Category Archives: Life

I’m Back and We’re Not for Sale

Recently a purchasing manager at a customer opined that our company Emerald Packaging, Inc., must be up for sale. His evidence? I have not been as active since my father’s death in August 2016 and family businesses nearly always sell after the founder dies.

This purchasing manager doesn’t know me well,  so he doesn’t know what has happened over the last 15 months.  Regards the business he may not understand we’ve invested heavily over the last three years, a sure sign of commitment.  Perhaps we have not told our story well enough. I know I have failed to tell my tale. Maybe vanity, maybe pride, maybe just a simple wish for privacy.  But I figure one person must represent a few.  Other’s must think like him. So here’s the truth.

My father’s death hit me hard.  He was a confidant, friend, and the man who raised me. During the final days of his life I guided much of his care spending 18 hours by his hospital bedside day-after-day, making sure doctor’s did as they promised, preventing his early release, helping put together his treatment plan, and regularly checking with his case manager. I did this almost as I would a job. I walled off emotion.  I focused on making the right decisions and helping him say goodbye to friends and family.

His doctor admired my dedication but warned I would pay a steep price for the hours logged and emotions stuffed. A wise man.  I held it together through his funeral, helping guide the planning, and then fell apart. I sat on the edge of my bed the night of his funeral sobbing, asking him “What now Dad, what now?”

I wandered the desert for several months. I had been intimately involved in his care since February 2016 and now that was over. I had a hard time entering my office simply because he used to sit at my small conference table a couple of times a week and go back-and-forth with me about politics, the grandchildren, the Catholic Church and business, whether his or Emerald.  I had no resilience, no energy. Exhaustion enveloped me. I became irritable quickly, had a hard time with complex tasks. I read for solace, avoided people.

As I emerged in the late spring my youngest daughter developed health issues. Some of it was emotional. She had spent a lot of time with Dad in the hospital, even holding his hand as he died. Post-traumatic stress descended. Obviously her recovery became paramount.

When she improved, I immersed myself in the business during the early summer. I threw myself into operational issues including a study on press efficiencies. I oversaw the final stages of our project that connected the buildings that house our operations. Not one part of the business didn’t feel my touch or escape questions. I felt I was back. I think employees would agree.

Then over the summer horrid news. My wife had ovarian cancer. We got the word on the last day of our early August vacation following a series of tests that began in mid-July. Ovarian cancer is the number one killer of women under 50 because it grows silently. Usually it is advanced when discovered. Often too advanced for treatment. I couldn’t believe it. This couldn’t happen again?  Or would it?

I spent the next weeks helping at home as she gradually weakened.  We searched to find the right doctor for the necessary surgery. Her tumor grew so rapidly that if she sucked in her abdominal muscles you could actually see the large lump. We found a surgeon on the recommendation of my Dad’s oncologist. He removed the tumor on September 11. We were warned, given the its size, to expect months of chemotherapy.

As these things go though we got terribly lucky. Her cancer had not spread which meant no chemotherapy. But a 9″ incision needed to heal, she had sutures everywhere, and a radical  hysterectomy.  She faced an eight week recovery with the first three or four mostly in bed limited to 2 or 3 walks per day.

Unfortunately for my children this meant I became head of the household. This experience changed me. I could not believe the amount of work involved in running a family, from meals to constant clean-up, help with homework, projects around the house, care for the vegetable garden, washing the clothes and so on. I oversaw her care, provided emotional support as best I could. By the third week though I exclaimed that housework made me “feel like a slave.” She laughed at the lesson.

Finally, in mid-October, I reinserted myself into the business. By now I worried some jinx had befallen me. I could not help but think another disaster would ensue. I began the process of catching up. I took on drafting a three-year strategic plan, and looked at reorganizing our sales organization. I attended an industry trade show, reintroducing myself to  customers, many I had not seen in many months.  Over the last month I’ve grown confident that the worst year of my life is behind me.

So that’s been my life. I have no regrets how I mourned my father. Some may look at it as a sign of weakness or a failure of will.  I couldn’t have done it differently. I had to go where I had to go. I knew I needed to heal emotionally, I examined how I wanted to grow, and I thought about how the business needed to change. Getting diverted by a daughter’s sickness causes no shame. I stand by how I cared for my wife before surgery and after. Anything less would have been a sin.

The business? It has done well because I’ve put together a great team over the last five years. My chief operating officer dove into our software implementation, helped the sales group, and tackled financial issues with our controller. Our management team began planning our next investments, having just completed a $15 million expansion with the addition of a new printing press and pouch making machine in August. We hired a great director of printing.  Sales pursued leads, landed new accounts, and continued our commitment to hit lead times better than we had in recent years.

