Warren Strugatch

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Ben & Jerry’s Long Island Roots

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield shared the secrets of their success during a recent visit to Adelphi University (Photo by Jennifer Uihlein)

Merrick, N.Y. Fall 1963. As their classmates raced ahead on the school track, two seventh graders lagged behind.

Coach Phelps warned: “If you finish under seven minutes, boys, you’re running it again.”

“Gee, coach,” Bennett Cohen shouted back. “If we can’t do it under seven the first time, we sure aren’t doing it under seven the second time.”

Jerry Greenfield the other slow-footed runner was awestruck.

“I realized Ben was someone I wanted to get to know,” he recalls.  

The feeling was mutual. That day at Merrick Avenue Middle School, two boys formed a friendship that’s still going strong half a century later. From that friendship between outsiders sprung Ben & Jerry’s, not only one of America’s favorite ice cream brands, but a pioneering force in the annals of socially conscious business management.

The friendship reflected the boys’ shared experiences dealing with the usual rites of 1960s adolescence: challenging authority, sticking up for friends in trouble, making new friends and trying out new roles. In junior high and again at Sanford H. Calhoun High School, Jerry was known for standing up to bullies; getting top grades; and was, close friends say, a hoot to hang out with. Bennett later Ben was known for his cello playing, his enthusiastic performances with a jug band, and his success as yearbook editor.  

For a couple of summers Ben drove a Pied Piper Ice Cream truck, sometimes helped by Jerry, friends recall. The experience selling ice cream would come to define their lives.

They split up after graduating in June 1969. Jerry pursued pre-med studies, Ben stumbled through several colleges before dropping out. Four years later they reunited in Manhattan, dividing the rent on Ben’s cramped East Village apartment. Ben had tried throwing pottery, teaching at an alternative school, working as a short-order cook, and driving a cab. Jerry had been rejected twice from medical school and was at loose ends.

Jerry recalls with a smile: “Basically, we’d failed at everything we tried.”

With few appealing options, the roomies decided to try their hand in the food industry. The choice: bagels or ice cream? Jerry discovered Penn State’s $5 mail-order course in ice cream making; they split the fee. Thus was born Ben & Jerry’s homemade ice cream.

Seeking a rural college town that had no ice cream parlor and therefore no competition the buddies settled in Burlington, Vt., home of the University of Vermont. Acquiring a vacant gas station, they converted it into the first Ben & Jerry’s. 

Ben and Jerry’s Ice-cream berry sorbet on chocolate almond cone (Photo by By Kate33/Shutterstock)

Summers were great. In winter temperatures dropped to minus 20. Customers stayed home. To keep cash flowing, Ben sold local grocery-store owners on carrying the brand. He soon spread distribution across the state.

The partners played the roles of quirky, good-natured rebels always ready to challenge establishment rules. Their local-sourcing policy bolstered Vermont’s dairy industry. They positioned themselves as environmental protectors, opposing such practices as genetic modifications (some food activists targeted them anyway.) Backing up their beliefs with their checkbook, they bolstered the careers of many artists, artisans, and other creative types.

Their antics made the news. When Häagen-Dazs’ corporate parent at the time, Pillsbury, blocked Ben & Jerry’s first distribution deal, Jerry fashioned a cheeky David-vs.-Goliath PR campaign “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?” that got national press. A Time magazine cover story in 1981 proclaimed Ben & Jerry’s the best ice cream in the world. Ben tested recipe after recipe before concocting a new cherry-flavored batch he named what else? Cherry Garcia. 

The company Ben and Jerry formed to sell ice cream in Vermont turned 40 this spring, an anniversary the founders celebrated with a series of look-back presentations around the country.  They touched down in Garden City September 12 with a rare Long Island appearance, each spending the day with relatives (Ben) and old grade school classmates (Jerry) before speaking at Adelphi University that night.

Speaking first, Jerry related a few stories about how he and Ben struggled in the early years. Raising money was a constant challenge. Jerry talked about how their business grew, not in spite of their support for local humanitarian causes, but – he asserted – because of it.

“Social justice and giving back to the community are baked into Ben & Jerry’s,” he said.

Speaking next, Ben brought Jerry’s narrative up to date. Noting the sale to Unilever, he asserted the giant corporation had succeeded in preserving their company’s social mission especially over the past five to seven years. He quoted Schopenhauer and the Harvard Business Review.

Launching into the kind of stem-winder associated with political campaigns, Ben’s voice rose as he demanded campaign finance reforms, endorsed marriage equality, and spoke out for Black Lives Matter. He congratulated Nike for supporting Colin Kaepernick and closed with a sly but crystal-clear rebuke of President Trump.

“Let’s make America kind again,” he orated.

After years of advocating for sixties ideals, Ben and Jerry are no longer voices crying in the wilderness.

“People used to laugh at us when we spoke to business groups at programs like this one,” Ben said to an audience clearly on his side.

Added Jerry: “Now we’ve been mainstreamed.”

The audience laughed. On that note the program ended. Everyone stepped into the lobby for an old-fashioned ice cream social. No need to ask which brand of ice cream was served.

Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield in their 1969 Calhoun High School yearbook.

Ben and Jerry in High School
Ben & Jerry’s Calhoun High School classmates reflect on the famous duo.

