Sunday, October 21, 2018

Third Person Singular

He sat at the computer in his office rereading for the umpteenth time the memoir he was writing. The telling of his story was cathartic on some level but revealed wounds with startling clarity. Looking back catapulted him into the overarching melancholy that had been his life. The losses and rejections overshadowed by far the highs he’d experienced. His highs had never been high enough. He had been capable of so much more. “I was a gifted manager of people.  I should have been the CEO of a major company.” Harry Sykes told himself. Almost, close and second place were the themes of his story. He had made a career out of hitting doubles. He never hit a homer in his life.

Yet, on the wrong side of seventy-five he was happy. There were days when his chest swelled with good will and with the love he felt for his wife of more than 50 years. Most would say he’d had a successful career. He himself could objectively call it successful, just not as successful as it should have been. “Was coming up short all the time my fault? Was some of it really out of my control?” he wondered. “Or am I just making excuses?” Harry hated excuses. His wife Megan told him, “You must like wearing that hair shirt.  Give yourself a break for a change.”

They were financially secure but still had to be careful. He wished they didn’t have to think about money at all. “You’re lucky compared to most people.” he reminded himself. But Harry wasn’t most people.

He could blame his failure at Papa’s Restaurants in Canada on the Bank of New York when it reneged on its commitment to finance the turnaround of the concept. That was certainly part of it but, in his heart of hearts, he knew that his strategy to turn the company around had been a major stretch. He had aimed too high and expected too much as he always did. He never saw a concept that he didn’t want to make glossier and more upscale. He’d asked for more from Papa’s 108 managers than they could give. They just weren't that good. They couldn’t operate the struggling concept as it was never mind making it harder by adding deep dish pizza to the menu. His lofty plan bit him in the ass twice, once when the turnaround failed and the company went bankrupt and the second when his former partner at Primo Pizza in Boston sued him for breaching his non-compete agreement. Sykes won the case but lost the war and potentially millions of dollars.

Some of his middle managers at Papa’s, John Rainier came to mind, weren’t on board with his strategy. And in light of losing the financing to remodel the restaurants Rainier was quite right. In hindsight Harry could see that Rainier had actively sabotaged his efforts. The man had been one rolled eye short of insubordinate and Harry had tolerated it. A younger version of Harry Sykes would have fired the insolent prick on the spot. Ramesh Patel, the other operations guy, had been on his side and lobbied to replace Rainier as Director of Operations. He should have made that change. Why he hadn’t gone with his gut? Why couldn’t he pull the trigger? There’s no doubt, he thought, that I lost my confidence somewhere along the way. The turning point between decisiveness and hesitation was becoming clear in hindsight.

He joined Primo Pizza in October of 1979 after resigning as president of Zapata’s, the Mexican chain he had been operating in the Midwest. At the time there was one Primo on Boylston Street in Boston’s Back Bay. His new partner and boss Ron Spitz had opened restaurant in April and it showed promise. Oddly, it was Harry that suggested the location to Spitz eighteen months before. He thought the site near the corner of Boylston and Exeter was the best one in Boston. Spitz courted Harry for two years, but he turned down his offers on two occasions. When he got fed up with politics at Zapata’s he called Spitz at this house on Cape Cod to say he was ready to make the move if the offer was still on the table. The first words out of Spitz’ mouth were, “You want to do it don’t you?” Harry told him that he did. Then Spitz clarified the new terms of the deal, “You didn’t take my offer last year. So, the new deal is 10% of the company not the 20% I originally offered. "10% and 20% were abstract numbers to Harry so he took the hit.  Harry wanted out of Zapata’s and out of Louisville, Kentucky even more. He was in Boston two weeks later and began the task of fixing the operation of the seven-month old Primo Pizzeria at 731 Boylston Street.

When he arrived in Boston the first Primo was on a pace to do $850,000 in annual sales. That was decent for a 3,000 square foot, 80 seat pizza joint in 1979 but not stellar by any means. Throughput, the process of getting guests in and out was tragically slow. Part of that was poor staffing, training and inept management. And a big part of it was how long the pizza took to bake. Spitz had been trying to bake the pie in traditional Blodgett deck ovens Harry grew up with. They were simply too slow. The customer had a 50-50 chance of getting their pizza that week. An extra-large Uno with everything on it was 2 inches thick and weighed six pounds. The pizza took half an hour in the Blodgett. The concept was dead on arrival unless that ticket time was cut in half or better.