We’re not up for sale unless someone hands me a blank check. That won’t happen. I’m only 56. I have a great, young group of managers. I like the business. I love equipment, the people, customers and the search for new opportunities.

I do know companies that have sold after the father dies. That mostly happens when the next generation isn’t deeply involved. Cashing out makes sense. But that’s not us. It’s simply gossip that comes up after a death. I’ve been chief executive officer since 2002, making the decisions, driving the strategy, modernizing our factory. Dad provided advice on big issues — he had been in the business since 1956 so why wouldn’t I turn to him — but I often did not take his advice, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.  My shoulders carried the responsibility, not his.

There it is. An update on me and the business. Hopefully this reassures our customers.  I know gossip fills vacuums. We didn’t provide information, tried to keep my travails private, and maybe didn’t tell customers enough about new equipment purchases, great hires, and plans for the future. I promise more communication. Beginning with this post.

Emerald Packaging Immigration Raid Retold by CNN Money

imagesA few months ago CNN Money called.  They asked to do a story about the impact of n and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid we suffered over five years ago.  How could I refuse?  The new Trump administration had made immigration enforcement one of its main planks.  We had an obligation to show what that meant for business. Thanks to what ICE calls an “audit” we lost 10% of our workforce. Most of them had 15 years or more experience with us, so out the door went some of our most accomplished operators and technicians.  We’ve never really recovered.  New employees, though good, don’t replace the knowledge we lost.  Plus as we expanded, that talent wasn’t here to run our new machines.

But CNN Money went further.  They told the story of an employee caught up in the mess.  They found one of our best, Miguel Gonzales, a technician who had logged over 20 years with us.  Miguel made a radical decision when he lost his job. Sick of hiding in the United States, constantly worried a knock on his door would come one night, he returned to Mexico.    He, his wife and three children — none of the kids had ever lived there — up and left.  His move profoundly impacted his family.  CNN Money tells that story with feeling that puts a human face on our country’s broken and arcane immigration system.

The article comes in three parts:  Emerald Packaging’s story, then Miguel’s, then the impact on the children told through one of his daughters.  If nothing else watch the video that details the family’s story. It’s deeply moving.

Click on the link below.  It’ll take you into the story.  This isn’t alt-news.  The story’s real, true, and cries out for answers.

James P. Kelly: March 18, 1930 – August 31, 2016

jpkI haven’t posted anything since March because for most of that period my father’s deterioration due to metastasized melanoma overwhelmed me.  I want to begin again by posting my eulogy (one of four) and my remembrance delivered at a St. Joseph Notre Dame High School financial aid fundraiser. Given that so much of life over these months has been dominated by caring for him and then grieving his death, posting these tribute seems a fitting way back to writing.

Eulogy Delivered at Funeral September 10, 2016

The chronology of Dad’s death couldn’t be more mundane.  Immunotherapy treatment at UCSF for metastasized Melanoma begins in November.  The drug fails.  His undaunted oncologist Dr. Adil Daud then tries an immunotherapy medication that leaves Dad horribly sick from March to June.  But it seems to work.  His tumors have shrunk.  Surgery looks like an option.  But on July 12 a CT Scan shows cancer has colonized his liver.  His condition quickly worsens but an experimental therapy gives him a two week renaissance. He works out three times the second week, dines with friends, enjoys lunches at Claremont Country Club, and drives his visiting brother to the airport at 5:00 a.m. Then everything falls apart.  On August 20 the cancer takes over. To the shock and dismay of Dr. Daud, Dad’s condition worsens rapidly until eleven days later, surrounded by family, he dies.

Yet those final weeks were anything but commonplace.  Dad emerged in ways never imagined.  He became himself, only more so.  Blessed with time despite his steep decline, he deepened his intimacy with family, sharing his love for us. His Irish temper vanished. Phone calls and emails poured in from people telling him how much he meant to them. They came from friends, relatives, Emerald Packaging employees, and around the world.  He had touched many lives, even transformed them, and now people returned the favor, letting him know his life greatly mattered.  He had time for heartfelt good-byes with friends.  He gave back, as always, this time to medical research by allowing UCSF to biopsy his liver, so they could discover why his tumors resisted treatment, and perhaps develop new drugs that would allow others to live.  Approaching death this man who used strength and drive to succeed in life deployed that same strength to accept fate, and die with a grace and dignity that transformed those present.

