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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.