Warren Strugatch

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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

Michael Dowling of Northwell: Long Island’s Largest Employer

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling. (Photo by Bob Giglione)

Born in Limerick, Ireland, Michael J. Dowling joined North Shore Health System in 1995 as chief operating officer, then helped oversee the historic merger of North Shore and Long Island Jewish Medical Center. He was promoted to chief executive in 2002. During his tenure as CEO, the healthcare system has opened medical and nursing schools in conjunction with Hofstra University; launched the state’s first provider-owned insurance plan; and expanded into Greater New York, becoming Long Island’s largest employer. Dowling rebranded the system as Northwell Health with a Super Bowl ad in 2016. Northwell ranks among the nation’s largest healthcare systems. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Warren Strugatch: Our first influencers are our parents. Tell me about yours.

Michael Dowling: My father, John — known as Jack — was a laborer. He was a hard-nosed, hard-driving guy. When you shook his hand, you didn’t need a contract. My mother, Margaret, [instilled] a love of education in me and encouraged me to read. I read all the Zane Grey novels about the Old West in America.

WS: Did reading them inspire you to come to America?

MD: I came to America for education and to earn money. I was the oldest of five and our parents couldn’t support us materially. My father was crippled by arthritis at 40, so I went to work at 15. I worked part of the year in a factory in England, then back to Ireland for school. When I go back today, I see BMWs and Jags in driveways. Back then we had carts and donkeys. Our family was poor: no heat, running water, bathrooms or electricity. We lived in a thatched house with mud floors. We ran to school and ran back, six miles each way. That’s how we stayed fit. I also played a lot of sports, including hurling, which is the Irish national sport. You’ve got to be a little crazy to play it.

WS: It sounds very Frank McCourt (author of Angela’s Ashes).

MD: Frank McCourt grew up 12 minutes from me. I started reading his book and asked myself why the hell was I reading it.I lived that life.

WS: You graduated from Fordham, taught there for a while, then became an assistant dean. You seemed headed for a career in academia.

MD: I got a call from Gov. [Mario] Cuomo’s office. They hired me as deputy director of the Department of Social Services. He later appointed me head of Human Services. We worked side by side for 10 years and came to know each other extremely well. After he left office we stayed close.

WS: What did you take from that experience?

MD: Mario Cuomo was inspirational and unbelievably bright. I think he got me because of the immigrant thing. When you were around him you had to be on top of your game. He took a chance on me, forcing me to do things for which I had no background. I was thrown in and did them, successfully.

WS: How else was he influential?

MD: I’m a big believer in expanding your mind and thinking outside your box. You don’t want to be stuck in tradition. Complacency is dangerous. At Northwell today, most people who run hospitals have never run hospitals before. If you walk in here with a CV and say, ‘I’ve run a hospital for 20 years,’ I won’t hire you for that. You’ll just run a hospital from 20 years ago. Maybe I’ll hire you for something else.

WS: Almost everyone wants health care reform, yet there’s no consensus about how to improve the system. Is single payer the answer?

MD: Big systems like us around the country will do the bulk of healthcare reform. I’m skeptical about the ability of government to do this. If government takes over, you’ll have a real crisis on your hands.

WS: What’s the most important thing you do as CEO?

MD: Hiring and training people is extremely important. We hire 145 people a week on
average and I meet our new hires every Monday morning. We talk and get to know each other a little. Human talent creates the organization’s personality and culture. How you hire them, how you train them, how you do succession planning, all that’s how I spend my time. What else is more important?

BNB Bank CEO Kevin O’Connor: Job Offer Came as Surprise

Kevin O'Connor has been CEO of BNB Bank for a decade (Photo by Bob Giglione).

