Dr. and Coach Catana Starks, the coach profiled in our film From the Rough, passed
Rather than restating biographical data you can find in many places, I will give you a more thematic approach. Perhaps the best way to describe me is that I have gravitated toward the “road less traveled” in my choices.In earlier versions of this autobiographical summary of my life, I skipped over my childhood, but after having re-looked at my life from the vantage point of my formative experiences, I concluded that I was missing too many important pieces of the puzzle.
I learned several important lessons in my childhood from a variety of life experiences, but will narrow them down to a manageable handful.
- My parents convinced me that anything was possible in life, a philosophy in which they strongly believed, and one that shaped my optimism and tenacity in the face of major obstacles that I encountered on almost every important initiative in which I have been involved for the rest of my life. That conviction created a different source of stress: if anything were possible, then how would I decide what price I wanted to pay?
- We lived very frugally, but were not deprived because we found ways to re-use and repurpose everything, including hand-me-down suits that my Aunt Christina rewove for my mother and me.
- I also went on long walks near our cottage off Canandaigua Lake with my friend Bob Ellison, who was four years old than me. I developed great stamina and learned to appreciate the health and psychological value of walking long before experts publicly promoted the value of walking.
- In multiple ways, my parents imbedded the importance of continuous learning into my life habits. When I was very young, they created paper “flash cards” to teach me arithmetic and improve my ability to calculate in my head during long car trips to visit relatives. They gave me a World Atlas and a Road Atlas as birthday and Christmas gifts when I was seven years old, and a book of mini-biographies of American presidents when I was eight years old. They gave me my sister’s high school history textbook when she graduated from high school, and drilled me on spelling to help me compete in spelling bees, particularly one for which the winner was offered a full scholarship to the leading Catholic high school at the time. During high school, my mother, at the suggestion of my aunt, a Sister of St. Joseph nun, bought a Barron’s SAT Review book to help me prepare for the SATs.
- In one incident at the local office of the State Motor Vehicle Bureau, my mother threatened to go to the press, the local call-in radio station, and her elected representatives, to expose poor service by a lazy and insensitive retail clerk. She taught me that civil service government officials are most likely to respond to shaming and public exposure, as opposed to the threat of being fired, a lesson I applied decades later.
- I became a high school debater, and was inspired by two supportive comments, one by a judge who told me that “I was not very good, but could be good with training,” and a professor who told me that I could be among the best in the state by the time I was a senior. From these experiences, I learned that a single well-timed, thoughtful, encouraging comment can turn around almost anyone’s life, something that was repeated in the life of my younger son almost 35 years later. I also learned that training and practice were the real secret sauce of success and that many people who appeared to be "naturals" worked hard to make their success look that way.
- From my first job, a minimum wage dishwasher job at a bakery, I learned about how to focus on small details that build a safety culture into a workplace. I also learned from an owner who yelled at a co-worker for putting too much filling into eclairs that most people are insensitive to taste and portion sizes. That lesson is profoundly important in reversing the obesity crisis in this country.
- When I was invited to go to an impoverished community in Kentucky to help raise funds to rebuild a church in 1965, I learned how to raise a lot of money in small increments through a raffle of $.10 tickets and through an amusement night at the school. From that experience, I recognized the importance of gathering small amounts of money from donors or customers, a lesson charities like the March of Dimes have applied for decades, but which many development officers at charities stupidly ignore today. Similarly, I learned that small, properly targeted fees from many customers can bring in a lot of revenue, a lesson I applied three decades later at Pitney Bowes Financial Services.
- When I felt I was cheated out of the valedictorian award at the end of high school, my Dad blamed me for “leaving too much to chance.” He did not sympathize with me, but told me that, for anything that mattered in the future, I had to attend to minimizing the risks of losing much more firmly than I did in that case.
- Finally, I watched my Dad interact with many of my cousins and get them to tell him far more than they told their parents by smiling and being very supportive. Decades later, I learned that the Mayo Clinic was using the same technique to help people quit smoking or change other unhealthy lifestyles. They called the technique my Dad used instinctively “motivational interviewing.”
Probably the most important lesson I learned in childhood was that every life experience can be a positive learning experience, and I was blessed to have loving parents and a loving sister who were along side me to teach me those lessons.
