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Two Biz Books for Elul

Business Mensch, the book

Business Mensch, the book

Perhaps you are like me? During the month of Elul, I seek out new inspirational books to aid in preparation for the High Holy Days. In 5769, we were clobbered with news from AIG; Bear Stearns; the anti-Mensch, Bernard Madoff; and other businesspeople who had behaved badly or had skirted the rules. So for 5770, you can understand my pleasure with this new book “Business Mensch, Timeless Wisdom for Today’s Entrepreneur” by Noah Alper

Mr. Alper was the founder of “Bread and Circus,” a natural foods grocery in Brookline Massachusetts which was later sold to the national U.S. chain, Whole Foods. More famously, he founded the kosher quick service restaurant, Noah’s Bagels, in 1989, and later sold it six and a half years later for $100 Million to Einstein Bagels. Currently, he is a consultant, speaker, involved with the ethical kashrus movement, and a co-founder of a Jewish high school in the Bay Area. A serial entrepreneur with perpetual perma-shpielkas, he has started six ventures, and four succeeded. This is a great track record. I am not counting his lemonade stand at age 9. After visiting Israel, he started a company to sell Israeli products to evangelical Christians. It was a dismal failure. Perhaps because, feigning a Baptist demeanor, he was being someone he wasn’t. In 1989, after his brother returned from seeing a cute Montreal bagel store, he started a kosher bagel and appetizing store a mile from Berkeley. The store and later, the chain, embraced its Jewish roots. It integrated over the top customer service, high quality foods, tikkun olam, and an overt and unapologetic Jewish soul. It was even closed for Passover, which was unusual in San Francisco. The rest is history.

Alper is one lucky mensch. He hit upon bagels in 1989, when the carbohydrate-loading market was taking off, and sold the business right before carbs became a naughty word. The book opens with Alper waiting to see if the $100 million dollar deal has closed. Is the money in the bank? He thinks back, as all good business books do, to a time of personal crisis. Two decades earlier he was in a mental hospital for nine months. He was a wreck, manic and delusional. He left the University of Wisconsin, fearful of the Vietnam War draft and paranoid. Slowly he reentered life. He started in a book warehouse, then became a cashier in Harvard Square, and then started his first venture, selling hand crafted wooden salad bowls. Each success led to a new venture, and failures led to learning.

Alper imparts seven Noahide laws, or Noah’s 7 principles. They are:

(1) Have a Little Chutzpah: How did a former mental patient end up as an entrepreneur. The hospital though taught him important life skills, and a little over two decades later, he had built a family, businesses, made millions. What Chutzpah! You need it to think that people will give you money to start a business. You need it to call a salad bowl company Alper INTERNATIONAL. And here he was, sitting in Jerusalem in the Kabbalat Shabbat service at Yakar. He had integrated business and the personal Here he was, a guy who was sarcastic with the rabbi who did his first son’s bris, now spending a year of study in Jerusalem. What a Chutzpadik. But if you have no ego, you cannot succeed.

(2) Discover Yourself: Stop living for somebody else’s plan. Discover your own unique passion and gift and have a purpose in your life. Alper imparts the story of Rabbi Zusia. Maybe he heard it at Pardes in Jerusalem where he studied. God does not ask the rabbi why he was nt Abraham or Moses, but why he was not Zusia. Alper tells how he was a Jewish athiest. Although he did own a used truck from a Jewish bakery and kept it parked outside his Cape Cod office, and his college roommate was an ardent Zionist and head of the local Hillel, it wasn‘t until Alper divorced at 38, sold his business, and enrolled at Aish haTorah in Israel that he started to develop and follow a passion for Jewish life.

(3) Go Forth – Lech Lecha. Be ready willing and able to move at opportunity, to grow and progress. He tells of the rabbi who wore two watches. One showed that it was late, the other that one still has time. Only training, experience and intuition can tell you though when you need to jump at the opportunity or study the issue more to avoid an error.