His acceptance of death awed me.  Until Thursday August 25, despite the circumstantial evidence, he believed he had several months to live at the very least.  He thought he could fight the disease like he had fought against the odds to rise from an Irish tenement to great success. But that evening his doctors told him his liver and kidneys were failing.  I informed him a CT Scan showed rapid tumor growth.  “You aren’t going to get better,” I said.  “You are dying.”  I am sure those words stung but he demanded honesty.  He had lived that way.  I left that evening afraid I would return the next day to a depressed man.  Instead by sunrise he had accepted death.  “I am ready to go,” he said.  “I have no regrets. I built a business, married the right woman, raised a good family, and contributed where I could.  If I can’t be cured, it is what it is. I just hope I’ve done enough to get to Heaven.” His response left me flatfooted. First, if he hadn’t done enough to get to Heaven, who had?  Second, to me strength had always meant fighting.  That’s what he taught.  Now he redefined strength into acceptance, even surrender. He started teaching his family how to die.

Immediately Dad’s friends and family members mobilized.  The phone calls and emails buoyed his spirits.  This man who had mentored so many, who had helped those in need, who brought humor and loyalty to friendships, had little idea of the love that surrounded him.  Now it poured over him.  Mom came each morning and held his hand for hours.  His grandchildren, who he loved beyond words, flew in from college, called from Berlin and Cleveland, and sat at his bedside, holding his hands, talking to him, even on Tuesday evening, when he could no longer speak, only reply with a weak hand squeeze or slight smile.  His niece Kelly Anne Lynn left her job in New York to nurse him, as did Margaret Masterson, our adopted cousin.  Last Rites, surrounded by family, comforted him, and eased whatever anxiety might be left.  He died on August 31, a few minutes after his sister Mary arrived at his bedside, his rapid breathing slowly calming to nothing.  I do not pretend he did not suffer, but it was infinitely short, and merciful.  Two hours after his death 14 family members kept watch over him. On a hospital floor where so many suffered alone, Dad did not and even nurses who had not worked with him remarked he must have been a special man.

He was a special man.  Dad not only looked out for his family, he looked out for his community in ways most people don’t.  On his deathbed he asked that we continue to “give back” by helping those less fortunate than ourselves as we were already doing. Dad contributed in so many ways to so many different organizations my mind reels. I have no idea where he found time to be a husband, father and businessman but he did. He virtually rebuilt St. Joseph Notre Dame High School, both donating and raising funds.  He served on the board of trustees of Holy Names University for years, and raised money there too.  Next Step Learning Center, St. John’s University of New York, Bishop O’Dowd High School and Family-Aid for Catholic Education benefited from his determination to repay the debt he believed he owed Catholic schools for helping him get a start in life.  I think most importantly he started a company that today employs 250 people, allowing parents to provide for their children.  Emerald Packaging was his pride and joy.  Not only for the wealth it gave his family, but what it allowed him to do for others. With all he gave, he certainly finished the race, kept the faith. Undoubtedly the crown of righteousness is his.

“Love is most nearly itself when here and now cease to matter,” the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets.  Dad has died.  His love remains, and it is timeless.  Through our tears, our grief, our mourning he comforts us.  He calls us forward, into a deeper communion with family, friends and community.  What a great legacy, what a wonderful challenge, worthy of the man who accepted death without fear, and saw it not as an end, but a beginning.

Remembrance Delivered at St Joseph Notre Dame High School Fundraiser October 15, 2016

Before I begin I want to make something clear.  We are celebrating our father’s life tonight because he died.  But if Mom died first we would be celebrating her’s and Dad would be sitting at the table.  Anything Dad did for this school would not have been done without her full support, and in many cases without her active participation.  This school owes a debt to her as much as to Dad. Our celebration tonight really is a celebration of what they did together, not Dad alone.

Someone once quipped marrying Jim Kelly was the best thing Rosaleen Collins ever did for St. Joseph Notre Dame High School.   Like any pithy statement, it’s at least partly true.  Dad’s dedication to this school was complete.  He deeply wanted it to succeed.  No doubt the fact that Mom and their children went here provided some inspiration.  Mom’s prodding to get involved certainly helped given the influence she had with him.  I also know that Dad had a soft spot for the underdog, for the second-in-line.  He disliked the local bully, Bishop O’Dowd, instinctively. He hated that O’Dowd was pulling students from Alameda to Oakland, students who rightfully should attend the Catholic school in their backyard.

So when SJND, stuck with ancient facilities and grappling with falling enrollment, called he threw himself into the task of the makeover. Dad raised money, gave money, hit up his kids for money until the transformation was complete. By the end SJND boasted the best campus in the East Bay, with a cutting-edge science center, a new arts building and state-of-the-art classrooms.  I note though that the credit for the Marionist Hall bathroom redo belongs entirely to the next generation, who not unsurprisingly refused naming rights.