From a strong, very pleasant Catholic home and school upbringing in Rochester, New York, and after having actually paid some tuition to Georgetown University in 1966 (which, fortunately, was refunded), I made an abrupt turn and went to Wisconsin. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1970.
There is a great book written about several places, including Madison, during that era, called They Marched Into Sunlight, by David Maraniss. It was a turbulent, politically radical, environment so far removed from my upbringing that I really did not fit in socially, even though I got a fantastic education in both the Communications and Political Science Departments. I always wanted to be a lawyer and, with the goal of eventually arguing the great constitutional law cases of the day, The Honors Program at the University of Wisconsin gave me the opportunity to take classes with graduate students for most of the last three years of college, and to interact closely with the Department Chairs and the Professors.
When I graduated from college in 1970, I had to fulfill a military obligation, having drawn #9 in the first draft lottery since 1940. Because of a delay between my enlistment in the Army Reserves and the start of my five-month active duty for training period, I had to live at home, take temporary and part-time employment, and keep my social life in a holding pattern. Between June, 1970 and March, 1971, I tried several jobs and learned a lot about myself:
- I was a miserable failure as a door-to-door salesman for cookware and household appliances. I was far better at telephone selling or at calling on people at their offices.
- I was exceptional at interviewing executives for a marketing research client that wanted perspectives about business in the year 2000, and I was even offered a full-time position as a reporter for the Gannett Company, which I had to decline because of my pending military obligation and my desire to go to law school.
- I enjoyed tutoring and helped several young people with math.
- I worked on a four-month temporary job at the Monroe County Personnel Department, a job that had to be approved by the boss of the County Republican Party. Both political parties, given dominant positions in a community, practice the same kind of corruption and crony capitalism. Departments were given budget money based on how much their department had contributed or could contribute to keeping the Republicans in power, a practice copied by the Democrats in the City of Rochester. Almost nine years later, I watched the first Richard Daley Chicago Democratic machine collapse because Daley's successor, Mayor Michael Bilandic, could not get the snow cleared during a particularly brutal winter. All of the snow plow contracts had been awarded to friends of the Daleys.
I entered Harvard Law School in September, 1971, and had a great social life. I even became an officer in the Dormitory Council, and raised a considerable amount of money from aggressive marketing of school dances at neighboring all-women colleges, from great selections of second run films for Saturday night screenings, and from nonstop use by the law students of the pinball machines and juke box in the Grill Room. I graduated from Harvard Law School in 1974.
However, instead of going to New York or Washington, D.C., I chose Chicago, which in the 1970’s was not a great place for courtroom law practice, but I met my wife Joyce there, and, after getting married in early 1979, we decided to move to the East Coast.
I had been a misfit and a failure in the two law firms I joined in Chicago, but I learned valuable life lessons from both firms, the most important of which was that the client, not I, determined value. I looked for a corporate legal department position, considered a much less prestigious and lucrative career path in 1979 when I joined Pitney Bowes in Stamford, Connecticut. In fact, one partner at my law firm told me that my pay would certainly top out at $50,000 a year.
As for Pitney Bowes, the feedback I got from my law firm colleagues was that it was in a dying communications medium: mail. Although mail volumes have declined in recent times because of the significant reduction in consumer credit-related volume, as well as the long, slow decline because of the gradual substitution of electronic communication, mail volumes are still far higher than they were in 1979.
In 1979, I had another offer from another corporation, which would have paid me more, but I liked Pitney Bowes’ values. In fact, when I asked the person who hired me, David O’Hearne, why he was at the Company, he said: "These are generally nice people who try to do the right thing.”
I also had what one might call a “reverse Groucho Marx” experience. Groucho Marx once said, “I would not join a club that would have me as a member.” Pitney Bowes welcomed a lot of people whom many clubs would not have as members. The concept of “valuing diversity” had not been invented in 1979, but Pitney Bowes welcomed a wider range of people and personalities than any other organization I had seen. To this day, I continue to be passionate about the importance of values and the power of diversity and will share some of my experiences on both of these subjects on this blog.
