Warren Strugatch

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What I Learned From My Summer Vacation

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

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

It nearly didn’t happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bat screeched. The girls shrieked.

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

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

“You’re fired.”

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

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

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

I spoke up for myself.

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

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

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

A few girls shouted: ““Hooray!”

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

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

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

The Gruccis: America’s First Family of Fireworks

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

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

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

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

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

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

He allows a grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warren Strugatch: How did you meet?

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

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

PG: Come on!

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

WS: How did he propose?

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

WS: Was this the one at Boys Harbor?

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

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

WS: Where did you get started as a family?

PG: We moved next door to my grandmother.

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

WS: What made you decide to buy it?

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

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

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

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

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

TIMELINE: NOTABLE EVENTS

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

Lou Grassi: Long Island’s Accounting Juggernaut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now your revenues are? About $65 million.

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

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

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

Hire Education: Class of 2018 Enters Changing Job Market

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

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

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

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

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

The exception to this pattern: nursing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A TALE OF 2 MBAS

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

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

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

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

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

Who You Calling Bossy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not every woman buys into that.

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

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

And if men still treat you boorishly?

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

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

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 [email protected]

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 [email protected]

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 [email protected]

 

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 [email protected] InflectionPointAssoc.com.