Sunday, April 25, 2021

Just a minute

The Colonel and some of our Area and District Managers. The handsome youngster behind me is Bill Roquemore, then the DM in Columbus, later a Pizza Hut executive and a Pizzeria Uno franchisee. Bill is one of my dearest friends. 

Sometimes a bit player makes a lasting impression. They don’t play a major role, yet you remember them for decades. Jimmy Ackerman of Perrysville, PA is one of those. For reasons I can’t explain he popped into my mind Saturday. He was a blip on the radar screen of my life but has stuck with me for more than forty years. Remembering Jimmy propelled me into a mental inventory of others who made a big impression in a minor role.

In the spring of 1976, I was promoted to vice president on KFC Corporation. I had spent three years as executive vice president and general manager of a small subsidiary. I performed both roles through July 4th, our nation’s bicentennial. I know this because Peggy, Garrett and I celebrated the milestone in historic Lexington, MA, a couple of towns over from our home in Lincoln. The backstory is unimportant other than as a lead-in to meeting Jimmy.

Undertaking the unlikely turnaround of KFC’s northeast region required a move to the New York City area and the regional office in Greenwich, CT. Turnaround understates the situation substantially. KFC was in a tailspin, a situation well known in the executive suite of KFC and of its parent, Heublein, the Smirnoff and José Cuervo folks.

The chairman of KFC, Mike Miles and president, Jim Willie recognized that KFC was in the tank and that their 800 company-owned stores were operated like dog meat. I have a stronger descriptor in mind. And my northeast region was the worst of the worst. KFC had just launched a monumental quality control push intended to raise operating standards in the stores. It was named QSC, for Quality, Service and Cleanliness of which we had little. 100% was a perfect score. For example, the inspector took the interior temperature of the fried chicken with the handy probe thermometer in his pocket. It had to register at least 140 degrees and ideally 160 degrees which proved that it was fresh. Below 140 it had to be thrown out much to the chagrin of the store manager.

As part of that QSC effort I began visiting every district and every store in my 229-store region that included New York City, the worst of the worst of the worst.  Some sage at home office in Louisville told me, “If you can fix that sorry son of a bitch they ought to give it to you.” So, I inspected all the stores with the area manager (about 10 stores) and the district manager (from 25 to 66 stores). One of those visits was to the Pittsburgh district where I toured and inspected all 39 stores in DM Ray Reimer’s realm. They were crap.

Standing tall among the midgets was Jimmy Ackerman’s Perrysville store. It was a jewel. Jimmy had operated the unit for ten years. He had painted the place himself. It was polished to a sheen. His employees were crisp and enthusiastic. Though the establishment was a plain box from the 1950s it glistened with pride. He operated it like it was Jimmy’s Fried Chicken. I was blown away. Ray Reimer, whose best days were frying chicken when he was in high school didn’t recognize the talent and commitment in his midst. Reimer is the fawning dude with the white belt and shoes at the top of the page.

The answer to why Jimmy was still a store manager, I hypothesize, is that he didn’t look like multi-unit management material. He was round, bespectacled and self-effacing. And Reimer was a Neanderthal. Pittsburg workers put their heads down and wait their turn. So did Jimmy. I marveled at the blue collar mentality and allegiance to company that I observed throughout the Steel City.

Jimmy Ackerman became an area manager soon after my visit. One of the best. And when KFC announced its top ten area managers in 1977, Jimmy was among them.

I remember the name of exactly four store managers out of the 229 in my region. Notable among them were Jimmy Ackerman and Deepak Patel from the 23nd Street store in Manhattan. Deepak was a 1977 top ten store manager out of 800 across the country. He was the face of the immigrants who operated so many of our New York stores and who contribute so much to our country. Virtually every manager in NYC was a person of color and a third were immigrants. I don’t remember a single white male manager. Deepak, unlike most KFC managers, was a college graduate who pursued the American dream the old-fashioned way, by working harder and smarter than everybody else. His pride in his store was as palpable as Jimmy’s. Though I met him just once he made such an impression that I Googled his name several years back. I didn’t find that Deepak. The ones I did find were all doctors. Did you know that 25% of physicians in the United States are foreign born and that 8.5% are from India? Most are in the country on visas that bar them from changing employers or moving to another state, even temporarily, a restriction that makes it difficult to move to Covid hotspots. Makes no sense to me.

Jimmy and Deepak were honored at our 1977 national convention in New Orleans. It was a highlight of my life.

The South Bronx in 1977

There was a third store manager whose name I don’t recall. He deserves better. I’ll him Mustapha. He operated a store in the Bronx across from a burned-out city block that looked like Bagdad after the bombs. New York was on fire in the mid-70s. I was strangely oblivious to how bad the racial unrest was. Mustapha was north of fifty and had a PhD in Chemistry. He had the proud bearing of the professor he had once been. He operated his store with utter precision. His store was, in short, perfect. He fell into a conversation with me as if we were peers. He wanted to tell his story. It was apparent to both of us that he was beneath his station. He was an imposing and powerful figure, perhaps a retired general. I asked how he became a (lowly) KFC manager. He told me that he’d immigrated to the U.S. a decade before. He had located in New York and had become a high school chemistry teacher in the South Bronx. He described how he couldn’t tolerate the disrespect that American students showed him. In Egypt, he told me, the teacher was the absolute ruler of his realm and that respect was demanded and given. He simmered. He channeled his discontent into making his store the best it could be.

Two others I remember for less August reasons. One I recall for a name that's out of Scorsese movie. She was Chickie Faracca who managed the unit on the Cross Bronx Expressway. The other was Leroy Capers who was the size of an NFL lineman and ran what the highest volume KFC store in the world at Herald Square. Leroy held the title till the Moscow outpost opened. Oh, and Chickie was sleeping with her Area Manager, Enzo Caltanissetta. Speaking of names.

I met Deepak and Mustapha one time. It couldn’t have been more than an hour. It doesn’t take long to recognize a stellar human being. With luck you never forget them.


Blacks Crossing said...

Only the truly ignorant or willfully stupid fail to realize what an asset immigrants to America are and always have been. If only we were willing to follow the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty! Your piece on the effect a person you only met once has on someone's life is wonderful and so true. Considering each human being on this planet has a life that is a movie, these people may not even be supporting actors or even credited in the cast listing, but they represent important bits of life. They are there for a reason, and it is lovely that you recognized Jimmy and Deepak in your own movie and history. Thanks, Steve for a meaty blog posting.

Steve Immel said...

Thanks Daryl. When I re=read the post I find errors of omission, folks who should have been included. But they don't have names. Now remember two more names that I may add to the post or could be part of another one. Our treatment of immigrants is an American tragedy.

Anonymous said...

Steve Immel, my name is Enzo Caltanissetta and on behalf of Chickie Faracco I’ll tell you you are an ASSHOLE! She was a damn good manager and she deserves better than an
Accusation of a sexual relation with me. You a re a lucky Sob , she could sue your ass for
Posting untrue statements. What’s matter cannot accept that a man and a woman could work together without having a relationship ?You have a warped mind! I guess that’s what you have done in your life! Before you post something get your facts straight, you don’t
even remember the correct name of your Egyptian employee that gave out is life during an armed robbery working for your KFC.
I respected you as a boss, I guess I was wrong!

Anonymous said...

For the record, Leroy Capers managed the Time Square store not the Herald Square one get the facts straight!