Eustace Greaves Jr. learned to go it alone for his Brooklyn small business, as sole proprietor of Greaves Financial Services, a planning service, insurance agency, and tax-preparation business. But in late 2002, his life changed dramatically, when his partner of 26 years, Debbie, died unexpectedly, from a pulmonary embolism. A shattered Greaves and their 8-year-old daughter, Ashley, were suddenly on their own and he quickly faced two great challenges at once: single parenting and running his own business. Business writer Erin McDermott talked with Greaves recently about how he learned to manage his time, get his daughter’s acceptance to their new life, and what other business owners should be thinking about just in case.
EM: Let’s talk about before and after. How did you get started?
EG: In January 2000, I took over an office that ran a defensive driving program and got licensed to run classes. I was up and running. At that point, my daughter was used to coming to the office now and then with her mom—when I was there too much—and sitting there until the message got through to me that it was time to go home. Or go to the park or Coney Island on a weekend.
It was Veterans’ Day 2002. Debbie was supposed to have bought a new shower curtain because we’d just had the bathroom repaired. We were all laughing and she said we ought to buy a house. I looked at her—we’re not buying a house, we’re not married and, knowing the financial horror stories from my job, I said I thought that would be a problem. So she said maybe we ought to get married then. My daughter and I looked at her, and then each other and she said “Daddy, I think two Greaves are going to be three.” That was at 6:30 at night, and four hours later, she was dead from a blood clot in her lung. I’m an old Boy Scout. I couldn’t understand why the CPR I was doing wasn’t working and why she wasn’t breathing. After the autopsy, the medical examiner told me, “Listen, even if I was standing next to you, she’d still be dead.” It was just one of those things.
EM: When you went back to work, was it difficult to get your daughter to understand the situation?
EG: It was a bit of a learning curve for her and for me. As I often tell my daughter, never marry a man who hasn’t lived on his own for two years. I knew what it meant to mop a floor, and do laundry, and all of that. Debbie and I had shared all of those duties and now I was picking them all up. The floor doesn’t get mopped as much now.
I think one of the worst things a sole proprietor—or any parent—can do is to not make their children aware of basic financial responsibility, how money is earned, and what goes into earning money. My daughter had been used to going shopping with her mom and my sister on Saturdays. They’d buy the little plastic junk that you’d wind up throwing away three years later. After her mother died, there was no shopping for a while.
But eventually she asked to go shopping on a weekend. And I sat her down and showed her my commission sheets for my insurance agency. I said, “Let me show you how I earn money. For every dollar I bring in, I earn 15 cents. However, out of that 15 cents, I have to pay federal, state, and local taxes. I have to pay rent.” I showed her how her mom took care of the car and groceries and their shopping excursions. When she realized what I had to go through, it was suddenly tough to buy a newspaper in front of this child. [laughs] She’d say: “Daddy, do you really want to spend that money?” I’d try to take her clothes shopping for school, but she’d say what she had was enough. It made her extremely responsible, an extremely fiscally responsible child.
And thankfully I was a sole proprietor. It gave me the flexibility to be there, to drop her off at school and get to every meeting. I could close the office for the rest of the day if I picked her up at school and saw that she was tired or not feeling well.
EG: If you have employees, make sure you have good employees—people you can trust to run the business in your absence. At that time, I didn’t have employees, so there were just days when the business was closed. But if you do, make sure you treat them well, because you never know when you’ll be the one that has to be gone for a week with an emergency. When I have had employees and one had a child sick at home, they stayed home until they were well. If a babysitter didn’t show, their child came to the office and we had toys and paper and crayons if they had to be here for the day. With a small business, it’s more like a family. Yes, it’s a business and I may ask you to complete tasks, but at the end of the day you’re a parent, your employee is still a parent, your employee is a son or daughter who might have an elderly parent who needs to spend a few days in the hospital. Be flexible.