“Jerry and I were in Honor Society together; Bennett was yearbook editor. We were in different cliques: I was kickline captain whereas they did the outsider thing, the rebellious, protest-the-Vietnam-war thing. Both were exceptionally bright. What they had to say was thought-through and intelligent. Bennett was more into people’s faces than Jerry. Back then it was hard to tell if they were destined for greatness or destined for jail. Bennett especially could have gone either way.” -Tricia Mcgrath-Margas, Scotia, N.Y.

“I opened the first Ben & Jerry’s Homemade franchise in New York State; that was in 1983. One day Ben’s visiting me at the store and I get a phone call. It’s from Jerry Garcia’s lawyer with a message for Mr. Cohen about Cherry Garcia. Ben takes the call, starts telling the guy how much he loves Jerry and the Grateful Dead. First it’s: ‘What were you guys thinking?’ Then: ‘You can use the name provided you contribute to Jerry’s charity.’ Ben says ‘yes,’ right away.” -Jeff Durstewitz, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“These are two guys who never sold out, were always true to their core beliefs. They want to help people, they want justice for all and they want the environment to be good. They want to give back to the farmers in Vermont. They could have started their business on Long Island, but there are a lot more dairy farmers in Vermont.” -Zach Albahae, Coral Springs, Fla.

“Jerry was the kind of person who’d stick up for his friends. He got into a fight on the basketball court once standing up for a smaller kid. He was well liked at school. I’m sure Ben was too, I just didn’t know him as well.” -Dr. Andrew Newman, Merrick

“Jerry and I shared an affinity for Motown. We went to the Apollo to see James Brown. We were big into Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, too. It was our introduction to African-American culture; Merrick was all white. They both became big Grateful Dead fans. We were all heavily invested in the counterculture music: Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, The Beatles. I remember Ben trying to explain the Grateful Dead to his parents. His mother said, ‘So, are they happy they’re dead?’ That line became famous.” -Ronnie Bauch, Manhattan

Long Island: Divided By Unions

With Labor Day approaching I phoned John R. Durso, Long Island’s preeminent labor leader. In the spirit of the holiday, I asked him about unionization on Long Island today.

Durso, who is not only president of the Long Island Federation of Labor – the fourth largest such organization in the U.S. – but a much-admired spokesman for labor’s rank and file, said unions in general were doing well, steadily increasing their memberships and diversifying, particularly in the service industries.

His comments brought to mind the role that unions played in the lives of my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents. They worked in the garment trades and were active union members. On my father’s side, my great-aunt and great-uncle belonged to the International Workers of the World, better known as Wobblies. I believe the unions changed all their lives for the better. I remember them being fiercely loyal in their membership.

“The workforce today is far more diversified,” Durso continues. “So is union membership. There is much more participation involving women and minorities.”

This reflects the labor movement’s own diversification and organizing strategy, focusing on bringing collective bargaining to government and service industries. While the nation’s overall unionization rate is currently about half what it was a generation ago, unionization is actually rising among government employees, the healthcare workforce and unskilled service providers.

Greg DeFreitas, a Hofstra economist who studies unionization, reports that public sector union membership rose from two-thirds of all wage/salary employment in the late 1980s to 73 percent by 2004-2006, while over the same period the union share of private sector workers dropped from 18 to 13 per cent.

The effect on the regional economy has been outsized. Through union membership, hundreds of millions of dollars in spending power has gone to local teachers, police, program administrators, secretaries, nurses, lab technicians, janitors and domestic workers.

Not only do these workers collect bigger paychecks, they draw bigger and more comprehensive benefit packages as well. Their deductibles are lower – sometimes zero. Multiple vacations and extended holiday weekends, once the stuff of fantasy, now are taken for granted.

Last year, Professor DeFreitas produced a remarkable study that depicted the stark contrast between union and non-union lives. He found that the median Long Island union paycheck is now more than 50 percent higher than what’s earned by similar non-union workers. Factor in health insurance, fringe benefits, overtime pay, employer pension contributions,
extended vacations, and pay-for-training, and the gap widens considerably.

Local union growth continues. At the L.I. Federation of Labor, affiliations with the New York State Nurses Association, two teamsters railroad locals, the stagehands union and others have helped expand membership 10 percent this decade. The Service Employees International Union, the nation’s fastest-growing service union, has close to 5,000 L.I. members.

Meanwhile, public-sector retirement and benefit packages continue to pay off big time to select recipients. James Feltman, the retired superintendent of Commack’s schools, collects the biggest school pension checks in the state – more than $325,600 annually. The next nine educators on line are Long Islanders too – every one of them.

Each year the Long Island exodus continues toward places with more reasonable costs of living. We’re going to find a way to make living on Long Island sustainable for all, or this region will implode.

THEIR AVERAGE IS ABOVE AVERAGE

Highest average pay among nonuniformed employees: $89,755 paid to 12 Sands Point village employees

Highest per-pupil employee benefit costs in state: $35,378, Fire Island Union Free School District (enrollment: 37 students)

Highest average pay reported for local employee group: $220,088 paid to Kings Point’s 20 police officers

Twenty-five of the 50 highest-paid local employees in New York State work for the Nassau County Police Department.

