In his book "The Harder You Work, the Luckier You Get: An Entrepreneur's Memoir" (published by Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS), Joe Ricketts, the founder and former CEO of Ameritrade, writes of his business world origins, and his immigrant family's history of farm failures, innovation, and determination to succeed.
Read the excerpt below, and.
I remember that day vividly, the smell of wood, the sound of hammers banging, the sawdust scattered on the ground. My father had brought me to a construction site where he and his men were building a new home. I was still a boy, and this was in Nebraska City, where I grew up, a town of a little over seven thousand. The decade was the 1940s, but from the way the men were putting up that house—without electrical power, using only their hand tools and the strength of their muscles—it could have been much longer ago.
Each carpenter wore an apron around his waist, with pockets for the different-size nails he used for different tasks. He would pull out a nail with his left hand, hold it in the spot where it needed to go, and bang, bang, bang it in with the hammer in his right. Construction then was altogether different from the way buildings go up now. Nothing was prefabricated and shipped to them, like the trusses of today. The men had to put up every piece of the building one at a time.
My father had brought my younger brothers and me to the job site and told us to keep out of the way and to pick up trash. When the men finished sawing a board to size and the scrap end fell on the ground, I would pick it up and throw it out. Other than that, I watched. The work was hard and hot. The men got so wet with perspiration that the sawdust stuck to their clothing and their skin. Sometimes they talked with one another about the tasks they were doing, sometimes they joked, but mostly they sawed and hammered without speaking. I remember them as happy—working together, getting something done.
Now here is a mystery. That boy who was brought along to clean up the wood scraps, who grew up in a working-class town with a frontier mentality, would go on to found one of the most disruptive businesses of finance's computer age. That business would utilize the latest communications and digital technologies to revolutionize and democratize the clubby, old, highly regulated, East Coast–based financial industry—and in the process, the founder of that business would become a billionaire.
I was that boy, but if you had asked me then to share my daydreams and talents, they would have revealed no knowledge of computers or special gift for mathematics, and no visions of vast wealth. My idea of financial success back then went no further than the well-off men of our town—the owner of the drugstore or grocery store, our local dentist and doctor. I had no expectation that I would ever work in the finance industry, let alone help remake its services industry. And in fact, if you had asked my wife, Marlene, who met me in school, she would have told you that I seemed like the other young men. Maybe a bit more of a dreamer, imagining myself in charge of the businesses where I cleaned or clerked, but basically like the others, the sort who grows up to work hard all week to support his family, then goes out on Friday night and feels happy to talk with his friends and drink his fill of beer.
But on the day I'm thinking of, there was something new. My father's construction company had been able to buy a new tool called a buzz saw. I watched the men lay a board across the sawhorses they used to hold it still, put a mark on it, and then switch on the new electric circular saw. It really did buzz. And that was it—in a moment, the board was cut to the length they needed.
The men were ecstatic. Dad, though, was calm, quiet. The Rickettses were stoic people. He worked seven days a week, either on the job site or keeping the books. Most days I saw him only at dinner, where it was my mother who would tell us kids if we'd done something well, and my father who would let us know what we had done wrong. He was the disciplinarian. I don't believe he ever hugged me, and I knew better than to hug him. You never expressed your emotion in that way, or by saying "I love you." But on that day, I could tell by his body language that he was happy. His shoulders were relaxed, and his movements were easy, jovial. "This is so wonderful, Joe," he said. "It will allow us to get so much done so fast."
That was what he wanted me to understand: the effect this tool could have on their work and their lives. In that sense, he had an innovator's eye, not because he had invented the buzz saw but because he saw the possible benefit in it. I did not need to know the concept of productivity or the term early adopter. I could hear the meaning in my father's voice and see it in the men's smiling, sawdust-covered faces.
When I founded my own business, I would push hard, often against intense resistance, for my company to make advances like that one. Part of our success came from new communications and computer technologies that didn't seem valuable to others back then, and that sound almost like a horse and buggy today—we were innovating with toll-free long-distance phone calls, touch-tone phones, data storage on cardboard punch cards, early personal computers and slow, primitive email. In discount brokerage, as on my father's construction sites, success came down to how fast you could execute without a loss of quality, so we were always looking for a faster, better way.
Yet I did not grow up to become a midwestern Steve Jobs, some tech geek in a barn. It was never my interest to understand how the machines worked. I had no special enthusiasm for technology. In fact, I had very little exposure to new technology at all. We were one of the last families in Nebraska City to own innovations like air-conditioning or television, because my parents did not count those things among life's necessities. But maybe because we didn't have the new machines, I could see better what they could do and what a difference they could make in our lives.
