Warren Strugatch

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Feathering Their Nest By Tapping Sense of Place

In Northport, Nest on Main's Donna Moschella recreates a traditional market using today's social media strategies. (Photo by Ralph DePas)

On a weather-perfect weekend afternoon in early November I strolled down Main Street in Northport, soaking up the atmosphere. People were out in droves, chatting, socializing, shopping and spending.

A small hubbub was happening outside 135 Main Street. Inside, Nest on Main was marking its first anniversary.  The store, a home décor outlet with a different kind of business model, is winning over fans big time. A crowd had gathered for a ribbon-cutting presided over by Northport’s exuberant village trustee and deputy mayor, Tom Kehoe.

Inside the store various crafters, artisans and vendors were greeting new arrivals, chatting casually, offering coffee and snacks. Shoppers passed among the artisanal foods, knitted hats and clothing, floral arrangements, photographic prints and paintings of local scenes.

The line at the store’s single cash register — management handles sales so individual vendors don’t have to — stretched toward the back. People chatted with their neighbors while on line beneath a collection of paintings.

A scenario like this you don’t see that often. It recalls the days before shopping mall domination and online retailing hammered downtown merchants.

For nearly a century the 3,100 square feet of space had been Ingerman’s Department Store, a Norman Rockwell-ish place of pressed-tin ceilings and oak floors. Times changed. Ingerman’s moved out, a variety store moved in. The variety store closed. Last October Donna and Tony Moschella moved in with a new concept. Instead of leasing space and filling it with merchandise, they leased space and filled it with vendors and artisans.

The idea came to Donna, a former retail buyer, after a visit to the Chelsea Market in New York about a decade ago. She saw how shoppers enjoyed the experience of being in the market, rather than simply making transactions. Donna had changed careers, built up a medical-billing business, then sold the business and retired. Tony was planning to retire as a school psychologist in Queens.

The Moschellas sold their home in Dix Hills and moved to Northport, drawn by the harbor community’s vibrant downtown and waterfront. They moved in just before Hurricane Sandy. Despite that, Northport seemed the perfect place for the market she envisioned.

“I never had to recruit vendors,” Donna says. “People heard what I was doing, and approached me to be part of it.”

Judging from the turnout for the one-year anniversary, the Nest is thriving. What exactly are they doing right?

I spotted at least two main things. One is fostering cooperation among the vendors, whom Donna calls nesters.

“If I have a mantra, it’s cooperation over competition,” Donna says. “Whenever a nester promotes something new on social media, they use the Nest hashtag. Everyone shares their news with everyone else’s followings.”

The Moschellas have also positioned their market as The Great Good Place as described in Ray Oldenburg’s book  — the kind of community center Martha Stewart might run if she were to let her hair down. Locals register for floral arranging, knitting, crocheting, and mozzarella cheese-making classes.

“The Nest brings people together,” says Donna. “There’s a tremendous sense of community in Northport and we help add to that.” Their son Michael works in the store part-time.

I spoke with Krishtia McCord, who with her mother Mary Schlotter owns Harbor Homestead & Co., a floral and event design business. They’re one of three mother-daughter pairings in the Nest retail scene.

“I heard about them through word of mouth,” McCord says. “Donna had put out flyers on Main Street talking about opening a market for local makers and artists. My mother and I decided to take a little space. It’s worked out great.”

She estimates their approximately 70-square-foot space produces more than $1,000 in revenue a month.

Northport’s Deputy Mayor Tom Kehoe is a big fan.

“They’re doing very well and I’m just delighted,” he says, noting that the vibrant downtown bolsters property values.  

“Retail is challenging irrespective of where you are,” he adds. “Retailers all around the world are struggling. There are a number of reasons, but the big one is the Internet. There has been a tremendous increase in Internet sales. Communities need successful retail on Main Street to thrive. Stores like Nest on Main keep downtowns vibrant, doing just what they’re doing.”

 

Actor Blair Garner’s New Role: Union Electrician

Blair Garner of Uniondale changed careers from actor to electrician with the help of the United Way of Long Island.

Robinson Cano. Tim Tebow. Bo Jackson. Blair Garner.

Remember Nike’s “Boom” commercials from 2010? Cano, Tebow and Jackson, three of the hemisphere’s best-known athletes, starred in different spots. Garner? The kid from Uniondale was cast as Nike’s high school quarterback in a spot called Boom Huddle. Clad in fictitious high school football uniforms, he and his teammates break huddle and explode into action – Boom!

“That was me in the middle,” Garner recalls. “Did you see it?”

His mother, Clariona Griffith, managed her son’s budding career.

“I took him on all sorts of auditions,” she says with a pleasant laugh. “I told him, ‘You’ll hear a million ‘no’s’ before you hear that one wonderful ‘yes.’”