Sources: Empire Center, U.S. Census Bureau, USA Today

Rob Kay: CEO’s Chance Of A Lifetime

Rob Kay, CEO of Lifetime Brands, Inc., shows off his company’s wares at the company’s Garden City headquarters. (Photo by Matthew Kropp)

Rob Kay, 55, is chief executive officer of Lifetime Brands, Inc., the Garden City-based housewares company that markets its products under such brands as Farberware, Hoffritz, KitchenAid, Taylor Kitchen, Chef’n, and Mikasa. A buyout specialist and strategist, Kay joined Lifetime Brands as CEO in March, stemming from the acquisition of Filament Brands, the privately held producer of such items as thermometers, timers, kitchen tools and gadgets, and barware. Kay joined Filament in 2012 and led the buyout of Taylor Precision Products, which became the cornerstone of Filament. He began his career as a consultant with Deloitte & Touche. Kay and his family live in Greenwich, Conn. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

For most of us, our parents were our first influencers. How did yours influence you? I was strongly influenced by both my parents. My father Joseph was a businessman by career but an academic by nature. Growing up in Riverdale in the Bronx, we were raised on books. On every family occasion we’d all go out to a bookstore. My mother, who’s still with us, was the steady force in the family, making sure we were acting responsibly. Her wisdom was understanding the value of people.

How did they shape your business philosophy? From my father, I got the foundation of looking at the facts behind every situation. From my mother, I learned it’s all about people.

Your background is on the financial side, doing deals. How’d you get to be CEO of Lifetime Brands? In 2012 I put together an investor group and we [acquired] Taylor Precision Products. It’s the leader in consumer products that use measurement like kitchen thermometers, bath scales and the like. We bought Taylor and I transformed it from a measurement company into a broader housewares company. Fast forward to 2017, the business was worth roughly $200 million. In housewares, that’s a decent-sized company.

And then? It dawned on me that with all the changes in retail, size matters. So does critical mass. I started thinking how we could grow much bigger. Lifetime seemed a perfect opportunity to merge two companies.

How did you get in the door? I knew Jeff (Siegel, Lifetime’s chairman). His father and a couple of partners founded the company. Jeff has had a lot to do with growing the company into what it is today, including taking it public.

Have you run a public company before? I’ve been involved with public companies in the past. In the public world you spend a lot more time dealing with your shareholders and being the public face of the company. Being private, you only need to speak with your shareholders and your board. (In my case) they were one and the same.

Is being public a genuine advantage? Our average competitor is a $25 million private company. So this gives us scale and access to capital. So yes, it’s a meaningful competitive advantage. Lifetime Brands has always been run by people in the Siegel family.

What’s it like running the company and not being a Siegel? I am the first nonfamily member to be CEO. You’re right, there is a cultural shift. We are taking two companies and merging them. The cultural issues [involved in mergers] are not unknown to me. I have been buying companies and merging them, working within the cultures to make sure they are uniform [for some time.]

Do you have a vision for the future? Lifetime is a great company. We’re creating Lifetime 2.0 and taking it to a new level as a dynamic public company. Both Jeff and I share a fundamental business philosophy that you evolve or you dissipate. We are both very interested in evolving and taking the company to the next level.

LIFETIME BRANDS
Leading global provider of kitchenware, tableware and other housewares
Chairman: Jeffrey Siegel
HQ: Garden City
Year founded: 1945
Number of employees: 1,400 (approximate)
Market cap: $250 million (approximate)
Revenues 2017: $579.5 million
Earnings 2017: $2.15M

Stanley Bergman: Leadership Lessons From Apartheid Era

Stanley Bergman is CEO of Henry Schein, Inc., Long Island’s lone Fortune 500 company. (Photo by Bob Giglione)

Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Stanley Bergman earned his accounting degree in 1973 and emigrated to the United States shortly thereafter. After a stint with BDO, he joined Henry Schein, the world’s largest dental and medical supplies distributor, as chief financial officer in 1980. Nine years later, he was named chairman and chief executive officer of what is now Long Island’s lone Fortune 500 company. Henry Schein, Inc. is LI’s largest publicly-traded company as measured by sales, which totaled $12.5B in 2017.

For most of us, our parents are our first influencers. How have your parents influenced you? My parents, Arnold and Ruth, were refugees from Germany. They came over to South Africa in 1936 and opened a store. This was during the apartheid era. We lived in an area called Port Elizabeth. It was a remarkable community where mixed-race people, blacks, descendants of people who had been slaves, Malay people, Chinese people, Dutch people and Huguenots, lived together. They created these phenomenal communities during the apartheid era. I was fortunate enough to grow up in one of them. While growing up I learned you can get things done by understanding other peoples’ cultures.

What do you mean? Businesses can thrive by being involved in the community. My father was very involved in the community. He taught me that if somebody is poor and has a challenge, you help that person and the whole community will respect you. They’ll work with you to make sure your business is successful. He was beloved in his community. When he walked down the street, if someone stopped him and asked for his help, he gave it. I learned from his example. If someone knocks on the door right now and says they have a problem, I’ll excuse myself and try to help. I know I’ll get paid back in spades.

You’ve mentioned Nelson Mandela as a major influence. Mandela’s autobiography was a thick book and not easy to get through, but well worth reading. About 10 years ago another book was published [Mandela’s Way: Lessons for an Uncertain Age, by Richard Stengel and Nelson Mandela]. I was impressed with Mandela’s insistence on always looking like the leader, even when he was in shackles. He addressed people like a leader. He also communicated that bravery is not merely the absence of fear. Having fear doesn’t mean you can’t be brave also.