Kevin O’Connor became president and chief executive of Bridge Bancorp and its subsidiary Bridgehampton National Bank, now BNB Bank, in January 2008 after 20 years at North Fork Bank, where he rose to become treasurer. A Brooklyn native, O’Connor moved to Farmingville with his family and attended school there. After getting his associate’s degree at Suffolk County Community College, he completed his bachelor’s degree in Accounting from Adelphi University. He is a past president and advisory board member of Suffolk County Council of the Boy Scouts of America and serves on the American Red Cross’ Long Island Board of Directors. He has three sons and resides in Great River. Here are excerpts of our conversation:

Warren Strugatch: Our parents are our first influencers. How did yours influence you?

Kevin O’Connor: My father, Jack, was a New York City cop. My mother, Carole, stayed home. We lived in Brooklyn and Queens, then moved to Suffolk. When I was in high school I had a landscaping business and worked at Genovese Drugs. When I worked at Genovese, my dad would take my truck on his days off and take the kids working for me out to mow lawns. When I was in college, I thought of dropping out to chase the easier dollar. We fought many times during college to keep me from giving up. I’m glad he won those arguments, although I’m sorry he didn’t live to see me graduate.

WS: What did those jobs teach you?

KO: I learned about scheduling, dealing with customers, and managing people. I learned that if you committed yourself to do something for somebody you had to get it done regardless of the weather, your truck breaking down or someone not showing up for work.

WS: What did you learn from your supervisors?

KO: At Genovese Drugs, the store manager was Larry Onufrak. He saw early on that I could be a shift supervisor. Frank Del’Aglio was a senior manager at Pete Marwick, now KPMG, when I worked there right out of college. He went to North Fork in 1987 and became CFO under John Kanas. I joined him and that’s where I spent the next 20 years.

WS: John Kanas is a banking legend. What was he like to work with?

KO: John was very inspirational. You were really part of a team. He had a vision. He was going to get there and you would follow him because you wanted to be where he was. He was demanding but fair. John allowed you to take chances and make mistakes. He was as respectful to entry-level employees as he was to the most senior. Many of the things I deal with today I first dealt with at North Fork.

WS: Long Island banking has changed enormously over the past generation.

KO: It has. We don’t have the Grummans and Fairchilds here anymore, but there is still manufacturing and distribution. The guys here now may not make the whole plane but they make the forward struts or pieces of the nose cone. Those are the kind of companies we bank.

WS: How were you hired at BNB?

KO: After Capital One acquired North Fork in 2006 my services were no longer needed. I interviewed at a few banks and one was Bridgehampton. I interviewed for the CFO position. Tom (Tobin), the CEO, was looking to retire. Instead of offering me the CFO position he offered me the CEO position. I was scared out of my mind!

WS: What did you do?

KO: First I wished my father were here to talk with. Then I thought about 30 seconds and said yes.

WS: You’ve expanded the bank enormously. How?

KO: Probably two-thirds of our growth has been organic. That means hiring talented bankers. When I go to visit potential customers, I don’t ask who their bank is, I ask who their banker is. If they don’t know, fine, that’s an opportunity. If they do know and like that person I try to go meet them and see if they’re happy where they are. We aggressively pursue good bankers to hire and build businesses around them.

BNB Bank
Founded: 1910
Headquarters: Bridgehampton
Assets: App. $4.3B
Branches: 44 serving Long Island and greater New York metropolitan area
Ranking: Among Top 3 New York community banks – American Banker

Warren Strugatch is a partner with Inflection Point Associates, a consulting firm in Stony Brook. Contact him at Warren@InflectionPointAssoc.com

How Trump, Tariffs & Retaliation May Impact Long Island

A worker controlling metal melting in furnaces at a metallugical plant.

Driving onto the campus of Stony Brook University recently to attend a global trade conference, I passed the new research center under construction in the college’s technology park. I could see that the building’s foundation was done. Steel beams framed the half-built structure as workers jackhammered away.

At the conference itself, government employees, trade lawyers and consultants talked up the benefits of exporting. The small-business owners in the audience took business cards and brochures, sipped cups of coffee from the urn, and contemplated how they might do a little exporting one of these days.

