Warren Strugatch

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Homeowners Resist Development Plan At Historic Flowerfield

Gyrodyne manufactured anti-submarine helicopters for the U.S. Navy.

In 1917, John Lewis Childs, a former New York politician with a green thumb and a head for business, began cultivating flowers, bulbs and seeds on 335 acres in St James. He called his property, reasonably, Flowerfield.

Carved out of undeveloped space on Smithtown’s eastern edge, this horticultural
outpost flourished at the intersection of the region’s historic east-west corridor, Route
25A, and its main local north-south connector, the winding horse-and- buggy path
known as Long Hill Road, now Stony Brook Road.

A century later, the crossroads – now cornering the largest light industry-zoned track
remaining in Smithtown – is at the center of a heated battle dividing neighbors over
economic development, responsibilities for infrastructure improvement and the proper
role of government planners.

Access to mass transit helped Flowerfield grow. The horticulture magnate exploited the
Long Island Railroad’s pre-existing right of way through his property, demanding – and
getting – his own station with a second-floor greenhouse included. The Flowerfield
depot stood until 1958, providing backyard shipping to Manhattan.

Childs died on a train to New York in 1921. Several years later his widow sold his beloved seed business to a rival. His realty holdings went in the Depression. A helicopter manufacturer in Massapequa known as the Gyrodyne Company of America acquired the tract in ’51.

Gyrodyne stopped manufacturing in the 1970s and became a Real Estate Investment Trust. It then converted a portion of the tract into a small-scale light-industrial park, preserving its open spaces while attracting a mix-and- match collection of local businesses. They included a popular catering hall, a successful delicatessen and, most incongruously, a string of art studios – the Ateliers at Flowerfields.

Even with these structures, Flowerfields could rent out as the set for a movie taking
place in the 1920s or ’30s. Its time-capsule seclusion, however, is on borrowed time.
On Aug. 2, the Suffolk County Planning Commission approved, on 48 hours’ notice, a
subdivision application that – if green-lighted by Smithtown – will transform
Flowerfield’s remaining 62 acres into a sprawling commercial park. Plans call for the
construction of a 150 room hotel, a 124,000-square- foot medical office and a 220-room assisted living facility. The project will likely stimulate developers’ appetites for
neighboring parcels, in the process transmogrifying one of Long Island’s last remaining
colonial-era communities.

Resistance, however, is growing. Government officials, civic leaders and community
activists seemed gobsmacked by the county planners’ August end run around them all.
The commishes not only effectively pressed the mute button on local homeowners and
their elected representatives, but decided, for reasons only they know, to waive the usual traffic studies and environmental assessments. As for dealing with the inevitable surge in traffic, the board suggested Stony Brook Road could carry it.

The planners apparently never even asked Gyrodyne the buyer’s name. The loudest civic opposition so far has come from the Brookhaven side, where residents stand to pay the cost in infrastructure maintenance while leaving economic benefits on Smithtown’s side of the table. Civic leaders in Brookhaven’s Three Village area are particularly galled.

The project’s most damning flaw, however, is housing – the absolute abject lack of it.
For a region crying for workforce housing, the idea of creating a major project without
building a single new home – incredibly, on a tract with LIRR tracks running through –
is incomprehensible.

On Nov. 15, the Smithtown Planning Board considers Gyrodyne’s subdivision
application. Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward Romaine told me he’ll break with
custom and speak at the session. He’s also preparing a lawsuit.

I’ve spoken as well with some of my Three Village neighbors, most of whom wonder why the county planners moved so fast with so little discussion. They ask why traffic and environmental impact studies were omitted. Many want housing development and mass transit options a part of any construction.

In other words, they want a 21st century development.

Bucolic Flowerfield won’t be a time capsule forever. That doesn’t mean it has to become Long Island’s latest example of ill-conceived, ill-planned and unsustainable development.

C Suite: Anil Kapoor: At Svam, Athletes Always Welcome

Svam International CEO Anil Kapoor. (Photo by Bob Giglione)

Born in New Delhi, Anil Kapoor studied accounting and worked at a
regional accounting firm and at several companies in India before
emigrating to the United States in 1994, where he and three friends
started Svam International. The Great Neck-based firm is a global IT and
business-services provider. As president and CEO, Anil oversees
worldwide operations including sales, marketing, development, finance
and professional services. Contributing editor Warren Strugatch caught
up with Kapoor to discuss his management philosophy, the difficulty of
finding employees locally, and what exactly the name Svam means.