Meaning you can’t use fear as an excuse? Everybody is fearful. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something [when circumstances call for it].

What else did you learn from Mandela? I remember how after he was released from prison, one of his first acts was to invite his jailer to visit his home as his guest. They ate together. That impressed me as an act of leadership.

Speaking of leadership, what does it mean to you? Authenticity. Leadership is about engaging people. Authenticity is the key to engagement. If you are authentic you will engage people. If you engage everyone you will win.

Hardly an easy task. The key is to find people who believe in your company’s DNA. Leaders are DNA carriers. You can lead by putting people in roles for which they might not be technically perfect, but if they carry the DNA – that is, if they’re culturally qualified – they can lead. These are the people who are culture missionaries. They go out and spread the culture.

Why is that important? We have thousands of competitors around the world. There is nothing whatsoever that Henry Schein does that others can’t do. We are the biggest by far because we have the best culture. Culture is about values. Culture adapts over time, but the values you build your culture on have to remain constant. The ways they align with your constituents are what makes you successful.

HENRY SCHEIN, INC.
Melville, N.Y.
Global distributor of healthcare products and services
Fortune 500 ranking: 235th (2017)
Revenue (2017): $12.5B (Up 8 percent over 2016)
Number of employees: 22,000+
17 consecutive years on Fortune’s World’s Most Admired list

David Wolkoff: Father & Son Act

David Wolkoff is planning to turn the old Pilgrim State Hospital into the mixed-use Heartland development. (Photo by Bob Giglione)

A Harvard University graduate with a Columbia University MBA, David Wolkoff brings financial skills, management acuity and more than 25 years of construction activity to his role as a principal in the Wolkoff Group, Long Island’s largest development firm as measured by current construction activity. Last year, after waiting 15 years, the firm received approvals from both the Suffolk County Planning Commission and the Town of Islip to break ground on their $4 billion, 432-acre Heartland Town Square mixed-use redevelopment project on the grounds of what had been Pilgrim State Hospital. Ultimately the project will construct more than 9,000 apartments and more than 3 million square feet of retail and office space, making it the largest mixed-used project in LI history.

Our parents are usually our first influencers. Is that true for you? My father Gerry was — and is — a tremendous influence on me. I work with him every day. He is ferocious at getting his dreams accomplished. He doesn’t take no for an answer. He’s worked all his life and he’s still at it.

How did he get his start? My father was 15 when he convinced Abe Stark to get him a driver’s license.

Abe Stark, the Brooklyn borough president? That Abe Stark, yes. Dad had started a floor-waxing company and worked at night. Stark said, “You’re a great kid, but you can’t drive at night.” Dad did anyway. He got a ton of business then started a trade association so the other floor waxers wouldn’t step on each others’ turf.

How’d he get started in construction? He saw his brother building houses and said, “I can do this better.” He liked building houses, but he didn’t want to sell them. He felt if he built a building and rented it out he’d have regular income. He’s a tough act to follow.

How do you differentiate yourself from him? I can’t be him. He deals from the gut. I’m more academic. I cross my Ts and dot my Is. Gerry went without meals. He’s tough as nails. I can’t replicate that. It would be obnoxious if I tried. But there are things you learn by listening and watching and doing.

As developers, you and your father are active across the metropolitan area. What issues set Long Island apart? Density is the key issue and it’s related to ownership vs. rental ratios. In Nassau and Suffolk about 17 percent of the housing stock is rental. That’s too small. It holds us back. We also have to offer more amenities like retail and commercial space near residential units. In other words, we have to offer the kind of live-work-play mixed-use environment in vogue across the country.

Are we talking smart growth? Exactly. What we have on Long Island is a dearth of smart- growth communities.

Why is that? Short answer: Back when the Levitt Brothers were building in Nassau County, they created a suburban area and at the same time created suburban sprawl. What worked in the ’50s isn’t working now. It’s especially not working for millennials.

Millennials are leaving Long Island in droves. Unfortunately, yes. They want to be able to use their bikes. They want to use public transit. These are the educated people of the next generation and we can’t afford to lose them. What we’re building in Islip reflects the results of our studying what people in other communities have done to meet the next generation’s expectations. We went to smart-growth communities like Reston, Virginia and focused on what they did right and what they did wrong. We’re absolutely intent on doing it right. We will do it right, if we are allowed to.

By “allowed to,” you mean … If we get permission to build what the market needs. We’ve been saying Long Island needs this for years.

Warren Strugatch is a partner with Inflection Point Associates in Stony Brook, a marketing and management consulting firm. Visit him online at InflectionPointAssoc.com

What I Learned From My Summer Vacation

The summer after my freshman year at Hofstra University, I was hired as a camp counselor in the Catskills.

My new job was at Camp Mi-Han-Sa up in Ellenville, a small business run by a Brooklyn couple named Hannah and Sam. The camp has been gone for decades. Back then it offered plenty of kids their first summer jobs and provided great vacations for hundreds of Brooklyn kids. I vividly remember being handed a sealed envelope containing two weeks’ pay and feeling proud as hell.

It nearly didn’t happen.

The first week of July, the campers arrived. Most were driven by their parents. The kids all knew each other from the neighborhood and lost no time exchanging gossip.

