Tuesday, 21 July 2015


Today I've got no place to go, no where I have to be, no pace to maintain.  Today my long-term disability benefits kick in; today I get paid to sit at home. This is all new to me, it's a bit overwhelming. I've always worked hard and enjoyed it, but I haven't been able to work in four months.  Christmas 2014 I was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a life-threatening illness for which there is no cure and for which the prognosis is swift and unkind. I went back to work the next day and every day for the next three months.  And then it became too much and in late March after a couple of unexpected nights in the hospital, it was time to back away. 

Today officially ends four decades of diligently reporting for duty.  And it comes a dozen years earlier than I had anticipated. 

Mr Lou Gehrig, Yankee ball player, he with a life-threatening illness named after him delivered a short and beautiful speech on his last day at the diamond.  "Today I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth," he told a cheering crowd at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. These are words I never truly understood, words that represent an "attitude of gratitude" that I have nevertheless tried to emulate.   

The Team
Today is a good day to reflect on the very many career twists and turns for which I am, sometimes only with the help of hindsight, grateful. There have been so many outstanding individuals with whom I've worked over four decades, but only a rare few genuinely awesome teams. My associates and coworkers at the Scotiabank Convention Centre are such a team across all departments and I thank God for the last 2 1/2 years on the team. They have shown tremendous courage in working with me through to my last day in the office, never hiding from our grim reality and embracing my wish that we must never let my terminal cancer redefine our relationship. 

My Boss, my Friend 
My hope for you is that should your life ever take a turn for the worse that you'll be lucky enough to have a trusted friend right from the beginning, a friend who'll be there for the tough stuff. A friend who asks how you're doing and sticks around for the answer. If you're really lucky he'll be in the office next to yours.  Jeff Dixon, our Interim GM was among the first to learn of my mesothelioma.  On top of all else on his plate he stepped up right away and has not left my side since. 

The Luckiest Man 
Mr Gehrig delivered what was for me an enigmatic statement, a cause for pause that for years I never understood.   "Today I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth," he said.  Mr Gehrig thanked his team, fans and team management. He described his wife as being a tower of strength, of displaying more courage than he dreamed existed. Today I understand that, sir. I know that I am a lucky man.  Merci Claire. 

"So I close in saying I may have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for."  Lou Gehrig  

Me too, Mr Gehrig. Me too. 

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Not a World Class Gym

Just to be upfront right at the front, I would like to start out be saying this whole thing is about only $20. "Oh sure," I hear you object. "But it's also the principle of the thing". No it's not. It's about the money. 

I cancelled my membership at my gym in St Catharines because I am too sick to go to the gym, and besides, it's 350 km away. It was a great, clean gym with excellent equipment in excellent repair. I enjoyed getting up early and working out 3 times a week at 6am, for only $10 a month.  There's a 60 day cancellation policy which I was charged, hence the $20 I'm disputing.  

They'll only waive it under extenuating circumstances, of which I'd suggest my terminal illness qualifies. The contract states they must have a doctors note along with a cancellation request sent by registered mail, and that's fair. Isn't it?  They must get dozens of people claiming to be dying, just to save $20.  Hundreds.

Hey, it's cool. Sarcasm aside, I get it. But on progressive (regressive?) interactions it became about poor management, as it almost always does.

"It's policy," the manager wailed. "I can't do anything about it."  Yes you can. You can override policy. 
"I can't override policy," he claimed. "It's against protocol!"  (No guff, he actually said that.)  "I'd have to take it to Corporate."  You're the manager, I'm assuming you plan to fight on behalf of your customer. Are you seriously so unempowered that a $20 override exceeds your authority?  I expect you will get back to me with your inevitable and predictable results. (I actually expect to never hear from the manager again.)

It has taken 3 phone calls just to get to this point.  Each call has ended with the employee putting me squarely in my place, which is that I'm a schleppe who has to jump through every one of their hoops.  Since I can't make the trip in person, cancellation is by registered letter only for a mere $8 (no emails accepted) PLUS a doctors note from my Oncologist, which may run me $25, and another registered letter. Do the math. $40+ to cancel a $10/month agreement.   

