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Unprecedented – overused or understated?

May 03, 2020
Just today, as I write these lines, my family and I have been counting the number of times we have heard the word “unprecedented”. It has been at least 43 times, and we stopped counting just a while ago when we turned off the news.

Dale Collins

We have started making comments to each other about this word, “unprecedented”, and we have instituted a penalty for each time one of us says it.  We have not figured out what that will be, but we are keeping score.  Of course, you cannot open a laptop or desktop computer or handheld device and search for anything to do with the current Coronavirus outbreak without seeing the word “unprecedented” somewhere in the headlines or sidebars or in the first sentence of any article.  It is ubiquitous now, and “unprecedented” is losing its impact I fear with far too many jokes, puns, and sarcastic comments.  Yet, the truth is that we are facing “unprecedented” times and that means we must rise and face this with “unprecedented” responses and actions.

I thought it would be helpful to write a message to our colleagues in the hope of lifting our spirits, encouraging our hopes and remembering that we are all interlinked in a business that we love and cherish and that has given us all a purpose that goes beyond simply providing for our families.  I know that for over thirty-five years I have found my way around the world thanks to people moving their personal effects from country to country, and I have made wonderful and enduring friendships in every corner of the globe – that is unprecedented!  And that is our industry. 

I would like to share some thoughts and perhaps reminisce a little with you in the next few paragraphs; and perhaps this will help you all pass some time and gain some comfort as we all wait for this pandemic to run its course.  As I write this, I think it fair to let you all know, this will be an “unprecedented” message for our profession.

I know that as nations, regions and states, and cities and communities, we will emerge stronger from this global event.  Nonetheless, it will not come without scars and some of us may not find a way through it; however, I believe that we can come together like a large extended family and mitigate the potential damage that threatens global mobility.  Making this occur will take “unprecedented” actions and behaviours from all of us.  I am writing this from my personal perspective, rather than my professional capacity, as one who literally grew up in the international household goods business and has over fifty-five years of knowledge in our industry through four generations of my family.  I did start working when I was quite young, helping my grandfather and then my father in each of their businesses.  The first time that I became aware of what my father did, and my uncles, cousins and my grandfather, was when I was just past four years old. So yes, I am giving away my age, but so what.  It was the household goods business that fed our family, was the topic of conversation at family reunions, at holiday gatherings and pretty much each weekend when we got together at the lake to cool off for a couple of days in the summer.

I am setting this backdrop knowing most everyone can relate, in at least some way, to what follows.  The household goods business for me was a family business, and it was an extended family business.  However, life is not a fairy tale as we all know.  From those early days in the 1960s, through to 2016, events including a warehouse fire destroying everything that had been built, to near fatal diseases attacking loved ones, to hurricanes destroying communities, not once, but multiple times, to the passing of generations and to the retirement and selling of a business to a new entrepreneur eager to prove himself with his own family, international household goods has framed my extended family and the lives of my parents, brothers and sisters.  Through these years - and many of you knew my father and mother - it was forever evident that it would take exceptional hard work to survive and persevere, and, to say the least, it would take an “unprecedented” outlook and attitude. 

I learned over the years that “unprecedented” simply meant that whatever was occurring in the world was occurring to me, or to our family, or to our community, for the first time.  “Unprecedented” essentially means first time.  If we are to come through this together, it will take “unprecedented” actions on our part.  I believe there are three “unprecedented” actions we can take to help each other that will impact our industry significantly.

The first ‘unprecedented” action is – talk.  Start talking to your colleagues, to your employees, to your customers and to your trading partners.  Everyone already knows this is going to be a difficult time.  Let’s be honest and face it plainly and with the right sense of humility.  There are mechanisms across the world, country by country, to help enterprises that suffer exceptional hardship; take advantage of them!  This is not a time to retreat and stop communication, we must increase our communication as we pull through this period of lockdown and staying off the streets.  Start talking now and start a dialogue about how you will meet obligations and how you want to be treated when you are on the other side.  Share information with your industry colleagues about assistance that is available.  Make sure everyone can participate.  These are “unprecedented” times, so it is time to behave and act in new and wild and crazy ways.  Let’s start and keep talking to each other so we all make it through.

The second “unprecedented” action is – kindness.  Now, more than ever, we need to be kind to each other and to show kindness to everyone.  I am one who is committed to the free-enterprise system, but that does not prevent anyone from showing kindness and offering friendship to others, even if they are direct or indirect competitors.  I am reminded of a story that I was told by a dear friend of my fathers, both now gone, and it makes me choke up a little every time I tell it.  The story is one from an old stalwart of international household goods that many of you knew when he was still on this earth.  He recounted a time when he was at an industry conference in Italy and it happen to be that his largest competitor’s two sons were also attendees.   To make it short, the two young boys got into some trouble and were in a desperate situation.  They had to make a call for help, and of course, called their father, as one might expect.  Dad was exceptionally far from Europe, so what could their father do?  Fast forward two hours later, and as these two young men were waiting in the office of the authorities, not knowing what was about to happen to them, in walked their arch competitor, who it just so happened spoke quite a bit of Italian.  I will not detail everything that occurred but, know that the two fellows were accompanied by this gentleman as they went back to their hotel, and the things that needed to be “taken care of” were taken care of.  The two brothers were safely and surely placed on a flight home and soon to see their father and mother.  I will never forget the telling of this story, and I had to ask, being quite young at the time, why he felt he had to help the sons of his main competitor.  He leaned over to me and he said, “Dale, when someone is hurting or in trouble, you show kindness and help them.  Is that not what you would hope someone would do for you?  They needed help, and I was able to help them.  It was the right thing to do.”

That brings me to the third “unprecedented” action – help.  Our industry will need help.  People will need help.  Companies will need help.  Families will need help.  This special community, of which we are all members, has shown incredible compassion and I have been inspired by many selfless and amazing acts of generosity.  Surviving through this incredible “unprecedented” time will take help.  It will take help from governments, from clients, from owners and from employees.  It will take an effort not seen post the Second World War in terms of assistance.  The numbers I am seeing on the television make the Marshall Plan and Truman Policy pale to insignificance.  We will all have the chance to help in different and unique ways.  Maybe it will be financially, or maybe by giving blood, or donating materials or by offering to listen and comfort someone that has been hurt by this virus or has suffered incredible economic hardship.  There is not a user guide and there is no online access for instruction on how to cope through a global pandemic that wipes out worldwide GDP by more than 15%.

In over fifty-five years of direct exposure to the household goods moving business, I can say that there has never been anything like this hit our industry ever before.  I hope it never happens again, but I think we shall, all of us, take actions that have never been seen in our industry either.  Two can play at this game, and we have the people, the compassion, the heart, the boldness, the knowledge, the selflessness, the drive, the spirit and, most notably, the love for what we do, to bounce back and rebound to rise again like a phoenix and play a critical role in the lives of people that move the world.  It may just be that one of our colleagues has moved the scientist or doctor or epidemiologist or pharmaceutical researcher that will help find the vaccine or cure or preventive medication that turns the tide.  I would like to think that our industry played some small role in helping that person settle into their new home through a highly effective and stress free move, and that by those efforts, it allows that individual to discover the way to defeat and subdue this virus and help all mankind – that would be “unprecedented”!

Photo: Dale Collins - Chief Strategy Officer and EMEA Managing Director, Graebel.

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