 1960s and 1970s, Poppop owned the largest percentage of the U.S. leather market, where if you bought any leather goods, from purses at Macy’s to the leather interiors of Cadillacs, it was from Poppop’s company. As he reached retirement age in the late 1980s, Poppop sold off the various components of his company, heading off to follow his passions of golf, travel, and charity, till this day dashing between West Palm Beach and New York City.
As I went from academics into the mobility industry years ago, Poppop became my foremost mentor – my business school of sorts, teaching me much of what he’d learned about customer service, quality products, and, above all else, extraordinary ethics. What’s more, in recent years, Poppop has brought me into his circle of friends, where I’ll spend Saturday afternoons outside the kosher deli near his home during the summer, listening to stories by some of the greatest businessmen of all time, who founded mega companies that we all know today, who have over-the-top accomplishments like winning the America’s Cup in sailing. I admit that I don’t contribute much to the conversations – as I can’t hold a candle next to these guys – but I use every opportunity to ask questions and listen, learning all that I can from these amazing men in their sunset years.
You’re only as good as your product, and your product is only as good as you.
If your product or service isn’t self-evident, then you don’t have one.
The only way to make money in the longterm is to put people before profit.
Never, ever speak ill of a competitor or product, as it does nothing more than reflect poorly upon you.
The only opinion that counts is the customer’s.
These are just a few of the creeds that I’ve learned from Poppop and his peers, and they are tenets that I’ve striven to apply without compromise within my roles in the mobility industry, where my goal isn’t to be a titan of business, but to merely do what’s right by my peers with disabilities. In this way, you’ll always see me practice what I’ve learned and believe, and noting my now trademark consumer-centric phrases like, The question isn’t what’s the best wheelchair; rather, the question is, what’s the best wheelchair for you? and, If you think it’s the best wheelchair on the market, then you’re right – your opinion is truly the only one that matters. And, as I trust you’ve witnessed, I live by those mottoes. Sure, I work for a specific manufacturer, but like a doctor who’s taken the oath, my moral, ethical obligation is to put a consumer’s mobility above all else – after all, that’s what the mobility business requires.
I’ve been inspired that many others in the mobility industry share my ethics, where many recognize that no single product is right for everyone, that we must have equal respect for all products that liberate consumers. Yes, there’s business competition, but there’s also an unspoken, ethical agreement that you don’t engage in any practices intended to deceive or harm consumers’ interests to simply sell your product over another. And, all have followed that business ethic in our industry to a remarkable degree – that is, till now.
I’ve been disheartened in recent weeks as I’ve witnessed the mobility industry become fractured by a sole manufacturer who has violated our code of conduct by distributing a video that ultimately bashes many of us competitors in the industry. Even worse is that the video intentionally strives to mislead consumers, a ploy to put money before mobility, profit before people. For the sake of integrity and standards, I’m not going to mention the manufacturer or link to the video, but in no uncertain terms, they use trickery and video editing to make virtually all leading power mobility products look really, really bad – to the point that if their efforts weren’t so shameful and unconscionable, it would be comical. To give an analogy of how rigged the video is, it would be like a boat company showing how their competitors’ boats will sink, while they’ve clearly drilled holes in the bottoms.
Of course, mobility products aren’t luxury items like boats, but are profound, life-sustaining devices that we rely on for our independence – and that’s why I find the manufacturer’s tactics and video so disturbing. For a manufacturer to spitefully disregard the value of our lives as those with disabilities by putting out a deceptive, misleading video of trickery, designed to scare consumers away from all mobility products that compete against theirs, crosses a line of basic human integrity.
The question, however, that I have is, Why did the manufacturer – and ultimately its individual employees – go as far as to make a video bashing among the mobility industry’s most-proven products and strive to deceive consumers?
To answer the question, I have to go back to sage advice from Poppop and his peers: Nothing clouds business judgment like desperation.
If the manufacturer is losing the battle in the mobility market bit by bit, I suppose they figure that they’re down to their last option: Play dirty.
Undoubtedly, some will fall for their skewed, deceptive, heavily-edited video, so they’ll get some results. And, maybe they’re even glad to have gotten under my skin, high-fiving each other in their cubicles, saying, See, we even got Mark E. Smith talking about us! However, any scant results from the video can’t make up for the loss of respect that they’ve invited by offending virtually everyone associated with mobility products.
Indeed, their video makes me angry, and even a bit ashamed to know that a manufacturer in my industry would stoop to such low levels. However, I ultimately have to cut them some slack, knowing that they haven’t been as fortunate in life as me, where I’ve had Poppop to not only teach me the right ways to succeed in business, but, most importantly, how to live with true integrity.