Big City folk often dream about doing business in a small town environment. Dozens of TV shows paint the picture of Main Street America, a land where everyone knows each other and politeness reigns. Our mind conjures up images of the South or the Midwest. As a newcomer, how do you establish yourself in this bucolic world?
Small town America is often a world of established relationships. Everyone knows everyone else and their family. Long-lasting memories serve to maintain honesty and order. If you cheat someone it’s remembered for three generations. The unofficial membership card to this cozy club is having your roots in the town or surrounding area. The harmless sounding question “Where did you go to high school?” is the litmus test. It’s acceptable for young people to leave the area for higher education but those formative years were spent in town. Politeness is paramount. People wave to each other as they drive past and greet you by name in the street. In the South, it’s said people don’t get angry, they just become frostily polite.
Since high school is a big deal, often high school sports are given the same reverence major metropolitan cities give their professional sports teams. If your high school background is part of your identity and school sports is revered, parental involvement in the school system is expected. Religion is often a cornerstone of community life yet it’s not necessarily critical where you worship. They don’t call it the Bible Belt for nothing. Volunteerism and community involvement is expected.
Often there’s one major driver of the economy. It might be agriculture, manufacturing or tourism. You need to have an understanding to learn who makes money and how.
Since roots matter, outsiders are often considered transient or drifters. It will take a long time to establish deep roots. Fortunately, business should flow way before then. It can be a wonderful place to live and do business, yet you must abide by the rules and learn to fit in.
You are not the first
Arriving in this environment, you have a major advantage: time. Unlike established advisors, you can be a joiner and raise your visibility. Unfortunately, others have come before you. It’s human nature to remember disasters. Once you are identified as a financial professional you will be measured against the standard of others who passed through previously.
Who are those professionals anyway? Why is this important? Consider these stereotypes:
The Reorganizer – They arrive on the scene and join several organizations. Early on they realize the locals aren’t very efficient at running groups. They get deeply involved and try to wrest control from the “Old Guard.” The newcomer goes down in flames. The established locals may not be good at organization but they are great at freezing out someone they don’t like.
The Snob – They constantly talk about their previous city and make unflattering comparisons to their new locale. They talk down to people and make fun of accents. They try to press their city ways on their new acquaintances. If you aren’t happy here, why don’t you just leave?
The Donor – They arrive with a big checkbook or a private foundation. They attend all the local fundraisers and sponsor activities. They believe in supporting community organizations and getting them the tools they need to succeed. Some say “We love them!” Others might say they are trying to buy their way in. Either way, they do good.
The Promiser – They want to make a good impression. They gain access and acceptance by promising to attend events, donate to causes and volunteer on projects. Most of these promises go unfulfilled. Their word is not their bond.
The Holdout – Similar to the snob, they arrived but they are not happy about it. They announce to everyone who will listen that they might live in the Deep South now, but they have no intention of going to church or listening to country western music. It’s tough to make friends if you won’t bend a little.
The Volunteer – They arrive and give their time to several local organizations and non-profits. They are worker bees. They are equally comfortable organizing a charity gala or setting up chairs for a town hall meeting. No job is too big or too small. They have no ego. We like people who make an effort to contribute and fit in.
The Huckster – They mingle in the right circles. They meet the great and the good. Shortly after meeting they call or ask them to lunch and directly ask for business. “I would like to look over your personal finances sometime.” They become a pariah. Watch out for that guy, he’s just another pushy salesman.
Let’s assume establishing yourself is going to cost some money. This might be in your firm’s budget for community involvement or it will come from your own pocket. Visibility = Credibility. It’s money well spent.
1. Find a Mentor - Don’t reinvent the wheel. Through your initial contacts, the town’s Economic Development Commission or Chamber, find someone who will listen to what you want to accomplish and recommend the right organizations to join and people to meet.
2. Get a Luxury Car – Many people make judgments based on appearances. Your car says a lot about you and your profession.
3. Join the Most Exclusive Country Club – Yes, it’s expensive. Your business is built on perception. A business insurance broker was told: “If you drive up to the most exclusive club in a new Cadillac, people assume you are a successful business insurance broker.”
4. Eat Out Often – Your office will likely be downtown. Maybe it’s on the upper floor of an office building. You need to be seen. A bank president advised: “Find a place for breakfast and a place for lunch that attract small to medium-sized business owners. Go daily. Sit at the counter and talk to people. You will become a regular.”
5. Be a Joiner – Pick at least four organizations attracting the type of people you want as clients. This includes groups like museums, medical charities, the Chamber, the historical society and the hospital. Attend at least one event a month for each one. Your mission each night is to meet six new people and say hello to others you met previously. Make friends. Do not try to run the place. They will elevate you when they feel comfortable.
6. Entertain – You will be meeting plenty of people. Entertaining can be done on several levels. Your company might hold a BBQ in the parking lot of your office one sunny weekend. You might personally plan a summer garden party or winter holiday party at your home. Dinner parties with 4-6 guests will help establish you as a giver. Return invitations should follow.
7. Become a Fixture – You will quickly learn about the handful of high profile community fundraisers. It’s likely the museum, hospital and other charities hold their $200/ticket galas. Attend them all, ideally with your spouse. Stand and bid at the live auction.
Certain organizations are obvious magnets for local movers and shakers. Others like the historical society, zoo and library fly below the radar. They are worth some attention too. They might also be an easier route to getting your picture in the paper, the ultimate in local visibility.