The early Nike gig pushed the youngster’s earnings to more than $30,000 that year. It was a promising start. Over the next few years he snared roles in commercials for Metro PCS and Nickelodeon; was cast in a couple of small movie roles; and landed an appearance on Law & Order SVU.

The clock, however, was ticking. Garner turned 24 last year and took stock of his career as an actor slash model slash dancer.

“I didn’t really know where I wanted to go in life,” he says. “Everything I was doing wasn’t totally fulfilling. I wanted to reach out and help people. I wanted to bring light into their life.”

A casual conversation with his father introduced him to YouthBuild, a vocational training and job-readiness program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor operated by United Way of Long Island. Students learn soft skills like dressing appropriately for the worksite, and methods of resolving conflict.

“The atmosphere in YouthBuild was very encouraging,” Garner recalls. “Everyone around me was also trying to better themselves. It felt like one big family.”

After completing YouthBuild’s program, Garner enrolled in Opportunities Long Island, a vocational training program, whose website says it “connects individuals from underserved communities to union construction.”

About 40 young Long Islanders, ages 18 to 24, are being trained as apprentices this year at OLI. Tuition’s free, although students buy their own books. The program shuttles students among eight or so union halls, where they learn directly about the trades they might enter.

Garner made a beeline to International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 25, the electricians’ union. He listened to everything he was told about how to use the tools of the trade safely, and about what it means to be a union electrician.

He knew that OLI graduates move into union apprenticeships. Apprenticeships last five years, during which time workers earn about half pay – roughly $50,000 a year in pay and benefits. After the five-year period their paychecks double to about $100,000.

“When I first heard about OLI, I thought: No Way,” Garner says. “How could you get into a union in such a short amount of time?”

The answer: demographics.

“There is an aging workforce out here on Long Island,” says Stephen Muzyka, United Way’s director of housing and training services. “Unions are calling me all the time, asking for apprentices.”

After he was hired by IBEW, Garner went back to both training programs and shared the good news with his old friends.

“Blair is a nice young man, very motivated and presents very well,” says Jenette Adams, YouthBuild’s program director. “He works very hard, always with a smile on his face. I was delighted he got hired.”

One of the young man’s first jobs was installing and maintaining traffic signals.

“We fixed a traffic light in Deer Park that had been broken a while,” Garner says. “People honked and cheered when we were finished because we’d solved their problem.”

His mother is proud and, naturally, has her own perspective.

“For Blair to go from acting into being a union electrician is so exciting, even a little far-fetched,” she says. “When he was a kid, I couldn’t get him to fix a fuse box.”

Michael Lessing: Counting Their Lessings

Michael Lessing is the fifth-generation president of his family's restaurant and catering business. (Photo by Ralph DePas)

Last December, Michael Lessing was named fifth-generation president and chief operating officer of Lessing’s Hospitality Group, a restaurant and catering company based in Great River. Founded in 1890, the company operates 17 wedding venues and 10 restaurants on Long Island, Westchester and Florida. Lessing’s boomed in the 1980s through a string of acquisitions of Main Street restaurants and cafes along the South Shore. Last year, the company regained the contract to operate Bethpage State Park’s high-profile event space after a 20-year lapse, five months ahead of the PGA Championship next May. I spoke with Michael inside the event space at Bethpage State Park, now renamed Heritage Club at Bethpage.

Let’s start our conversation at the beginning. Who were your mentors rising up the ranks? My father, Lawrence Lessing, was president prior to me. My Uncle Jack was CEO. They influenced me enormously and still do. They’ve moved into senior advisor roles. They still come to work everyday. I meet with them once or twice a week. As CEO, Jack was very outgoing; he was the company’s public face. My father was more subdued, more professor-like. As mentors they gave my brother Mark and I enough rope to go out and make our mistakes. As long as we learned from our mistakes, that was ok.

Were you groomed to be CEO? I wasn’t planning on being in the business! I went to school for finance. On summer vacation in 1984, I worked as a steward in Bethpage State Park (where Lessing’s operated the concession.) I spent more time in the cellar than anybody should have to.

As president, what changes have you made so far? One of the things we’ve done is make the next generation work outside the company (for outside experience). My son Michael Jr. went to Fairfield University. When he graduated with a degree in finance we had the father-son conversation about careers. I asked him about his plans and he said, ‘I want to go into your business.’ I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ So he went to work first at Blue Smoke in Manhattan (a three-restaurant Southern barbeque chain owned by the Union Square Hospitality Group). He’s now general manager at the Post Office Café in Babylon, which we own.

What’s your primary challenge operationally? Our number one challenge is finding the right people. We always start by looking within, and promoting. It doesn’t always happen, which means we always are looking to recruit. In the long run, the tightening labor market is a big challenge.

How are you meeting the challenge? We look to make Lessing’s a more desirable employer. Through our benefit packages we offer career training and more flexible scheduling. We’re making it a company where people really want to work, and want their family and friends to work here, too.