About half the boys were 6 feet tall. The other half topped out above my waist. No kid was between those extremes. The taller youngsters spoke in Brooklynese baritones, sounding like auto mechanics weary after a day of fixing engines.

The smaller ones could have joined the Vienna Boys Choir had that vocal group operated out of Canarsie. The dudes were 13 or 14 years old and stood staring at me. I don’t remember introducing myself or learning their names, but we ended up getting along just fine.

The staff went off duty at nine. Every evening at five minutes after nine they raced to Ellenville in a noisy rally of backfiring second- and third-hand cars. Two counselors – one guy, one girl – drew night duty and stayed on the premises.

One evening the second week of camp, the night-duty guy was me. My campers were talking quietly in their bunks when a ruckus arose from the girls’ side.

I tore out of the cabin and raced over. Outside the screen door a gaggle of preteen girls in nightclothes and bathrobes shrieked: “Bat! Bat!” and circled the cabin screaming.

Effecting a bravado I didn’t possess, I strode in like a sheriff in the Old West. Somehow I was holding the other kind of bat, the kind used to play baseball. The bat in question was roosting upside down in a ceiling beam. I swung one bat at the other. I missed.

The bat screeched. The girls shrieked.

I stretched up and aimed the handle of the bat toward the flying rodent, whatever it was. I tried poking it. It screeched some more. I poked some more, then swung the bat again. The bat flapped its wings and fluttered towards the screen door, which miraculously swung open. The flying menace screeched a final time and flew off. The girls ran around the cabin screaming.

At this moment Hannah arrived. She took a quick look around.

“You’re fired.”

She opened her wallet and pulled out a $10 bill. She held it out with undisguised contempt.

“Take it,” she said. “I want you out of here before breakfast tomorrow.”

This was both unfair and unpractical. Ten dollars would not have gotten me south of Kingston. It occurred to me that there was a principle involved. I did something I hadn’t done much of during my 18 years.

I spoke up for myself.

“I’m not fired, Hannah,” I said. “I haven’t done anything wrong. There was a problem before you got here and I solved it.”

Drawing a breath, I added: “That’s my job.”

Hannah glowered but repocketed the bill. The girls stopped screaming and watched in complete silence. Hannah turned and trudged back to the lodging she shared with Sam. I watched her back grow smaller and disappear into the dark woods.

A few girls shouted: ““Hooray!”

Two weeks into my first real summer job and I’d already learned a pair of life lessons. One: Speak up for yourself if you want to be treated right. Two: The best way to get rid of flying bats is with baseball bats.

I’ll let you figure out which lesson stayed with me.

Warren Strugatch is a partner with Inflection Point Associates in Stony Brook, a marketing and management consulting firm. Visit him online at InflectionPointAssoc.com

The Gruccis: America’s First Family of Fireworks

The Grucci family of Bellport pulls the curtain back on their long history of manufacturing fireworks and putting on epic pyrotechnic shows, especially in July.

On July 4, Christopher Grucci planned to be up in Boston working. When you’re a Grucci, working on the 4th means painting the night sky above a major city with rocket-fueled explosions as thousands ooh and ah.

A pyrotechnician trained – like all members of the Grucci extended fire-works family – by his dad, uncles and older cousins, Christopher bounces around the Charles River job site making sure all needed supplies are accounted for, and that all coworkers are there.

“If something’s missing, I hop in the car and go get it,” says Christopher.

Welcome to Independence Day, Grucci-style. One of 47 gigs the family has booked for July 4, 2018, Boston has enjoyed pride of place with the family since the Gruccis celebrated the nation’s Bicentennial in Beantown two generations ago to a soundtrack provided by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. These days, Deborah Grucci, Christopher’s mom, stakes out a private view of the proceedings from a nearby high-rise while dad – that’s Phil Grucci, fifth generation CEO – stays closer to the ground.

“When the show starts,” he says, “the Esplanade is lined with people. They put the flags out and the whole environment is electrifying.”

He allows a grin.

“I admit it,” he says. “I like patriotic scenes.”

It’s a natural preference for a man whose business is celebrating America’s birthday and big holidays. Increasingly that business has expanded to helping the rest of the world celebrate everything from casino openings to Persian Gulf commercial construction. Domestically, July 4th has spread out to cover the entire seventh month of the year.

The largesse reflects the preference of municipal governments, country clubs and nonprofit organizations – the Big 3 of the fireworks customer base – to commission holiday celebrations in the weeks following Independence Day as well as during the holiday itself. This year, Grucci will hold 28 performances on Long Island alone in July.

And that’s leaving out the growth in Christmas season fireworks displays.

For the Bellport-based company, which began in Italy in the mid-19th century, the bulk of revenue growth in fact comes from sales overseas.

Since taking over as chief executive five years ago, Phil Grucci has emphasized export sales, targeting Asia and the Gulf States.

Fireworks by Grucci produces about 250 shows annually: around 50 internationally, another 200 produced in the U.S. While domestic engagements are still their mainstay, export growth continues to outpace domestic sales. The company’s overseas shows are generally larger and flashier than their U.S. productions, reflecting customer preferences overseas. Gulf states especially demand the spectaculars, which play to global audiences.

