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Meaning of life

"The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away." ~ Pablo Picasso

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Meaning of Life

I know it’s been awhile since I’ve updated, but I have had so much going on. I don’t know where to start! This year has just been amazing!

Have you ever asked yourself "why" something happens or pondered the meaning of life? Today we'll explore those thoughts.

Little Caesar Enterprises celebrated a 50 year anniversary in the spring. This December marks the 25th anniversary of Walin Enterprises, Inc., the company I founded when I became a franchisee of Little Caesars Pizza. The legacy would live on to become a successful part of many lives.


In 1984, after attending the University of Michigan, I signed my first franchise agreement becoming the youngest franchisee of Little Caesars Pizza at the time. I moved from Michigan to Fremont, California, incorporated my own business, and contracted my first restaurant to be built the following spring. I was young, cocky, and full of energy. Boy have things changed!

My life would follow a synergistic path that I feel I’m still on to this day. In August of this year I was able to play Master of Ceremonies to an audience of friends, business associates, and old employees. As I looked out over the crowd, I saw my entire professional career before me.

My trusted accountants and lawyers of over 25 years, fellow franchisees I’ve worked close with developing a strong and worthy co-op in the San Francisco area, and employees who became friends and later franchisees. And it was all playing out at my favorite East Bay restaurant, Papillion’s who has hosted many wondrous parties for me in the past, but none has ever been this sweet.


What made it all so spectacular is that I’m still alive to see it after all I've been through, and not just see it, but to be such a grand part of it. I’m not sure how wise it was to give a heavily medicated man that had a few drinks a microphone, but things went better than expected.

I’ve mellowed since many have last seen me. Cancer has not only changed my appearance, but my value system and allows me to see life and friendships on a whole different level. I’m not the boss anymore, but the patriarch of this group at my young age.

My whole life has been fast paced, most always being ahead of others my own age. Many nicknames have been given to me over the years: the Maverick, the Titan, the man who has it all, the Asshole. All of which I wear with pride. Well…not all, but they were well earned! The evening was almost like a roast/retirement/reunion/anniversary and then some party; a reflection of past, present, and future.


As most of my life has been, I feel this story is nothing short of extraordinary. This is a bit of how my presentation unfolded that evening:
**********
My life and our time here today are all about synergy and coming to understand the meaning of life:

Synergy (from the Greek syn-ergos, meaning working together) is the term used to describe a situation where different entities cooperate advantageously for a final outcome. Simply defined, it means that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Although the whole will be greater than each individual part, this is not the concept of synergy. If used in a business application it means that teamwork will produce an overall better result than if each person was working toward the same goal individually.

• A dynamic state in which combined action is favored over the sum of individual component actions.

• Behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately. More accurately known as emergent behavior.

• The cooperative action of two or more stimuli or drugs.


Why do things happen in our lives? What I have learned over my short years is that there is NO answer to, "Why?" You will never find it. It is what it is, nothing more. But for those of you who refute that, then you will find there is only one of three possibilities:

1. GOD made it happen.

2. KARMA - It was fate and you made it happen by actions you have taken.

Or, my personal favorite…

3. SHIT HAPPENS!!!


In 1984 I moved to Fremont, California to follow my dream: to be an entrepreneur, found my own company, and become independent. I incorporated using the family name. It held a hidden meaning. Walin Enterprises, Inc. was known only by a few as "WE Inc." WE Inc. personified all that was built within would be accomplished by all participants feeling a part of its whole, a synergistic approach if you will.

As I grew up, my father always impressed upon me, nothing was his alone. It was “ours.” He always made it clear it was “our” home, “our” car, “our” whatever and if I ever slipped up, I was surely corrected.

Nothing was “mine.” So, to pay tribute to that philosophy, I searched for a befitting corporate name that would exemplify this. I found nothing that I could make sense of, so I settled on using the family name calling it Walin Enterprises, Inc. Before I had new letterhead and labels printed, I would send out company mail and realized the name was a pain in the ass to write with each envelope, so I shortened it to WE, Inc. and that’s when it hit me. How perfect that was to honor the idea that WE as a whole (meaning all involved) would make this company sound and profitable. Little did I know how far that little thought would go.

Synergy began to play its role and the following spring my very first restaurant was being built in my new home town. Far away from home and alone, it was sink or swim, and I knew how to swim!

As I waited for the construction to complete, I began to connect myself with the local government, media, and finding a great team of accountants I trusted. Most was accomplished in one afternoon after being invited to a birthday party for the Mayor. It’s amazing how well connected those guys are and how many business and government officials attend those little shindigs!

