A Little Boy's Knack For Making Green

It was in November, when he was 3-1/2, that I had my first insight into my son's life work: a captain of industry.

We were in an antique shop when Michael asked me to buy a large brass bell. I said I didn't need a bell.

My blond, blue-eyed son looked up at me and said firmly, "You don't need a bell, but I need one. I need a bell - and that kettle over there."

"Whatever for?" I asked.

"To make money," he replied. "I'll ring the bell in front of Macy's, and people will put money in the kettle."

Competition for the Salvation Army.

The next year, he noticed women, but not his mother, turning in coupons at the supermarket. He asked why. I explained how coupons work, but said I didn't have time for them.

"What if I cut out the coupons?" he asked. "I'll put things in my own cart and just get stuff we use. Then may I keep the money?"

I agreed. It seemed a harmless way for a little boy to earn change for ice cream cones.

I underestimated.

We subscribe to three newspapers and six magazines. He clipped and clipped. The first month he made $10, the next, $20. It continued to grow.

Michael Coupons, his first business, was born. More followed.

On television he saw a news story about a charitable organization that made money by charging for tours of large, older homes. Our house is unusual, an old colonial in an area of new ranch houses.

Michael asked if I thought people would find it interesting. Absent-mindedly, I said yes.

An hour later, three women rang the front doorbell. When I looked bewildered, they held out their tickets, neatly lettered in second-grade printing: MICHAEL TOURS $1. The entrepreneur had set up signs and ticket sales at the end of the driveway.

After the ladies departed, I said, "No more strangers walking through the house."

Accepting defeat with grace, he contemplated his next enterprise. Having a well-developed sweet tooth, he'd learned to bake chocolate-chip cookies - and he remembered a story he'd read about sharecroppers.

Michael applied the principles of sharecropping to baking. The first six cookies were ours, free, in payment for the ingredients. The rest he sold - to us and to neighbors. Michael's Chocolate Chippery was a success.

The next addition to the Michael Corporation (for with so many companies, he felt the need to incorporate) was The Michael Chronicle.

His older brother, Steven, joined him as co-editor. The four-to-six page monthly paper had some family news but mostly more substantial fare. The travel section reviewed hotels we stayed in. There were movie, TV, book, and restaurant reviews, plus sports and a puzzles column.

The Michael Corporation has been involved in some 50 ventures. Some were unprofitable and closed. Some were successful, but too time-consuming - and he learned that good help is hard to find.

Some, like his Thorny Mountain Miniature Golf Course and Michael's Home Grown Tomatoes, were seasonal. Always pragmatic, he set aside personal tastes to adapt to consumer demand. Although he never ate fresh tomatoes himself, he realized the demand for good tomatoes is brisk.

Some proposed projects - such as turning our house into a bed and breakfast - I vetoed. And I said "no" to converting our basement into rental units for college students. But the business mind never stops. When he observed me assembling a new tricycle for his younger sister, he commented, "Boy, does that cut their labor costs."

An accomplished athlete, Michael found sports less compelling than business. After he played especially well in a soccer game one day, I started to congratulate him, but he interrupted with, "Say, did you notice all those parents sitting in the cold? I'll bet they'd like to buy hot chocolate, maybe doughnuts...."

Some youngsters follow the NBA and ponder reasons for trades. Michael read business-section articles about airlines and pondered reasons for mergers. He had no interest in being an airline pilot. He wanted to be an airline president.

At 11 he read that passengers on overbooked flights who give up their seats and take a later flight are rewarded with a free round-trip ticket.

He assumed responsibility for making reservations for a family trip from San Francisco to Disney World. When he phoned the airline, he asked the agent which were the most popular flights - and then reserved seats on them.

WHEN we arrived at the San Francisco airport he immediately told the boarding agent that if the flight to Orlando was overbooked, our seats were theirs for the asking. The flight was, indeed, overbooked. We gave up our seats and took a later flight in return for free tickets - which we used to fly to Maine later that summer.

Michael doesn't care a great deal about spending the money he makes. It is the challenge of making it he enjoys. To him, it's even more fun than scoring points in a basketball game. He loves the challenge of thinking up new ideas and finds satisfaction in developing them into profitable enterprises.

It seems likely Michael is destined for an executive suite. He says I can live with him in my old age.

I wonder if I'll have to pay rent.

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