From a personal point of view, bring the kids in to the office and give them tasks. Make them a part of the business. Even if it’s putting labels on postcards—have them do it and then walk them to the post office and tell them: “This is why we’re sending out postcards: Because out of so many postcards, we expect so many responses, so many clients, and to generate so much income.” Children are very good at understanding process. And they love to be part of the action and part of the team. And the greatest team they can be on is the family—and the family business team.
At first Ashley pushed against doing it, coming everywhere with me; on the other hand, she was glad she still had me. By the time she was 9, she was doing data entry for me. I showed her how to read a homeowners’ policy—here’s the name, here’s the policy number, here’s the company name—just put in the information for me, OK? She started out typing with two fingers. Then all of a sudden it went to four. And then it was keyboarding—which was great because by the time she got to middle school, she was turning in typed reports. The skills you need to run a small business are things kids pick up quickly, and I think it’s a great incubator for children because they discover things about themselves and things you aren’t going to learn about in other places. Everything that’s happened, in a way, has empowered her with the knowledge that, hey, life is real.
EM: Business-wise, how did it affect you?
EG: One of the upsides was that I was “the local insurance guy.” I didn’t have to travel beyond sometimes heading into Manhattan or the Bronx for a client. But up until Debbie died, I had been teaching at Hofstra University in their continuing education program for insurance and investment licensing. I’d leave the office at 3:30pm once or twice a week, but then not get home until midnight because of train schedules. I had to stop doing that—I couldn’t do that with an 8 or 9-year-old at home. The loss of income was significant.
Before, Sunday used to be my day at home with family, or to help with chores like laundry—unless it was tax season. After, I would have to go into the office at times. But even then, I think it was something my daughter came to understand: Work does not have a beginning and end date. Sometimes you finish when you finish, not when the clock on the wall says you’re finished.
I would fill a bag and bring the laundry to a place across the street from my office very early. I’d get it started then head over to my office to try to get 55 minutes of work done. I’m a storefront guy and people in the neighborhood know me. In the year after Debbie died, one of the ladies in the neighborhood realized I’d forgotten the laundry in the dryer one day and took it all out, folded it, and brought it over to my office and said “Mr. Greaves, I know you’re under the gun. Here you go.” That’s one of the best parts about being “the local insurance guy.” You are part of the community.
A lot of people just stepped up. Clients who never gave me a referral before were coming with their whole families. So that was a blessing. I had an overwhelming tsunami of people bringing me dinners. But after a while you have to get back to your own life. You have to learn how to do it. And you just do it. You don’t have a choice.
EM: Lessons you learned that would apply to anyone in business?
EG: As the owner of a business, you should always be thinking about the possibilities, the probabilities. Wonder to yourself: What do I do if so-and-so leaves or dies? What do I do if they become disabled? If you’re a sole proprietor and you’re married or in a committed relationship with children, make sure your partner has a whole bunch of life insurance. Make sure both of you have a whole bunch of life insurance, and make each other the beneficiaries. Make sure both of you have disability insurance. And these days, make sure you both have long-term-care insurance. And as a sole proprietor, make sure you have overhead insurance. And everyone has a will.
Become a better manager of your time and set up a parallel office at home. The two to three hours a day that you have to take care of extra stuff like data entry, filing, thank you cards, marketing—they will be lost to you without one. You won’t be available seven or eight hours a day at the office, so you make the time up at night, after your child goes to bed. Have the same computer, the same printer—have everything there. So if in the morning the kid is sick and you’re not going to the office that day, you can get right to work from there and with thumb drive copies of your office setup. Again, you will figure out ways to do it. You will.
EM: And your daughter just finished her first year of college—at Yale?
EG: I think she’d be a different person today, and probably not at Yale, if I wasn’t such a hard case. We had rules: No TV during the week, and only on the weekend if the homework was done by Friday night. Unfortunately, there’s nothing like losing a parent at 8. Life becomes extremely real. This is real life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and interviewee. Since the details of your situation are unique, you should always seek the services of a qualified CPA and/or other financial professionals.