Harry had to give grudging credit to Spitz who came up with a conveyor belt oven that shortened the baking time to 8 minutes, 12 minutes or 15 minutes depending on the size of the pizza. It saved the concept.

When Sykes arrived on the scene, Primo Pizzeria was doing no lunch business whatsoever. First, nobody can waste 30 minutes of their lunch hour waiting for their food and, second, after one of those pies you needed a nap. So Harry introduced a “Personal Pizza”, a six incher with a tossed salad for $4.95. It came out in five minutes and had a lunch friendly price point. It blew the doors open and sales were at a $1,600,000 annual pace by April. He, Spitz and Primo Pizzeria were off to the races.

Despite the apparent success of his partnership with Spitz, a partnership that grew the concept to 26 units by 1985, it was very clear very early that it wasn’t going to end well for the junior partner in the firm.

Their deal was that Sykes would be the executive vice president of the company that operated Spitz’s twenty KFC stores and be president of Primo Restaurants, the company that would develop Primo Pizzerias across the country.

But a couple of weeks after he arrived Sykes and Spitz had lunch at the Primo on Boylston Street. Over salad and a Personal Pizza Spitz said, “I’ve been thinking. So there’s no confusion and so that there’s uniformity between the two companies I think you should be executive vice president and chief operating officer of both organizations instead of president of Primo’s. That work for you?” The letter of agreement between Spitz and Sykes clearly stated that Sykes would be president of Primo Pizzeria, but he didn’t stand his ground at the precise moment when their balance of power could have been established. It was early in their relationship and Sykes didn’t want to seem title happy. He wanted to be seen as a team player. It was a sign of weakness that Spitz exploited till they parted company five years later.

It was Spitz’s company. Employees called it "Ron's company." Harry was the hired help. Even as he found the locations and built the team that operated the restaurants, Spitz undermined his relationships with his direct reports. He micromanaged him. He bought Greg Shannon, Harry’s NYC district manager, a car without consulting with him. When Harry confronted Shannon about it, he yelled, “It’s Ron’s company, pal. That’s the deal I made with him. It’s none of your business.”

He made the mistake of mixing business and friendship. And he made it repeatedly. His closest friends were his subordinates. He could see now that closest and best are not the same thing. When you open restaurants and work 100-hour weeks there’s an intense but entirely superficial camaraderie. Drinking buddies and real friends are entirely different animals. Only one of his party hardy friendships stood the test of time and that was with Jake Moore who had worked for him at KFC and who became a Primo Pizzeria franchisee in Kansas City. He and Harry were still close. Harry found himself wondering why Jake was the only “employee” who hadn’t stabbed him in the back. He thought it might have been because Jake had followed a career path where he was not beholden to Harry and was his own man. He had rid himself of the conflict inherent in reporting to one person in an organization owned and controlled by another. On the other hand maybe Jake was the only true blue person on the planet. Except for Jake all of the direct reports that he thought were “best friends” sided with the money guy when push came to shove. Harry was remarkably naïve.

That’s the painful lesson that Harry was taught over and over again but never learned. It cost him his closest friends. Two of them, Marco Dellaraba and Bernie Berkowitz, offered half-hearted apologies decades later. Harry accepted both but couldn’t completely forgive when it came down to it. “I still have real affection for those guys” he thought to himself. Forgiveness is something else. 

Harry discovered Marco in the KFC training store in Brooklyn where he was the district training manager. He’d heard the he was smart, affable guy who’d served in the Army in VietNam and had been given a battlefield commission when his commanding officer was killed. Marco had been a sniper behind enemy lines, "a trained killer" Marco liked to say. Harry took an immediate liking to him. He promoted him to Area Manager in Queens then District Manager in Pittsburgh, When he joined Spitz at Primo Pizzeria he brought Marco aboard to operate their 22 KFC stores. And when they were spun off in 1984 Marco made a cool $425,000. Marco did not say, "Thanks for the opportunity." Harry made his career but Spitz got the loyalty. He who has the gold rules.