At Pitney Bowes, I did not expect to move up in the legal ranks, but one colleague ahead of me left the Company, and another passed away. Both were friends and mentors. Fortunately, George Harvey, the Company’s Chairman and CEO, and the outgoing General Counsel, Ed Harris, both of whom were very supportive of me, felt strongly that the General Counsel should come from inside the Company and they gave me the chance to do the job. I also took on the Company’s Safety and Environment function. I am particularly proud that we expanded our environmental focus beyond compliance to an aggressive “zero discharge” program, and virtually eliminated hazardous waste discharges from 1988 to 1993. After all these years, I continue to have strong views on the environment, and I want to have a dialogue on environmental issues with readers.
In 1990, another moment of truth happened in my life. George Harvey offered me the chief human resources position as an additional responsibility. Almost everyone whose advice I sought, including a few highly successful CEOs, told me not to take on HR, because it was like driving stressfully down a long dead-end street.
The two exceptions were my Dad, Michael D. Critelli, and my father-in-law William McNagny. Both had deep, “old school” values, and believed that I would be most likely to succeed if I excelled in a difficult, thankless job. My Dad, a brilliant, insightful man who had dropped out of school after the 9th grade in the early 1930's, had an added insight. He said that, while corporate America was probably cutthroat at the top, no one would be trying to cut my throat to take the job I was going into. He was right: it was extremely stressful.
My biggest challenge when I took on HR was the bad combination of runaway health care costs and low employee satisfaction with our health care plans. In 1991, we began a journey, which continues at Pitney Bowes to this day, to deliver higher value to employees and retirees at a lower cost. I have frequently commented in blog postings on what we have done because I think our success provides lessons on how the U.S. can reform health care, even though the 2010 legislation made relatively modest progress toward reform on cost containment, health care quality, and prevention. I believe many good steps were taken, but we are a long way from where we need to be.
In 1993, I left this stressful, but relatively safe, set of corporate staff functions behind forever to take over responsibility for Pitney Bowes Financial Services. To my surprise, only 13 months later, after changing a lot in a short period of time in Financial Services, I was named Vice Chairman and was told I would become CEO when Mr. Harvey retired. I commend the Pitney Bowes Board and Mr. Harvey for taking a chance on me. Based on track record, I was nowhere near the most qualified, but they selected me based on my potential. On May 13, 1996, I became CEO, and, in 1997, became Chairman as well.
We needed to make transformational changes in the business, and we did. December 11, 2000, when we announced the spin-off of our Office Systems business, was the day the transformation accelerated. From time to time, I would welcome the opportunity to share ideas with anyone trying to transform what appears to be a successful operation. It was harder precisely because we did not have a “burning platform.”
I stayed as CEO until May 14, 2007, exactly 11 years and one day after I became CEO. It was a challenging time to be a CEO. The Internet, 9/11, the recession that followed 9/11, Sarbanes-Oxley, and the decline in single-piece first-class mail all happened during my tenure. We also made other fundamental changes, such as the closure and sale of our original main manufacturing plant and headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. In fact, the tower that carried the neon sign that stood for over 46 years was demolished in 2008.
Although the Company went through a rough period from the time of the 2008 Financial Crisis to late 2012, it is in excellent hands today under the leadership of Marc Lautenbach as President and CEO and Michael Roth as Executive Chairman. I was not close to the Company during its most troubled time, so I would not want to speculate on why it was as challenged as it was, although I will say that business skills that had worked for so many people for so long no longer worked because of the radically changed and highly adverse external environment the Company confronted.
I made the decision to retire from Pitney Bowes in the early Spring of 2008. In one sense, it was not difficult. I had reached a point at which what I wanted to accomplish as Executive Chairman had either been accomplished or was not going to happen for a long time, if ever. I wondered at times about how the organization would function without me, but I realized that no one, including me, is indispensable, and I made a decision not only to retire, but to have as complete a separation as possible.
When I left the Executive Chairman’s role on December 31, 2008, I moved out of my office; In 2013, the building was sold to a real estate developer named Building & Land Technologies. When I returned, my office had been reconfigured and was occupied by multiple BLT employees. I see my successors Murray Martin and, more recently, Marc Lautenbach and many of my other long-time Pitney Bowes friends, but I do so outside of the building at which I worked. I have many fond memories, but organizations need to experience a completely fresh start when there is a change of leadership. The Company made the wise decision to leave its South End Stamford headquarters and relocate to a new set of offices north of Downtown Stamford in 2013, a great decision.
