Articles

Stuff I’ve had published, including my monthly column in the Nashua Telegraph.

Choosing the Right College is More Stressful Than Ever

My column from today’s Nashua Telegraph:

It’s that time of year again. Parents and their soon-to-be high school graduates are agonizing over a most impactful decision: choice of college.

For the graduating senior, the decision sets the stage for the next four years of his or her life. That is an eternity for an 18-year-old. For parents, the decision has implications in both the interpersonal and the financial areas. Make no mistake: This is a stressful time for these families.

The pressure is exacerbated by the skyrocketing cost of obtaining a four-year college degree. For a variety of reasons – not the least of which is the seemingly unlimited availability of loans to finance college education – tuition costs at four-year colleges have continued to increase, despite the Great Recession.

Indeed, we now live in the midst of what many are calling a student loan crisis. According to The Atlantic, student loan debt increased by 511 percent between 1999 and 2011. Read More »

Share

My Column from the Nashua Telegraph – Hillary is Out!

In my life, email is ubiquitous. It arrives in my inbox morning, noon and night. Some of it is junk. Much of it is substantive. All of it needs to be managed. Indeed, managing my email occupies way too much of my time. There are many things I would rather be doing, and just about all of them would be more productive.
Unfortunately, I do not have a choice. Email has become the primary vehicle for communicating with clients. It is, after all, instant, and written. Senders know their message will be instantly received, especially since most of us receive them on our phones as well. That makes it the best method of communication for people engaged in business. Whether I like it or not, that makes it the best method for me.
Managing the volume of emails I receive is a chore. As a lawyer, I am charged with ethical responsibilities relative to retaining client communications and confidentiality. Those duties, I know, must be taken very seriously. They cannot be neglected. To do so would be irresponsible. To do so could constitute malpractice. So client emails are dutifully sorted and saved in the appropriate location. When we run out of space on the system we get more.
All of this makes Hillary Clinton’s recent admission regarding her email management as Secretary of State unfathomable to me. Ms. Clinton has confessed that she not only used a personal email account to conduct official business, but deleted thousands of those email as well, without retaining copies. How could this be? Read More »

Share

My December 17, 2014 column from the Nashua Telegraph……………….Villa Banca Closes

It was very sad to see Villa Banca abruptly close its doors in downtown Nashua a few weeks ago. We can only hope that a new occupant will arrive on the scene who can add some energy to a downtown that has absorbed more than its fair share of body blows during the last couple of years. So what happened to Villa Banca?
Obviously I do not know specifically what led to its demise. However, there are a number of reasons that downtown stores and restaurants continue to struggle. First, it is hard for an entrepreneur, imbued with the intellectual and emotional energy of starting a business, to come to grips with just how difficult that challenge can be. It takes stamina, and lots of it. It requires energy and the ability to work long hours. But it also requires financial stamina.
In my experience, it takes roughly three years for a new business to gain traction in the marketplace. During that time very few customers just walk in the front door, especially on Main Street. They need to be given a reason to come. Maybe the place looks interesting and unique to passersby. Maybe an advertisement got their attention. Maybe they were friends of the owner. Maybe it was word of mouth. The point is that something draws them to the business. Few wander in unsolicited.
If in three years the business is still alive, enough repeat business will have been generated to sustain the enterprise. That means that the business must have enough capital to sustain itself during that difficult three year period. We see so many small businesses open and close on Main Street within a relatively short period of time. Often the reason is a simple one. They are undercapitalized.
So how do we explain Villa Banca, which certainly had a following and a good reputation for a number of years? Unlike Aubuchon Hardware, whose closing constituted another blow to Nashua’s downtown this year, Villa Banca was locally owned. It was not a casualty of corporate restructuring. Obviously, it did not have enough customers for the owners to justify keeping it open. But why was that the case?
I suspect that Villa Banca, like many closely owned businesses, may have fallen victim to the shrinking middle class in America. Economic study after study has demonstrated that the purchasing power of what we think of as the middle class in America has shrunk, and is continuing to shrink. There are simply fewer patrons able to visit Villa Banca regularly enough to permit it to sustain itself and grow. Folks can afford Applebee’s or Chile’s, but they cannot afford Villa Banca. It is the new reality.
I know I see in my law practice that my small business clients are, with a couple of exceptions, merely treading water. For most there are no significant growth plans on the horizon. Few of them are contemplating acquiring a competitor, or buying a building. Few of them are doing very much hiring. Most are not making much more money than they were ten years ago. From all of that one can fairly easily deduce that if anything, these same folks are eating at restaurants like Villa Banca less often these days. The middle class is getting squeezed.
I have neither the inclination nor the time here to get into a political discussion about which party is to blame for this predicament. Truthfully, I swore off allegiance to either one of them some time ago. I am curious to see, however, which party might recognize the plight of the middle class and actually come after its votes in the 2016 Presidential election.
Up to now, the Republicans efforts on tax relief have focused on big business and the wealthy. It seems pretty clear that the benefit of those tax cuts have failed to trickle down far enough. Will the Republicans shift gears and propose some substantive tax relief for the middle class? I think it would win votes. Could it not be justified on economic grounds?
As for the Democrats, their major legislative achievement during their time in control of the White House and at least one branch of Congress was health care reform. I appreciate their efforts. I understand clearly that health care was in the process of swallowing our economy. Who knows, in time it might even prove to have been the right choice. But has it helped the plight of the middle class? If the evidence is in, I have yet to see it. So I have the same question for the Democrats. The middle class is ripe for the picking. Will you be the party that offers it substantive tax relief so its plight improves? Would that sort of legislation not be good for the economy, and generate votes at the same time?
I guess only time will tell whether either party will have the common sense to leap to the defense of the middle class. Until one of them does, however, it will continue to be tough sledding for this vital population group, and for our Main Street businesses that serve them. In Nashua, we have the Broad Street Parkway on the horizon. Let’s hope its arrival breathes some additional life into our downtown community.