SJND wasn’t the only school that benefitted from Dad’s efforts.  He raised money for his alma mater St. John’s University in New York, in fact it was the Vicentians who mentored him in fund raising, Holy Names University, where Mom graduated, Northern Light’s School and Next Step Learning Center in Oakland, which focuses on adult education.  He and Mom gave generously to the Diocesan financial aid organization Family-Aid for Catholic Education and supported fundraisers like this one at high schools throughout the Bay Area.

But why did he do all of this?  Catholic guilt? A wish to ensure his place in Heaven?  No.  You have to go back to his beginnings, the formative events of his life.  Dad was born to impoverished Irish immigrant parents, his father a bricklayer with a fourth grade education.  He grew up in an Irish tenement in Brooklyn, where education provided the only road out, the most promising path to prosperity.  Catholic Schools, with their low tuition and dedicated nuns and priests, provided the means.  He went to the local Catholic grammar school, graduated on to St. Augustine’s High School where he ran track and earned a scholarship to St. John’s as a 400 meter specialist. The GI Bill, which he took advantage of after guarding parts of the United States during the Korean War, including his beloved Brooklyn, helped him earn a Master’s in Business from New York University.

Years before Dustin Hoffman received the career advice “One word: Plastics” Dad jumped into the high-tech industry of his day.  He climbed the corporate ladder at large multinational and then jumped out with Mom’s support to form and run his own company Emerald Packaging, today owned by the second generation. Dad grabbed on to success with all the determination, verve and intelligence he had.  But he always remembered he owned that success partly to Catholic schools.

Now I’ve left out a big component.  Not intentionally but because she should have her own paragraph.  Without Mom, Dad would not have succeeded, not as a businessman or fundraiser.  Importantly for Dad, Mom had the social graces that the street kid from Brooklyn almost entirely lacked.  She taught him to curb his temper, be more polite, and learn the arts of normal human interaction not practiced on the streets of Brooklyn.  As he told me two days before he died:  “Whatever grace I have I owe to your mother. She took a rough stone and smoothed off the hard edges.  And it wasn’t always easy.”  In fact, she deserves a Noble Prize for her work.

Mom’s social influence provided the foundation for Dad’s success as a fundraiser. After all, no one would have given money to someone yelling at them.  His willingness to “give back” both through treasure and his wisdom reflected his deep debt to Catholic education. When Emerald Packaging provided the wherewithal for him to begin donating he did so.  Financial aid programs particularly attracted his interest. Even today, he knew, Catholic schools provide one of the few ways for disadvantaged people to get a good education.  Make no mistake. The financial aid programs here, at Bishop O’Dowd, Moreau and other Catholic high schools are one of the few ways for kids in east and west Oakland to receive a decent education given the state of our public schools.  Let’s be clear: Do you think private schools like Head Royce provide the opportunities to these communities that Catholic schools do?  Not a chance.

Dad and Mom passed the obligation to “give back” – Dad’s phrase – on to the next generation, and we carry on their work.  But Dad insisted that everyone who had ever benefited from the leg up provided by a Catholic education should give back.  It drove him crazy that people who had received financial aid and attained some wealth did not donate to the degree they could.  Not this group of course, and certainly not tonight.

Dad’s death has been hard.  We miss him terribly. I know though that Dad would be honored by this remembrance tonight. He would think himself best remembered if everyone dug deeper into their pockets to support financial aid at SJND.  So tonight if you plan to give $50, I ask you to give $100.  If $100 then $150.  If $500, why not $750 or $1000?  And if you are flush enough to write a check for $5000, then go for $10,000, or be haunted by him the rest of your days.

Dad was proud of this school.  He loved the community and what it has accomplished, the opportunities it provided.  But he knew there was a price tag attached.  So he opened his wallet when asked.  In his memory, I ask you to open it a little wider tonight.


Careless Email, Destructive Words

imagesMost of us have vented frustration in an email.  Some rant at the recipient like they’d never do in person.  A smaller subset stumble badly.  We hit “Reply All” when we don’t intend to, write a nastygram or some other uncomplimentary email about a person and hit “Send” only to  realize that the person who we are complaining about got the email.  Fevered attempts to recall it usually prove fruitless.  The unintended recipient either ends up embarrassed or offended.  Explanations may or may not salve wounds.  But damage lingers.

As a principle I don’t write nasty notes because they might get forwarded.  If I have criticism, I make sure I say it in person.  However I have hit the “Reply All” button and unintentionally sent an email asking another manager why one of his direct reports doesn’t understand his directions, only to realize too late that the message went to the direct report.

