4 Essential Business Lessons: A Tribute to My College Bar

Written by: Ron Scheese

A blog post by Ron Scheese, President & CEO

Two blocks off the idyllic Albright College campus sits a working-class bar in a working-class town. Unlike most college hangouts, Ronie’s is a location that blends the diversity of experienced, blue-collar, hard-working locals with a mix of young, idealistic upstarts who perceive their whole lives and the world is ahead of them. Rival fraternities combine as one, and alumni from different decades share a common bond.  One visits to forget life’s struggles or to celebrate completing their latest paper or exam.

For 53 years, Ronie and Donna Burns established and maintained a business that wasn’t about the physical space, the food (even though they serve the best cheesesteaks), nor was it about the beverages. Ronie’s is about two wonderful people who at age 82 have decided it’s time to retire at the end of July.

Ronie possesses the same twinkle in his eye and a quick wit that impressed me when I first met him over 30 years ago. Donna has always been pure heart on legs. Ronie still disapproves and shakes his head when I put ketchup on my cheesesteak.  I tease him back that unlike his cooking, I can taste the love Donna adds when she grills.  Their 62-year marriage serves as a great example of how a partnership makes each individual stronger.

The truth is they both pour their love for each other into their business and into relationships with their customers.  My degree may be in accounting and my alma mater may have well prepared me to compete in an ever- changing and challenging business environment, but my time invested at Ronie’s was also part of my informal education.  Here are some business lessons that only come from understanding what makes Ronie’s so special.

Loving Your Customers is the Goal

I recall attending my first Andesa Services Client Forum several years ago. When clients began to hug members of the Andesa team, I felt uncomfortable.  The concept of “hugging your customers” goes against all my understanding of business etiquette and professional training. Contrast that line of thinking to the hugs I had been receiving as a Ronies’ customer for decades. Today, I feel honored when Andesa can achieve that loyal, hug-level, customer relationship status.

Actions are More Important than Thoughts

As business leaders, we place great weight on planning but sometimes get paralyzed by analysis. In the 2005 bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, author Malcolm Gladwell suggests that spontaneous decisions are often as good as, perhaps even better than, thoughtfully derived plans. Some of my favorite Ronie’s stories stem from the early days in 1964 and how their adventure began; how they had no clue what they were doing, but figured it out as they went; how the sign-maker spelled Ronnie’s name incorrectly, but how they shrugged it off, accepted the outcome and how it has now stuck.

Business isn’t always perfect, we take risks and we do the best we can. Fifty-three years in operation provides evidence that Do, Learn and Adjust: get started and enjoy the journey, can be an effective business model. As motivational coach Tony Robbins notes: Remember: Rewards come in action, not in discussion.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

We love it at Andesa when employees hold each other accountable for living into our values or when a client partners with us to co-create solutions to improve the entire Andesa ecosystem. Our entire leadership team is very familiar with the concepts and lessons found in Kevin Ford and Ken Tucker’s book The Leadership Triangle.

Found within is a terrific story about Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski who defines his job as protecting the culture and values.  When Coach K believed he needed to confront a star athlete who was considering jumping to the NBA after only one year, he discovered “other players had already taken their teammate to task, reminding him of the program’s values and persuading him to stay in school.”

Despite proximity to a college campus, Ronie and Donna created a culture where underage drinking was not tolerated. Despite having a reputation for “carding” students, to some extent the students also looked out for Ronie’s.

None of my fraternity brothers would consider inviting me to Ronie’s before age 21, and I certainly would not introduce underclassmen, self-policing if we saw someone try to enter the environment.

Maximizing Value Isn’t Always About Maximizing Your Number

We are taught to maximize value; to prepare and plan for succession. Some businesses find their next economic business curve and re-position themselves for a longer future. Others, especially those based on the personality brand of the owner, are perhaps better remembered than perpetuated.

There’s more to business than just numbers and balance sheets. A successful business can also be measured by the relationships it creates and the impact it has on others’ lives.

The truth is, however, had Ronie and Donna positioned and sold “the business” and the future value of the revenue streams, they might have ended with more dollars in their bank account than achieved by the piecemeal disposal of the physical assets of the business; but it would have come at the cost of fewer memories. It would not have been the same experience for their customers.  Had anybody else stood behind the bar, it would not be Ronie’s.

On one of my final visits, Donna took a break and came out from behind the bar with a dollar bill and a can of root beer. We strolled over to the jukebox; selected a couple of sad George Jones and Willie Nelson tunes, and made our way back to the bar.  It was reminiscent of scenes from 34 years prior when my girlfriend (now wife) transferred from Albright. Those days at Ronie’s were marked by sad country songs and tears in my beers.  Donna would sit and listen, showing compassion and empathy.

It was now my turn to listen and share a sense of loss with my “Mom away from home.”  Despite our grief over the closing of the business, we could hug and we could smile.  We could be filled with gratitude and great memories.

As our time ended and Donna had to get back to helping Ronie, she leaned into me and said “you know, there is nothing I regret about our 53 years. I’ve met some wonderful people.”   I believe I will have led a successful business career if I can say the same thing when I retire.

My few words and reminiscing fail to capture all the lessons I learned, my memories and emotions. The best I can do is bid my friends Ronie and Donna a well-earned and well deserved Happy Retirement. Cheers!!

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