Share

My Take on Market Basket

 

From the Nashua Telegraph, Thursday, August 20, 2014

Is there any business more interesting than a family business? The relationships between family business owners make the relationships between owners of other privately owned companies look like child’s play. Regular business owners might have long-term relationships; family business relationships, on the other hand, are lifelong. Regular business owners have predecessors and successors; family business owners have mothers, fathers and heirs. Regular business owners have experience; family business owners have scars.

Many of us in New England are witnessing the downside of family ownership as we watch the ongoing Market Basket saga. Market Basket, one of the nation’s largest and most successful privately owned retailers, is being brought to its knees by two competing forces. Internally, the family is feuding. Externally, the employees and customers have banded together in a show of unity and support for one ownership faction that is rare – if not unprecedented.

The feuding piece is fairly easy to comprehend. Family businesses, especially ones owned by second- and third-generation owners, are inherently combustible. What is happening among the family factions at Market Basket is not uncommon. It happens all the time, albeit perhaps not on such a grandiose scale. In the family business world, what is happening at Market Basket is, in many ways, the same old fight.

For years, Arthur T. Demoulas had maintained operational control of the company because of one family member who had consistently supported him – despite the fact that he or she was related to the Arthur S. Demoulas group. For some reason, this person recently switched sides and voted to support the Arthur S. group. That was all it took to swing the balance of power at the board level in favor of Arthur S. Just like that, Arthur T. was converted to a minority voter, without management control. It may have been abrupt, but it was not shocking. In business, these things happen all the time.

What happened next, though, was shocking. It turned out that Arthur T. was so beloved by Market Basket employees that they walked off the job in protest of his ousting. Customers largely followed suit, shopping elsewhere. Was the Arthur S. group surprised by this? It might have been. Then again, the Arthur S. faction might have viewed this as a possible outcome and yet gone ahead anyway. It’s that kind of family, and that kind of feud.

While the family feud driving the Market Basket debacle is somewhat typical, the collective actions of the employees – and, to a lesser degree, customers – may be unprecedented. Almost unanimously, it seems, the employees picked their horse right out of the gate and seem committed to ride it all the way to the end of the race. They believe in Arthur T., and they believe the company should be his. But how will this race finish? It looks to me like it is going to be a very tough one for Arthur T. and the employees to win. They are a longshot.

