YOU DON’T GET LUCK, YOU MAKE IT

BY Pat Cleary

President and CEO
NAPEO

December 2023/January 2024

“Sometimes I think life is just a rodeo. The trick is to ride, make it to the bell,” John Fogerty from “Rock and Roll Girls”

In a spectacular lapse of judgment, in May of 1977 Fairfield University bestowed on me the Loyola Medal at graduation, a coveted award for service to the university. The next day I packed my Plymouth Duster with my earthly belongings and headed home to New Jersey. On the way I stopped in a little general store in Fairfield, Connecticut, a quaint New England town. I had heard that the local paper had covered the graduation and had noted the award recipients therein.

I walked into this little shop, and I grabbed a copy of the paper. Sure enough my name was in there. I grabbed five copies—for parents and grandparents and God knows who all else—and tossed them up on the counter. The old woman behind the counter smiled.

“Are you in there?” she asked.

“I am,” I replied.

“Good or bad?” she smiled.

I laughed and told her I thought it was probably good, and filled her in. She asked what was next.

“I’m off to law school,” I replied.

I paid her and I grabbed the papers and I walked toward the door.

“Good luck!” she called out to me.

“Thank you!” I replied.

But then suddenly, she shouted, “Wait!”

It startled me.

I stopped and I turned around. She had her elbows on the counter, and she pointed at me.

“Listen to what I’m telling you!” she said.

I nodded, “ok.”

Her voice grew louder and sterner while she pointed at me.

“Remember what I’m telling you!”

“OK!” I said defensively, my voice rising to match hers.

“You don’t get luck, you make it,” she said, emphasizing the words “get” and “make.”

I nodded.

Again, her voice got louder. “You don’t get luck, you make it!” she repeated.

“Remember this!” she finished for emphasis.

It was a scene from a movie worthy of Spielberg. I’m in a classic New England town, standing in an old general store: wooden floors, morning sun streaming through the windows. It’s just me and the old proprietor. I’m leaving college, closing a chapter, words of advice as if written by a screenwriter – or God Himself.

You don’t get luck, you make it.

With five copies of a small-town newspaper tucked under my arm I turned, gave the door a shove and stepped out into the rest of my life.

In the ensuing 50 years I’ve thought of that old woman 1, 000 times and have passed her advice on to others at least as much. As it turns out, the luck I made brought me to Washington. Cynics advised against it; after all this is a city where if you don’t know someone, aren’t politically connected, you’ll never last. And I wasn’t politically connected. I was 24 years old before I ever laid eyes on an elected federal official. They didn’t frequent Butler, NJ. But the cynics were wrong. I was blessed to have wonderful mentors along the way who took a chance on an unknown and untested—and slightly scared—young lawyer whose only stock in trade was hard work, tenacity, and ambition.

Tom Donahue, the longtime Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, set meetings for me with a half dozen agency heads at the behest of his daughter, a college friend. Former US Secretary of Labor Bill Usery singlehandedly introduced me to all the major players in the labor world, putting his reputation at risk along the way. But by far, my greatest mentor, the biggest influence on my young life was former US Secretary of Labor Bill Brock.

He hired me at the US Department of Labor, and became a friend and mentor until his passing two years ago. He was brilliant, kind, and humble. If you were in a room full of people and looking for Bill Brock, find the lowest-ranking person in the room. He was talking to them. In a city that thrives on rank and status, he eschewed it every day. He was a man of enormous integrity and gentility.  And he believed in always trying to leave a place, an assignment, better than you found it. To this day I have tried to emulate him. I have fallen short, but his was the example I always tried to follow.

As I did last month, I want to thank the tremendous team here at NAPEO. As I have said many times, the successes are theirs, the failings are mine alone. I was blessed with a great team from the start, and they made great things happen. Your gratitude should be directed toward them, not me. I only took the credit.

Also, in thinking back, I was glad to have been here for two seminal events: First, the passage of the Small Business Efficiency Act (SBEA) in 2014. It legitimized this industry, and it opened the floodgates of investment money into our space, powering further growth.

The second was the pandemic. It was a dark time for our country and for all of us, but in the process, in this, the darkest hour, PEOs stepped up and saved tens if not hundreds of thousands of small businesses. You heard from them, we heard from you. I think it may have been our proudest moment. Don’t ever forget it.

It’s been a great run. It’s not over; only this chapter is ended. I intend to stay in this industry in one way or another, so I hope to be connected with many of you still in the years ahead. In the meantime, always know that you are part of something special and remember:

You don’t get luck, you make it.

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