(4) It Takes a Shtetl – Where do u find advice, how do you rely on your employees, how do you work with partners

(5) The Power of a Mensch – You don’t have to be Mad Men, cold, and nasty to succeed.

(6) Come Back Stronger – nearly ALL new businesses fail. Learn to springboard from it

And (7) Remember the Sabbath – take time for yourself. 24/6 instead of 24/7. Hard work is vital, but so is a day off, or even at least a scheduled power walk for 30 minutes. Even Jewlicious.com takes off for Shabbat. You can, too.

Rubies

Rubies

Another timely book relates of POM, and since POMegranates are eaten by many Jews for Rosh Hashana, it was an appropriate book to read for Elul. Lynda Resnick has written “Rubies in the Orchard,” which is the story of how Resnick and her husband overcame marketing challenges to launch Fiji brand bottled water, POM juices, The Franklin Mint, Cuties branded citrus, branded pistachios, and Teleflora. While not as basic as a kosher bagel, and a tad more edgy, since the businesses must confront environmental issues in Fiji and on farms, Resnick narrates how she used her experience to make these into national brands for which consumers pay very premium prices.

Resnick’s book also starts with a personal crisis. For the first time since age 17, she was out of work. She had started an ad agency at age 19, and was not a slacker. Her husband invited her to a meeting on creating a market for the output of the pomegranate orchards their company had planted for years. They had funded research on the benefits of the fruit at UCLA, Technion and other schools, and the results were promising for creating a market or an image for pomegranates, a fruit of which less than 10% of Americans were aware. Her husband’s team was recommending the sale of pomegranate drinks mixed with less expensive fillers, such as apple and grape juices. A person with a highly developed sense of taste, she recommended that the sell and brand pure pomegranate juice as a premium product with health benefits. Well, she did not demurely and constructively suggest it. She demanded it, and told everyone else they were wrong. She does not consider herself a genius. But she is smart and a shrewd marketer. Thus, POM in the heart shaped bottle was born. POM is now a $150 million business. In her book, she relates stories of her other brands and how she overcame marketing hurdles, supply issues, manufacturing problems, and more. But essentially, for the new year of 5770, her solutions are not applicable to most readers. For example, she is not going to tell you how to change your media mix or acquire shelf space. She will tell you that a few years ago, consumer demand was greater than their ability to supply POM juice to retailers. So they considered using a tanker full of Iranian pomegranate juice to fulfill their retailers‘ orders. After much debate, they decided to only sell the juice of their orchards and forego the additional revenue, and protect the integrity of their brand. Their lack of juice supply also forced them to consider line extensions into teas and other products that were less dependent on their orchards (every threat can be an opportunity).

So. what can we learn for 5770? Mostly that you need a lot of self confidence to succeed, you need to listen and learn even from your enemies, creating a product with a false value is eventually exposed and penalized, and it is better to admit to not knowing things and asking for help, than pretending to know it all. And basicily, you have to be authentic, and if you are lucky, you can start a business and sell it at its peak.

6 Comments

  1. themiddle

    9/14/2009 at 11:15 am

    Great post. Thanks!

  2. Charlie H. Ettinson

    9/14/2009 at 10:40 pm

    Fairmount is more than a cute bagel store in Montreal. It’s an institution and Montreals will wage war in defence of their favorite bagel shop, either Fairmount Bagel or St. Viateur, a block or two over. I mean, I’ve seen poeple almost come to blows over this. It’s serious business. Nothing “cute” about it!

  3. george killingsworth

    11/6/2009 at 12:57 am

    THE AUDACITY OF CALLING ONESELF A MENSCH

    Commendable as it is that Noah Alper is unapologetically Jewish …. the self publishing of a book declaring himself a Mensch seems audacious in the extreme .. an excess of Chutzpah.

    Conspicuously absent from his book of advice to young entrepreneurs, is his most impressive success in the thwarting of an attempt by his workers to form a Union. Like many “socially responsible” employers [cf. Whole Foods, Wal-mart, Starbucks, Borders, etc] Noah prides himself in being such a good guy [mensch] toward his workers that there is really no need for them to have an effective voice in negotiating the conditions of their labor.