The brave steps taken by Market Basket employees were the equivalent of a life ring for Arthur T. Their acts alone are all that have prevented him from sinking into the still waters of life as a minority owner. In that capacity, an owner can cry out, but nobody really cares. As I write this column, Arthur T. is still afloat, clinging to that life ring. His chance to regain control of the company and get it back on track is running out.

I say this for two reasons. First, the history between Arthur T. and Arthur S. demonstrates that the interests of employees and customers are not a priority for Arthur S. and company. Arthur T. believed the company’s long-term interests were best served by rewarding loyal employees and customers. Arthur S. placed a higher priority on maximizing the returns for ownership and getting cash into their hands. This, by the way, does not make the Artie S. faction evil or morally inferior. In fact, those two competing philosophies are a hot topic in business circles right now. Regardless, in all likelihood, if Arthur T. loses, the employees will lose too.

The second reason to be concerned about the outcome from the employees’ standpoint is ironic, but nonetheless compelling. The sheer profitability of the Market Basket chain over the last 50 years has been astounding. It has been one of America’s most profitable privately owned retail chains. The money its owners have made during that time is hard for most of us to even comprehend. They have become very, very rich. This is a problem for Arthur T., as the pockets of the owners may have been so thoroughly lined already that the financial pressure brought about by the employee walk-off causes Arthur S. and his group no meaningful financial pain. If that is the case, then Arthur T. simply has no leverage in these negotiations.

What about the Market Basket brand, you say? Family members must care about their legacy, don’t they? The truth is that probably some do. But for many of them, watching Arthur T. go down may be its own reward, powerful enough for them to throw the Market Basket baby out with the bathwater. Under these circumstances, Arthur T. will be hard-pressed to make any offer that is rich enough to get the Arthur S. faction to let him emerge as the hero.

I hope I am wrong. I hope that Artie T. wins the race, and I hope the employees and the Market Basket brand win this race. If they lose it, it is neither a reflection of their courage nor the validity of their actions. They have been brave, if perhaps somewhat naive. They deserve a better outcome then they are likely to get.

Read More »

Share

My Column from the Nashua Telegraph – October 15, 2013

             Every once in a while I read a news story that jars me, that causes the jumbled thoughts ringing around in my head to organize. I had one of those moments this week when I read that students at Nashua’s Charlotte Avenue School would no longer be permitted to play tag during recess. In a flash, the jigsaw puzzle came together. I knew  banning tag at recess was destroying America.

            When I was a kid, hazardous playground activity was a way of life. Tag? Tag was for wimps. We played Kill the Guy with the Ball. One kid would pick up the football and run around with it as long as he could, until he was gang-tackled in a particularly violent fashion. He would then cough up the ball, and someone else would take off with it. No sidelines, no end zones, no time limits. Sometimes kids got hurt, but that’s why we had a school nurse.

            We liked to swing on the swings at recess too. But we turned it into a competition. We used them as swinging catapults, in a game where the winner was the kid who flew the farthest off the swing. Jumping extraordinarily high was admirable, adding as it did to the danger element, but our game was about who could fly past the line in the sand drawn to mark the longest landing point. Like most of our games, it was physical, and it was about beating the other guy. Pardon the pun, but it never would fly today. Read More »

Share

My Column from the Nashua Telegraph – August 21, 2013

Customer Loyalty Stands Test of Time

When was the last time you experienced truly amazing customer service?

We all know it when we see it. It makes a huge impression on us. But great customer service is rare. Despite all the stuff you read about how important it is, and how it helps create brand loyalty, very few businesses are able to attain it, let alone maintain it.

I experienced amazing customer service a couple of weeks ago at one of Nashua’s landmark local stores, where management and staff went above and beyond the call to take care of me as a customer.

It happened at Jeannotte’s Market, the little white grocery store that has been a fixture on the corner of Courtland and Manchester streets in Nashua for decades. Read More »

Share

Trust – My Column from the Nashua Telegraph, May 15, 2013

My Column from the Nashua Telegraph – May 15, 2013

The late business author and guru Stephen Covey used to talk and write about a concept he called the “speed of trust.” It was his way of describing the impact that mutual trust has on communications and relationships. When a relationship had the speed of trust, he said, communication is effortless and incredibly fast. Decision-making is enabled, and outcomes are improved.