Long Island Press: You started out as an accountant in India. How did
you transition into CEO of a Long Island tech services firm?

Anil Kapoor: I worked for a few different companies in India and the
States. The times were great and opportunities were great so I took an
opportunistic approach. I was hanging out in India with a bunch of friends
who I grew up with. I said, why don’t we take a plunge and start a tech
company?

LIP: How’d you come up with the name Svam? What does it mean?

AK: It’s made from the first letter of each of our names, the four of us who
founded the company.

LIP: How did you gain credibility for your tech company without having a
tech background yourself?

AK: I went to tech events and met people. Comdex (a once popular
computer expo that folded in 2003) was a very good place to meet people.

LIP: So, who did you meet?

AK: I met some guys from Litton Industries, which became an anchor
client.

LIP: Your co-founders are gone, but you’ve stayed on as leader. What does
leadership mean to you?

AK: As a leader you are responsible for creating conditions of success. I
surround myself with smart people, who at the same time time have to be
self-motivated. I give them responsibilities and let them run with it.

LIP: How accessible do you make yourself?

AK: We have an informal environment. Everybody is authorized to walk into my office and say, “This is what’s going on.” Plus I meet with my direct reports several times a day, whether in person or through technology. We’re in India, we’re in Mexico, so it’s 24/7. We text, we phone. I tell people, “Don’t hold back regardless of the time of day.”
LIP: Every business faces a crisis eventually. What would you describe as your biggest crisis and how did you handle it?

AK: By the year 2000 we had built up a work force of around 300 people. Then Y2K came to an end and we had the tragedy of 9-11. We were as low as 68 people in 2001.Things fell apart as a house of cards. Of course people were worried about losing their jobs. That transformed my thinking.

LIP: How so?

AK: I realized we had come as far as we had because of our team, the core
group of about 10 people in the company. I realized I had a different level of
responsibility to them. If they are happy, the company performance is
different. Even though we had people idle for lack of work, I don’t recall
firing anybody for that. I did fire some people because of unethical behavior
or other issues.

LIP: How did this change your management philosophy?

AK: We switched from client-first to employee-first. If employees feel
welcome and challenged they will strive to excel, therefore providing
compelling client service.

LIP: Now, how many employees do you have?

AK: Globally we have between 625 and 650.

LIP: When you hire, where do you look? And what traits do you look for?

AK: We look all over for employees. Locally, I cannot find that many
qualified resources on Long Island. It’s not the available guy you want, it’s
the qualified guy. And it’s more difficult to get people to come from other
countries now. One reason is immigration reforms. Another is that people
can probably make more money in their own countries in terms of spending
power. In terms of personal traits, I like to hire people who are good at sports, who
are athletes. The sport doesn’t matter. I look for people like that who are
self-motivated and self-disciplined.

Does Long Island Have What Amazon Wants?

An Amazon warehouse in 2015. (Photo by Scott Lewis).

In 1994, Jeff Bezos left his Wall Street job and moved to Seattle, launching a retail startup that abandoned brick and mortar in favor of electronic sales.

Bezos named the disruption Amazon, after a dictionary search revealed the Amazon River was the biggest on the planet. Bezos envisioned making his new store the biggest in the world.

Famously, he has succeeded. Amazon passed Wal-Mart two years ago as the world’s biggest retailer by market value. Today it ranks among the largest companies in the world. More even than its neighbor Microsoft, Amazon has established Seattle as a fulcrum of economic activity.

Bezos now intends to build a second headquarters somewhere in North America. To start the process, he has solicited proposals from economic-development teams across the continent. Among them is a contingent from Long Island.

Good on us. Amazon will invest $5 billion in building what it calls HQ2, staffing up eventually with some 50,000 workers. Long Island needs the investment and jobs like hot dogs need mustard. The local labor market languishes. Over the past 12 months ending in August, private-sector jobs in Nassau-Suffolk inched forward half a percent, less than a third the state’s tepid growth rate. The last couple of months have produced small losses.

Furthermore, growth in high-paying jobs is weak. People tell me they get paid less these days for doing the same work they did before. Many moonlight to get by.

What’s Bezos seeking for his new home? The company emphasizes incentive packages and a “business-friendly environment and tax structure.”