Hey gym management!  Let me tell you something. You're right.  I agree. The contract is firm. I signed it and initialled the 60 day clause. You're absolutely right.  I haven't got a leg to stand on. But could you back off on the smugness just a touch please?  

Overriding policy for compassionate reasons can be the right thing to do, sometimes.  Doing the right thing for the right reasons is always the right thing to do. Advocating for your customers is a powerfully right thing to do.  Heck, do it for the good PR.  But in the end it's only $20 and I'd like it back, please. 

Showing balance and offering the benefit of the doubt sends a strong, powerful message to your employees. After all, they know they can only expect to be treated with the least amount of courtesy and goodwill and respect management has shown to their clients, and as a result you can expect them to not only model your actions, good or bad, but to mirror them.  

And this great feeling I always had going to this gym, the respect I had for the team is gone. 

Frankly I'm just embarrassed for a company whose management is so stuck in the 80s. I thought the whole "customer is the enemy" thing died years ago.  Looks like it's going to outlive me. And that's a shame. 

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

So, About the Last 40+ Years...

This one's for my kids.  It's my resume. But you can read it too, if you want to. Here's where I've worked and a few comments about some of my best experiences and takeaways.  Not counting my first paper routes, I've had 14 different jobs/employers. You may already know I studied Culinary Management at George Brown College in Toronto's Kensington Market in the first half of the eighties.

Here then is the full, uncut, unabashed, down and dirty truth of how I've been spending the last 40 odd years.  Some people claim to have 20 years experience when in reality they've had one year of experience, 20 times.  I have 40+ years of experience, one day, one year, one job, one human interaction at a time. Read on kids, I hope you'll agree.

Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and Belleville Intelligencer - sparked my love of newspapers and early wake up calls, especially in the winter. On November 30, 1970 I delivered my first paper at 6am. It was dark outside and I was 11 years old and in Grade 6. I had to walk a mile just to get to the pick up point. I still read at least two newspapers a day as well as my Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and newsfeed from professional sources. 

McDonald's - It was 1977. Sears at the mall wasn't hiring but I didn't want to work in retail anyway, I wanted to be a restaurant guy. I wasn't tough enough to work at Harvey's in Belleville, they only hired big strapping farmboys. Ponderosa had cool uniforms but you had to have a family connection to get in there. Oh how I envied them their cowboy hats and tasseled gingham shirts.  

My McDonald's experience led to my first management job, and it's also where I met your mother, who was and remains my boss to this day. 
Claim to fame: they launched breakfast when I worked there, throwing a serious wrench into the summer post-work all night partying 

Bemelmans Diner and Toby's Goodeats - part of the very trendy Chrysalis group in the early 80s. Yorkville was a happening scene and AIDS was an upwardly trending new disease decimating the waitstaff at the favourite haunts of the upwardly trendy.  For AIDS in Canada one could argue that Bemelmans was Canada's ground zero.  

But I wouldn't have traded my nights in the decadent decade of punk and new music, of trends and of nouvelle cuisine, of Beaujolais Nouveau in November, of 3am gourmet burgers and of just plain over the top excess every night under the watchful eye of a great chef while I studied in the kitchens and classrooms of George Brown College during the day. What a trip!
Key Takeaway: the parade of celebrities and wannabes was endless. We were almost the only place open past 1am. I met so many celebrities from Robin Williams to the upstart MuchMusic VJs to aspiring comedians after their gigs at a new comedy club up the street called Yuk Yuks to most of the Leafs to whomever was in town.

And then going corporate seemed like a good idea.  The chain restaurant biz had begun to explode in Canada.  

Red Lobster (1) - I was in the first of a number of classes of management trainees who took the chain from 3 to over 60 locations across Canada, mostly in former Ponderosa restaurant locations - how do you like those cowboy hats now, boys?  Many of the Red Lobster management from those days went on to become the significant influencers and execs in today's restaurant biz in Canada. I'm not one of them, but I can get them on the phone.

