What a time we had at the Redlands Country Club. It was September 1995, a balmy evening. A couple hundred people dressed up to celebrate ten years of growth from a two-store test of the FOOD FOR ALL supermarket customer contributions program to 1370 participating stores with the only year-round program focused on alleviating and eliminating hunger. The Country Club was chosen because two of our participating grocers happened to be members and were willing to use their influence. Paul and Dorothy Gerrard and Jack and Debbie Brown were gracious hosts and several of the Gerrards and Stater Bros. company family members attended. Our staff members did all the work on invitations, décor, menus and format for the evening. All Linda and I had to do was show up.
There were congratulations and honors to go around. Members of our Board of Directors and Advisors, volunteers, dignitaries and friends gathered for a grand celebration. Celebrity Steve Allen was engaged to provide entertainment. He and his wife Jayne Meadows had signed on to our Southern California campaign and, after learning more about our cause, he actually drove to Redlands by himself and even donated the $250 standard honorarium he would have received.
We got our money’s worth as he held forth from the piano for an hour with his usual humor and warm presence. Honors were heaped on Paul Gerrard and Jack Brown and each made their obligatory remarks. Jack loved to tell the story of the time he ran into me at a Redlands drug store and noticed the car I was then driving. It was a 1978 Honda hatchback which had an unfortunate encounter resulting in the left side looking like it had been side-swiped by a pickup truck, which it had. In those days we couldn’t afford to have it repaired. Jack finished his comments about how Stater Bros. came to take on the FOOD FOR ALL program with: “I knew Milan was my kind of nonprofit executive. I’ve seen the car he drives.”
So went the evening. Linda and I were surprised with a presentation of a watercolor portrait of us by Albert Landeros, a well-known Redlands artist who had designed our first display header cards. It hung in my office until we retired and is now in our “archives” since it is too large for our tiny condo.
This was a memorable evening celebrating a decade worth remembering. The coming decade would prove just as memorable, for many different reasons.
Snapshot #1—August 1993 through July 1994:
The grant we received from Phillip Morris/Kraft was to be used primarily for marketing our program to supermarkets. The first part was used up in a feasibility study and went to pay consultants and their expenses. The second part of $75,000 was to go toward hiring a professional director of marketing. After a month-long search we settled on a person from the advertising end of the food industry. I am not going to include his name because of his brief tenure with us. I will only say that he was paid more than my salary, spent most of his time hunkered down in his office cranking out marketing documents, and spent much of our marketing budget re-designing our donation cards, which we had to discard after I let him go. Lesson learned: There are professionals and there are professionals.
In spite of spending a good part of our fiscal year that was supposed to be devoted to growing our supermarket program spinning our wheels, or worse, re-inventing them, we were able to grow our customer contribution base to $742,000 and provide grants of $680,000 to hundreds of local and to 21 international projects. This was mainly due to the dedicated volunteers and the partnering efforts of our existing retailers and food industry supporters. A highlight of the year for me personally was our September ’93 annual meeting where we elected four new board members and John Benner as Chairman.
John came to us first as an assignment by his boss at Lucky Stores. A busy Senior Vice President for Administration, I always assumed he was there to make sure we were using those customer contributions wisely. But I soon learned what kind of man he is. He immediately pitched in and gave generously of his time and always gave us kindly but clear guidance. We often had to meet at his Lucky headquarters offices and wait until he was released from one or another executive meeting that had been called at a moment’s notice. John was there for us. There were times when I might have given in to despair but for his steadying influence. His natural way of working with people and his humor kept a number of our board members going when the going got rough. His friendship was genuine, and I cherish that as I do so many of those I had the good fortune of working alongside. I had been after him for at least a couple of years to take a more active leadership role and was elated when he finally agreed to accept the chairmanship of our board. John will become a true partner in leading FOOD FOR ALL into the future, even after I am gone.
Snapshop #2—You would think I had learned my lesson by now. But after hiring and firing one “chief marketing officer” and still having the mandate of our relationship with Phillip Morris/Kraft to expand our supermarket program, I decided that ‘three is better than one’ and charged ahead like the proverbial bull in the china shop. Well, not that I made these decisions all alone, but I will acknowledge that “the buck stopped here” as my friend Frank’s hero Harry Truman was fond of saying. So I hired a marketing director, a communications director, and a fundraiser. All this occurred during our fiscal year July 1994 to June 1995.
My confidence was buoyed up by a stop I made at the Redlands downtown post office, which was my assigned task as I walked the 3/4 mile to our office every morning. There was an envelope from an accounting firm in Las Vegas. Inside was a check for $50,000. It was made payable to “The Salvation Army Food for All Program.” My heart jumped and then dropped. Must be a mistake. I decided to send the check back to the accountant with a letter asking for clarification. The next week a check arrived made payable to “FOOD FOR ALL.” This was incredible. Who would send an unsolicited donation of $50,000? Over the next few months, more checks arrived. I think we received three or four checks in similar amounts. I decided, after the shock wore off, to phone the accounting firm in Las Vegas. I don’t even remember the name of the CPA, but I do remember he informed me that “this is not the total amount you will probably receive.” I then decided that I had better make a trip to Las Vegas. It turned out that this anonymous donor, a wealthy widow, had been buying FOOD FOR ALL donation cards for a few years before she died. Her husband had been a successful real estate agent. We were to receive a portion of an estate worth about 12 million dollars. Ours might be 2-3 million. Before you begin to congratulate me on our good fortune, I should tell you that the estate was totally tied up in real estate, and real estate lawyers were getting substantial fees for administering the estate. And the real estate market was in the process of tanking. I, of course, was unaware of this at the time. So we now had three new staff persons who were going to help us implement our expansion plan.
So what did our new additions bring to the party? I suppose I could credit them with helping us plan the 10th anniversary celebration. I could say our new marketing director tried to arrange some promotions with food industry partners. I could say our fundraiser attempted to take the burden off the President in arranging our annual appeal to the food manufacturers. I could say our communications director tried to be creative in communicating our message. But what I came to see was that our three new staff members spent most of their time communicating with one another, strategizing about moving our office to a prominent location on Interstate 10, with signage to broadcast the FOOD FOR ALL name to passersby, and figuring out that it was time for our founder, Linda, to go. I, of course, was busy trying to expand our program nationwide, and was not aware of what was going on within our own organization. This is the reason I have decided to omit the names of our new hires. The people I allowed to be hired to help us, invariably, did not “get it.” From the three staff I hired in New England in the initial stages of introducing our program there, to the hiring of our marketing, PR and fundraising people, they just never got the message of what FOOD FOR ALL was all about.
But in spite of these minor issues, our fiscal year 1994-1995 saw our supermarket donation program grow to 1370 supermarkets in California, Nevada, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. Donations during this fiscal year reached $1,148,000. Our grant program allocated $455,000 in California, $60,000 in New England, and $173,000 to international self-help projects.
What a decade we had! What a ride we were on! What a privilege we were granted, to be a part of this amazing venture! Whatever the future holds, we will be there to experience and celebrate it! No matter what!