    Thousands were spent to hire Union Busting Expert consultants to negatively influence the outcome of a Union Election at Noah’s Bakery. Compulsory closed door meetings were held [from which union supporters were barred]. Pleas were made to not let this “divisiveness” ruin the culture of this little family business. All the usual Union Busting techniques were employed: carrots and sticks, coercion, threats, surveillance, harassment, retaliation and firings. Latino workers were subjected to special harassment over green card INS issues.

    Noah accompanied workers on their delivery routes, affably chatting about the good fortune that would befall workers following a Union defeat and bemoaning the unfortunate negative steps that a Union victory would likely necessitate. We were reminded of which side our bagels were shmeared on .. and by whom.

    Undoubtedly, Noah is sincere in his view of himself as a liberal, socially responsible, benevolent pal of a boss: a veritable mensch. He describes how he “allowed” workers to sport tattoos, piercings, and play rap music … a paragon of kindly, paternalistic tolerance.

    Notwithstanding his conspicuous religiosity, Noah failed to internalize the Tikkun Olam social justice principle. No matter now many mitzvahs an employer fulfills, if workers are denied an independent voice in the conditions of their labor … interactions between workers and management remain essentially of a parent-child nature: a dictatorship, however benevolent.

    There’s something profoundly terefah [non kosher] about an anti-union employer … it ignores the history of Jewish slave labor in Egypt and Babylon and the centuries old quest for freedom from labor oppression [cf. Deuteronomy 26:6-8] Profound lessons regarding the dignity of work and labor justice are inherent in these scriptures and this history.

    Noah would have supported the United Farm Workers Union and he boasted about his connections to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade … but when his own workers attempted to organize, he resorted to the “not in my company” exception. Noah patronizingly reasoned that because he was such a mensch, a Union was unnecessary. Emma Goldman and Samuel Gompers would roll in their graves. It’s like saying that if we have a mensch of a president, democracy is unnecessary.

    One thing is clarified in Noah’s book. His squelching of the Union effort was simultaneous with his pending sale of his business to Einstein Brothers Bagels. No wonder he spent thousands to defeat the Union … no wonder he had shpilkes regarding a possible Union Victory and the probable loss of this Mensch’s dream of a lifetime: his one hundred million dollar pending sale of his little family business to Einstein Bros.

    In this effort to seal his legacy, it’s a pity that Mr. Alper’s book withholds this bit of timeless wisdom … HOW A MENSCH CAN CRUSH UNIONS … from today’s entrepreneurs.

    • ck

      11/6/2009 at 3:29 am

      At the end of the day george, the employees voted. Not Noah. And they made their choices – no union. Unions are not necessarily the great panacea union organizers like to paint them as. There are many cases of corrupt unions screwing their own workers. I appreciate your bitterness and all but if your allegations of illegal activities like firings and intimidation were provable, the union would have recourse against Noah, no? So please, spare me the sanctimonious tikkun olam bollocks. These employees are not slaves suffering under Pharaoh’s whip. They are also not infants. They made their choice and I respect that. And I’m not even anti-union! What I am is pro-treating employees like adults and not whining about a lost vote.

  4. themiddle

    11/6/2009 at 1:56 am

    Wow, bitter and angry. Also pretty one sided. Is it possible there’s another viewpoint?

    Also, would you be kind enough to explain why a privately owned business has to unionize and “democratize?” Why is it wrong for an owner, who put his own assets at risk in creating the business and who stands to lose the most if it goes under or loses money, to lobby against unionization?

    Finally, what the heck does tikkun olam have to do with unionization?

  5. george killingsworth

    11/6/2009 at 7:18 am

    Response to “themiddle”:

    Thank you for your response .. there are indeed other viewpoints and I thank you for yours.

    I believe all viewpoints have a right to be heard. Furthermore, agreeing with you, I will defend to my death the right of a Business Mensch to “lobby against unionization”.