Perhaps it's surprising that a little boy who was tasked only with keeping the job site clean and staying out of trouble would have been so affected by the new tool the men were trying out or would remember its effects so well. I think there are two reasons I paid such close attention, and they both go back to my parents and my upbringing.
First, I had seen how very hard my father worked, the double pressure he was always under, to keep revenue coming in while sustaining his reputation for quality. I remember once we heard that a tornado had hit a farmhouse and destroyed it. The people whose home was destroyed belonged to our church. We kids were excited because building a farmhouse meant that Dad would take us out to the farm where we could do things we thought were special, like riding horses, though the farm kids had horses around every day and seemed to think they were boring.
One day, as the house was going up, my paternal grandfather came out to look over the work. He was old by then, done with physical labor but still healthy and active in the business. He bid the jobs before the men took them on, and he would come out and review their progress. The carpenters had spent all of that day building a stairway, and when they got to the bottom, they discovered that their measurements were off by a quarter of an inch. Now they had a choice: Did they put a shim under the bottom to fill the gap, along the floor where no one was likely to see it, or did they tear it out and rebuild the whole thing?
My grandfather was the boss of the business right up until he died. A tall, broad-shouldered man with a big waist, his authority was almost military. When he came to inspect that day, Dad was visibly nervous. The men worked for wages, so if they had to build the stairs again, that would cost my grandfather an extra day's pay. But at the same time, it was the Ricketts' reputation that brought in business. A lot of the houses in town had been built by my father and grandfather, and sometimes when they were up for sale you would see a sign on the property: RICKETTS BUILT. That reputation was their method of marketing—if they built well or badly, the whole community was going to hear about it.
When my grandfather saw that the stairway was off a quarter inch, he knew his reputation was at stake. He didn't want to take that risk. He looked the staircase over, mused for a minute while the men held their breath, and said, "Build it over."
The second reason I was so affected by that buzz saw was the context I brought to it, based on what I saw and heard at home, where my mother's parents lived with us. Even as a child, I could feel they were broken people. My maternal grandfather had suffered what adults called a nervous breakdown, and he lived mostly in his own world, out of touch with reality. I never knew him as a healthy man. My grandmother had diabetes back before doctors knew how to treat it, and both her legs had been amputated clear up to the hips. She needed assistance to get in and out of her wheelchair. Although my cousin Mary Ann Weidemann remembers my grandmother affectionately, to me she seemed depressed and mentally absent. They lived until I was in my teens, and the explanation for all this waste and sadness came from my mother.
My mother didn't tell their story all at once. There were many different parts and versions, and they would come out while she was cleaning the house or painting, home all day with us kids and thirsty for someone to talk to. I can picture her with her sleeves rolled and her hair tied up in a scarf—she reminded me of the wartime poster of Rosie the Riveter, with the slogan "We Can Do It!" Like my father, she was a person resigned to adversity, but she could not talk about her family history without emotion.
My paternal great-great-grandfather, she said, had been born in Germany, but he wanted to come to the United States. He wanted to leave before he was drafted into the Prussian army. His father had died young, though, so the only way he could leave was with his mother's permission, which she wouldn't give. Before he turned seventeen, that young man decided he had to leave his country and stow away on a ship because he lacked her approval.
His mother fixed him his Sunday meal every week. The following Sunday, when he didn't show up for dinner, she took his meal, a waffle, and put the plate on the mantel to wait for him. It stayed there until she died. She was heartbroken. He made it past the Prussian authorities and ultimately immigrated to the United States. I think he became a blacksmith.
In the next generation, my great-grandmother was ambitious and married a banker. This was before federal regulation of banking, so a local banker was like the owner of any small business: He made his own decisions and lived with the consequences. That meant that our family had access to capital. They had seven children and wanted a farm for each. My grandfather was the oldest child, so they bought the first farm for him, taking on a lot of debt. The crops were good, the farm made money, and as soon as they had some equity in it, they borrowed against that and bought another. In time, they owned farms from South Dakota down through Kansas. You could say that for their time and place, my immigrant forebears were very successful entrepreneurs.
