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Plain Talk from Ed Lowe

Treat your best employees like you can’t live without them — because you can’t

This column is one in a series that will explore the thoughts, ideas and unadorned advice of an entrepreneur who made it, Edward Lowe. When he “brought the cat indoors” with a revolutionary cat-box filler, Kitty Litter, he created an industry that changed the lives of millions of cat lovers, not to mention cats. During his life, Ed Lowe used “plain talk” to speak about the bottom line from the bottom of his heart. We believe these writings, revised and updated after his death, offer value for both your business and personal life.

Your business couldn’t survive without you, but I bet you have some key employees who are just as critical. Employees who bring a ton of talent and dedication to your company, yet are willing to, at least temporarily, forgo the ton of money they could probably make at a corporate giant. Why? Because just like you, they crave the freedom and excitement of an entrepreneurial firm.

Worth his weight in gold

Without my first employee, I don’t know if I could have survived, let alone build a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He was Bob Follett, an affable young salesman who, like me, worked for my father’s mineral-supplies business. Though my Dad couldn’t get excited about my scheme of selling crumbled clay as cat-box filler, Bob liked it so much that, in a colossal leap of faith, he decided to join me when I left the family business at age 27 to strike out on my own. Dad tried to hire Bob back for more money than I could pay him, but for Mr. Follett, the opportunity far outweighed the risk.

Bob was hired as my sales manager, but truth be told, he and I pretty much split all the jobs from schmoozing customers to shoveling clay in the warehouse. Bob was the total opposite of a whiner; he insisted on doing whatever it took to move Kitty Litter forward. Eventually I was able to afford a few more employees to share the burden, and Bob inspired them with his team spirit.

One day Bob surprised me by announcing that he ached all over and had to go home. This was shocking because he had not taken a single sick day during the four years he worked for me. Three days later came devastating news: Bob was totally paralyzed from an advanced stage of polio.

Can-do attitude

Bob turned out to be a miracle man in more than business. After several weeks of trying, he was able to sit up, and eventually he regained use of his arms and hands. And almost as soon as he could stretch his fingers, he demanded to return to work. “I can help bag Kitty Litter,” he declared. Yet Bob couldn’t walk, so another guy and I literally picked him up at home each morning and sat him on a bench in our bagging room. His feet grew cold due to poor circulation, so we buried them ankle deep in warmed pans of Kitty Litter — unused, of course!

Bob was second in command in my business for more than 40 years, and his can-do attitude rallied our work force as it grew into the hundreds. You can’t pay people like Bob enough, and fortunately, I realized that early on. When I launched my business, Bob’s salary was the first weekly expense to be paid, which often meant that I couldn’t pay myself. He never missed a check during his long recovery from polio, and I made sure that all his hospital bills were paid.

I invested a lot of money in Bob — often at times when I didn’t have it — but he repaid me in spades. Other than the idea for Kitty Litter and the signatures on the bank loans, I truly think that Bob gave about as much to my company as I did. If you have any employees like that, praise them, empower them, spoil them. Just don’t let them go!


Edward Lowe (1920-1995), Founder of the Edward Lowe Foundation

Born in 1920 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Ed Lowe grew up in Cass County, Michigan. After his Navy duty, Ed returned to Cassopolis, Michigan, and joined his father’s company, which sold industrial absorbents, including sawdust and an absorbent clay called fuller’s earth. In 1947 Ed was approached by a neighbor who was tired of using ashes in her cat’s litter box and the resulting sooty paw prints. She asked for some sand, but Ed suggested clay instead. Soon the neighbor would use nothing else, noting that the clay was much more absorbent than sand and didn’t track all over the house.