Recently something worse happened.  One of my colleagues had to deliver some bad news to an important supplier.   My colleague had done everything they could to ensure a good outcome.  But it just didn’t work out.  The email my colleague sent had several recipients on it.  One obviously unintentionally hit “Reply All” and sent an email questioning my colleague’s competence and even their motivations.  The result? Just like that our relationship, central to a new project, deflated.

The invective dripping from his email indicated feeling that went beyond this one issue.  But when he recognized what he had done — even before we had seen the email — he left a message on my colleague’s cellphone backpedaling.  “I shouldn’t have sent that email,” he said. “I’m sorry.  I was frustrated about something unrelated to you.”  That didn’t pass the smell test.  I immediately began asking myself why he had written it.  What frustration did he harbor that lead him to say what he did?  We must have done something wrong.

He compounded his error by making the lame excuse. The sender should have spelt out his frustrations.  Failing to do so chipped away his integrity.  He could have used his mistake to speak frankly about what we had done to upset him and in doing so strengthened the relationship.  Actually I think it best in these situations to go a step further and address the issues in person.  That tells someone you value the relationship.  Voicemail doesn’t.

One of his superiors called to fix the damage.  Doing so upset me further. Why couldn’t he call to talk in person?  Unfortunately the partner used the word “if”, as in “I am sorry if you were offended,” or something like that. The British writer George Orwell recognized the word’s power half a century ago in his wonderful essay “Politics of the English Language.”  Want to deflect responsibility?   Deploy “if”.  “I’m sorry if you were offended” shifts blame from the speaker and places it on the victim.  “If” distances the transgressor from their transgression.   The correct usage?  “I’m sorry he offended you.”

We did not hear from the writer for two weeks. That meant the wound festered for days.  “What had we done? What had we done?” droned on in my head.   Obviously not good for any relationship, personal or business.

When we finally talked he confessed that a series of frustrations unrelated to us caused him to crack when we delivered the bad news.  Plausible?  Maybe. But the length of time it took to call left too many questions unanswered.  His in effect uttering the hollow words of the protagonist in poet T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “That is not what I meant at all;/that is not it/at all.” didn’t really satisfy.  However it was time to move on.  The relationship mattered too much to allow an email to destroy it.  Ultimately I hope the lack of respect embedded in it doesn’t portend a sad end to it.

Whatever the case, the writer provided a reminder that “Reply All” has destructive power.  At least I can thank him for that.


On Not Writing

imagesIt has been many months since I’ve posted anything here. This silence isn’t very smart for me. I really enjoy writing. Not doing it leaves a vacuum inside me. I like putting my thoughts out there, love the creativity of assembling letters on a page, and even find some hint of the Divine when my mind and my hands become one and the words spill out of me. It is an altered state of consciousness, access to part of my brain, my soul, that I have no other way. Not to mention how fun I find it.  Nothing I do feels quite like it.

Until last year I had written non-stop since age 13. Back then I penned Letter’s to the Editor of the local newspaper commenting on current events. I did it sometimes under a pseudonym because I did not want to upset my parents with my more liberal views. I evolved from there to actual writing for publication, first for my college newspaper, and then free-lance pieces for national publications. My passion for language evolved into a career, taking me into journalism with Business Week until 1996 and continuing even as I moved into Emerald Packaging as a columnist for various publications. And then the blog.

So why the silence of the last year? Well, it has not been an easy year. Our business, which has grown rapidly, needed to catch-up with itself. We moved into an additional building, added more equipment, looked at the profitability of our accounts, shedding some in the process. We expanded into digital printing and tried to build a business around the new technology. Work took up a lot of time, to which my family can attest. Something had to give, and writing did.

Ill-health did not help. I had surgery in early May to repair some abdominal muscles. I spent so much time in bed recovering I pinched nerves in my back. Until the insurance industry could get around to approving cortisone shots I slept three hours per night. Once that was behind me I managed to take a tumble off a retaining wall in our garden. That was the end of July. Not a good streak. Certainly not conducive to creativity.

But above all I really wondered if I had anything to say. Not writing anything compounded the problem because the worry became it’s own inflection point. Part of my brain became depressed I think, not my entire being mind you, but an important part. Stuffing creativity, even when it is something as mediocre as my writing (let’s face it, I’m no Hemingway), corrodes the soul, atrophies the mind, and, given my faith, distances you from God, since the act of creation brings us closer to the divine.

