When "Business" Learns "History" Can Help and Says "Aha!"

History Smiths

I had a wonderful experience the other day during a talk I gave for a local Rotary Club. I was late arriving, due to traffic, and just jumped into my talk without a real introduction. I could tell that people were expecting some sort of chat about local history because they knew a “history person” would be speaking. They sat back comfortably and waited to be entertained.

Instead, as soon as I started and they heard the words “customers, loyalty, reputation” – my first slide, with those words next to a photograph of General George Patton – two men in particular sat up straight and took out pen and paper. They proceeded to listen intently as I talked about building customer relationships in a non-sales environment, and they took copious notes.

“Business” and “history” need to work together more effectively, I started. They need to form mutually respectful, strategic partnerships. Each “side” has a lot to offer the other, but all too often they just don’t “get” each other. “I know this from personal experience, having one foot in each camp!” I explained.

Instead, we are all players on the team in support of our local history. Each one has a role to play. (My slide: a baseball team from the turn of the last century.)

I then cited specific examples of how businesses can get involved with history in ways that will pay off for them big-time, including:

• Supporting historical events (not just by writing a check, but by serving on the committee, helping to organize it, and promoting the event at their place of business)

• Backing preservation projects (these projects can have local, national, and even international reach depending on the project; I used the example of Henry David Thoreau’s birthplace in Concord, Massachusetts, which was recently restored)

• Promoting your involvement with a preservation/development project (I cited a project in downtown Ipswich, Massachusetts, that involved restoring and recreating a burned-out building; the business that purchased the building, the architect, and banker are all local heroes because they decided to take on the project and did it well)

• Supporting history in the classroom (with funding cuts, schools need your help with field trips, paying for reenactors or speakers to visit, curriculum development, materials, you name it)

• Promoting history outside of the classroom (history murals, walking tours, historic site preservation, statues, parks, plaques – these are all examples of “public history;” they are long-term, high visibility, and permanent)

• Partnering with historical societies and public libraries (your marketing dollars will go a very long way here; I used the example of a bank that funded the monthly lecture series at a historical society I used to direct; for $1,000 we could pay for speakers and refreshments, and the bank enjoyed a year’s worth of steady, high status publicity; you could also use collection photographs in your annual report or lobby, display objects at your place of business, help them get research done, underwrite a book project, fund a digitization initiative, offer a discount to customers who join or give to the historical society)

• Doing your own business history (there will be links to local history, and you will uncover a new story about your community)

In each one of these examples, I pointed out, the effort was all about relationship building. No direct sales were going on anywhere! Instead, these examples provided an opportunity for business people to connect with potential customers because of a shared interest or concern.

Return on investment? You bet, and I used the examples of two banks in Ipswich that became very involved with the town’s recent 375th anniversary celebration. “Banks know money,” I said, “and they would not invest the money and staff time it takes if there wasn’t a return on their investment.”

Finally, I talked about the fact that history matters, and that every business person really does want to be part of something “larger,” something important. History provides this opportunity. Through history, I assured them, they would:

• Help preserve our material culture • Inspire young people • Inspire people of other ages • Help tell the stories

• Align themselves with good work

Back to where we started, while showing a painting of George Washington, I asked, “Is your reputation important? Getting involved with history will work for you.”

“We all have a role to play,” I concluded (picture an image of Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet), and I could already see the wheels turning in people’s heads.

There were many converts in the room that day, and lots of “Aha!” moments. It was thrilling! I anticipate good things to come from our time together.