On the other hand, when trust is lacking in a relationship, communication can get bogged down. Decision-making processes can be hostile and painful. Good outcomes can be hard to come by. This, of course, is as true in our personal lives as it is in our business lives. But not every relationship is best served by mutual trust.

Take, for example, our relationship with the federal government. When it comes to that relationship, history continues to demonstrate that citizens are better served by a certain level of distrust in federal government. Distrust of centralized government is, of course, at the very roots of our history as a nation. Thankfully, the framers of our Constitution harbored this distrust, and it is largely what drove them to draft that document in the fashion they did. The Constitution is nothing if not a framework for protecting us from the very people we elect to represent us.

Individual citizens are not the only ones best served by a healthy distrust of the federal government. Businesses operate in the same fashion. Most, for instance, harbor a substantial level of distrust for the IRS. They know that many businesses in our economy are periodically singled out for particularly harsh treatment. We might like to think that such “special” treatment is merely revenue driven, but it isn’t. The IRS sometimes discriminates against businesses because of certain characteristics. It is wrong, and unconstitutional, but it happens.

That is one reason why we should not be surprised by the allegations that the IRS singled out individual taxpayers whose returns indicated ties to the Tea Party. This is what the absolute power of large, centralized government begets. The behavior is only encouraged in an intensely partisan system where so much influence is for sale. Businesses harbor a healthy distrust of the IRS, and there is nothing wrong with that.

We also should harbor a healthy distrust of the Justice Department. Most recently, the Justice Department covertly obtained the records for more than 20 Associated Press office and journalist telephone lines. Some of the records included home phones and cell phones.

The exercise, apparently, was in furtherance of an investigation into an intelligence leak.

The Justice Department, perhaps drunk with power, determined that, in this case, its right to information trumped not only the first amendment and privacy rights of those reporters, but of our right to information from a free press as citizens in a democracy. Most folks view a press that operates without government interference as an essential element of our democracy. The Justice Department will not always share that view. Some distrust is healthy.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not one of those conspiracy nuts. My level of distrust has not advanced anywhere near that far. But I must admit, it is growing. Online communication has given the federal government an unprecedented ability to monitor us. It seems more than willing to do so. That is a bad combination.

My client and friend Gary Miliefsky, a renowned cyber-security expert and the principal of a Nashua-based cyber-security company called SnoopWall LLC, tells me that the National Security Administration is currently at work on building the world’s largest data eavesdropping and storage repository. It will be fully operational in the fall of this year and will be able to store “trillions and trillions of bytes of information.” Needless to say, the NSA is the latest addition to my healthy distrust list.

Ironically, just as technology has gotten us into this mess, it may get us out. San Francisco-based Wickr has a mission to provide secure communications that “Leave No Trace.” They claim to have created a protocol, which when integrated with other communications platforms, will result in a unified mobile-messaging platform that is “private, encrypted and anonymous.” In other words, it will render your online communications untraceable.

Given the recent actions of the Justice Department and the IRS, don’t be surprised if the mainstream begins to find its way to Wickr.

Its early adopters, not surprisingly, have been students and young people. They are online all the time, and do not want their information viewed, monitored, sold or shared. I keep asking myself how that makes them any different from the rest of us.

In any event, I have to believe that given the Justice Department’s recent actions, many of our writers and journalists are going to want what Wickr has to offer. It is, after all, what healthy mistrust begets. Read More »

Share

My Column from the Nashua Telegraph on Hourly Billing and an Innovative New iPhone App from a UK Law Firm – March 27, 2013

UK legal firm has novel way to meet clients

My office is at ground level on Main Street in Nashua. When I look out my window, I see all the usual sights: traffic, pedestrians and pigeons on the roof of the Main Street Methodist church. I also see lots of small businesses.