Leaving the conference, I passed the construction site where steel girders glinted in the noon light. Those beams, if imported, now faced the 25 percent tariff ordered by President Trump in retaliation for what, in language evoking military threat, he called “an assault on our country.” In recent remarks Trump has described America as a nation “ravaged by aggressive foreign trade practices” and positioned himself as protecting workers who had been “betrayed.”

The bellicose talk visibly spooked some of his most conservative supporters, who, for whatever their positions on domestic issues, had consistently opposed protectionism throughout their careers, and reflexively defended keeping markets – foreign and domestic – open.

To provide visuals for a televised tariff-increase signing, the White House collected a bevy of hulking steelworkers with whom POTUS could shake hands and beam with their presumed post-signing appreciation. The steelworkers – and surely the owners of the companies they work for – indeed looked pleased that the president of the United States was raising the prices customers would have to pay to assure their livelihood.

News analysts, reporters, and policy commentators, whose own jobs are decidedly far less secure, immediately raised questions about the prospects of a trade war. Trump, never one to shy away from an argument, asserted the war was “winnable.” He looked like the kid in the schoolyard readying for a fight as friends stood behind him holding rocks.

Politicians who call for using tariffs as trade-war ammunition remind me of the old Woody Allen bit where he describes a fight where he hurt the other’s guy fist with his nose. This is what Trump is doing to us. By raising the price of imported steel by 25 percent, Trump effectively punches the public in our collective noses. We lose our freedom to choose cheaper or better-quality imports. As for the price differential, Washington pockets the change.

While prior presidents have indeed applied economic sanctions, they’ve been aimed at countries with whom relations have been chilly. At my trade conference, Jim Black, a partner with the SilvermanAcampora law firm in Jericho, recalled earlier years when a mention of the “Nasty Nine” nations referred to hostile states like Russia, Iran and Cuba.

“That number is way down now,” Black said shortly before lunch. One reason adversaries become friends is that trade brings nations together; sanctions drive them apart. Another speaker, trade expert Bill Laraque, dismissed the America First rhetoric.

“Trade sanctions aren’t going to make America great,” he said. “They are going to make America mediocre.”

Merely raising the cost of imports, he said, was no answer.

“What about improving the infrastructure? Charging ourselves more for steel is missing the point.”

As his swerve towards protectionism took shape last month, the president replaced his chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, with TV talking head Larry Kudlow. The ousted Cohn is a free-market advocate. Kudlow, of course, is the well-dressed talking head who plays an economist on TV. He is an unrepentant supply-sider but by no means is he a trade hawk. It seems the president didn’t get that memo.

On March 6, one week before getting Cohn’s old job, Kudlow blogged on kudlow.com under the headline “Tariffs are Taxes,” tariffs and import quotas are what we do to ourselves in times of peace and what foreign nations do to us with blockades… in times of war. But now we are imposing sanctions on our own country by punishing with tariffs in order to make Americans more prosperous.”

In other words, we’re punching their noses with our faces.

“If ever there were a crisis of logic,” declared Kudlow, “this is it.”

Warren Strugatch is a partner with Inflection Point Associates, a consulting firm in Stony Brook. Contact him at Warren@InflectionPointAssoc.com

With Plenty of New Jobs on The Line, Nature’s Bounty Gets Second Chance

Nature's Bounty is planning new manufacturing jobs on Long Island. Right: CEO Paul Sturman.

About six years ago, Nature’s Bounty, the vitamin and food-supplement maker that employs over 2,000 in the Town of Islip, announced plans to open a $32 million, 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Amityville’s New Horizons Industrial Park, located in the Town of Babylon.

To run it, Nature’s Bounty would soon hire more than 200 local workers to manufacture energy bars for global sales. A vitamin and food-supplement manufacturer with manufacturing operations in California, China and elsewhere, Nature’s Bounty was, and is, Islip’s largest employer that is not a hospital. It is also one of the largest private employers in Suffolk County.

