Tell the Hard Story, Build the Brand, Inspire Others

Photo Credit: mclcbooks via Compfight cc


The seven-year-old shivers on the deck of the ship, holding his younger brother’s hand.

Their parents have awakened them early, and the difference between the warm berth below deck and this February morning in 1955 makes him dislike America more.

His father tells him this is a momentous occasion, and he points at the huge statue in the harbor. That is the Statue of Liberty.

The boy wouldn’t dare contradict his father’s enthusiasm, but he doesn’t understand the significance.

She looks stern and cold like the rest of the New York skyline.

He wipes the sleet away from his tired eyes and misses home. Here there are no colorful fields of tulips, no Oma and Opa, no Holland.

Here there is only “opportunity.”

Once on board the train to Chicago, the boy turns his face to the icy window in case he cries.

He misses his grandfather, who questioned the wisdom of the boy’s father to move to America and leave behind everything they had ever known. He misses his cousins, his house, the view from his bedroom window.

He places a small, barely warm hand against the pane and leaves a weeping print through which he peers at a place some distant voice–maybe his father again–declares to be Pennsylvania.

No matter what any of this new world is called, the boy cannot yet call it home.*

tulip field

Photo Credit: Foto Martien via Compfight cc

Business man Jack Van Namen shared this story about his first glimpse of America at a presentation to college business students I recently attended.

When his father Jacob Van Namen decided to go to the States, Jack’s grandfather questioned Jacob’s wisdom. Jacob answered with: “I have two hands and a Father in Heaven. He will take care of us.”

To support his wife and children, he peddled tulip bulbs from Holland door to door. Then a local wholesale florist asked Jacob if he could drive a truck. Jacob said he could (not that he knew how but that he could). He eventually worked his way up to partner in the local wholesaler and later became the owner. He grew what he had initially named Vans Wholesale Florists from a single Chicagoland location to 10 distribution centers in five states by the 1990s, enlisting the help of his children. As a teen, Jack spent his summers learning everything from growing fresh flowers to marketing to retailers.

Years later would find Jack spearheading the expansion of the company into growing floral products in Florida, California, and Mexico, while opening more distribution facilities in six states. In the fall of 2012, Vans Floral Products, as currently branded, was acquired by Kennicott Brothers Co. (an employee-owned company), and the major Midwest competitor of Vans. Jack now serves as director of sales for the merged company’s corporate mass market division, KBC Direct.

The students, eager to hear more about the “real world,” happened to be gathered in the college recital hall named for Jack’s family.

Jack told them about growing and running a successful floral distribution business.

About the challenges of family dynamics in a family run business.

About the need to leap ahead–not just evolve–when grocery stores get into the flower-selling business and the Internet becomes the new floral products storefront.

And he told them that he believed in leading by example.

What better example to this boy who clung to his brother’s hand as tightly as he did his homeland than an immigrant father, man of faith, and entrepreneur peddling flower bulbs to feed his children?

What better example to young, aspiring business people than for Jack to share this personal story of his first glimpse of a new country, the determination of his father to build a business, and Jack’s own dedication to growing and nurturing it?

But stories add value in building a business’s brand and shaping customer perception as well.

In an April post on Wood Street, Jon-Mikel Bailey talks about stories being an integral part of our business website content. His final point echoes the story arc we learned in school. The hero faces some obstacle and overcomes it.

Just like Jack’s story, these are the types of stories that inspire.

Not necessarily the “how I made my first million” stories, but the quieter, harder ones that can teach all of us about adaptability, fortitude, sacrifice and commitment.

*My “creative account” of Jack’s arrival in America is a retelling based on the details he offered in his presentation. 


4 thoughts on “Tell the Hard Story, Build the Brand, Inspire Others

    1. Thank you, Melanie. Jack’s opening about his arrival in America kept resonating as he continued with the rest of the presentation. I kept thinking about how powerful those stories are, how valuable, and how much the experiences–even years later–can affect the way we run our businesses…and how sharing them can inspire others.


  1. Fantastic. I think half the battle of life is sharing and acknowledging what we have in common, what makes us human. For brands this operates a little differently, but they are collections of people and should care deeply about human stories.


    1. Yes, and a good battle to keep fighting, Joe. Maybe we don’t share deep stories enough in our own lives, just quick glimpses and photos of what we’re eating and 140-character thoughts with room for someone else’s retweet. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the Facebook pic I posted last week of that delicious Maharaja IPA I was drinking.) I grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories after dinner. That helped me form my identity. For a business to share stories does something similar.


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