Finally I just could not shake the need to write. To express. To comment and engage with others. To find that little moment when I feel connected to something larger. To play. I could not forever neglect the passion. So I’m back and I will be posting here more frequently. I am not sure who will read this blog going forward. It would be good to find an audience. Even better though to be who and what I am.

My message here is pretty simple. I should not have neglected this side of myself. If there is something, dear reader, you have pushed away in favor of work or family or mending health which nourishes you, don’t do it. It won’t do you any good, probably undermines health in its own way.

I imagine if today were my last, having to answer to St. Peter why I gave up doing something that God blessed me with the power to do. That is not a conversation I want to have. Nor should any of us.

Turning Disaster into Freeze-Dried Blueberries

dried-blueberry-productRecently I had the wonderful opportunity to dine with the executive team of Homegrown Organic Farms, which operates one of the largest organic blueberry operations in the country.  I’ve rarely met a more open, honest and intelligent group — and I am not saying that just because they are customers — so passionate about their product.  It being our first meal together we spent time swapping stories family and corporate histories.  My team, lead by local Xpedx technical sales representative Chris Kampsen then had a chance to learn about the range of new products they hoped to introduce.  They asked our help to develop the necessary packaging.

If you had told me I would be sitting at this table over steaks and Italian food nine months ago I would laughed in disbelief.  Back then we had nearly destroyed the retail launch of their freeze-dried blueberries thanks to pouches that failed during packing.  Quite simply the seals at the bottom of the bag which enable it to stand-up did not exist. You couldn’t tell from the outside of the pouch.  The impression left by the seal bar was there, so the bags slipped past quality control.  If we had stuck our hands in we would have noticed the problem.  But that wasn’t part of our quality control protocol back then.

We had been so proud of the pouch.  The life-like printing made the blueberries on the front come to life.  Pitch perfect blue.  The bag looked majestic, tall with silver edges, likely to catch the consumer’s eye.  Our company knew that Homegrown had taken a big risk being first to market with freeze-dried blueberries.  So we thought we had taken extra care with the printing and pouchmaking.  The project was also our first with the Fresno branch of Xpedx and we wanted to shine.

Trouble arrived on a Saturday morning around 6:30 a.m.  I happened to look at emails while driving my daughter to a track meet in the Central Valley.  I know you shouldn’t read emails while driving but the story was so compelling that once I started I couldn’t stop. Our salesperson Barbara Gaitan and chief operating officer Pallavi Joyappa and Chris were trading notes about a potential pouch failure.  And as the day wore on the news got worse and worse.  The 4 oz. pouches did not work.  If something wasn’t done fast the company would not meet its roll out.  We had no choice but to get good pouches out pronto.

Pallavi guided the rescue effort.  We sorted bags in inventory at our facility and shipped them.  That bought us a few days. Then we went back into production to make new pouches.  That meant finding a way to break into the schedule — a task that fell to my sister Maura — print and make bags.  Later we dispatched a crew to their packing facility to sort through the bags on the floor. It took two days in near freezing conditions but they culled out the failed pouches.

Homegrown made its first shipment thanks to the crisis management.  But we had left them with a hefty bill for ruined product.  Xpedx told me the not insignificant number and my head hit the desk.  It did not occur to me for a moment not to pick up the bill.  We run a company imbued with family values.  One of those is integrity.  We don’t stick others for problems obviously of our own making.

I didn’t expect Homegrown  to keep us as a supplier.  We had failed to deliver what they needed most — quality pouches.  But this company proved different.  They admired the lengths we had gone to address the issue and profoundly appreciated the efforts made by our staffers who sorted the pouches in frostbite conditions. The fact that we paid the bill without hesitation told them we stood by our customers.  To my great shock came the phone call that they planned to keep doing business with us.

Owner Karen Avinelis spoke plainly.  They liked our character so much they wanted to partner with us, provided (of course) that the problem did not recur.  I think I had not been so humbled in my life, and rarely so touched by a businessperson.  She not only taught me that doing the right thing sometimes pays, but that telling a person how much you appreciate their company’s efforts can touch the heart.  Her willingness to give us a second chance made me look at how we treated our own suppliers.  Today I’m prouder than ever of that pouch.  Not because of what’s on the outside but what’s on the inside.  The soul of a family, the Homegrown Organics family, and the best freeze-dried fruit I’ve ever tasted.


Visiting Israel Just Before the Rockets

israel-city-pictures-133083This summer, the week before Israel and Gaza began flinging rockets at each other, I found myself looking at the Mediterranean Sea from my hotel balcony in Tel Aviv.  I had come to the Holy Land to visit Hewlett-Packard’s Indigo printing division, the company responsible for our new 30″ wide Indigo digital press. This extraordinary piece of technology transmits art work from a computer and prints it onto plastic without using printing plates.  Changeovers between jobs happen with the click of a mouse.  Digital has been around for many years, but this is the first press H-P has built specifically to print on plastic.  Lucky for us, we are the beta site for the new machine.  Which is why I was gazing at Tel Aviv’s beach.