To sweeten the pot for company officials, the Babylon Industrial Development Agency slashed the company’s Amityville tax bill by 60 percent for 15 years. In 2013, when the facility opened, Empire State Development, New York State’s economic-development arm, offered a $750,000 grant of its own.

Within just two years, the good vibes soured. In March 2015, Nature’s Bounty closed the plant, axing more than 200 jobs. The plant’s work was outsourced to Nellson Nutraceutical, a California company whose “very special manufacturing capabilities” could “produce more bars and faster,” according to a spokeswoman.

Matthew McDonough, Babylon IDA’s chief executive, tried to talk the company into staying. No dice.

“California,” he says, “was a done deal.”

The state withheld grant payment while McDonough clawed back nearly $294,000 in owed abatements.

“Ironically, we ended up leasing one of the buildings to Bloomfield Bakers, from California,” he tells me.

By the following year, the company was considering its options. In Fall 2016, Nature’s Bounty told Empire State Development that its 11 Long Island manufacturing facilities required extensive upgrades to keep the company from relocating. Howard Zemsky, Empire State Development’s chief, “assessed the threat of moving the company’s manufacturing and distribution out of state to be real,” according to William Mannix, executive director of Islip’s Industrial Development Agency. Albany then offered a grant of up to $25 million and $10 million in job training and other workforce development programs.

In return, the company committed to creating 157 new jobs, retaining 2,042 existing jobs while investing over $142 million on upgrading its Long Island plants.

Locally, Islip’s IDA board offered $8.4 million worth of tax abatements to the company over the next decade. The agency also expects to extend an undetermined amount of sales tax benefits as well, based on final capital cost reporting. The retention deal is expected to close within several weeks.

Job creation is a key component of any government retention strategy. According to a report in Newsday at the time, Nature’s Bounty’s CEO “pledged” to add the jobs within a year’s time. A spokeswoman says that the equipment needed to run the facilities would be transferred within three months’ time.

Since then, the company’s executive suite has had a shakeup. Last July, Nature’s Bounty’s long-time private equity owner, the Carlyle Group, sold a majority-stake sale of the company to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts for a reported $3 billion. After the deal the new owners divested most of the company’s European operations, slimming its global work force by about 75 percent.

CEO Steve left Ronkonkoma and moved into the corner office of the Kellogg Company, the global cereal maker. Replacing him was Paul Sturman, former worldwide head of Pfizer Consumer Healthcare. The company’s best-known brands remain, including the flagship Nature’s Bounty, plus Sundown Naturals, Osteo Bi-Flex, Solgar, Balance Bar and Puritan’s Pride.

Despite the upheaval, apparently neither state nor local IDA officials have opened conversations with Sturman to gauge the new CEO’s level of commitment to his predecessor’s pledge. Messages asking about job creation left with Sturman were not returned. Jodi Katz, a spokeswoman, says hiring information “would be made available at such time as we submit a filing” with Empire State Development. That won’t be before the end of the year, at the earliest – a long time for people waiting on jobs.

John Lombardo, who runs Suffolk County Community College’s Advanced Manufacturing program, tells me: “I know firsthand they are actively participating in every job fair at Stony Brook, Suffolk Community College and the regional labor departments. I’ve every reason to believe they’ve probably already exceeded their original hiring goals.”

Hopefully this time the new hires will be permanent.

