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LIFE & CO.

11.24.98  
Dad's Business
An entrepreneur's child gets a unique education — with an emphasis on courage and patience

When I was 12, my parents told me I had to quit taking piano lessons. My father was starting his own business, and music, like steak and summer camp, became an expendable luxury. I protested faintly, but my father, who played beautifully by ear without the benefit of lessons, was clearly more pained than I.

Harold J. Schatz was 44 -- with two daughters and a mortgage on a split-level -- when he left his job as an engineer and sales manager at a manufacturing company in northern New Jersey in the mid-1960s. He and three co-workers scraped together $55,000 to open Industrial Microwave Corp. in Scotch Plains, N.J. Over two decades, it would grow from four guys and a secretary to 120 employees and about $5 million in sales. As subcontractors to major corporations, they made microwave components used on missiles, aircraft, and even two lunar antennas.

"TOO DUMB." Lately, I've been pondering my father's life as an entrepreneur and the impact it had on our family through the bifocal lenses of a parent and small-business editor. I marvel at his taking the chance, starting with no written plan and inadequate capital. (It's certainly not what we'd advise our readers.) He chalks it up to optimism and naivete. "I was too dumb to see the risks," he says now. "I never thought, What if we didn't get business? If I had looked at the downside, I would've been too scared."

The seeds of entrepreneurship were planted in my father's childhood. My grandfather, Jacob Schatz, owned a silk mill in Paterson, N.J., which thrived through the '20s. Although it failed during the Depression, it left my father with a positive impression: "The pride and individuality of owning your own business always stuck with me," he says. My father, who spent 20 years working for others, never felt compelled to make the leap himself until his longtime boss took the company public and started "listening to other people rather than himself."

I never questioned his decision. It was just our life. During Industrial Microwave's first nine months, the partners drew no salary, and my mother found myriad ways to cook ground beef. Just two years later, the business was doing well enough for my parents to risk buying a more expensive home. It wasn't easy, though. My father worked long hours and traveled a lot. Often, he clashed with some of his partners.

As I got older, I often typed and filed for my father. I loved watching him at his sleek walnut desk. There, he fretted about making payroll and fulfilling orders, but he also seemed powerful and proud. Owning a business, I saw, was demanding and seldom glamorous -- but the independence meant nobody could limit your potential.

As an entrepreneurial household, we suffered the economy's hiccups more deeply than other families. During one recession, sales slipped so dangerously that two partners skittishly took buyouts. To help out, my mother briefly went to work at Bloomingdale's, her first job since my birth. Around 1976, my father bought out his last partner and was finally able to run things his way. The business prospered. He sold it some years later at its peak.

It never occurred to any of us that my sister or I should run this gritty business after finishing college. Entrepreneurship had no cachet back then, and I wanted to be a writer. While I was proud of my father's accomplishments, I'm grateful that he expected me to make my own choices. I take to heart now the underlying message of his bold midlife move -- that neither age nor circumstance need limit or define me. I hope to teach my children that, too.

I still regret giving up piano lessons, but it was a small sacrifice, really. In truth, the piano of my childhood was always waiting there. It now sits in my living room, challenging me to take up what was long ago abandoned. As Dad taught me, it's never too late.


By Robin D. Schatz
robin_schatz@businessweek.com

This article was originally published in the Nov. 9, 1998 print edition of Business Week's Enterprise.


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