I had flown to Israel to learn more about the machine prior its arrival.  I admit that a few days earlier I had equivocated about coming.  Israeli soldiers had flooded into the Palestinian cities of Hebron and Ramallah in the occupied West Bank looking for three Jewish teens who had disappeared.  They also took the opportunity to arrest members of Hamas, the Islamic movement opposed to the Occupation.  Palestinian youths reacted angrily to the arrests, and rioting broke out across the region.  I wrote one of my H-P contacts asking if we should still come.  Having covered the region as a journalist many years ago I knew how such moments could spin out of control so I worried about the safety of those traveling with me.  His reply chided me for even thinking about not coming and said that the streets of Tel Aviv were safer than Paris.

So off to Israel I went with our business partners and two senior colleagues.  The trip astounded me on many levels.  I have never been in a foreign city where I felt like I had never left home.  Tel Aviv must be one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.  Our meals seemed to encompass the globe, including one evening where we ate Cuban food.  Our hotel’s beach turned out to be where gay’s congregated to sun bathe, a group that would not show themselves in most of the Middle East.  English was widely spoken and news easy to come by.   Plus so many Israelis seemed connected to the United States.  Most of our H-P contacts had lived there for a few years or had family in the U.S. and perhaps even gone to school stateside.

But I caution colleagues I travel with not to assume the places we visit are like home.  If you do, you miss nuances that could later effect doing business, or simply end up missing the world’s diversity.  Israel proved no different.  An hour drive by car to Jerusalem transported you back into the beginning of time, with devout religious from the three major faith traditions jostling each other in the Old City’s alleys.  Islam’s second holiest mosque, the Dome of the Rock sits right above the wall of the Jewish second temple which is only a few minutes from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which stands on the ground legend says Jesus Christ died.  All the pilgrims offering their devotions reminded me more of the 16th century than the 21st century.  Tel Aviv seemed far longer than an hour away.

Later this summer my son and I saw a play in London entitled “Holy Warriors”.  The piece ponders how history might have been different if Richard the Lionheart of England had chosen to visit Jerusalem at the conclusion of the third crusade, when he forged a truce with the great Islamic chief Saladin that opened the city to Christian pilgrims and merchants.  Perhaps the two religions would have cemented a lasting peace.  Instead, Richard leaves for Europe, unwilling to enter a city still under Muslim administration.  Down through the years the play takes us to today, when Christians, Muslims and now Jews battle throughout the region, with much of the conflict centered in historic Palestine.

I saw hints of the conflict on the drive back to Tel Aviv.  New Jewish settlements dotted the hills around Jerusalem, encroaching on the eastern half of the city once controlled by Palestinians.  A high wall zig-zagged across the landscape, built by the Israeli government trying to protect its cities from suicide bombers.  One settlement I saw seemed completely surrounded by barbed wire.  Meanwhile, out of sight but not out of mind, a few miles to the east the IDF continued its search for the teens, which dominated the news during our visit.

The tensions ate at me.  As an Irish-American I know the history of my own people, their land stolen by the British, their religion and language banned.   My family arrived in the 1920s following a bloody War of Independence against British soldiers partly drawn from prisons.  I could not but feel some sympathy for the Palestinians on the other side of that long, snaking wall.  On the other hand, the murder of the three teens, found dead a few days after we left, drove home just how wide a gulf exists between the two sides.  What could be gained by such brutality?

I’m saddened Tel Aviv isn’t Paris after all.  I’m glad to have gone and happy to have left a week before the Hamas rocket attacks started.  I formed a much deeper appreciation for what H-P has achieved in digital printing.  The string of high-tech companies that surround the city point to a vibrant economy firmly planted in the 21st century.  But the wall, the occupation, the rockets, the clashes in the West Bank point to tensions inherited from a much earlier time.

The play Cormac and I saw concludes with Richard in Purgatory, having to witness the bloodshed spilled over the centuries in part thanks to his unwillingness to bury the hatchet.  Finally, he is given another chance.  He can enter Jerusalem, or not.  If he decides not to, the bloodshed goes on and he goes to Hell.  If he decides to set foot in the Old City, peace comes and he enters Heaven.  Of course he cannot bring himself to enter Jerusalem, leaving me to wonder if cosmopolitan Tel Aviv will ever find itself free from the troubles conjured by that ancient city.

tel aviv

Tel Aviv, Israel

Memorial Day Thoughts, 2014

cadet2 NC07Thirty years ago I never imagined being in formation, commemorating Memorial Day in formal ceremony, while dressed head-to-toe as a corporal in Union Army uniform. No, while marching in the streets of London protesting apartheid, the nuclear arms race and the bombing of Libya during graduate school I didn’t project myself standing here at requiem arms honoring the American dead of wars past and present, but specifically those who died between 1861 and 1865.