Translation: Come to the table ready to pay us big bucks to locate where you are and don’t forget the tax write-offs. While you’re at it, be close to an international airport, have a substantial population and a high-quality fiber optic network. Then we’ll talk.

Should LI even try to compete? Here’s how we rank in the competition.

Business-friendly environment. I wonder, does a single business owner or CEO consider Long Island business-friendly? Projects designed to produce jobs, reduce car dependence and add workforce housing languish for decades awaiting permits and approvals.

Stability. Real estate and search executives use the term “stable” to describe balanced government budgets. Both Nassau and Suffolk have borrowed from Peter to pay Paul’s budget items, raising the cost of fines to pay expenditures. Search execs hate that.

Tax structure. Long Island, in particular Nassau County, is one of the highest-tax regions in the country. Executives cringe when asked to relocate to higher-cost areas, asking employers to pay the differential or simply refusing relocation. Search execs hate both those options.

Infrastructure. Major roads congeal twice-daily at rush hours, idling hundreds of thousands. Mass transit, a vital characteristic of almost every major corporate investment, is dead in the water here. Billions of dollars of investment would be needed to satisfy an Amazon.

Power. Long Island companies pay astronomical electric bills which LIPA et al would have to deeply discount to satisfy Bezos.

Work Force. Decades of brain drain means few recent grads or career-changers fit a big company’s new-hire profile. Fast-growth companies need workers who are intellectually curious, broadly-educated, of diverse backgrounds, flexible in their thinking, and multi-skilled in their capabilities. To develop these workers means creating company-specific training modules rolled out by local community colleges whose professors understand the company’s internal processes. None of this is happening here.

Information infrastructure. This is a relative strength. Three fiber optic companies – Cablevision, Verizon-Fios, and Lightower – supply the region. Andy Weitzberg, a board
member and past president of the Association of Continuity Professionals of Long Island, tells me the infrastructure can support a user of Amazon’s size pretty easily, provided the new headquarters is built west of William Floyd Parkway.

I spoke about Long Island’s chances with Tom Stringer, a BDO USA exec helping companies across the country find locations where they can prosper and grow.

“I wouldn’t put us on the short list,” Stringer told me about Long Island’s chances with Amazon. “I can’t immediately define Long Island’s value proposition. The real winners will use this process to figure that out. We’re going to learn some hard truths and hopefully make the changes we as a region need to make.”

Stringer’s right. By chasing Bezos we’ll better understand ourselves and our economic climate. We’ll be better positioned to attract that visionary entrepreneur who right now might be in college or high school who might settle in here and attract other ambitious, hard-driving, intellectually-curious people – the kind needed to build a world-class company.

It’s a time of disruption. It’s time Long Island disrupted itself.

Contributing Editor Strugatch is a journalist and consultant. His website is InflectionPointAssoc.com.

In Full Bloom: A Conversation With 1-800-Flowers CEO Chris McCann

Chris McCann
1-800-Flowers CEO Chris McCann (Photo by Bob Giglione/Long Island Press)

When Chris McCann’s big brother Jim bought his first flower shop in Manhattan in 1976, Chris, then 15, helped out on weekends, learning the floral business even as the older McCann began to transform it. Chris was named chief executive in July 2016; Jim continues as executive chairman. Contributing Editor Warren Strugatch caught up with Chris to find out what it’s like to succeed one of America’s iconic marketers.

Long Island Press: I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when you and Jim discussed your promotion. What was that conversation like?

Chris McCann: It was a rather long process. We talked a very long time. We had an unidentified time line but the process was built on the belief, which we’ve held for a long time, that there should be two at the top. Because Jim and I were able to interact smoothly, he could step into my shoes, and me into his. It made the transition very smooth.

LIP: Tell me about your management philosophy.

CM: My approach is very informal and approachable. I want to engage people from all levels of the company. I encourage them to jump right in, not be afraid of failing – as you as long as you learn from your mistakes. No one’s ever fired for making a mistake. I’d rather hire someone who gets speeding tickets than someone who gets parking tickets.

LIP: What was your family background and how did that influence you?

CM: My father had a painting and contracting business, which he inherited from his mother. We all grew up in the family business. We shared a lot, both pitfalls and benefits. I learned my management style from my father. I saw him treat people individually, based on who they were. I learned from him to adapt to people’s styles, not the other way around.