Twenty years later Harry and Marco met he for lunch when the latter was undergoing cancer treatment for advanced melanoma at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. They doctors cut out seven inches of his trapezius and the prognosis wasn’t good. Marco had made the overture to reconnect and Harry said yes. They ate at Stan Frankenthaler’s trendy Salamander on Huntington Avenue near BU. Marco insisted on buying. He oozed insincerity. He was what a mutual friend called “greasy smooth.” Harry thought at the time that picking up the check was part of Marco’s mea culpa. Or it was a power move as if to say, ”Who’s the big dog now?” When he heard about Marco’s newest venture, Harry offered to help in any way he could. “That’s very nice of you. I’ll let you know.” They never spoke again. Marco died of cancer ten years ago. Harry felt nothing.

Like Marco, Bernie Berkowitz was one of Harry’s partners in crime. Bernie was his cohort in opening sixteen restaurants and in late nights in nameless bars across the country. He was a lapsed lawyer and the proprietor of the Wild Flower Café in Harvard Square.  Spitz bought the restaurant and it became second Primo Pizzeria in the summer of 1980. Bernie was a skilled restaurant operator who needed a job, so Harry hired him. He had grown up in the deli business in New York and had mad skills. Bernie helped open the Harvard Square Primo and quickly rose through the ranks. Later he went to work for the franchisee in Florida, owned and operated two restaurants in South Florida and retired as a vice president of a major hotel management company.

But when Bernie got married for the second time he didn’t invite Harry saying, “Listen I’m not inviting you to the wedding. I’d just have to cook for another person. I’m keeping it small.” Harry was just knew that Spitz was invited. But that may have been paranoia.

Spitz tried to demote Sykes in 1985 after Sykes had the temerity to introduce him as “This is my partner, Ron Spitz.” That happened at the opening of the Primo Pizzeria in Brentwood, California. A  week later he forced Harry to quit by telling him that he had brought in a new president and that Harry could remain as executive vice president and report to the new man, Greg Gillespie. Oh, and he would have to give up his ownership in the company. He told Harry that when he didn’t introduce him as “his boss” in Brentwood it was game over. No other reasons were given. Harry, of course, couldn’t and wouldn’t take the demotion as Spitz knew very well. "That's when I lost my mojo" Harry muttered. "My whole identity was running that company." He was broken. 

With few alternatives since Spitz wouldn't give him positive references, he embarked on a three year journey of self-discovery that may have saved his life. But he never found the magic touch and confidence he'd once had.

In 1988 Harry became president of Canada’s fourth largest chain. The short story is the turnaround of the troubled chain did not happen but, to add insult to injury, Papa’s had a Columbus, Ohio unit which Harry visited shortly after assuming his new position. On that visit he happened to be staying at the same hotel as Primo Pizzeria’s franchising manager, Annie Gold. Annie, who had worked for Harry in early seventies reported the sighting to Spitz, thinking nothing of it. Unfortunately, being employed by a “competitor” in the US or Canada within five years was technically a breach of Harry’s non-compete agreement and Spitz sued him for the breach.

The case went to a jury trial in 1989, and Spitz gave testimony about Harry that only a close associate could have known and the only associate close enough to know was Bernie Berkowitz. Harry’s testimony according to Spitz was stellar. He told Harry, “Good job. You were really good, really credible.” Harry didn’t know how to respond. He won the case, but his legal fees wiped out what was left of the paltry annual payments he was receiving for not competing. It was the definition of a pyrrhic victory.

In 2016 Harry and Bernie reconnected, Bernie told Harry that, “You were my favorite travelling companion ever. I had more good times with you than anybody in my life.” Harry couldn’t disagree. It had been a blast. He told Bernie, “You were the most gifted restaurant guy I ever knew.” Which was true.

He didn’t say the rest.


Blacks Crossing said...

Reading "Third Person Singular" was like reading a novel, which means that you are well on your way to that writing possibility, in addition to your biographical sketches. And with every novel, readers perpetually wonder if there are elements of the autobiographical included. Regardless, you have taken all of your blog followers on quite the journey of late, and I for one, am recommending and linking your blog to others. Kudos again, Esteban!

Steve Immel said...

If I tell you what's true I'll have to kill you.

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