Over the past decade, Grucci has handled such global commissions as the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing and the grand opening of the Palm Jumeirah and Atlantis Resort  in Dubai. They staged the fireworks at the 2012 World’s Fair in Yeosu, South Korea. On New Year’s Eve 2013, the Gruccis lit nearly half a million fireworks above Dubai’s skyline, setting a new world record. In the United Arab Emirates, 2018 began when Christopher launched the largest aerial firework shell in history, a 5-foot-diameter projectile weighing more than 2,400 pounds. A team from the Guinness Book of World Records was on hand to validate both Gulf State records, as were countless video cameras.

It’s very much a family business. Sister Lauren handles photography and promotional tasks for the family business and a cousin, Corey, 34, focuses on the human resource side, helping administer a company with more than 750 pyrotechnicians working around the globe. The three young people are prominent members of the rising sixth generation, a rare experience for a family business. Phil also heads a sister corporation, Pyrotechnique by Grucci, which sells munitions-testing services to Washington.

From its base on LI’s South Shore, the company has spread around the world. Grucci maintains regional offices in Doha, Qatar; Dubai; Liuyang City in Hunan Province, China; and St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Domestically, it has offices in Oahu, Hawaii; Radford, Virginia, for defense contracting and manufacturing; and Las Vegas, in support of the company’s growing casino customer base.

With nearly 170 years of pyrotechnic success, the Gruccis are Bellport’s most famous family. Uncle Felix, known hereabouts as Butch, served a term in Congress from 1996 through 2000. Various relatives are active in community organizations and local businesses. Phil and Debbie enjoy the fare at several local restaurants, and own commercial property on Bellport Lane; the popular Carla Marla’s Ice Cream Parlor and two other small retailers are tenants. Through their family foundation, the Gruccis donate pyrotechnical evenings to several nonprofit organizations, including the Boys and Girls  Club of Suffolk County and the local Boy Scouts chapter.

“They’re kind and polite people, courteous commercial landlords, and generous,” says Bellport Mayor Ray Fell. “It’s amazing to think this company got started in Bellport and now does business around the world.”

When their complicated schedules allow, the Gruccis like to kick back at home. Phil, 55, and Debbie, 54, met with Long Island Press contributing editor Warren Strugatch at their stately bayside home for a conversation about how they met, life as a family business, and how they discovered the 8-bedroom, 13-bathroom, 9-fireplace house built in 1917. Excerpts are below.

Warren Strugatch: How did you meet?

Phil Grucci: We met in English class at Longwood High School. This is a historical fact!

Debbie Grucci: I was born and raised in the Bronx. I remember the first time he brought me home to meet his family. There was this small table in his grandparents’ home with maybe 25 people gathered around. Phil was the golden boy in his family.

PG: Come on!

DG: Well, you were! They looked at me like: Is this person good enough for him?

WS: How did he propose?

DG: We had dated for eight years, so he had time to make up his mind. We were heading out to East Hampton for a fireworks display by George Plimpton.

WS: Was this the one at Boys Harbor?

DG: Yes, the one Tony Duke organized every year. As we were heading out, he said: ‘Why don’t we go to Queens and pick up a ring?’

PG: Debbie, you know I would never propose on the 4th of July.

WS: Where did you get started as a family?

PG: We moved next door to my grandmother.

DG: We came from a nice, humble beautiful home that we built up from a one-bedroom cottage. It was initially about 900 square feet. We outgrew that house after our first child. Once Grandma passed away the whole dynamic changed. It was time to find our own grown-up house. This had to be the 20th home we looked at.

WS: What made you decide to buy it?

DG: It felt like a house we could finish growing in and eventually retire in.

PG: We love to entertain. When I saw the billiards room I nudged Debbie and said, “Don’t show the agent how happy I am.”

DG: My parents saw the table. My father said, “Philly, let’s have a game and the whiskey will come out.” Now they live here with us.

PG: We go away for weeks at a time. Someone is always traveling. When we do get home and everybody is here we put the call out so we can get together.

DG: When we were a young family it was Phil’s grandmother who was the family nucleus. The guys would be in the office and the women would be in the pool with the kids or outside in the yard. That’s what I want us to become here: the family nucleus.

TIMELINE: NOTABLE EVENTS

1850: Angelo Lanzetta founds small fireworks company in Bari, Italy
1870: Lanzetta and family emigrate to New York; settle in Elmont
1899: Lanzetta dies. Company ownership passes to son Anthony.
1923: Felix Grucci, Sr., Anthony’s nephew, joins business as apprentice
1929: Family relocates to Bellport
1940: Felix marries Concetta DiDio. Their children are James, Donna and Felix Jr. All three enter family business
1960s: Company consolidates grip on tri-state market
1976: Gruccis produce U.S. Bicentennial celebration
1979: First American family to win Gold Medal at the annual Monte Carlo Internaional Fireworks Competition.
1981: First Presidential inauguration (Ronald Reagan)
1983: Factory explosion in Bellport kills 2 Gruccis, including Phil’s father, James, and injures 24 residents. Cause of blast never determined.
1984: Felix Grucci, Jr (Phil’s uncle) becomes head of company
1986: Statue of Liberty Centennial
1997: Presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton
1999: New Year’s Eve Millennium Celebrations in 12 Time Zones
2000: Felix Grucci, Jr. elected to one term, U.S. Congress (R – E. Patchogue)
2002: Opens missile simulator facility in Radford, VA
2006: Wynn Macau Casino Resort, Grand Opening, Macau, China
2009: Guiness’ 250th Anniversary, Dublin, Ireland
2013: Felix Grucci Jr and Donna (Grucci) Butler retire; Phil Grucci named CEO
2014: Sets Guinness world record of firing nearly half-million shells in six minutes on New Year’s Eve.
2015: 70th anniversary commemorating end of World II
2018: Sets Guinness record for firing largest shell in history

Lou Grassi: Long Island’s Accounting Juggernaut

Lou Grassi is CEO of Grassi Co. Photo by Bob Giglione.

