Everybody has a story – Herb

An experience many years ago when doing a junkyard audit reinforced for me that what is visible on the surface doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story about a person.

Everybody has a story – Herb  by Nancy Knowlton

Years ago as a young chartered accountant, I was assigned to the audit of a junkyard. In a preaudit briefing, the partner in charge of the audit told me what a great learning opportunity it was going to be and gave me a helpful piece of advice to dress down. I left for the junkyard, not completely knowing what to expect. I met with the owner, Herb (not his real name), and immediately he took me out into the junkyard. He took great pains to show me his little treasures – indeed, he called them that. He showed me things that I couldn’t distinguish as having any value and almost caressed them as he described their use and value. He had a simple strategy – he bought low and was expecting to sell high.

One man’s junk is another man’s treasure

Herb didn’t look like much. His pants ended high up his work boots. His sweater was well-worn and had both elbows patched. He wore a fresh short-sleeved plaid shirt each day. He ate lunch at his desk, busying himself with details of the business. He treated everyone as a friend who walked through the door to either buy or sell. I liked him on a personal level. Through the week I came to appreciate him as a businessman with an eye for value. For me, Herb personified the old saying – one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.

Don’t judge a book by its cover

Late in the first week I was alone in the office with Herb’s assistant. Normally she was heads down, just getting things done, but that day she wanted to talk. She asked me some questions about how I was getting on with the audit, and then the conversation took a right-hand turn. She started to tell me that Herb wasn’t really what he seemed. She said that Herb lived in a very exclusive part of the city, and each morning he got into his Cadillac and drove to a unit where he changed out of his dressy clothes and into his junkyard clothes. He parked his Caddy and got into his nondescript old car, which he parked outside the office. He worked all day, then drove back to the unit, showered, changed into his upscale clothing and headed back to his lovely home in his Caddy.

Enjoying life

The way that Herb made his living and the way that he lived his life were almost diametrically opposed. From what I could tell from the story, he moved between the two worlds with ease, enjoying people and events in both. Herb had had a very hard start to his life living through a Nazi concentration camp, but he showed neither bitterness nor frustration from the experience. In fact, he didn’t speak about the horrors that he must have endured. Instead, he was a gentle, giving and humble man.

A learning experience

The two weeks that I spent on the junkyard audit were, in fact, a wonderful learning opportunity for me. I met a man whom I came to admire for the simple work that he did at the junkyard, someone who valued his interactions with people and who treated people with obvious respect. Knowing that he had another life outside of work that was more privileged than how he earned his living made me respect Herb all the more. In getting to know him I got to know myself a little better as well.

The biggest lesson of all for me was to never judge someone by appearances or by the manner in which he chooses to earn a living. Often a deeper story belies outward appearances, and it’s worth taking the time to know that story. I’ve learned that I just might learn something about someone else – and myself – in the process.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.