Mobile Home Park Mastery: Episode 154

Speaking Softly But Carrying A Big Stick

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President Teddy Roosevelt was a supporter of “Big Stick” diplomacy, which he defined as having five traits. In this week’s episode of the Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast we’re going to review Roosevelt’s premise and apply its wisdom to your mobile home park. Although Roosevelt died in 1919 –a decade before the first “trailer” rolled off the manufacturing line – his thoughts are as true today as they were in the early 20th century.

Episode 154: Speaking Softly But Carrying A Big Stick Transcript

Teddy Roosevelt was a very interesting character. Born in 1858, he did so much in his lifetime. He went to Harvard where he graduated Magna Cum Laude. He was a state assemblyman. He was a cowboy in the Dakota territory. He was a soldier and he fought in the battle for Cuba. He was the New York City police commissioner. He was secretary of the Navy and he was also, which is where we know him mostly for, he was president of the United States from 1901 to 1909. But probably the biggest quote that Roosevelt ever had was, "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

Now, this is Frank Rolfe, The Mobile Home Park Mastery Podcast. Is something that's a quote that we all do also is mobile home park owners. So I thought it was worth a little time and attention to go over what that means. Speak softly and carry a big stick. There's a whole cult of people who describe this theory as Big Stick Ideology. Some call it Big Stick Diplomacy and some call it the Big Stick Policy. But what it basically means is five different items according to Roosevelt.

The first one is you've got to have serious military capability that would force the adversary to pay close attention. For a mobile home park owner, that's simple. That's the form of a lawyer. A lot of times we run a foul of city government. We don't mean to, we don't even know that we did. Often, they just hate us because we own mobile home parks. So they decide at some point, "I don't want that mobile home park in my city. I don't want those affordable housing folks in my city. So let's try and find a way to get that mobile home park out of here." When those things happen, either through the city trying to deny your rights to use vacant lots, or maybe to harass you with violations, you need to bring in a lawyer. Not just any lawyer, but typically what's called a municipal lawyer. Someone that sues cities.

This is a lawyer that will in fact demand immediate attention and therefore will force the adversary to pay close attention. So I think if Teddy Roosevelt was a park owner, Big Stick Ideology would start off with in the event that people want to mess with you, you bring in a lawyer. Now, if it's not a city that's bothering you, but rather it's tenant or it's a personal injury lawyer for a tenant, once again, your fallback position, your big stick in that case is a lawyer. A lawyer that's properly suited based on training and past experience to deal with whatever that crisis is.

Now, the second thing that Roosevelt said you needed to have is you had to act justly towards other nations. And in this case it's not nations we're worried about as a mobile home park owner, we are worried more about trying to act justly with our residents, with city hall. We don't want to have any problems. We want to behave properly with them. But sometimes when you try really hard to be an agreeable and reasonable person, and the other party has no interest at all, at some point you had to say, "This is not working out." But you should always try that first.

We have a theory with city hall, which is be as nice as you can. And if that doesn't work, be as mean as you can, because you can't just go in on being Mr. Nice guy forever and ever and expect to get anywhere. So I'm pretty confident that if Roosevelt was here to talk about mobile home parks and the application of his Big Stick Ideology onto the management of them, he would tell us in no uncertain words, that you want to be as nice as you can, as diplomatic as you can. And if that's not working, then to change course.

Now, if we have a problem with a resident, we will always send the manager over to talk with them, to try and solve the problem. However, at some point, if the tenant will not listen to the manager and makes no attempts to change their behavior, we have no choice but to escalate that up a notch, and the same with city hall. If they come to us and say, "Gosh. We really would like you to have a nicer looking entry." We'll do it. We'll build that nice three rail white vinyl fence. We'll put in some bushes and things like that. But if we do all that and if they come back with just continually more criticism and threats, at some point you have to draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough. And that's when you get out your big stick policy.

Another thing that Roosevelt said was part of his big stick diplomacy was never to bluff. And he's exactly correct. Don't tell people you're going to take an action that you really are not going to do. Don't tell a resident, "If you don't do XYZ, I will not renew your lease." Unless you certainly will not renew their lease. And don't tell the city, "If you don't do XYZ, I'm going to sue you." If you don't really fully intend to do that. So be as nice as you can, have that big stick in the form of a properly trained and equipped lawyer, but don't threaten people to do anything with that lawyer that you wouldn't actually do. Bluffing doesn't get you anywhere. In fact, it makes you look stupid. Because when someone continues on with the behavior that you threatened them, don't do that or I'll do XYZ and you don't do XYZ. It makes you look extra weak.