Kert Chemicals - my first professional sales job, selling dishwashers and chemicals to restaurants, bars and hotels in downtown Toronto. 
Key Takeaway: I have saved untold thousands in plumbing expenses and preventable back-door thievery because of what I learned and observed from my view underneath the dishwashers in the best restaurants in mid-80s Toronto. 
Claim to Fame: Chef Susur Lee once offered to cook and serve me an omelet after I was finished tuning up his dishwasher at Peter Pan but I declined. I was too shy to accept.  Me = idiot. 

Baskin Robbins / Yogurty's Yogurt Discovery - oh man, who hires a guy in his late 20s to be a District Manager?  This was at the time of the first corporate layoffs we now think of as normal, that signified the end of employer/employee loyalty. My franchisees ranged from bored housewives whose husbands bought them a little ice cream shop to keep them busy, to laid off bank execs who invested their entire severance and all their savings and remortgaged their houses (this was exactly the time house prices began to skyrocket and it became necessary to have two incomes to own a home with mortgage rates in the high teens). These desperate people actually believed in our team of child execs, we the District Managers not yet 30 and our head office c-level suite of the young and the entitled. Franchisees trusted us to teach and guide them in more than how to scoop ice cream, polish shoes or pour a coffee, whatever the franchise sold.  Newcomers to hospitality and retail needed our wisdom and expertise and knowledge borne of experience.  The trouble was our employers had hired us because we came cheap and naïve at that age, inexperienced and hard working but in the end of little value in the strategic thinking department. 

Franchising was just taking off in Canada in the late eighties and I spent a lot of time in and out of malls across Canada with my associates from all the other franchisors riding the wave. Tim Hortons at about 100 stores in Canada, was the best deal that even Tim's themselves didn't recognize. So buying and working one's own franchise wasn't always a bad deal for all laid off execs but seriously, did it ever make sense for a white collar VP to be shining shoes at a Moneysworth and Best, a franchise basket in which he had placed every last one of his eggs?

Key Takeaway:  it was at this time that I picked up a copy of a book by a guy named David Chilton. The Wealthy Barber helped me to understand my franchisees' point of view but also helped mom and I to keep our family goal in sight. That meant we stuck with the plan. Mom stayed at home to raise you three while I hammered away at my career. These were the beginning of the rough years but the lessons in that book literally kept us on the path when all hope sometimes seemed lost. 

Mothers Pizza
Two short lived District Manager jobs at exactly the wrong time. It was cool working in a pizza joint, I will say. 

And then I turned 30...  We had 2 kids by then, both of whom are now themselves in their thirties. 

Red Lobster (2) Round 2, in which Red Lobster moved me and my family to Windsor. Oh yeah, and then a year later they fired me.  "That wasn't easy to get over, but don't think I didn't try."  I quote The Joker, referring to his similar fate of being dropped into a vat of boiling acid
Key Takeaway: It was the best thing that ever happened to me professionally. It just didn't feel like it for the next 10 years.
Claim to Fame: I tell my friends I invented the famous Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits. I didn't. It's a total lie. But I'm insulted that they don't believe me anyway. 

So I called my friend Bob in Kitchener and told him I'd just been canned. He called his pal Ted the butcher who called his pal Chris who was opening up a new bar on the main drag in Windsor. Three days after being unceremoniously dumped, I had a new job. 
Key Takeaway:  if you get fired or laid off, reach out to your network immediately and ask for their help to connect you with your next opportunity. Don't waste time being embarrassed or ashamed. And when it happens to a friend or coworker in your company, immediately reach out to him or her and offer your help and support. Don't wait a day. It's lonely for the suddenly unemployed. If you're lucky and you've worked hard you'll have nurtured a strong marriage with a supportive spouse. 

Howl at the Moon Saloon, Windsor - a local copycat of a popular US chain. A rowdy, rough, loud and busy bar. I was a manager/bartender and I really enjoyed the action behind the town's busiest bar. 