LIP: What would you name as your leading tangible contribution to 1-800-Flowers?

CM: I would start with technological innovation. I am not a technologist but I recognized early on that technologies change human behavior. I knew that people were more comfortable calling on the phone than walking through the door. We embraced that and created a brand around the 800 phone number.

LIP: Today that’s called disruption.

CM: We seized the opportunity to disrupt the floral industry. Now we’re embracing Mobile Commerce and Artificial Intelligence Commerce. We’re seeing the convergence of a bunch of technologies – Big Data, Analytics, Voice Computing – all being called Conversational Commerce. It’s all about having conversations with the consumer when it’s convenient to them

LIP: How are you taking advantage of this?

CM: Our philosophy is to engage early. Jump in and learn. Adapt and make changes. In terms of Conversational Commerce, we are still in the adaptation stage.

LIP: What’s it been like, working under Jim McCann?

CM: I remember him saying: ‘We have a chance to build something big in the floral industry.’ His definition of big was always different than mine. He always has a bigger vision in mind. I would have been happy growing in the New York area. Jim is a classic entrepreneur. In my view he’s a marketing genius. He has an instinct I don’t have. I forced myself to focus on the operational side to complement his skill set.

LIP: By your standards, has your approach been successful?

JM: I’ll tell you what my mother said when I asked her that question. She said she was proudest that Jim and I, despite our 10-year age difference, had become friends.

Strugatch is a journalist and consultant. His website is InflectionPointAssoc.com.

Pilgrim’s Progress: New Suburbanism, Finally, at Former State Hospital

Heartland Town Square
Artist's rendering of the proposed "Heartland Town Square" in Islip Town, which would include more than 9,100 housing units and more than 4 million square feet of office space.

When Pilgrim State Hospital opened in Brentwood during the Great Depression, it was set up to provide not just housing and treatment for the state’s surging population of schizophrenics but to distribute government-issued substitutes for family and community.

Institutions like Pilgrim, Central Islip and Kings Park were self-sufficient communities equipped with power generators, vast kitchen facilities, burial grounds and acres of farmland for patients to cultivate as therapy. Whatever patients needed was to be available inside the institutional gates, according to state policy.

Pilgrim’s population peaked at nearly 14,000 patients in 1954, the year it was declared the world’s largest hospital. In the decades that followed, several generations of improved psychiatric drugs led officials to close most of the hospitals’ units and discharge patients into the community.

Talk about irony. The self-sufficiency of Pilgrim State Hospital – later Pilgrim Psychiatric Center – predates the much-ballyhooed New Urbanism espoused by community planners and progressive developers. Soon-to-be-constructed Heartland Town Square, as you know unless you’ve been living under a rock, is the $4 billion, 452-acre live-work-play redevelopment project whose first phase Islip Town Board approved in July.

The partial approval followed more than 15 years of political lap-dancing over union hiring requirements, who pays what in infrastructure costs, how to allocate subsidies for housing and government services, and – last but not least – the best way to update zoning.

Changing zoning of course raises thorny land use questions, debates over population density, and discussions of ownership-vs-rental ratios. That’s just scratching the contentious surface. The fact is that many Long Islanders harbor the delusion that the 1950s never truly ended, steadfastly defending zoning regs, village ordinances and building requirements put in place when Ozzie and Harriet last went house hunting.

In her classic work on urbanism, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs warned of the sterile planned neighborhood “that shows a strange inability to update itself, enliven itself, repair itself, or to be sought after, out of choice, by a new generation.”

Such a community, she wrote, “is dead.”

“Actually, it’s dead from birth but nobody noticed this much until the corpse began to smell.”

Heartland Square is not just another planned community. Its proper planning, construction and leasing is essential to providing the kind of walkable, open-street, diversely-populated 21st century community that’s been shepherded into existence all across the country by savvy coalitions of business leaders, community advocates and government officials.

Everywhere except here on Long Island.

Heartland could be – and perhaps will be – the kind of walkable, bustling and diverse community Long Island desperately needs. I’m talking about a community where you can walk to work, ride your bike without fear of death, hang out in a Great Good Place until late, mingle with interesting strangers and rent without being stigmatized.

