It Doesn't Pay to be a Bluffer, and Other Philosophies on Success

Business Success

Samuel Austin, founder of The Austin Company, experienced great success in his career as he grew Austin to one of the most prominent contractors in the world. By the end of his career and life he was recognized as one of the most successful businessmen of his generation and he worked in the same circles as Henry Ford and other thriving industrial revolution visionaries.

In 1928, Albert Sidney Gregg published an article titled, “It Doesn’t Pay to Be a Bluffer. An Interview with Samuel Austin, the Carpenter Who Became the World’s Greatest Builder of Factories.” Below are excerpts from that interview. As we often do at Austin, I reflect on and review the beliefs and values of Mr. Austin, his son Wilbert, and those early leaders of our company by reading their notes, old reports, journals, articles, interviews and so on. I find it inspiring and amazing how much those founding philosophies and principles remain a part of our culture at Austin today, and remain applicable to success in business and life. The world has changed a lot, but the basic principles of good business, good living, and success have not. Please enjoy this article and the insights provided by our founder regarding his views on the best ways to achieve success.

Here is my summation of the philosophies and rules of success Samuel Austin discusses in the interview:  

  1. Don’t be a “bluffer.”
  2. Learn a trade, business or profession that is in demand.
  3. Master your trade, business or profession.
  4. Work hard at your trade, business or profession.
  5. Be thorough and deliver quality.
  6. Be honest.
  7. Get a fair profit for good work.
  8. Adapt old ideas to your work.
  9. Innovate new ideas.
  10. Be prepared for and embrace change.
  11. Be careful to not get over extended.
  12. Develop your teammates and all those around you.
  13. “Prospect” your team in search of talents, skills and abilities not being fully utilized.

Samuel Austin

Austin: “A most critical element of a successful man in business, in my view, is to not be a bluffer. A man who thinks he can fool people is deceiving nobody but himself. He should recall the famous saying of Lincoln: You can fool part of the people part of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. That applies to business and industry, as well as to politics. A “bluffer” may last for a little while, but he will not get very far in legitimate lines. If you expect to achieve anything worthwhile, you must base your efforts on solid knowledge, experience and quality work.”

Gregg: What is your definition of a bluffer?

Austin: “A bluffer is one who pretends to have power, knowledge or experience that he does not really possess. He knows that employers demand experience. Being without the requisite training, he assumes it, with the expectation of learning enough to hold his job. If such a man says he is an expert automobile mechanic, for instance, the boss or customer takes him at his word and puts him to work. Now, he may slide along and keep from being discovered until he actually learns how to do something; but the chances are he will be detected and discharged, especially if he is obliged to work by himself where he cannot watch others, or ask questions.

In the same way, a man may claim to be a carpenter, ironworker, electrician, bookkeeper or salesman, and get a position. He may even hold it; but he is always at a disadvantage. … And with what result? He sometimes learns. Yes, but at the expense of others. The best thing that can happen to such a man is for him to get a jolt that will knock all the bluff out of him. In the end, the man who bluffs is the chief victim of such a policy.”

Gregg: There are men all about us winning good places and putting over big deals because of their effrontery though?

Austin: “That is true, but there is a difference between boldness and bluffing. A bluffer is like a man offering goods to sell that he really does not possess and perhaps cannot acquire, while the man with effrontery really may have something worthwhile. Sometimes a man with real ability who has been hiding his light under a bushel, will wake up and begin to make claims and demands that sound like bluffing, but which are legitimate, for he is able to make good. Incidentally, I might say that the timid fellow with real solid ability sometimes fails because he does not claim enough for himself. He is held back by fear that he will be regarded as a bluffer, and so he waits to be ‘discovered’. He may have to wait a long time, but such matters generally even up in the course of events. If you are a shrinking violet, give yourself a good shaking and boldly declare what you can do. But be sure that you are able to deliver the goods you offer. If you are inclined to overestimate yourself to climb the ladder – don’t! It is far better to get down to solid ground yourself than to be thrown down.”

Gregg: To avoid being a bluffer is your primary advice it would appear, but after your years of experience how else would you define your philosophy of success? What rules would you lay down for the guidance of others?

Austin: “Of course I have worked out a philosophy, but I am afraid it is not very new. You know there is not a great deal to be said on the subject. There are just a few fundamentals, and you will notice that they have been applied by every man who has made his true mark on the world. I will summarize them thus: Learn a trade, business or profession that has a market value – for which there is a demand. Master it. As you start in your trade, work in it without regard to rest. Everything depends on thoroughness. Be of an honest nature. A fair payment for honest and good work is enough to achieve success – seek not unfair payment, regardless of how easily it may be achieved. Learn to adapt old ideas to the work you are doing. Evolve new ideas for your trade, business or profession. Be prepared for changes. Don’t get caught with too much sail up. Business shifts and changes are, or should be, your greatest opportunity. Don’t fear shifts, hold them close. If you are not ready and on the alert, they may be your ruin. Learn to develop your associates. Find the latent talent in the men about you and develop it for mutual profit.”

Gregg: How have you put into practice the development of your associates?

Austin: “There are many stories here, but I must not forget Henry Dipple. He was a carpenter, like myself, who had been trained under the apprenticeship system, but in another country. There was no bluff about Henry. He knew his trade thoroughly. He has a hidden talent that I discovered and developed, and which had much to do with laying the good foundation of our business. He is now in charge of one of our mills in Cleveland.

But to get back to the beginning of the story. When I began building, architects often held up my work by not filling in the detail of the plans. It was an architect’s job and they became very temperamental if anybody else tried to do the work for them. However, I used to fix up the details myself, filling in gaps and correcting many errors, and I would let them rave. But, one day, when I was very busy, I thought I would try Henry. He was a first-class mechanic and I made him outside foreman. While he was skilled with tools and in handling of men, he had never tried his talent with the drawing pen. Like other good carpenters, he had always left such matters to the men who were paid for making the plans. His duty, as he understood it, was to take the plans and specifications made by others and follow them. But when the plans had not been finished for construction, or contained elements simply not of sound logic for construction, he was blocked from progress. So, I gave Henry a set of plans and told him to fill in the details, at the same time assuring him that I would deal with the architect later. Much to my surprise, and gratification, Henry did a good job.

The architect gave his approval and we were able to go ahead with the work without further delay. In a little while Henry became so expert with his drawing pen that the architects began to welcome his help, and often consulted with him proactively. These early works in use of the drawing pen by Dipple and myself became the foundation for the method we would later implement as our standard, after my son, W.J. Austin, completed his education and joined the organization. That method being the architect and builder working in the same house, under a single contract, with builder-minded architects and engineers as the masters of the drawing pen.

In considering my philosophy of finding the latent talent in men about me, see how the usefulness of Dipple was more than doubled by giving him something to do that he had never thought of attempting on his own initiatives? The same principle does and always will run through our entire organization. Any man can apply this to himself by asking the simple question: ‘Have I any powers that I am not using?’ I am confident that there are many men who have not really found themselves because they have not really turned the searchlight on within. They get into a routine and stay there until somebody shakes them out, or something illuminates their minds and they wake up. It is a part of good management for an employer to go prospecting in the minds of his men. By such discoveries he helps both the man and himself and their profits are mutual.”