I have not looked back.
I took other less-traveled paths outside my position at Pitney Bowes. In the 1980’s, I was a reverse commuter by train from Manhattan. When my supervisor Ed Harris told me that I needed to get engaged in a community activity to help my career, I volunteered at the local Business Council of Fairfield County to be an advocate for better rail station parking on the New Haven rail line. From that modest beginning, I took on many major transportation volunteer assignments. In 2007 and 2008, I chaired a reform commission at the request of Governor M. Jodi Rell and Transportation Commissioner Ralph Carpenter on how to change processes and practices at Connecticut DOT to make it more effective.
Health and Health Care
In the health care space, I took another less-traveled path. I focused on Alzheimer’s disease, a disease that has nowhere near the funding and constituency of heart disease, cancer, or even HIV/AIDS, but which is the third-costliest disease in terms of combined medical and care-giving expense. I chose to work with one of the lower-profile centers of excellence Boston University, because BU’s approach, which is to focus on genetic risk assessment, prevention, and early diagnosis and treatment, strikes me as an underserved space.
In fact, as a broader point, our health care focus at Pitney Bowes has been to invest much more heavily in prevention, wellness, early diagnosis and treatment, and chronic disease management, and less proportionately on the technology of acute disease care because we can have a more positive impact on more people and can lower costs at the same time.
Since retirement, I took on some other health care assignments:
- I became a board observer for Navigenics, a leading company in the newly-emerging space for securing greater medical engagement through genetic testing and counseling. Navigenics has since been sold.
- I was appointed to the Institute of Medicine’s Roundtable for Value and Science-Based Care for two years.
- I co-chaired a Prevention Advisory Committee for the state of Connecticut’s newly-created Sustinet Health Board. This was both a wonderful experience, because of the people with whom I served, including my co-chair Nancy Heaton, and a frustrating experience because of increasingly bureaucratic state laws and regulations.
- I have given speeches on health care and served on two advisory boards, one for Booz Allen and another for U.S. Preventive Medicine, although both boards are now inactive.
- Since 2008, I have been on the Advisory Board for RAND Health, based in Santa Monica. This has been a great experience.
- From 2012 to 2015, I served on the management services board of ProHealth Physicians, a private firm. It was sold to OptumCare at the end of 2015.
- In 2016, I was asked to serve on an Advisory Board for the Employer Culture of Health Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Business School.
- In 2017, I joined the Board of an affiliate of Community Health Centers, Inc., based in Middletown CT, and
- I have been asked to give speeches and appear on many panels between 2005 and 2022 on how we achieved astoundingly good results at Pitney Bowes, including panels at the World Health Organization in 2006, the World Economic Forum in 2006-2008, the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in 2009.
- In 2020, I co-founded the MakeUsWell Network (https://makeuswell.com and https://makeuswell.org), the goal of which is to address health issues the Covid pandemic exposed and exploited.
National Urban League
In 1995, I volunteered to serve on the Board of the Urban League of Southwestern Connecticut, and was invited to serve on the National Urban League Board in 1997. Little did I imagine that I would be asked in 2002 to be the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of this wonderful organization. The Urban League gets far less publicity than other civil rights organizations, but it delivers critical social services to over 2 million Americans every year, and has a quiet, bi-racial, non-partisan, but very effective, civil rights agenda focused on civic engagement and racial justice, in addition to its traditional missions of economic empowerment and educational achievement. I stepped down from the NUL Chairmanship on May 1 of 2007. I remained on the Board as an Immediate Past Chairman and completed my board service in 2010, after having participated in the preparation for, and celebration of, the Centennial celebration for the Urban League.
Other Board Activity
I also joined the Eaton Corporation Board of Directors in 1998, and have found that to be a great experience, with a great leadership team led by Sandy Cutler, one of American’s top CEO’s, and, since 2016, Craig Arnold. I retired from the Eaton Board in 2021, after serving nearly 23 years.