Warren Strugatch is a partner with Inflection Point Associates, a consulting firm in Stony Brook. Contact him at Warren@InflectionPointAssoc.com

 

John Cameron: Engineering The Road to Success

John Cameron of Cameron Engineering is as c omfortable in a business suit as he is a wetsuit. (Photo by Bob Giglione)

After graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point with a Bachelor’s degree in engineering, John Cameron worked as a field engineer for Westinghouse Electric at the Indian Point Nuclear Plant, then for the Nassau County Department of Health. Nights he took graduate classes in environmental science at LIU Post. In 1985, he founded Cameron Engineering & Associates, LLP, growing it into one of Long Island’s foremost consulting engineering and planning firms, handling many of the region’s major construction, expansion and renovation projects. For 10 years John has chaired the influential Long Island Regional Planning Council. Active in leadership roles at numerous educational, charitable and environmental organizations, Cameron serves on the boards of the engineering schools of both Hofstra and Stony Brook universities and the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County. A one-time college track and field star, he is also a lifelong runner, surfer and fitness enthusiast. Raised in Long Beach, he and his wife Loretta live in Rockville Centre. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Warren Strugatch: Who were the major influences in your life?

John Cameron: My parents were tremendous influences. My father, John, came to America from Scotland through Ellis Island. My mother, Florence, came from a Catholic family in Scotland. In those days it was difficult to practice Catholicism there, so she talked my grandfather into coming to America. My dad was the most Christian person I have ever known and my moral compass: Right was right, wrong was wrong, you don’t blur the lines. For years on Long Island he worked two jobs, as a school bus driver and as a carpenter. We moved out to Nevada where he worked as a carpenter in the copper mines, as a janitor, as a bartender and at a bowling alley. My mom got homesick so we moved back. She was a huge sports fan. My father and my mother raised four kids and taught us the value of hard work.

WS: How did you decide to start your own business?

JC: Growing up I didn’t know anyone who had their own business, so I didn’t necessarily think of starting my own. I started working for other people. Engineering is a very conservative profession, by its nature. I wanted to innovate and I knew I had to do this on my own. I started my own firm in 1985 with $5,000 in the bank and no clients — the most difficult thing I ever did. A year later everything burned down. I had to start again. Nietzsche said whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

WS: Did it make you stronger?

JC: Definitely. I started different businesses and did different things: general construction, recycling, design. We started getting contracts around the country. People who worked for us stay on. My first part-time assistant still works here.

WS: What’s the most important project you’ve worked on?

JC: I’d say it’s the Long Beach Waterfront Park in ’97. I grew up down the block. It was named Project of the Year for Long Island by the Professional Engineers Society of New York. There’s a plaque there dedicated to my parents.

WS: Engineers are famous for being cerebral. What are you passionate about?

JC: I’m passionate about Long Island, what our challenges are and what we have to do to resolve them. Resistance to change is one of our biggest impediments, along with cost of living, cost of government, legacy cost, and cost of (public employee) pensions.

WS: You’ve spent a decade as chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Board. How has that affected you?

JC: I deal with a great deal of cynicism. Many people experience not having a voice in how things are done. They react by becoming resistant to change. That resistance impedes progress. We need affordable housing here. We also need more rental housing. These have become four-letter words. Where are working class people supposed to live? Where are poor people supposed to live? They have to live somewhere. They should be able to live in safety and have decent schools too.

Cameron Engineering & Associates, LLP
Managing director: John Cameron
Location: Woodbury, NY
Description: Consulting engineering and planning firm
Founded: 1985
Employees: 100
Work force: engineers, landscape architects, planners, facility operators and environmental scientists

Warren Strugatch is co-founder of Inflection Point Associates (InflectionPointAssoc.com) consulting firm in Stony Brook. Reach him at Warren@ InflectionPointAssoc.com.

Cryptocurrency Makes a Home on Long Island

The most important economic story of this century will likely be the rise of cryptocurrency, the digital open ledger exchange system where users, rather than government treasury officials or bankers, determine value and collectively maintain system integrity.

Recent developments, including a Long Island beverage company’s announcement that it would become a blockchain miner, have roiled the market, which tanked early last month. Network pundits, TV financial gurus, big banks and government officials have increasingly raised questions about the dangers of cryptocurrency.

