Monday, March 23, 2015

FOOD FOR ALL ERA 18: Our Last Hurrah!

"Where is Melrose?"

Those were the first words I remember coming out of the mouth of my new boss, Michael Donkis, the new CEO of FICAH/FOOD FOR ALL when he arrived at our humble headquarters in Redlands. Michael had been the paid executive of the Food Industry Crusade Against Hunger for the past few years. FICAH was headquartered in Washington D.C. with donated office space from the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the lobbying arm of the supermarket industry.

It was sometime in early 1997, after our boards had concluded the legal paperwork that merged our two organizations. I suppose I could have fought a little harder. I might even have demanded that I be given the prominent staff position. Perhaps holding out that Michael and a couple of his staff would have to go. Our board had given me permission to abort the entire merger if I was not totally comfortable with how it was going. Hindsight is always better?!

We were beyond the point of no return. FOOD FOR ALL was already set to enter the Chicago market with Jewel-Osco stores. We had negotiated an entry into the Philadelphia metro area. It looked like we were truly ready for the expansion we had envisioned. I arranged for a trip to Chicago for Frank Knutson, who was on our merchandising team, and me, for the set up of FOOD FOR ALL displays throughout the Chicago and northern Illinois area. Linda was also set to make the trip to arrange for the organization of a local grant board and volunteer structure for this new area. To our pleasant surprise, everything went smoothly and within ten days all the stores were installed and a local grant board was organized, trained and ready to go to work.

Neill Richards, our east coast staff person, meanwhile was moving things along in the Philadelphia area in preparation for an expansion down the east coastline. We were anticipating that our newly merged organization would make for relatively easy sailing for our year round program. It might even be possible to convert some of the formerly Holiday only supermarket chains.

Two trends were going to raise obstacles for us, one external and one internal. The external was our old friend/enemy "mergers & acquisitions." Safeway was taking full control of Vons in Southern California and Safeway had never got on board with our idea. So almost as soon as we got our program going in the Vons Pavilions stores we were notified that they were not going ahead chain-wide. Ironically, due to our publishing a promotional article for Vons in our newsletter, we discovered that Ron Burke, new owner of Ralphs, had his corporate ego bruised and almost overnight ordered his hatchet man, Darius Anderson, to inform us that they were discontinuing the FOOD FOR ALL relationship. To add insult to injury, in the meeting I had with him and his assistant, Sharon Davis (yes, wife of Governor Grey Davis), that Ralphs would be setting up a "copycat" (my words) program of their own. No amount of reasoning was of any avail. And of course, the new Ralphs program lasted less than a year and in any case the company was sold to Fred Meyer within the next two years.

The internal situation had to do with conflicting cultures. I could try to blame it all on Michael Donkis, but that would hardly cover it. FICAH was made up of retired, and a few current food industry executives, who were used to operating in a traditional top-down style within an "old boys' network." We had spent more than ten years working to develop a grassroots, bottom-up and participatory organization, including our board of directors, many of whom were food industry executives who had to be "trained" in a new style of management. It gave me a little comfort when, in one of our combined board meetings as we were trying to bring the two organizations together, one of our food industry members said to the group: "You know, at FOOD FOR ALL we make decisions a little differently than you have been used to. We make decisions by consensus."

It was late spring of 1997. Michael showed up at our office in Redlands driving a shiny red convertible. He mentioned that he paid for the upgrade himself, letting us know that he wasn't living high off of hungry people, I suppose. He was on his way to Los Angeles to look for an apartment. Within a couple of weeks he had indeed moved into one and it was within a few blocks of, yes, Melrose Avenue. Our staff actually got to see it when Michael invited us for a "housewarming brunch."

Michael Donkis fit in well with the top-down culture we were trying to merge with. While giving us assurances that the FOOD FOR ALL way would not be lost, he was making it clear that he was going to be in charge. There would be a few minor skirmishes and negotiations over the remaining months of '97. You discover a lot about your own mind games when confronted with a sudden loss of control which you never really had but convinced yourself you did.

When I finally realized the direction the organization would very likely be moving, I made one last appeal to the officers of the new board. I should have known that Michael would be backed up. I had been in a similar position with a few employees I had conflicts with and our board always stuck with me. It was becoming clear that I was to have little or no part in the staffing decisions of the future organization. Things came to a head when, one day Michael took me aside and said: "I've decided we need to let Neill Richards and Bill Timrud go. Why don't you phone them?" Neill and Bill had both been key in holding down our entire operation in the eastern U.S., Neill with us almost from the beginning in several roles and Bill managing all of New England. When the shock wore off that I was going to have to tell them their services were no longer required, I informed Michael that I was not going to end their jobs with a phone call.

I got on a plane for what was to be my last trip to Newark and Hartford in service of FOOD FOR ALL. Neill picked me up at the Newark airport and we made the two hour trip to Hartford where, over dinner, I gave them the news and their termination notices. Bill was to make the arrangements to close the Hartford office. Neill worked out of his home in Ridgewood, New Jersey. I also let them know that when I returned to California, I was turning in my own resignation. Before I left for home, I phoned Linda, who already had sensed what our decision was. We were both sad but resigned that we had given 13 years of our lives to putting something into history that made a difference.

So what do you do after an amazing 13 years? You take your final vacation time over Christmas and New Year. And you go to India. No, not to find a guru or live in an ashram. You go with some friends and visit some of the village projects that FOOD FOR ALL had given grants to.

Then you come back for your going away party.

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