The “My Word is My Bond” Entrepreneur

This blog is a bit of a lament. I grew up in my industry during the 1970s and 1980s when a handshake was still as meaningful as written documentation. The proverbial handshake was not necessarily a legal contract, but it might as well have been. Once we gave our word, nothing could change the follow-through on our intent. Legal documentation was merely a formality and there was not a lot of haggling over the verbiage. Sadly, this notion of “my word is my bond” has diminished in recent times.

We recently sold two large apartment communities that were part of our portfolio for several years. We went through a painstaking process of listing the properties for sale with a national brokerage firm. The properties were marketed extensively, and we issued a call for offers. Dozens of offers were received, and we opted to have further discussions with the top ten bidders. Then we made a call for “best and final” offers. Once those offers were received, we interviewed the top four bidders and determined a winner. We then told the winners verbally that we were accepting their best and final bid. In both instances, one of the unsuccessful bidders reached out within 24-hours and increased their offer. In one case, the increase was $250,000, and in the other case it was $750,000 higher. In our minds there was no decision to be made. We had already given our word to the initial winning bidders and we had no problem staying with their offers, even though it cost us $1 million.

Contrast that with a situation that occurred with another of our business units. This business is involved in the syndication of historic tax credits. We offered term sheets to a developer who verbally accepted our offer and confirmed the acceptance in an e-mail. A couple of weeks passed, and we had not received a return of the term sheets signed by the developer. When we reached out to the developer he apologized and said that he had decided to accept an offer from another tax credit syndicator. Legally, he had every right to do this. But it certainly left a sour taste in our mouths. For sure, his word was not his bond, and he did not even have the courtesy to let us know without being prompted.

It all boils down to the simple yet powerful premise of Integrity. Our company embraces five Core Values, one of which is Integrity. We are proud of the fact that we can demonstrate in real time that we practice what we preach. Integrity used to be a foundational principle for entrepreneurship. I believe that it still is, but it has become devalued – especially where the almighty dollar is involved. The problem is compounded by the fact that too many businesses throw around terms such as “integrity” and “honesty” but fail to deliver on them. Hearing Honest Harry yap about how you can trust him to sell you a car at “$1 over invoice” has caused society to tune out.

So, what do we do about this sad fact of life? At this point, I do not really care about whether I can believe that the word of other entrepreneurs is their bond. Instead, we will just keep doing things the old-fashioned way. If I tell you something, you can believe it whether we have a legal document or not. Hopefully, you will treat me the same way. If I screw-up, I will step up and make it right whether I have a legal document compelling me to do so or not. I cannot count the number of times over the course of my career this has happened – at a cost of literally millions of dollars. This may not be the smartest business decision, but it is the right thing to do, and I can sleep at night.

At the end of the day, as entrepreneurs we should want to be judged by the character we display over the course of our careers rather than the amount of money we will have made.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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