PIQUA, Ohio—People, in business and in life, don't know what they don't know until they know. And even then, there's still more to learn.
There's really no substitution for experience.
And even after 50 years working full time at French Oil Mill Machinery Co., CEO Daniel French knows there's still plenty to learn.
"If you don't think you can learn something every day, that's not good. I have plenty to learn still. It's always exciting to go to a new place or get a new idea," he said.
"I think I've got plenty to learn, my heavens," French said.
While French has been with the company full time for the past half century, his time at the family-owned operation dates back even further as he worked summers as a teenager at the Piqua site.
It was only after time in the U.S. Air Force that he returned to French Oil Mill Machinery, where his first jobs were on the factory floor operating machinery. As French moved from department to department over the years, learning the ins and outs of making machinery used in both the rubber and oil seed businesses, he realized the value of communication.
The approach to gaining wisdom, he explained, actually is quite simple.
Talking with people gives the opportunity to both receive and impart wisdom, and as the weeks turn into months and the months turn into years, the accumulated experience helps form a perspective that only time can create.
"I don't think you can have wisdom without lots of experience. Otherwise you can't necessarily tell the really important from the lesser important," he said.
As a young man, working his way up through the ranks, French remembers observing ways that the company could do certain things better.
But his father asked him to write those thoughts down and revisit them in six months. If they still had merit, then the two would talk. In the meantime, French learned why the company operated in certain ways that he earlier thought needed to be changed.
These days, French Oil Mill Machinery is amid another leadership change, but this time it's Daniel French handing over the reins to his daughter Tayte French-Lutz, who eventually will take control of the firm. It's a years-long process as father and daughter work together to pass down all the details from one generation to the next—including wisdom.
Storytelling, French said, is one particularly impactful way of sharing wisdom, not just between father and daughter, but also throughout the organization. This is an approach he learned years ago, and the approach made sense to French.
"If you tell a story about somebody who was confronted with a problem and how they solved the problem and how that worked out later, people can identify with the story," he said. "That seems to help."
French Oil was started 121 years ago by the CEO's grandfather, Alfred French Sr. The original business made machinery to extract vegetable oil from seeds and nuts and still does. An expansion into rubber-related machinery came in the 1950s and 1960s with the growing popularity of synthetic rubber. These days, the rubber business represents most of the business.
Rubber mixers, screw presses and hydraulic presses all are key products made in Piqua for the rubber industry.
While wisdom can be shared and knowledge gained about specific equipment the company sells, there are simply some attributes that must be embedded with employees when they arrive. At the top of the list is honesty.
"There's certain things I can't change about a person no matter what. Are they smart? Dependable? Honest? Especially honesty. I put a high premium on honesty. If I can't depend on what people are telling me, then I don't need them around," French said.
"When we go to hire somebody, the thing we start with is their attributes. You just can't change those. Then we look at skills which are built up over time. And knowledge is the last thing," he said.
"You want the best people you can find. There are some people who don't want to hire somebody who is smarter than they are. I think the reverse is true. If you can hire somebody who is smarter than you are, you will both succeed faster and better. So it's the right thing to do," French said.
Any work force, regardless of who is involved, ultimately will experience differences of opinion. That's called life. And that's OK.
French said he tries to put himself in other people's shoes to better understand differing views.
"I have almost always found that trying to see things from the other guy's point of view is helpful to me. If it's helpful to me, maybe I can make it helpful to both of us," he said. "Everybody has a point of view. I don't think there's any person on our staff or probably hardly anywhere who comes to work saying, 'I'm going to purposefully try to screw things up today.'
"They just may have a different approach, a different mindset of what is the best thing to do in this situation. And if your mindset is different than theirs, you need to talk about it and seek to find a meeting of the minds or train them as to why your solution is better," French said.
"I've learned that most people set out to do the right thing. Sometimes they just need some guardrails and some guidance so they know what the right thing really is," he said.