Recently, I found myself thinking about those businesses and wondering whether any had a lawyer. When I say “lawyer,” I’m not talking about the lawyer who prepared the owners’ wills 15 years ago, or the one that handled a divorce for one of the owner a few years back. I’m talking about an honest to goodness business lawyer they can call their own. I’m talking about the person they would name if I asked them a simple question: “Who’s your lawyer?” Read More »

Share

My column on the Pope and knowing when to quit from the Nashua Telegraph, Feburary 20, 2013

Knowing when to quit can be good business tool

My column from the Nashua Telegraph, February 20, 2013

I am not a Catholic. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by Pope Benedict’s decision to resign. To say the announcement came as a complete surprise is an understatement. After all, the last pope to resign voluntarily was Celestine V in 1294. At that time, his resignation was called “the great refusal,” and it was even condemned by the poet Dante in his famous work, “The Divine Comedy.”

This resignation is news.

Depending on whom you ask, Pope Benedict’s announcement is either completely selfish and wrong or a courageous decision made with the best interests of the Catholic Church in mind. I am inclined to view it as the latter. Recognizing that he no longer has the physical and mental stamina to do his job, and for caring enough about the Catholic Church to step down despite the heat he will take for it, I believe Pope Benedict ought to be commended.

Leaders in most fields typically have a difficult time recognizing when it is time to step down. Part of this is due to their competitive nature. Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, once told his team at halftime of a game that “winners never quit, and quitters never win.” To a degree, many Americans have been brainwashed by Lombardi, because the reality is there are many instances where quitting really is the right decision.

Quitting can be especially hard for entrepreneurs. Most entrepreneurs pour their lives into their business ideas. They work tirelessly to make their concepts a success. Unfortunately, despite all their dedication and hard work, many of them do not succeed. Many would have been well-served by reading the tea leaves differently and abandoning their dream sooner than they did.

Americans are taught at a young age that if at first we do not succeed, we try, try again. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to fly the airplane all the way into the ground.

I often share a story with entrepreneurs about a friend of mine who was able to quit at the right time. He was developing an online auction website for a specific industry back in the mid-’90s, when the Internet was just emerging. He worked for two years out of his garage with two software developers who happened to be brothers, writing the code for the site. Then, he spent a year traveling all over the world, meeting with angel investors and venture capital firms.

I’ll never forget the phone call I got from him during which he told me some great news. He had obtained a commitment for $5 million from a group of investors. I was absolutely thrilled for him and began to congratulate him. But what he told me next stopped me in my tracks. He told me he was going to turn the money down, break up the technology they had developed, and sell it off in pieces to recoup at least some of his investment.

That decision actually wound up working pretty well. But why did he turn down the investors? How could he do it after the investment of so much time and money?

He explained to me that over the past year, he met with many smart people all over the world to discuss his plan. Too many of them, he felt, had zeroed in on one potential problem. It had been eating at him. At the same time, his sibling software coders were having trouble getting along.

Quitting permitted him to salvage some of his investment, preserve the relationship with his developers and move on. It seemed to him like the smart thing to do, and it was.

Sometimes lawyers have to gently remind clients that in some respects, deciding to quit is harder than deciding to continue.

Many entrepreneurs are born leaders and are naturally competitive. They don’t like to lose. Most are endowed with a powerful cognitive bias in favor of continuing to try to win, despite overwhelming odds against them. For people of this nature, to decide that quitting is the right decision takes a lot of courage.

I think the same thing must have been true for Pope Benedict.

It might have been much easier for him to fade out of public life until his life expired, peacefully, as so many other popes before him had done. But the challenges faced by the Catholic Church, combined with the increasing realization that he was no longer physically or mentally up to the task, must have weighed heavily upon him. So despite the fact that some in the church will view him as having abandoned his flock and despite the risk that poses for his legacy, he placed the interests of the Catholic Church first. Quitting, in this instance, seems to me to be the most courageous thing he could have done.

So much of success in life, whether personal or in the business world, comes down to good decision-making. We must compete, we must win, but we also must lose.

That reality, to a degree, flies in the face of Vince Lombardi’s mantra.

At times, we might be better served by ignoring Lombardi and heeding the words of W.C. Fields, who once poignantly observed, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”

Share

Social Entrepreneurship Spawns Benefit Corporations

My column from the Nashua Telegraph, December 19, 2012

I’ve written previously about social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurs are individuals who found businesses with dual purposes. On the one hand, they want to make a profit. On the other hand, they want to do so in a way that is beneficial to their community, the environment and society in general. Read More »

Share