My great-grandfather died knowing he had succeeded. My mother grew up on the first of those seven farms. She lived in Manley, Nebraska, in a family that was not only one of the most successful farm families but also one of the prominent families of the community. They were Catholic, and in those days in their church the people who gave the most money got the first pew, and the second biggest donors got the next pew, and so on. My grandfather's family had the first pew in the church. They bought a new car every few years. Their house was big for its time, with a pillar on each side of the front door, as compared to my father's family home, which was at that time a log cabin. They covered it with siding, so it looked like a regular house. But it was still a log cabin. Growing up in the 1920s, my mother's family was not wealthy, but they lived well as proud and prominent members of the community.
One day my grandfather bought a new bull, a major purchase for a cattle farmer, and the family threw a big party. The kitchen tables were brought out into the yard and laden with all kinds of food. There was a lot of competition among the farmers over who could produce the most from an acre of land, display the best animals, grow their crops in the straightest lines, and other tests of agricultural achievement. People were invited to come to this party to admire the new prize bull. It was like their own private county fair. There were games—my aunt used to tell me how guests would place bets on the number of eggs they could balance on a bull's back before the eggs started falling off—and other kinds of fun that we don't think about anymore.
Sometime after the party, it was discovered that the new bull was diseased. It might have had tuberculosis or hoof-and-mouth, a deadly infection that could spread through a community and ruin all the farmers around. This was before science understood the transmission of the disease, so to make sure it would not pass beyond my grandfather's farm, his entire herd had to be destroyed. Once the vet made his diagnosis, my grandfather had no more say in the matter. The state sent men to dig an enormous hole, drive the animals in, slaughter them all, and fill the hole with dirt.
Because his entire herd had been destroyed, my grandfather did not have enough income to make the payment on his farm loan, and over time, as he missed more payments, the extended family defaulted on all the loans that had supported the family's farms. By now, the Depression had begun. This was before welfare or Social Security was established, and so my grandparents became paupers. They lost it all.
My grandfather heard that there were jobs at the packinghouse in Nebraska City, so he moved his family there. They left without any assets, and when they arrived, they rented the cheapest home they could find, one with dirt floors. My aunt was so embarrassed to have her boyfriend see where she lived that when he picked her up, she asked him to meet her at the corner.
My grandfather's plan was to get a factory job because that was the work available to a man with no skills except farming. The packinghouse was tough, dirty work. Today those places are as clean as hospitals, but back then there were blood and guts and feces lying all over.
He tried, but he couldn't bring himself to go to work in the packinghouse like a boy. His life's goal had been to become a big cattleman, and before he'd lost his farm, he'd had a big sign on the side of his barn with his name and the phrase "and sons." That cattle herd had been the worldly representation of all his success and his legacy. Losing it destroyed him. He suffered a breakdown and never worked again. When I knew him, he spent the day in his rocker, looking out the window.
His sons went to work in those packinghouses to support the family, and his daughters got jobs in town. My mother was fortunate that she had an aunt who sponsored her to complete high school in Omaha. Her aunt found her a family to live with in exchange for housecleaning and babysitting along the way to earning her diploma. She learned to live as a city girl. After she graduated, she took a job at a five-and-dime store called Hested's, where she would eventually meet my father's sister and, through her, my father.
From then on, my mother was very, very conscious of the social standing her family had lost, and she was bound and determined to get back to where they had been. When she left the house, she was always dressed properly—no one but us kids ever saw her dressed for housecleaning. In church, we all had to be neat and clean, my younger brothers and me in our sport coats and freshly ironed shirts. The Latin Mass lasted an hour and I couldn't understand a word of it, but I knew when to give the proper responses and understood that this was my mother's social show-off time. There was no choice about being there. It was always very important to her that we put on our best show. I remember when I first started going to school, I came home from kindergarten and she received a phone call from a neighbor who had seen me walking across the street kitty-corner. "People are watching you and they know who you are," she told me. "You've got to act right!"
I understood when she told me how her family had lost their farms that she was again teaching me a lesson in how to act right. If you wanted what she called a nice life, you had to make it yourself. You had to work hard every day, and when you got what you were after, you had to keep working hard because you could lose it all. And so, I understood early that I had to succeed on my own.
Excerpt from "The Harder You Work, the Luckier You Get: An Entrepreneur's Memoir" by Joe Ricketts, published by Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS. © 2019 by Joe Ricketts. Reprinted by permission.
For more info:
- "The Harder You Work, the Luckier You Get: An Entrepreneur's Memoir" by Joe Ricketts (Simon & Schuster), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available November 5 via Amazon