Monday, September 15, 2014

Regulation nation

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     from my lifetime of experience starting, operating and growing small businesses.

     I am old enough to remember a coffee roasting operation in Manhattan. This business perfumed the neighborhood with the intoxicating aromas of roasting coffee beans.

     Likewise, there was a large bakery where the aromas of baking bread reached out, grabbed you by the nose, and brought you into the retail shop.

     No more. What made a positive contribution to that neighborhood long ago succumbed to regulations. Faceless bureaucrats decided for the rest of us that the aromas of baking bread and roasting coffee beans were an affront to the planet's well-being. I hope that those lost souls are now employed in more useful pursuits--like cleaning toilets. 

     Example: When the economy went sour, Lucille was laid off from her job. She decided to open a consignment shop. She leased a small storefront on a side street in her town and called everyone she knew to collect consignments for the store. While the store was being filled, she went to city hall asking about a sign permit. A clerk handed her three pages of signage regulations. Not only did the rules specify the type, size and placement of outside signs, the fine print also included detailed instructions for indoor signage placed on windows to be seen from the outside. These could not exceed a specified size, with "no garish lettering." When Lucille asked what that meant, the clerk shrugged and turned away.

     Most owners of bricks-and-mortar businesses have struggled with signage regulations. Communities can be sensitive to the appearance of streets lined with stores and shops. 

     Other businesses face different types of regulations--no less intrusive, expensive, and in many cases counterproductive. 

     Example: A small civil engineering/construction company I know struggles every day to stay alive. The technical and regulatory issues faced by the owner are legion. His people must perform services according to approved plans, of course. In addition, he must contend with a virulent anti-development mind set prevalent in the communities he serves. These municipalities add to the state and federal regulatory burden with more regulations of their own, and then they hire high-powered firms to oversee and audit projects--at excessive review fees. This adds considerably to overall costs of the project, forcing the civil engineering company to add to the costs of doing business, to stretch out project schedules, and to maintain capabilities in addition to engineering. Keep in mind that it's the small firms that lease local space, provide good paying jobs, and provide personalized services to clients. Even the reworking of a septic tank or removal of a leaky oil tank for residential clients can stretch into months, a job that once took a week at most.

     More and more regulations are piling up daily. Local, state and federal agencies today are in the business of growing themselves, writing so many regulations that they themselves cannot keep on top of the mess. Who could? 

     We live in a regulation nation, and it's getting worse. The central planners have insinuated themselves into positions of great power. And it's not just Washington. There are busy bodies at every level, and they are the ones who write all this stuff--with good intentions, of course. But good intentions don't build small businesses. It takes much, much more. 

     You cannot escape regulations unless you do business under the table, risking certain legal consequences. You must play by all the rules these days, and that requires that you to take your business far beyond ethical business practices. Also, you must satisfy all the whims of central planners--local, state and federal.   

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