You’re a fifth-generation executive running a 128-year family business. How do you negotiate between tradition and innovation? Lessing’s has quite a heritage! At 128 years old, we don’t turn on a dime. So we’ve been working to automate – automate, automate, automate. It’s been a game changer for us. Our goal has been to make our operations more user-friendly. Employees can log on and see how many hours they’re working, see their schedules two weeks ahead, and put in requests for vacation times.

Have you explored new business models? We’ve moved into franchising. We now operate Blaze Pizza locations. Blaze has given us a new perspective in terms of how they roll out new ideas and new initiatives, and in terms of using social media.

You and your brother Mark both grew up in the family business. You became president last December; he remains executive vice president.  How has the promotion affected your relationship? Mark and I are a year apart. We were very competitive as kids. Through high school we were best friends. I came up on the catering side, he came up through restaurants. In addition to Mark I work with two other brothers. There’s a fifth brother, who’s not in the business, and a sister. They’re both computer programmers.

Long Island Businesses Increasingly Back Mixed-Use Housing

Mixed-use, transit-oriented developments like the proposed Ronkonkoma Hub project aim to keep young professionals on Long Island.

If you want to understand why the term “mixed use” dominates the Long Island economic development lexicon, consider why Alexi Venneri left Lake Success for Scottsdale, Ariz.

Venneri, an energetic young marketer recruited from her sports marketing job with the Seattle Mariners, crossed the country 20 years ago to work for Dealertrack Technologies in Lake Success. (Dealertrack recently moved to New Hyde Park.)

Venneri told me she liked the job but not the region’s suburban issues: traffic congestion, high cost of living, the downtown doldrums, and so on.

A recruiter dangled an executive position in Arizona and like that, she was gone. Two years later she launched Digital Air Strike, a social media and digital marketing company, from her kitchen table. The new agency quickly achieved success.  

Ten years later, her Scottsdale workforce has grown to more than 130 people. The agency is regularly touted by Scottsdale economic development leaders. I reached Venneri in Arizona and asked if she had considered starting her business on Long Island.

“I love the people,” she said after mulling over the question a moment. “But I could never go back. (My) employees can’t afford to live there.”

Every employer on LI tells a similar story. Typically they blame high taxes, traffic congestion, or even employee greed. Few acknowledge that the Island’s low-density, highly restrictive zoning rules are choking us. Millennials, Gen-Xers and even many Boomers chafe at archaic suburban patterns that restrict their social, personal and professional lives.

The alarming — and escalating — rate at which companies are leaving Long Island has finally woken up the business community. When the region’s only big-time professional sports team, the Islanders, made their We’re-Moving-to-Brooklyn announcement five years ago, they delivered an unmistakable wake-up call. Last year the club was forced to walk it back. By then, however, tens of thousands of parents had experienced their children moving back into their basements, or scattering around the country in search of jobs.

Here’s the gist: The most desirable employers, and the most desirable jobs, are elsewhere. So are the most desirable employees. Obsolete, car-centric suburban zoning, which separates where you live from where you socialize and where you work, is a huge factor.

Paul Pontieri, the charismatic Patchogue mayor who’s speared a much-admired downtown revitalization, addressed a packed room at the Hauppauge Industrial Association of Long Island’s annual luncheon this spring. He discussed the South Shore community’s revitalization from an employer’s perspective.

“When Long Island businesses make the decision to leave,” he said, “it’s generally a matter of not having employees who want to stay.”

The HIA-LI luncheon was organized to tout regional development with emphasis on retaining employees. When Mitch Palley, representing LI’s major builders’ association the Long Island Builders Institute, cited the Long Island Index estimate that 42 percent of under-35 Long Islanders still live with their parents, the crowd drew in its breath. He knew his audience.

Next to speak was Jim Coughlan, a principal at Tritec Real Estate Company, which is developing the $600 million Ronkonkoma Hub project.

Replacing the sprawling, decrepit Ronkonkoma Long Island Rail Road station with housing (“for everyone, young and old,” declares the Hub website), entertainment, employment, retail, nightlife and restaurants, the Ronkonkoma Hub is a transit-oriented mixed-use project that one would expect business leaders in a contracting region would embrace.

One would think.

As the speakers well knew, business people can be among the vociferous of objectors when higher-density zoning is proposed. Often opponents charge, without documentation, that such projects attract low-income occupants and bloat enrollment at local schools. Politicians often react by snipping the projects’ original visions. Coughlan emphasized that projects like the Ronkonkoma Hub consistently attract ambitious single professionals, childless couples, and empty nesters, and will attract employers as well.

He didn’t shy from the dark side.

“We are going to keep on losing the best talent we have,” he said, “if we don’t start building more projects like the Hub.”

The room stayed silent. He paused a moment then said what was on everyone’s mind.

“Many companies here are zombies,” he went on. “Zombies. They’re dead, because their employees don’t want to be there. How much longer before they’re forced to leave, too?”

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