I served briefly on the Wyeth Board, joining in 2008, just in time to be part of a Board that had to manage the response to a successful unsolicited tender offer from Pfizer, which resulted in Wyeth's independent status ending in November, 2009.
I joined advisory boards for Alexander Proudfoot, a consulting firm, and served on it until 2017
I have also served as an executive advisor to CVC Capital Partners since 2010.
Dossia Service Corporation
Because I have always believed that the surest path to a healthy population is the control of health by consumers, as opposed to the health care professional and business community, which operate in a “sick care” system, I have always been passionate about the idea of a patient-controlled personal health record.
For almost four years, because of Pitney Bowes’ involvement with Dossia as a founding member, I was Dossia’s chairman. However, in December, 2010, the Dossia Board decided that I would become the President and CEO. My predecessor Colin Evans had done a great job getting Dossia to this point, and had assembled a team that had built a strong health record platform.
The Board decided that, as we were seeking external capital, the requirements of the CEO job have changed, and that the most powerful combination was to have Craig Barrett, the retired Chairman and CEO of Intel Corporation, and Dossia’s true founder, as the Dossia Board Chairman and to move me into the CEO position. I led the company for the next 5 1/2 years before we wound it down. We grew the business, but it did not fulfill its business potential. There were three root causes of Dossia's failure:
-We had challenges with both of our lenders, who, in each case, had imposed extremely onerous terms on us. My predecessor as CEO, Colin Evans, had the misfortune of having to seek this capital in late 2008 and early 2009, the worst times in the last several decades to get investment capital;
-We had been formed and were owned by a Consortium consisting of 10 companies. In the beginning, the Consortium members were CEOs or other senior executives. As time went on, these senior executives retired or left their respective companies. Their organizations designated HR and Benefits leaders who were more focused on their organizations' unique needs, as opposed to Dossia's and the healthcare marketplace's broader needs.
-The Obama Administration backtracked from its commitment to interoperable health records, which eliminated the incentives for self-insured employers to tackle the urgent problems of healthcare cost management through more integrated and complete health records.
From the Rough
The most amazing change in my life was the result of a project which, frankly, I could not have anticipated.
In late 2004, I became aware of an interesting and true story. A woman’s swimming coach at Tennessee State University, a historically black college and university, Dr. Catana Starks, became the men’s golf coach in 1988. She was a trailblazer in being the first women’s coach of a Division I college athletic team, which, in this case, was golf, but her story became even more interesting when she was forced by circumstances to recruit non-African American, non-U.S. golfers to field a team.
Over a multi-year period, I employed sporadic efforts to get a screenplay created, and my son Mike, a 2008 graduate of the University of Southern California created the screenplay we attempted to market late in 2009 and early 2010. We were somewhat surprised to see the number of doors slammed in our face in Hollywood, although we recognized that this is a brutal economic environment, and that Hollywood is undergoing cataclysmic change.
In March, 2010, Mike and I contacted a filmmaker with whom I had worked at the National Urban League, Pierre Bagley. From that point forward, the process moved exceptionally fast through principal photography. The film was released in 195 theaters on April 25, 2014. Its theatrical results were disappointing because of a variety of factors, but we are doing well in the DVD market, and our film is now available on Amazon, I-Tunes and in selected international markets.
From 2017 through 2021, the film was broadcast on the BET Network and The Golf Channel. It has been on Neteflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu+ DirecTV and through the last 7 1/2 years, I-Tunes. We also had a successful period of sales at Walmart. The film has been licensed in various media in over 35 countries.
I learned a great deal about myself in this process:
- I have enjoyed being an entrepreneur even more than I enjoyed being a leader in a large publicly held company, even though I have awakened many mornings in a cold sweat with major anxiety. Becoming an entrepreneur in a field as far removed from my corporate career as could be imagined is consistent with my lifelong pursuit of the “road less traveled.”
- I am a more impatient and results-driven person than I probably acknowledged to myself when I was at Pitney Bowes. If an obstacle gets in my way, I move quickly to find a way to overcome it. I do not sit and wait for things to happen.
- My passion for opportunities for women and people of color turned out to be extremely important to me. I discovered that this is a vast, underserved market, even though producers like Tyler Perry have demonstrated that films which address concerns of African Americans consistently perform well at the box office. I discovered that I was more stubborn about putting my money where my mouth had been on issues like this that mattered to me.