Much has been made of the exodus of young Long Islanders in recent years. The diaspora is usually attributed to inadequate job creation. That’s certainly one cause. Another’s the lack of housing options. The shortage of residential choices drives plenty of young folks to the bridges and airports. Many recent graduates – and plenty of divorcees, singles and empty nesters as well – have no use for the white picket fence fantasy. As the millennials say, that’s so last century.

It isn’t just about housing stock. It’s about community. Long Island is all about Mom, Dad and the Kids. Real estate agents greet prospects with patter about great schools, quiet night streets, and heartfelt odes to suburban insularity.

Did I leave out how near we are to the malls?

It speaks to the lunacy of Long Island’s housing and zoning policies that Gerald and David Wolkoff, the father-and-son developers who spent over 15 years preparing to transform a one-time psychiatric hospital into a vast planned community designed in the spirit of New Urbanism, only to discover that the state’s discredited legacy of mental health institutionalization policies offers the most progressive community-planning insights available.

Still, I’m banking on the Wolkoffs. I think Heartland’s going to work out fine.

Strugatch is a consultant and writer based in Stony Brook. His website is WarrenStrugatch.com.        

C Suite: Karyn Schoenbart Steps Up

Karyn Schoenbart
Karyn Schoenbart

Karyn Schoenbart is chief executive of the NPD Group, a global leader in consumer research and one of those quiet corporate jewels that a lot of Long Islanders don’t know about. Her new book, Mom.B.A. Essential Business Advice from One Generation to the Next, came out in August. Contributing editor Warren Strugatch tracked her down in Port Washington to ask about leadership, climbing the corporate ladder and goal setting.

Long Island Press: What were your early years like?

KS: My mother, Anita Schoenbart, was a stay-at-home mom. She was the class mother, the president of the sisterhood, and a role model in showing my brother and me that whatever your job is you can be a hard worker and be passionate about it. She gave me the superpower of being able to remember everyone’s name.

My father Zelman had a sewing machine and vacuum cleaner store on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. He taught me business fundamentals like the difference between revenue and profits and the importance of hard work. They were both incredibly supportive of my brother and me. Both are still alive and they are the best parents.

LIP: Can you describe your leadership philosophy to me?

KS: It’s ‘Say what you’re going to do, then do what you say.’ It starts with having a vision, then articulating that vision so people see how they fit into it and how they can contribute to it. It’s inspiring people to be part of it.

LIP: In March you were named CEO of a well-established company. Is your job maintaining continuity with NPD’s culture and traditions, or steering forward in a new direction?

KS: NPD is a terrific data company. We made the decision a few years ago to change our orientation from being about the data which is from the past, to being predictive and helping people with their future business problems. Now we have to articulate that vision and inspire people to see how their piece fits into the puzzle. My role is to help people understand the long term benefits to our clients. One of the key skills in my role is communicating: up, down and across.

LIP: Have you found a way to eliminate the so-called CEO echo chamber where people tell you only what they assume you want to hear?

KS: I know that because of my position and my passion it’s hard to say no to me. If people think my idea won’t work, it’s important they know that they can tell me that. Maybe my idea is pink sunglasses. I am teaching myself to say: ‘Let’s just brainstorm all the ways that making these sunglasses pink is a bad idea. I’ll go first.’

LIP: You’ve received regular promotions up the ladder. Were these promotions planned on your end, or the result of recognition from above?

KS: A sponsor is someone who sees something in you and keeps pushing you forward. I talk about the importance of sponsors in my book. In my career, Tod (Johnson, NPD’s executive chairman and preceding CEO) has been a sponsor. When Tod first offered me the job of being head of all business units my first response was to say no. I really liked the job I was in, managing one unit. I wasn’t sure I wanted the job of managing my peers.

Tod said go home and sleep on it. I did. I talked about it with my husband, who said first of all you can do this job, and if you don’t take it someone else will. I thought about the accomplishments of my team and I had to admit I was probably the best person for the job. This is the modesty thing many women have. We find it hard to say out loud that yes, I am the person who’s most qualified.

LIP: Did the modesty thing reoccur when you were offered the president’s job?

KS: One of the first meetings I had with Tod was a career development lunch, which I asked for. Tod asked me for my goals. I wrote out five pages worth. He turned around and said, ‘I think your goal should be to be president of NPD.’ I thought, Really? Little ol’ me?

LIP: And now you’re CEO.

KS: And part of that job is helping other people set goals like that for themselves.