    I presume that you agree that when workers feel their manager has been less than a mensch in the treatment of workers … and when management refuses to listen to their concerns … wishing for their voices respected in negotiating the conditions of their labor; these workers are entitled to an unobstructed, fair and just election regarding the establishment of a Union.

    Noah faced just such a scenario; the establishment of a Union at Noah’s Bagels wouldn’t have been catastrophic .. as we know, the labor/management mutual respect which comes with Union Representation seldom means that a business will “go under” or “lose money”. In Noah’s case, we now learn that what was at stake was the biggest deal of Noah’s life: the $100 million dollar sale to Einstein Brothers.

    This explains why Noah pulled all the stops in his lobbying against the Union. Many thousands of dollars were spent to bring in the Littler Mendelson Law Firm, specialists in assuring that their clients remain “Union Free”.
    >>>>> Workers were required to attend repeated compulsory meetings where films, discussions, paper quiz exercises, and Union horror stories were utilized to “educate” the workers. Known Union sympathizers were barred from these compulsory meetings, thus silencing uncomfortable questions.
    >>>>> Promotions and/or prized transfers were clearly implied or promised to workers provided the company remained “Union Free”. Loans and/or wage advances were made to selected employees.
    >>>>> Salary and Promotion ladder freezes were predicted should the Union win the vote.
    >>>> Latino workers were interrogated regarding the green card status of their families … thus planting the fear of possible INS trouble.
    >>>> On election day, Noah hosted a lavish party in the parking lot: prospective voters were treated to a generous buffet … a Mariachi Band was hired to entertain … and TVs and other prizes were presented to giddy winners.
    >>>> Needless to say, the Union supporters were barred from presenting their point of view during worker hours or on company premises.

    While there are many viewpoints regarding this untold story of Noah’s actions, some might feel that these actions did not honor the Tikkun Olam intention of repairing the world, alleviating suffering and assuring justice.

    Why Noah omitted this episode from his memoir is puzzling. Surely Noah is pleased with his actions in this regard .. although he might nevertheless have a regret or two. One would wish that he’d call upon his inner mensch to share this wisdom with tomorrow’s young entrepreneurs.

    This is all ancient history; Noah got his $100 million dollar prize shortly after the Union defeat [by one vote]. Reasons were found to terminate known Union sympathizers. Forgive me for previously omitting the disclaimer that I was so terminated. This explains the residual “bitterness and anger” you detected … I regret it and am striving to be a better mensch.

    Except for his recent publication, all of this would not have been brought forth. Because he omitted it, it seems that the bagel hole needs to be filled in. While it might cause some rain on his parade … truth can sometimes lead to reconciliation.

    Shalom, Salaam, Pax .. Mr. Middle
    respectfully,
    george killingsworth

    Note to Jewlicious editors: Thank you for replacing Mr. Middle’s f-word with the more courteous substitution: “heck”.

    Note to poster named “CK”: addressing me as “george” , and having posted anonymously, you have me at a disadvantage. Nevertheless I appreciate and respect your perspective … and agree with you that a) Unions are not a panacea and b) that there are cases of corrupt unions. Also, like you, I am not anti-union.

    From the wording of your note I’m guessing you are also on a first name basis with Noah. Unlike you and I, Noah seems to be Anti-Union. It would be good if you could persuade him to at last write the chapter he omitted: Keeping Your Business Union Free.

    It is my belief that Noah bought the one-vote-defeat of the Union. He did this by hiring Rob Hulteng of the notorious National Union Busting firm: Littler Mendelson. Noah compromised his menschiness by following Littler’s directions and allowing their staff to harass and intimidate employees for over two months proceeding the election.

    Forgive me if I was sanctimonious, CK. I might caught it from reading Noah’s book which was peppered with many references to tikkun olam and many other beautiful values of our shared tradition. These values are simply stated in Micah 6:8: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.

    May it be so ….
    Your friend, George

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