And then one day the owner of several automobile dealerships called and was enquiring about renting the place out for a private party for his staff. Pre-internet, I promised to send him a copy of our menu in the mail. But instead I drove out to the dealership and asked for the dealer personally, went over the menu with him and learned all about what he envisioned. I can't remember if we ever did get the event, but I was offered a job selling cars. 
Key Takeaway: You owe it to your employer to go above and beyond. Always play full out. Sometimes it'll pay off for you in ways unexpected. You never know where your next opportunity lies. 

Saturn, Saab, Isuzu of Windsor - back in sales. I learned the sales stuff that makes me successful today.  Not only that but the money we've saved on auto purchases from what I learned with GM sales has been huge, and I am a Saab fanatic who managed to buy not only his dream Saab, but one for his wife too. 

Jose's Noodle Factory - a poor man's Casey's (I know what you're thinking. Isn't Casey's the poor man's Casey's?)  The Jose's restaurant I opened was described as the most profitable restaurant the partners had ever owned (their words). I'm really a very good restaurant manager and I make people money; it's what I do. But I'm not an entrepreneur, which is who these investors were looking for. So we parted company as friends; me a smarter, more confident and a seriously exhausted 40 year old. Them, richer.

I turned 40... 

Caesars Windsor - first into the bar and beverage biz on the gaming floor, then into the very busy Buffet restaurant and then into hotel sales but get this - sales in the hospitality industry!  The casino hotel and convention centre took me on as a sales guy, I did well and when the sales team grew I got a promotion. All of my professional paths - management, sales, culinary and hospitality became one.

And I was ready for more...

Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls- they took a chance on me and gave me a shot at the Director of Sales position. I took a chance on them and set off for the Falls without a safety net. It has been an employment relationship built firmly and deliberately on trust and mutual respect. I hope they'd say it's paid off for them, it most certainly has for me.  Venue management is very different from booking groups into hotels. I wouldn't have believed it and I'm glad I experienced it. 
Claim to Fame:  I was awarded a scholarship to 3rd years Venue Management School, and annual week-long retreat of intense studying at Oglebay resort in the hills of Virginia. What an honour. It was only the second scholarship ever awarded. Unfortunately I was not well enough to attend this year.  

And in these most trying times since my diagnosis of a life-threatening illness my employer, the board and my co-workers have been outstanding. Supportive. Compassionate. Fair. Patient. Generous. That comes from the top.
Key Takeaway: When you get to the top, be that guy. 

I hope your career is as fruitful and as fun and you meet as many cool people as this little guy, who only ever set out to have a little fun with a lot of people, some who have become very good friends indeed. 

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Long Overdue Letter to my Customers

And here it is, my long overdue letter to my customers....(in which I say what I've really been thinking, having nothing to lose.)

Dear customer,

I really do like you. Heck, I love some of you. That's the hardest part of being a sales guy. It's also the best part. You see, we start as strangers and gradually get to know each other. Sometimes you're a little standoffish at first, and sometimes we just don't click.  Rarely, but that's the truth. No one is to blame. Most of the time a relationship of trust and professional respect grows. And then after a time and when the sale is done I have to move on (and so do you). While we're not exactly breaking up, I am seeing other people too.  Sure we still keep in touch, but I'm going to miss the closeness of a tight and productive and intense negotiation between two pros who reached the best possible agreement for their respective organizations.  But then the contract is signed and we have to stop calling each other every 20 minutes. I admit it; it does feel a little like a grade 9 break-up but yes, we're still friends!  And I'm going to do everything I can to be your trusted go-to guy for exactly what you need next. 

You see, whether I've been selling you dishwashers and chemicals in restaurants and hotels in downtown Toronto, or the no-dicker sales experience if you bought a Saturn or Saab from me, all those years in the restaurant biz, or in the hotel and convention sales in which I wrap up my career, one thing has been true. 