Next item. According to Roosevelt, strike only when prepared to strike hard. What that means is have a little patience. Hold back a little bit if your attorney needs to go ahead and do a little research to find out where you exactly stand. Don't make bold, immediate steps before you know the truth. So if your attorney says, "Well, let me read up a little bit on the law in this state regarding this action by the city or by the resident." Do that. You can spare an extra day. You can spare an extra few days. People often get tired with attorneys and say, "Now, wait a minute. This doesn't seem right. This is not going fast enough." But you don't know what all that attorney has going on. They may have lots of other cases. They may be in the middle of a trial or something of a lot of importance to another person and yours isn't quite as pressing.

So sometimes yes, I'll take a little more time, but don't take that badly. They're just waiting, trying to get everything in order before they strike. I know many attorneys that will not send even that first demand letter until they know the facts of what is going on. It doesn't mean that they're too slow. It doesn't mean that they don't care. It simply means they're trying to follow Roosevelt's Big Stick Ideology and not striking until they know what they're doing, where they can strike really hard. In fact, I think it's a hallmark of all good attorneys. They don't actually move super fast. They are a little more cautious because they like to gather all the information together so they don't get you in trouble. Don't make fools of themselves. And it gives them the best chance to win.

Typically when an attorney strikes, they're met with another attorney and they have to talk and tell it generally right there. The other attorney's going to try and size them up. Do they really have a case? Do they not? Did they really do their homework? Did they not? If your attorney goes to them before he's really ready, it makes a fool of himself. It's going to fall back on you because they're not going to take you seriously. And they're not going to attempt in any way to settle what's been going on.

The final part of Big Stick Policy for Roosevelt was to allow the adversary to save face and defeat. This is a very important item. In fact, you'll see that in many, many writings of many different leaders throughout the decades, the centuries, it's a very common theme. You always want to give your adversary some final exits. Don't pin them in don't seal them off. Don't surround them. Let them have a graceful way to exit and you're more likely to get what you want.

Now what would that graceful exit be? Well, if it's with the city, maybe we can reach some resolution to let them have something while still getting what we want. So you might be able to say with the city, "Look, you really can't make me do XYZ and you know it, and we know. But how about if we just do this other item, just because we want to, just to be nice. We'll go ahead and build that privacy fence down the back of the property because I know some homeowners have complained about the appearance of the back of the mobile homes, looking through their backyard. I don't have to do it. I'm just going to do it to be nice." Sometimes those steps and yes, they can cost some capital, but those steps pay big dividends. If you allow the city to save face, it's going to impress the inspector, city manager, the zoning department, the different people on the council of the you are a good person and that you care about the surrounding community. And they're going to cut you a lot of slack by doing so.

What about with a resident? Well, once again, if there's something you can do, even though you don't have to do it, but some way to make that resident save face, well then let's try. If the resident has some outlandish request. If they want to take down the tree in the yard that took 100 years to grow because they don't like the fact that it's dropping bird droppings on their car. Perhaps your solution is to, if you really want to keep the resident, keep them happy, maybe build a car port. Something over the car so it doesn't hit their car if that's a continual item of concern. But it doesn't do you any good to have customers who are mad at you. That won't get you anywhere because that word will spread among neighbors that you're not a good person, that you don't play fair.

So whenever possible, just strive to follow Roosevelt's rule of Big Stick Policy and give that person the chance to save face, to keep their self respect, to not have others look down upon them that they've been beaten. You just want what you want. You want to get what you want to get, but you don't want to do it in a manner that basically makes that person embarrassed, makes them feel poorly. So try never to do that.

Now would Roosevelt have been a good mobile home park owner? Absolutely. He had great thoughts with that Big Stick Ideology. He absolutely did. Now he died sadly about a decade before the first mobile home or RV or trailer, whatever you want to call it. The thing called the covered wagon that came back in the 1920s. He died before they'd ever came out. So he never really saw a mobile home park. I'm sure he would have been probably an advocate if he could. He was very, very big on promoting things like affordable housing. Very much, always looking out for the interest of the common man. One of the most popular presidents of all time. But again, his old quote, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Still has great meaning today for every successful mobile home park owner. This is Frank Rolfe, The Mobile Home Park Mastery Podcast series. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.