For a few days around Christmas, a struggling Farmingdale beverage manufacturer named Long Island Iced Tea Corp. seized national attention when it changed its name to Long Blockchain Corp. and saw its stock value nearly triple before sinking back to earth.

It was apparently too much for CNN. Declaring “Bitcoin Mania Has Reached a New Level of Insanity,” Money writer Paul R. La Monica compared “the hype surrounding bitcoin and blockchain” with the dotcom boom and bust of the late ’90s.

“Madness,” he railed. “Pure and simple. Long Island Iced Tea is just the latest small company to change its business model in an attempt to latch onto the … cryptocurrency wave.”

The New York Times labeled the move “the most notorious example” of struggling companies who slap “blockchain” to their names and announce improbable cryptocurrency plans.

The actual story is more complicated. It’s also a little juicier. Involved are such names as Jonathan Ledecky, the New York Islanders principal owner; Heidi Klum, the supermodel; Eric Watson, a polo-playing New Zealand playboy rancher; and Kerry Kennedy, one of the late Robert F. Kennedy’s daughters and ex-wife of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Long Island Iced Tea’s transformation from beverage company to bitcoin miner began last December. Having reported latest-quarter sales of just $1.6 million, the company’s stock had dropped more than 40 percent, dragging valuation below $35 million. The drop precipitated a Nasdaq delisting warning. A second warning came last month.

The cash-strapped drink maker, which had funded operations primarily through equity sales and borrowing, apparently heeded the warning. Philip Thomas, the company’s hitherto low-profile CEO, decided to raise revenues by going blockchain before he was replaced last month. The company plans to spin off its iced tea subsidiary and focus on blockchain solutions.

The odd saga began in October 2007 when Mr. Ledecky and Mr. Watson, his business partner, raised $550 million in an initial public offering for a financial shell company, Triplecrown Acquisition Corp. The shell then acquired Mr. Watson’s New Zealand dairy farm business, CullenAgricultural Technologies, taking that company public. Six years later the
partners acquired Mr.Thomas’s Long Island Brand Beverages. At this point they changed the company name to Long Island Iced Tea.

Mr. Watson, who’s reported to have a fondness for dating supermodels and throwing extravagant parties, also runs Cullen Investments. As Bloomberg Business News reported,
Cullen is a majority shareholder in Bendon Ltd., a lingerie and swimwear company which employs Heidi Klum as spokesmodel. As for Kerry Kennedy, Bloomberg reported she was a board member of Long Island Iced Tea before resigning in September.

While bitcoin transactions remain unfamiliar processes for most Long Islanders, a number of e-retailers around the world have been accepting cryptocurrency for years. One is Tyler Roye, a veteran Long Island tech entrepreneur and co-founder/CEO of eGifter, an online gift-card market that began accepting bitcoin in 2014.

While opponents raise fears that cryptocurrency transactions are vulnerable to hackers, their advocates insist the opposite is true. Mr. Roye made the cryptocurrency case in an August blog post:

“The low margins and fraud challenges in our business had us looking to add more affordable and secure payment options,” he wrote. “Bitcoin was a great addition as it both reduced transaction costs and delivered sales free of the type of fraud we see in credit card sales.”

Cryptocurrency is not a perfect system; neither is the government-and banker-controlled system that’s prevailed for centuries. What’s certain is that cryptocurrency is not bound by national borders, not restricted by sovereign monetary policies and defiantly not shackled to the demands and fee structures of the banking industry. Governments will likely increase their efforts to regulate, control and tax its usage, and bankers will step up their efforts to maintain their lucrative hold on the world’s transactions.

How successful they will be depends largely on how vocal we are today in support of economic freedom of choice. You can take that to the bank.

