Starting a Career in Business

Blake Stephens owned and operated a stockbroker firm in Toronto in the 1990s, eventually leaving that life for an academic career in Fine Arts. Stephens earned his Ph.D. in 2008.

When I was in my early 20s, well-meaning relatives more or less thrust upon me the ownership of a small stock brokerage firm in Toronto, Ontario. An uncle knew that the owner of the firm, Mr. Scott, wanted to divest himself of responsibility. So I was introduced to the elderly Mr. Scott, whose huge mane of white hair demonstrated that he was what you’d call a “character.” Missing meetings, changing his mind about selling and, as I later discovered, neglecting daily business operations were routine actions. I became so focused on completing the transaction of buying his firm, egged on by my rich uncle, that I neglected the fundamentals of business. Research should have mattered.

What were the annual sales figures? What were the projections? What were the costs of doing business, including overhead, staff, and sales? I failed to get answers to these questions because I did not even know to ask. Of course, those questions were not on my radar since I had not attended a business college or university. Lacking any formal education beyond high school, and armed only with youthful confidence, I talked Mr. Scott into selling me his brokerage firm. The only thing I did right was to persist.

On the first day of business, the office’s desks fell apart, scattering papers everywhere. This was not just an ill omen; it was a metaphor for the next 10 years of my life. Immediately, staff informed me of the “special bonuses” they had going with Mr. Scott. Sales representatives demanded better deals that the previous management promised. For weeks I found half-empty bottles of Canadian Club Whiskey at the bottom of desk drawers. Rita, the elderly office manager, said the liquor was used to treat Mr. Scott’s malaria, which he had contracted in a South Pacific listening post during the war. I always wondered how he could have heard anything through the fog of drunkenness. That is how I felt, owning his broken brokerage firm. Half of the sales staff quit within the first month. I refused to give in and redoubled my efforts to attract brokers, luring them with attractive sales commissions. This strategy actually created antagonistic relations between management and sales staff. Though the business grew from six sales employees to 60 in less than three years, it eventually imploded.

The biggest challenge to keeping the firm intact was not dealing with a prima donna sales force. Instead, it was trying to figure out the new breed of university-educated broker. Younger people answering job advertisements were interviewing our firm, rather than the other way around. They behaved as though any firm would be lucky to have them. I had to assure one fellow that nobody paid a first-year broker $500,000. In the old days, sales reps had begged for work, but those days had slipped away. Then everything old became new again, thanks to the 2009 stock market meltdown.

Now, successful job hunters in the business world have to get creative. Single-page resumes that catch employers’ attention must be combined with volunteer experience and apprenticeships. Highlighting one’s transitional skills on a resume, in its own section, is extremely valuable since the job you trained for may never be the one you get.

The best advice to individuals choosing career paths is research your intended field. Know it has room to grow with you and prepare to be persistent. Changing career paths repeatedly can be painful, but deceptively easy on the third go-round. Careers are not like girlfriends we did not want mom to see. The biggest mistake people make is to give up on a career too soon, only to repeat the same behavior. Research helps individuals see into the future. Because back in the so-called “stone age,” when stock brokers “dialed for dollars” (aka cold-calling), we knew we were selling buggy whips in an age of fast cars. But, we did not know how to change. Change came without some of us. I have a vivid memory of a young sales rep claiming that stock brokers would be replaced eventually by electronic trading. Unfathomable! Stocks were sold over the phone by thick-fingered cigar-chewing men in dark cubicles. Weren’t they?

Without the proper career research, your mom might end up choosing your path, rather than you.