One of Long Island’s most successful accountants, Louis C. Grassi, is chief executive officer, managing partner and – as he’ll tell you – the driving force behind Grassi & Co. After working briefly for KPMG, Grassi opened his own accounting firm in Forest Hills in 1980. Two years later, he moved to Garden City, later Lake Success and now Jericho. He oversees five offices, the work of 30 partners and annual revenue of about $65 million. An edited version of our conversation follows, which Grassi conducted on his feet.

How’d you get started in accounting? I started out as a music major at Queens College. I found most people majoring in music couldn’t find jobs. The economic outlook wasn’t encouraging. I had taken a bookkeeping class in high school, and worked part time preparing income tax returns. My guidance counselor said, “Wait a minute, you’re in the music program and you’re preparing income tax returns? Do you like it?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “God bless.” I changed majors.

Our parents are usually our first influencers. How did yours influence you? My father, Salvatore, was a salesman for a chemical company. My mom, Lena, worked in a sweatshop. They both instilled the value of education in me. My father would occasionally take me on sales calls. I witnessed what it was he did. When I was in that position myself I didn’t have a lot of experience but I had been exposed to the sales process. A lot in life is about exposure.

Did selling come easily to you? I’m entrepreneurial by nature, so probably the answer is yes. I didn’t want to work for a big firm and started out at a mid-sized one. KPMG tried to get me on campus and a year out of school they got me. I went there and it didn’t match who I was as a person. Didn’t want to be one of the herd. I took a leave of absence. My dad was dying of lung cancer, and the family rallied around.

How long was your leave of absence? Six months. During that time I started getting clients. I had more clients working part time, and made more money, than when I worked full time at KPMG.

So you put out your shingle and … I didn’t put out my shingle. I studied the market. I didn’t think of it as a money thing. I thought: Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can have my own firm.

Clearly you could. How’d you get the word out? My timing was good. A new law allowed accounting firms to do advertising. A case in Florida opened the floodgates. I thought, if I’m going to go into business for myself, why don’t I capitalize on that?

Did you? I bought a mailing list with 2,000 names. I stuffed envelopes and licked stamps. It sounds pretty archaic now. I got about 15 interviews from the mailing. One was with Marcato Elevator in Queens. They’re still with us as clients, third generation now.

So the mailing worked. Six months later we were doing $250,000 in revenue. Thirty-five years ago, that was considered a huge accomplishment.

Now your revenues are? About $65 million.

How does it feel to say that? Sorry if I sound like Doctor Phil. I couldn’t have imagined doing $65 million when I started out.

Is it enough? We still talk about doing $2 million more at our corporate retreat.

Warren Strugatch is a partner at Inflection Point Associates, a marketing, public relations and management consulting firm in Stony Brook. Online at InflectionPointAssoc.com

Hire Education: Class of 2018 Enters Changing Job Market

What does the job market hold in store for the Class of 2018?

Mary Brosnan, director of Molloy College’s Career Center, steered her offspring toward accountancy as they reached college age.

“My husband and I pressured them to become accounting majors,” she tells me. “That’s where it seemed the jobs would be.”

Her three sons graduated in 2014 and this year. One is an accountant and her daughter, last in the nest, graduates next year. She’s already switched majors to sociology.

The major-changing experience has expanded Brosnan’s view. She realizes now you don’t have to be an accountant to get hired on Long Island. In recent years, healthcare has become the Island’s biggest and fastest-growing sector. At the same time, employers are less fixated on applicants’ areas of study and more focused on how they rate in soft skills such as leadership capacity, ability to work in small groups, and aptitude for solving problems.

The exception to this pattern: nursing.

“At Molloy, half of our students are nursing majors,” Brosnan continues. “There are more nursing jobs than there are graduates. I wish my daughter were a nurse,” she says with a laugh.

Northwell Health, she adds, “is probably the leading recruiter on Long Island right now.”

Change “probably” to “is” and you appreciate the Class of ’18’s employment prospects. A decade’s worth of healthcare expansion and population aging has reshaped the job market. Healthcare is now the source of fastest job growth for many non-healthcare occupations.

Healthcare and the related field of social assistance paced regional job growth in April, adding 3,300 new positions, a record for the month. Conversations with healthcare employers, career counselors, and new grads point to that trend continuing.

Northwell alone hires about 145 people on a typical week, including about 20 new grads, according to Judy Howard, the system’s vice president of talent acquisition.

Degreed positions in greatest demand are specialty nurses for assignment in neonatal, critical care, perioperative, dialysis and anesthesia. Also in high demand are physician assistants, lab technologists, pharmacists and engineers.

Northwell is also recruiting people with associate degrees as surgical techs and EEG technicians, Howard says.

