Wisdom at the Top Introduction

Wisdom at the TopThe seeds for this book were planted early in my life.

I grew up in Trenton, N.J. and started my first real job when I was 12, working for Keith McKnight who owned a chain of hoagie and pizza stores. Seeing an entrepreneur in action at a young age had a huge influence on me.

Keith was a very disciplined and hard-working guy. During the lunch blitz you might have 30 people waiting for hoagies. Keith would be cutting the cold cuts, I’d be adding the lettuce and tomatoes, and someone else was wrapping the sandwiches. We were a non-stop assembly line. All the while we’d be watching the customers, keeping track of how long they’d been waiting and what they wanted on their sandwiches. It was a simple but elegant lesson about the basics of running a business, one that I never forgot.

I went on to spend more than 20 years in corporate America, working for Cigna, Prudential, and GE Capital. I spent half my corporate career in operations management, the other half in human resources. I learned a lot about managing people and leading teams. I had mentors who helped me identify my strengths and where to focus my talents. This experience was invaluable when I later started my own businesses.

Like many of the CEOs interviewed for this book, I felt the need to go out and run my own company. I felt restless in the corporate world. I was too much of a maverick to not strike out on my own. Maybe it was the entrepreneurial gene I inherited from dad.

My father was a very hard working man. He owned a tavern and apartment buildings with his brother. Every day I saw my dad working his tail off to make his businesses thrive.

I followed his example when I started my own company. During the first year or two, I was working 12 to 14 hour days to get it off the ground. I was constantly attending networking events, sales training programs, and classes. I consumed books about entrepreneurism, marketing, and sales. I was 110% committed, as an entrepreneur must be, to making my company successful.

That was 15 years ago. After much hard work, trial, and error, the Rosen Group, based in Voorhees, N.J., is a successful staffing company with revenues of over 10 million in 2008. We specialize in placing human resources professionals, on both a temporary and permanent basis, throughout the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware area. Some of our clients are Comcast Corporation, The Vanguard Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Sunoco.

After a number of years I became restless again and started a second company in 2007. Transformations, a holistic health center, is also located in Voorhees. I had been on a spiritual journey for many years, which included retreats, meditation, yoga, and holistic health and nutrition. I had never thought about making a business out of it, but I decided to follow my passion. I hired someone to run my staffing company, did research, and studied similar programs around the country. Transformations is now the Delaware Valley’s premier holistic learning center. We feature speakers and workshops to help individuals, families, and communities realize their greatest potential.

After working in various businesses and starting my own, I had gained a great deal of respect for CEOs and corporate leaders. I understood the hard work and dedication that went into running a company. I understood the tremendous responsibility involved in creating quality products, serving satisfied customers, and retaining loyal and hardworking employees.

Therefore, I became troubled by the ways CEOs were depicted in the media during the great financial meltdown of 2008. Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and other companies either went under or were kept afloat by massive government bailouts, while, in too many cases, the executives who ran the companies into the ground walked away with huge compensation packages. The image of the privileged, greedy, and narcissistic CEO became firmly lodged in the public’s mind. People were angry-and rightfully so-about the outrageous mismanagement of major companies that contributed to the economic disaster.

Yet, as I watched this image unfold in the media, I knew that it was just a very small and one-sided part of the story. The stereotype didn’t apply to me or to the many CEOs I had known and worked alongside. I didn’t come from a silver spoon background, but from a blue-collar one. My parents were not rich my any means. I wasn’t handed jobs during my career. I came up through the ranks. I had to work my way up and earn them. The same was true for most of the CEOs I had met during my career.

Yes, there are some bad eggs that are out there. Yes, there is greed and narcissism and abuse in the corporate world. But most of the CEOs I’ve known are honest, down to earth, and caring people. They value their organizations and employees, and, far from being arrogant or reckless, they view themselves as stewards and protectors of important resources.

To set the record straight, I set out to interview CEOs in the greater Philadelphia area. Some of these people I had known for many years. Others were strangers before we sat down, talked, and became friends. They shared their time, experiences, and insights generously and openly, and I believe the lessons they have to offer transcend the business world.

I hope this book accomplishes three main goals.

First, I hope these stories challenge the media myth that CEOs are irresponsible, out of touch with the average person, and don’t feel a sense of responsibility to their employees and communities.

Second, I hope you gain an understanding of the factors that make CEOs successful. I had many questions as I started my interviews. What were their upbringings like? Had they always wanted a career in business? Who influenced their career choices when they were growing up? How do they grow market share and maintain profitability? How do they gain loyalty from their customers, value their employees, and give back to their communities? How do they achieve balance and perspective, especially during difficult economic times? What leadership lessons do they have to impart? Their answers will surprise and enlighten you.

And finally, I want to pay homage to the CEOs and companies of the greater Philadelphia area-the hard-working, down-to-earth, salt of the earth environment where I was born and raised and have spent my working life. This book contains what I call “Rocky” stories–accounts of blue collar people who came up through the ranks, worked their tails off, overcame challenges, and achieved success.

The lessons I’ve learned during my career are the same lessons revealed by the CEOs in this book–follow your passions, have the courage to take risks, and, whether you’re sweeping the floor, making coffee at Starbucks, or running a million-dollar organization, do the best you can and good things will happen.

I wish you the same in your career and hope you enjoy this book.