Oz, Plumbing and How to Succeed in Business

By Jim Whitt

As a country boy I grew up having to figure out how to fix things with limited resources — like intelligence and money. I hate to admit this but I have become so suburbanized over the years that I sometimes struggle with what I used to consider fairly routine repairs. Awhile back I was working on a leaky connection from the well pump to the water line at our place in the country. What made the job difficult was trying to pry the menagerie of rusted pipe fittings apart that Dad had used to cobble everything together nearly 40 years earlier. It was taxing my ability, my agility and my patience.

I finally wrenched and hack-sawed everything apart and was now faced with the task of figuring out how to put it back together with new fittings to match up with the old. I threw the old parts into my pickup, drove 20 miles to Ponca City and pulled into a farm supply store. I carried my collection of rusted connections in and asked an employee if he could help me. I must have frightened him. He shot me a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look and started shaking his head slowly from side-to-side. I coaxed him into verbal communication by asking if he might direct me to some other enterprise that might be able to help me. He suggested a plumbing supply store.

I walked through the door of the plumbing supply store to find three men who I’m pretty sure had been cast as extras in the movie Deliverance. None of them spoke and they eyed me suspiciously. I asked, “Do any of you work here?” They looked one to another as if considering the interpretation of my question. Was I asking if they were employed by the store? Or was I literally asking if they worked there? After engaging in what I’d call a group mumble, one went out on a limb and asked what I wanted. We had a short conversation that ended with me leaving with my old parts and no solution.

Could anyone help me? For some reason the question made me think about The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard solved problems for characters needing brains and hearts in the movie. I just needed a little help with my plumbing. I thought I’d give a mere mortal one last chance before heading to Emerald City and stopped at Brandt’s Ace Hardware on the way out of town. I despondently asked a woman at the counter if they had a plumbing expert. “Has Gerald gone to lunch?” she hollered toward the back of the store. “No!” boomed a voice in return. Maybe the great and powerful Oz had taken up residence in the back of Brandts. I approached the back of the store with alternating emotions of hope and desperation.

I found Gerald, showed him my fittings and told my story for the third time that day. Gerald had enough gray hair and common sense to ask questions while poking around the shelves looking for answers.  After several minutes of head-scratching, measuring and comparing I wondered if Gerald might be getting hungry. It was nearly three o’clock. “Am I keeping you from lunch?” I asked. He raised an eyebrow and smiled, “You’re a customer. Lunch can wait.” I was beginning to believe Gerald was the Wizard! Unlike the other characters I encountered on my not-so-yellow-brick-road journey that day, Gerald kept playing “what if” with me until we came up with a solution. The parts he sold me were just a byproduct of the solution.

Before leaving I told Gerald the sad saga of my fruitless attempts to find help at the other two establishments. His response was priceless, “They don’t understand that they’re in the problem-solving business.” Thank you, Gerald, for a lesson that is lost on most people today. I don’t care what kind of business you’re in, if you want to be successful you’d better be in the business of helping people solve problems. Do that and people will think you’re the Wizard.

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