Warren Strugatch is a partner at Inflection Point Associates, a consulting firm in Stony Brook. Reach him at Warren@InflectionPointAssoc.com

For James Hayward, Building Companies is in The DNA

Applied DNA Sciences CEO James Hayward is a leader in the local biotech industry. (Photo by Bob Giglione)

One of Long Island’s leading life-sciences entrepreneurs, James Hayward co-founded Europe’s first liposome company, Biocompatibles Ltd. in the early ’80s; headed worldwide research at Esteé Lauder from 1984 through 1989; then founded The Collaborative Group, a cluster of interconnected companies servicing the biotech, pharmaceutical, and consumer-product industries from 1990 through July 2004.

After selling the company’s assets to Dow Chemical and to a company later acquired by BASF, Dr. Hayward refocused on venture capital investing. In June 2007 he was named chairman, president and CEO of Applied DNA Sciences Inc., a Nasdaq company that uses DNA tagging, testing and manufacturing to reduce counterfeiting and improve supply-chain integrity. Dr. Hayward – the degree is in molecular biology and biophysics from Stony Brook University – serves on the boards of the Stony Brook Foundation, the Research Foundation of the State of New York, and the Long Island Life Sciences Initiative. His longtime base of operations is the Long Island High Technology Incubator at Stony Brook.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Warren Strugatch: Tell me about your early years.

James Hayward: My family lived in St. Albans, Queens. We owned a small deli-cum general store and lived right behind it. Everyone in the family worked there from the time we could walk. We had the experience of being in the great minority. The neighborhood was undergoing integration, with some reluctance. Being store owners was something of a struggle. Assembling and selling the Sunday newspapers was my job. When the city bus stopped at our corner, I’d hop on with a bag full of newspapers, sell up and down the aisles for five or six stops, then hop off. I’d take the next bus back. I learned to sell face to face and to do the work behind it.

WS: How did your parents influence you?

JH: My dad, Robert, was from England. My mom, Margaret, was from Ireland. Dad ran the store, Mom made the salads. Mom was socially minded and volunteered at nursing homes and Creedmoor State Hospital. As a student, I worked as an orderly at Creedmoor. Both my parents had remarkable work ethics but understood there was more to life than work. When the store finally closed, we’d take out our roller skates and roll up and down the aisles.

WS: What do you consider your strongest business skill?

JH: I’d say it’s choosing my friends wisely. I chose my academic advisors on the basis not only of personal admiration but of friendship. My mentors became friends for life. I was fortunate in that my post-doc advisor in London at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine kept a leg in academia and a leg in industry. I learned a lot about business from him.

WS: Unlike some scientist-entrepreneurs, you’ve thrived on the financial and fundraising aspects of business.

JH: What I learned in London, running a company trading on the FTSE [Financial Times Stock Exchange], was that raising funds is a matter of telling a great story with passion. As a result, we had kind of an easy path to initial funding. We spent less time on the road raising money. The old adage about raising money is to do it when you have a prospectus, not when you really need it.

WS: How did working at Esteé Lauder affect you?

JH: Working at Lauder was a great lesson in speed to market. A company like Lauder makes expensive advertising commitments in big-circulation magazines months in advance, sometimes for products in development. As a scientist, you better manage your team so you launch on time. You can’t miss ad deadlines.

WS: Why is the work of Applied DNA Sciences important?

JH: We’re a small company that’s the world’s largest manufacturer of DNA. We use DNA to detect counterfeit products in materials like cotton, currency, pharmaceuticals, and now legally sold cannabis. We catch manufacturers who cheat by diluting and mislabeling their products. We take the evidence to court. So far we’ve had 116 convictions in 116 trials. Our work makes life better for consumers.

WS: Can you describe your business vision?

JH: Our vision is to change the world for the better. By improving large commercial ecosystems and impacting lots of people, we can make the world a more sustainably managed and more truthful place.

WS: What’s your take on your company’s future?

JH: This is a $50 million market-cap company that should be a billion-dollar market-cap company.

Warren Strugatch is a partner at Inflection Point Associates, a consulting firm in Stony Brook. Reach him at Warren@InflectionPointAssoc.com