Briefly, I have my wife to thank for this. She found a wonderful group of Civil War re-enactors, men and women who encourage an interest in history by spending several weekends a year doing living history, dressing, living and fighting as those on the battlefield did 150 years ago.  This group of 70 or so re-enactors in particular, the 20th Maine Co. G based in northern California, has a program for children under 12 which teaches them about the period. The cadet corps, as it is called,  proved a perfect match for my son Cormac, then 7, who dove into history at a very young age, probably around four, and has never varied. Not many of his contemporaries in school shared his enthusiasm — in fact none did — but he found a home among kids who donned wool uniforms, learned how to hold a rifle circa 1861, learned the battlefield maneuvers and talked history late into the night around campfires. My wife found him a home, and I came along for the ride.  But over the last nine years it has become more than that to me. I look forward to the fellowship and the immersion into a different time.

These days I am the second-in-command of our group’s cadet unit, even though Cormac, 16, now takes the field with a black powder rifle to duel Confederates.  This day I hover nervously in back ranks, behind the 12 to 14 year olds, who have their heads lowered, replica rifles upside down, with muzzle on the toe of their boot and butt resting against their lowered forehead.  They are holding the position as a sign of respect for those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” as Lincoln said in the Gettysburg address. I’m looking for any signs of fainting or sickness which can happen if  the youngsters haven’t  taken enough water or lock their knees, which effects blood flow.  While I keep my eye on 10 cadets, I listen to the ceremony and peek around the parade ground watching the event along with a couple of dozen civilians.  I can’t help but admire the reverence of the 200 Confederate and Union re-enactors standing at requiem arms, our commander Dan dressed smartly standing straight at attention.

The service begins with some history.  The Confederate brigade commander walks through the evolution of the day, which actually started in the South in 1862 when the women of Savannah, Georgia decorated the graves of the war dead.  The Northern states adopted the tradition in 1868 declaring May 30 Decoration Day.  My imagination wanders to images of widows, in black, dressing the dirt covered bodies of their husbands, fathers and children.  Gradually the day expanded beyond a remembrance of the Civil War dead to include those fallen in World War I and World War II and so on.  The federal government officially christened May 30 Memorial Day in 1967.  A year later they moved it to the last Monday in May, thereby creating a three-day weekend.  Like many, I am sure, I did not know the roots of the holiday which  now is mainly known as the beginning of summer, reserved for barbecues, beer and 50% off sales.

Not everywhere though, certainly not here.  We progress through a flag raising to half mast, a 21 gun salute and a reading by a pretty good Lincoln impersonator of the Gettysburg address with its stirring final words recalling the many who sacrificed their lives “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.”  Every time I read or hear those words I think they speak to us today.  I believe Lincoln constructed the speech talking to generations yet to come, challenging us to ensure that our government by the people should not perish.

The ceremony calls forward those veterans in attendance for recognition, and remembers the dead of more recent wars.  This is when my 25-year-old self returns.  Despite what these speakers say today, I can’t accept that those who fought and died in Vietnam and Iraq did so to ensure democracy not perish.  Those wars seem horribly misguided seen in the light of the Civil War, where the very existence of the nation hung in balance. In fact we know now that our leaders in the instance of Vietnam knew but did not tell us that the war was unwinnable, the cause not worth the cost.  Fighting these conflicts  chipped away at the republic Lincoln called us to preserve, instilling fear among us and diverting dollars that could have been used to build the nation he imagined.  As I stand behind the cadets I worry about whether they will be thrown into conflicts that lack the meaning of the Civil War or World War II, their lives lost in foreign lands where we don’t belong.

Thanks  to Civil War re-enacting, thanks to my wife, my son, I stand and ponder.  And catch the first of two 12 year olds that day before they faint.  May that be the worst to ever befalls them in uniform.  Unless it really is about preserving, as Lincoln said, “our nation conceived in liberty.”

Come out and join us some year.  We’re at Roaring Camp in Felton, California near Santa Cruz every Memorial Day.  Or visit the nearest military cemetery on that last Monday in May and read the Gettysburg address.  I promise you will not leave unchanged.


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