I really like you, most of you. I think most people like me, but hey, some don't. That's cool. And although we now have a name for it, "relationship selling" has always been instinctually good practice.  Good for the soul, good for a good night's sleep, tremendously fulfilling and yes I'll say it, financially rewarding for the most ambitious and confident of risk-takers. And I have met so many very cool people, each with a story of their own to tell.  When I learned of my illness some of the very first people to whom I reached out (after family) were my good friends who started out as prospective customers. 

Dear customer, dear friend, I like you. I want to hear about your hobbies, interests, families, sorrows and triumphs...whatever you want to talk about, if you want to talk about it. I know we'll get to the sales part soon enough, and yes, I will employ some techniques and tactics to close the deal IF it's good for both of us, but you're a pro and you'd expect nothing less from me. But having a laugh over a coffee or lunch when I'm in your town?  Hanging out at a convention?  Having some of the best fun I've ever had?  Facebook?  That's all real.

So thanks. I have never taken a minute of it for granted. 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Nearer my Dog...

I was thinking we should take a break from the usual passive-aggressive post about how all of you should change your behaviour in order to please me.  Let me tell you instead about a good and loyal friend, she of the wet nose and wagging tail crowd. 

My dog Molly.  First off, I guess that's the thing about dogs. My wife and I, three kids, one dog and she is thought of as "my dog" by each of us. We share unique and personal relationships with the family dog, don't we?  And it's the dog who makes it that way, because they give uniquely and personally of themselves individually, meeting us where we are.

Seven months ago I was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, a cancer that is thought to be incurable and one that is viciously present and spreading throughout my lungs, lymph nodes and my abdomen. Molly hasn't left my side since I've been home with my illness.  She, almost literally, has an eye on me all the time. If it's not lying at my feet at the end of the bed, she's watching me at my spot in the study from her spot in the living room.  The living room view gives her best reaction time should any of the thieves and murderers walking by our front door attempt unauthorized entry, or worse - dare to walk their dog on our section of the street.  The she-devil in the Canada Post uniform will never be given quarter.  Never!  You may be able to fool the mistress of the house with a smile and a People magazine, but not our Molly. 

And when a friend comes through my door they are subject to an inspection as thorough and efficient as any airport in the nation, and to watchful surveillance for the duration of their visit.  Sure, it is disguised as playful efforts to engage the guest in toy-throwing, petting behind the ears and endless belly rubs.  She's crafty, that one.

When this cancer nightmare began and nights were pain filled, marked by endless coughing and sleepless hours, on more than one occasion I awoke to find her standing just inches from my face, staring at me, watching me sleep.  She could smell the disease in me. At the same time she would not allow an afternoon nap too deep. On more than one occasion she nuzzled me awake just as I was about to go into a very deep sleep. I have no doubts she was making sure that I was going to wake up.  Ain't nobody checking out on her watch!

Sometimes I find myself just staring at her as she watches out the front window. (We call it SquirrellTV).  She has a beautiful profile, but here's the thing. She's a dog. She is not a replacement human. She is not a "fur-baby". Her needs do not take precedence over those of any human being. We love her, of course we do. In her own way she is a member of the family. But we know that it isn't right to forget our place on God's earth - of stewardship and that we are of the highest order of all of God's creatures, and therefore entrusted with the care of the lower orders, my beloved dog being one of them.

I wish I could love as unconditionally as my dog does me. I wish I was as happy to see my wife and kids every time they walked in the door as my dog is to see me and the truth is, I am. But I don't show it and I think they're ok with that arrangement.  And I also know that God loves me just that much and more, just as unconditionally and more.  I wish I could love as God loves. 

When I come home after work it doesn't matter if I wasn't my best self that day, or to whom I owe apologies; she doesn't care. I've put on a few pounds, she doesn't care. I'm not much fun to be around lately, especially chemo weeks, and who's putting in 20 hours of sleep right beside me?  My 10 year old puppy, Molly. 

And who else waits for me patiently even if I've been neglectful?  Who walks beside me always?  By which supernatural strength am I getting through this difficult time?