These jobs pay. Northwell would not discuss salaries, but online compensation sites say Northwell pays nurses on average nearly $87,000 per year. In comparison, the average Long Island salary runs about $54,300, says PayScale.com.

Career counselors at Hofstra, Adelphi and Stony Brook also named Northwell as a major talent recruiter. Tom Ward, who heads Adelphi’s career center, listed NYU Winthrop Hospital and Catholic Health Services of Long Island as additional major recruiters. Andrea Lipack, associate director of employer relations at Stony Brook, listed NYU Langone Health and Memorial Sloan Kettering as major hirers along with Northwell. Every June, LI produces a flood of newly minted accountants, many of them eyeing careers with top accounting firms. That’s still the case, although healthcare now absorbs many of them as well.

“We talk to our students and say, ‘Look at healthcare, even if you’re an accounting student,” Michelle Kyriakides, executive director of Hofstra’s career center, tells me. “We see most positions are posted in healthcare, as well as high tech, advertising and marketing services, and nonprofit.”

A TALE OF 2 MBAS

Danielle Catuli and Joe Lucito both graduated from Adelphi University in May as new MBAs. They are among the minority of students who’ve accepted pregraduation employment offers.

Danielle interned for three summers for Acxiom, a marketing database company in Manhattan. She also played shortstop on her school’s Division II team, which reached the World Series two years running. Both activities interested the IBM recruitment team she met on campus.

Danielle starts work at IBM’s Consulting by Degrees program this summer. Salary: Around $70,000.

Joe Lucito earned an MBA with a concentration in finance, after completing an undergrad degree in accounting. He interned at the Manhattan offices of both Merrill Lynch and Marks Paneth, a mid-sized accounting firm. Marks Paneth extended Joe a job offer in its audit department this spring. Joe accepted and plans to start in July. Salary: around $60,000.

Warren Strugatch is a partner at Inflection Point Associates, a marketing, public relations and management consulting firm in Stony Brook. Online at InflectionPointAssoc.com

Who You Calling Bossy?

ina Gottesman of Altus Metal Marble & Wood in Smithtown has confronted the challenges of being a leader in the male-dominated construction industry (Photo by Bob Giglione)

When Lina Gottesman and her husband opened their construction supply
business nearly 30 years ago, she drew plenty of industry attention, none of
it wanted.

“There I was, a young woman wearing high heels walking around construction
sites,” Gottesman recalls. “I heard lots of catcalls, wolf whistles and lip
smacking.”

Three decades before #Metoo, she reacted from the gut.

“I had to prove to them I was one of the guys,” she says. “I’m a pretty feisty
person. I pointed my finger at them and said loudly: ‘F*** you! Get back to work!’”

The aggression eased up. A few days later the Smithtown business owner tried getting friendly.

“I had bought a supply of logoed windbreakers for my employees and brought a bunch to the construction site,” she says. She handed them out and the men – catcallers included – started wearing them to work.

“Now when I visited my client I’d see 20 guys outside wearing ‘Altus Metal Marble & Wood’ on their backs,” she says.

The gesture turned into free advertising. Women entering the workforce, starting companies of their own, applying to universities or seeking access to public services have long complained of unequal treatment. Their grievances include bosses and coworkers making unwanted advances; clients and prospects making lewd comments; glass ceilings; and much more. The pushback, often voiced over social media, has become successfully disruptive.

“All business owners face certain challenges, but women often have unique obstacles to overcome because of their gender,” asserts the Long Island Center for Business and Professional Women on its website, LICenter.org. “Their male peers are less likely to encounter these issues.”

One of the major challenges to women is handling expectations. Negotiating, whether it’s for a salary, an equity stake in a partnership, or division of labor in a household, is where many women struggle most. Men who roar at the bargaining table gain fame, wealth and admiration.

Women who assert themselves get called aggressive or pejoratives. Fear of being labeled deters many females from acting in their own best interests at work, in the home, or during divorce proceedings, said Rebecca Zung, a Los Angeles attorney. Zung recently leads online negotiating seminars for women. Her latest event was sponsored by the Ellevate Network, a global women’s networking group with an active LI chapter. Her program: “Essential High-Power Negotiating Skills for Women.”

Based on years of experience representing “thousands of clients going through divorces,” Zung concluded that men and women negotiate differently.

“The biggest difference is that men can compartmentalize everything,” she says. “In a divorce, they put aside the loss of the marriage and focus on the financial picture – what’s best for them. They can approach the divorce from an unemotional point of view.

“Women, on the other hand, tend to think erroneously that they can win through emotional argument,” she continues. “A man will lead with facts and figures. If he wants a raise, he’ll show that he adds value to the company. A woman will make the argument personal, saying, ‘If you appreciate me, you’ll give me that raise.’”

Not every woman buys into that.

“I remind women that they’re equal to the men they’re negotiating with,” says Mary Hauptman, an owner of Hauptman Realty Management in Melville and president of the Long Island Center for Business and Professional Women. “I encourage them to find out about the customer, go to their website, and try to strike a chord” based on commonality of interest or background.

“Most importantly, come to the negotiating table armed with facts.”

And if men still treat you boorishly?

“You try to work it out,” Hauptman says. “If not, fire them.”

Warren Strugatch is a partner at Inflection Point Associates, a marketing, public relations and management consulting firm in Stony Brook. Online at InflectionPointAssoc.com