published Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

David Cook: A self-made man faces Obamacare

Mark Robinson started his first company when he was 14 years old.

“Painting houses,” he said. “My dad had to drive (me and my brother) to the site.”

At 16, he washed dishes at a local steakhouse. Worked 40-hour weeks. While going to high school.

At 26, he and his twin brother bought two Western Sizzlins in Chattanooga. They went broke two years later, so he took a job washing FedEx trucks in Dalton, Ga. His boss asked if he could do some janitorial work, too.

“Then a conveyer belt went out. A light bulb needed fixing. A faucet starting leaking,” he said. “So I went out and bought a wrench.”

By 1996, he was providing truck washing, janitorial services and facilities maintenance to FedEx plants in Dalton, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville. Today, his 25-year-old company ServiceMax has grown to 12 states with 130 employees and maintains more than 1,000 conveyor drives for about 70 FedEx sites.

“We wash about 200,000 FedEx trucks a year,” he said. “Our janitorial division cleans 1 million square feet every morning.”

Robinson, who graduated McCallie School in 1979, is the prototypical small business owner. He is the prototypical American self-made man.

But is he the prototypical conservative?

At the end of August, Robinson, 52, emailed me after a column I’d written entitled “What Does It Mean to be a Tennessee Republican?” Since then, we’ve emailed back and forth; consistently, Robinson is funny, kind and down-to-earth. Using the pen name “The Solutionator,” he’s even written a five-page political essay that confronts the economic problems our nation faces.

On Monday morning, we met over coffee at the Starbucks on Gunbarrel Road. He added another layer to my ongoing question: What does it mean to be a conservative in 2012?

“Spend what you make,” he said. “Make what you spend.”

Robinson’s life story is very symbolic of the American narrative. A guy — not the smartest, he confesses — continues to put his neck on the line, risking his assets in the business world. Fails, succeeds, fails, succeeds. In the process, he hires hundreds of people, pays them a good wage, adds to the business ecosystem of our region.

But never has he faced a greater threat the what he calls Obamacare.

“It’s incomprehensible,” he said. “They just issued a 41-page explanation on what is a full-time employee.”

Robinson currently does not provide insurance to his employees, most of whom are already covered, he said. The Affordable Care Act will require him to insure his employees or pay a fine, which he anticipates between $2,000 to $3,000 per employee.

“It could change tomorrow,” said Robinson, who has been to three seminars on the Affordable Care Act. “It’s a total unknown.”

Then, like falling dominoes, his business dries up, he says. He can hire fewer workers and give fewer promotions. Other businesses will wind up raising prices. The ACA winds up hurting the ones it was intended to help.

“The working poor,” he said.

Robinson, who still drives a used pickup truck, wants term limits for politicians, a simplified tax code (saying he files so many tax documents each year they would fill half the Starbucks) and an end to political lobbying and political action committees. He thinks the government should not legislate marriage. He’s concerned about the environment. He also thinks the whole presidential politics is a charade.

“Everybody’s so damned polarized,” he said.

The left normally does not articulate values that honor Robinson’s story and experience. But I’m not sure Washington Republicans do either.

Tuesday’s online-only column is based around sharing a meal or drinks with someone in Southeast Tennessee or North Georgia. Contact David Cook at 423-757-6329 or dcook@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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Rickaroo said...

Obamacare is a definite improvement in many ways over our present broken system of health care, but the fact that it still relies heavily on employers to provide insurance for its employees is one of its glaring faults. It has always been and continues to be a costly and unreasonable burden for employers to have to bear, and it's unfair to the workers to have to rely on their place of employment for their health insurance.

With universal health care, or Medicare for all, there would be no arguments about mandates or unreasonable costs and expectations of business owners. Those who are critical of Obamacare are the same ones who fuss and fret about the government having a heavy hand in regulating business, but if we had Medicare for all, business owners would be entirely free of such an onerous and unfair regulation. They would then be able to invest more in their business, hire more workers, or do whatever it takes to actually grow their business. It is absurd to expect them to provide our health insurance.

There are some things, like health care and education, that the free market has no business being involved in. It is an undisputed fact that Medicare's administrative costs and overhead are far less than those of the private insurers, and it has been proven to be a sound system for decades, providing thorough coverage for all senior citizens. The model is already in place so it's not like we would be trying to reinvent the wheel. We would simply be taking a a system that works and expanding it for everyone. Certainly it is in need of some tweaking but basically it is still sound.

Obama wimped out when he took universal coverage off the table without even fighting for it as an option. We will continue to have waste and overpriced, inaccessible heath care as long as it is left in the hands of private insurance companies whose first priority is profit. I am not speaking as a liberal who hates the very word "profit." Profit can be good and indeed is necessary in the exchange of goods and services. But when it comes to our health, whether individually or collectively as a nation, the profit motive should not even be a factor.

October 9, 2012 at 12:32 p.m.
timbo said...

JonRoss....Rickaroo is engaged in what committed socialists call incrementalism. Health care and education are just the first two that people like him want the federal government to "take over." You are right, the list will grow..and grow..and grow...

You notice that he didn't even address the whole point of the column. So Rickarro, let me help you.

The column was a description from one of us on the job creating front lines telling you that anything the government touches usually turns into one step forward, two steps back.

The government needs to do less not more. If they would get out of the way this would be a better world.

I do pay for my employees health care, including their families. If I have to deal with Obama care, I will stop doing that and pay the fine. They will be hurt and I will save about $50,000 per year. The government needs to stay out of our businesses.

October 11, 2012 at 4:05 p.m.
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February 20, 2013 at 4:28 a.m.
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