The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that's who. 

And oh yeah...Molly, truly a Border Collie / Labrador experience of what heaven must surely be like, and a reminder of what life here on earth can be.

Molly in classic belly-rub position 

Friday, 3 July 2015

My Cancer, my Friends Near and Afar

"And that's when I found out who my real friends are..."  In my years of ministry in palliative care, and since my own diagnosis I have heard that said more times than I can remember by folks who have hit catastrophic circumstances.  They are talking about how their friends behaved after hearing the news of their illness, job losses, divorce, etc. Some, as you can expect, were generous and kind, supportive...all the things one would expect of a good friend, often people who weren't previously close.  The caring shines through.

But in many, many cases a good friend seemingly disappears.
  • I know of a guy who was in hospital for weeks because of a life-threatening disease.  Other than family, he had no visitors at all. This man is well respected in our industry and an invitation to his exclusive annual soirée is coveted.  And yet none could make it to his hospital bed or his home to say hi during recovery.  This was several years ago and the bad feelings linger.  He talks about how he thought he knew who his friends were (past tense).
  • A woman shared a similar story, to the point of naming mutual friends she doesn't expect to ever see socially again, so ostracized was she.  And she used the same words describing these people whom she once thought of as friends. "I found out who my friends really were."
  • Yet another still hasn't yet heard from some close family members, months into her husband's treatment. 
  • A fellow I know told me that after we was layed off from his job of nigh on 20 years only one of his former peers reached out in the first few months, and only a trickle since.  As he struggled for words to express his sadness upon learning of my my terminal diagnosis perhaps he got a hint of the struggle we all faced when he was canned. What to say?  When to call?
In the brief six months since my diagnosis and when I began to tell my friends and co-workers of this fatal disease in my abdomen, my lungs and my lymph nodes, with maybe as much time left on the grassy side of the lawn as has already passed since diagnosis, I have experienced similar aloneness. This is not to say I haven't had many visitors and wouldn't have already had so many more were it not for my wretched chemo (I hate the thought of being a less than gracious host for any reason and so I reluctantly ask for no visitors some days).  What I am saying is that I am absolutely dumbfounded that some very close and trusted friends seemed to have turned their backs and ignored my attempts to reach out to them.  I don't just sit here and wait for text messages!

But you will never hear me refer to any of these as people whom I "once thought were my" friends, in the past tense. I still consider them to be friends. I just don't have the temperament after several attempts to continue trying to bridge the scary divide this cancer has caused between us.  I hate to play the cancer card, but here goes...  I can't carry other people's baggage as well as carry my own. I'm not asking anyone to carry mine. I'm just asking them to walk with me like we used to before, when we immortals. 

You know something?  I kind of pride myself in not getting too preachy in these little opinion pieces I write, but maybe, if nothing more, a little attribution is appropriate. So here's the Gospel angle. 

If Jesus could go to the grave without an ounce of rancor towards those who denied him, betrayed him or turned their backs to him, I figure maybe so can I. It would do them as much good to know forgiveness as it does me good to beg for God's help to forgive them and that they might forgive me if I've hurt them. 

So What Do I Do Now?
There are so many reasons one might ignore a dying friend, all of them by themselves quite understandable, not many of them valid under ordinary circumstances. For every reason I'd suggest one of the following.

1.  Confront the problem. If there's something you need to hear from your friend; an apology, forgiveness, whatever...ask for it. Offer it. 

2.  Get over it, whatever "it" is.  Afraid to see her without hair? Not sure what to say? Hate hospitals?
Funeral homes?  Get over it.  Get past it.  She didn't volunteer to be there either. 

 3.  However it goes, go with it. Support your friend, his wife and family. Bring over a casserole, hide behind huge bouquet or just show up with an extra coffee in hand. Whatever happens after that, go with it, even if it means nothing changes. Life isn't a TV movie, sometimes there are unhappy and unresolved endings. No, we can't all get along. 

4.  Do it. Do it right now. Pray for a little help, if that's your thing.