- I have had to learn how to ask people for money and other things of value, and, although it does not come naturally to me, I am improving in my ability to handle this task.
- Whatever happens with this project, I will have grown a lot as a result.
In 2016, I joined the Board of a great New York-based non-profit called PowerMyLearning (originally called "Computers for Youth."). The mission of the organization is to bring families more actively into the student's learning process. I benefited greatly from my parents' and my sister's engagement in my learning process. I also benefit because my Mom's youngest sister was a nun, Sister Maria Giuseppa of the order of the Sisters of St. Joseph. My Aunt, whom we affectionately called "Aunt Dobby," found other nuns to help me with the New York State Regents exams, as well as the SATs. I have joked that I had the equivalent of the Stanley Kaplan course work without having to pay for it.
I deeply believe that even the vast majority of the lowest income parents with the most challenging lives care about their children's education, health and well-being. Schools should be supporting parents, not treating them as a source of pathologies that the school has to counteract. PowerMyLearning actually believes that parents in the poorest performing schools with children who are performing far below grade level are educable and I am proud to be part of that organization.
In March, 2018, my wife Joyce and I bought a condo in Naples, FL. We became Florida residents in November, 2020, although I secured a Florida drivers' license and voter registration in 2018. Our execution of a plan to become Florida residents was delayed almost a year because of Covid, since our younger son, and for a while, our daughter came to live with us at our Connecticut home.
As part of that transition, I stepped over the New York based Regional Plan Association Board and the co-chairmanship of its Connecticut Committee. I also joined the Board of a Naples-based non-profit called the Searching for Solutions Institute, an organization that began by planning and executing an annual Imagine Solutions Conference, but has expanded far beyond that.
I also became President of the Lions Gate Condominium Association in March, 2021, and a Board member for an initial two-year term. Florida has been shaken by the collapse of a large condominium tower in the Surfside community in Miami, Dade County, because of a neglect of known structural issues in that building. On May 26, 2022, Governor DeSantis signed into law legislation that will significantly increase the burden on condo associations to do frequent structural inspections, to identify repair and maintenance issues and reserve funding for them, and to be far more transparent with owners about building-related issues.
Beyond those issues, Naples and our condo association are on the Gulf of Mexico. We are learning about climate-related risks firsthand and about the accelerated wear and tear of property on either an ocean or a tidal inlet like the Gulf of Mexico.
The External Environment
I have always sought truth and the best solutions for every problem. In fact, I have tried not to be wedded to the solutions the "experts" or the "scientists" or the authorities tell us are the best available solutions. Regrettably, many people do not start with a search for the truth, for solutions or for common ground. The litmus test for too many Americans is political party affiliation, largely as a way to assess whether someone is pro-Trump or anti-Trump, pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination, or a believer in human-induced climate change or a denier that human behavior is the primary driver of climate change.
My "less traveled" road is to zone out these litmus tests and look for the best answer, from whatever source it comes. I am pleased that I receive solicitations from both Democratic and Republican candidates because my writings and public remarks do not place me clearly in one camp vs. the other. If no one knows how I would vote when I go into the voting booth, then I have succeeded. I am disappointed relative to how many otherwise intelligent people leave their critical thinking ability at the door when they discuss political issues, candidates, or party platforms.
As I noted above, one-party control of a political system is bad, whichever party has a monopoly on power at a point in time. I was disadvantaged by a corrupt Republican political machine in Monroe, County, New York, growing up. I was shocked to see the corruption of the Democratic Party machine in communities as disparate as Chicago, Bridgeport and Hartford, CT (where recent mayors in those two cities have gone to prison), and even New York when we lived there in the 1980's.
Joyce and I celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary in 2022, and we have been blessed with three great children, whose interests have enriched us deeply.
There is much more I could say about my biography, but the most salient theme is that, in many respects, the path I took and the decisions I made along the way were not the intuitively obvious ones, and, in the short term, were not the most financially rewarding ones. They seemed right for me, and they worked out both psychologically and financially. Even when they did not work out, I did not look back with regrets.