Everything fell into place. I was in all the local papers, and everybody was pulling for the young “kid” from Detroit. At that time there were a little over 500 Little Caesar locations nationwide and the Fremont location was the first in the San Francisco Bay area.

The first restaurant opened with a few setbacks. The Honorable Mayor Leon J. Mezzetti cut a celebratory ribbon and a grand party ensued. That night Mayor Mezzetti handed me a ten dollar bill saying, "I want to be the first customer of your new venture. Wishing you much success in our fine City of Fremont." He became a regular customer and good friend. His ten dollars still hangs in my home office today, behind a glass frame.

That Christmas, after only 6 months in business, my father passed away, leaving me without my rock to call every night and tell of all the daily events. Even though he was thousands of miles away, I always knew he was there with his never wavering support. I was lost, and that’s a story for another day.

That same year Roberto and Isabel Gonzolas moved to Fremont and settled with their three children. I would not meet them for years to come, but they would become a major part of the WE Inc. family in time.

Many grueling years went by. I was well established with 3 restaurants, president of a marketing co-op of 70, and flying back and forth to Los Angeles helping with our national commercial roll-out, and life couldn’t be better. As Fremont prospered due to the Silicon Valley boom, so did I. I was at the top of my game, with a home in the hills and MC Hammer for my neighbor. I had more hats then I could wear and still learning every step of the way.

The best advice I was ever given was from Denise Ilitch, the eldest daughter of the founder of Little Caesars: “Be a sponge,” was the simple advice she imparted at our very first meeting, and I sucked everything up!

In 1991 a young man entered my office looking for work, his name, Roberto Gonzolas, Jr. He was a good kid, mischievous, and fun to work with, but needed a kick in the pants now and then.

One evening, when young Roberto first started, I was in my office as he mopped the lobby floor. I noticed he was having a difficult time pushing and turning, scrubbing and stooping, and wringing that big mop. So, I went out to show him how to properly mop the floor saving time, labor, and making it easier to accomplish.

He understood and I returned to my office to watch Roberto Jr. on the monitor to see how he was doing. Nothing had changed! He was still mopping the same way he was before.

I flew out of the office. "Roberto! I thought you understood how to properly mop the floor," I bellowed.

"Yes sir, I do. I just wanted to see if you were still watching me!" he said with a grin as he straighted up and began to mop as instructed. That was Roberto, forever playful.

Though I didn’t work with him often, I liked young Roberto, a lot. I had a policy never to get involved with the parents of our younger employees unless there was a legal matter or serious concern that needed addressing. If a parent would call me personally about a scheduling conflict or a problem with time off I would always say, “Your child is old enough to handle these issues for themselves. They are not babies anymore. As long as we are following the law, you have no reason to call me. I did not hire you, I hired your child.”

Well, that ruffled a few feathers, but that’s what I believe and it was my company to set the rules and I made darn sure everybody knew them!

Because of this, I had no personal contact with Roberto’s parents for over a year until one afternoon when I received a frantic phone call from an employee named Ryan. “Brian, I can’t make it to work tonight! I was in a bad car accident with Roberto,” his voice was shaking. It turned out 4 of my employees, all from my different locations, had been in this accident. I didn't even know how they knew each other, but they all knew young Roberto.

Without hesitation I was on my way to the hospital. There in the lobby was the largest congregation of Mexicans I had ever seen. It seemed every family member, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins some 3 times removed were there for the family, some from far away. Half of Mexico went missing that day! I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. My entire family can fit in an average sized living room and this group overflowed onto the parking lot!

When I arrived, I immediately wanted to see Roberto, Jr. Ryan led me back to the ICU as the lobby congregation stared and wondered who the white guy was. There “beyond the glass door” was the funny little boy; Roberto, all tied up to machines as his parents Roberto Sr. and Isabel looked on with a doctor contemplating when to pull the plug. Young Roberto was brain dead. Erika, one of the girls involved, was killed instantly at the scene of the accident. Ryan was badly shaken and Murna, the fourth girl, was an emotional mess.

It was that day the Gonzolas family would become mine and vice versa. It was also the first time I met “the eyebrow.” Isabel has a way of expressing displeasure by raising one eyebrow and scowling. “And just WHO are you?” she sneered. I explained I was Roberto Jr's boss and she continued with, “Who let you back here? My own family isn’t allowed back here!” It was then that I realized that group that appeared to encompass half of Mexico was all her family and I walked right past them, naively led by Ryan.

After the two funerals, the restaurants took awhile to settle back into the groove, but the Gonzolas family was having a difficult time. I watched them fall apart. I felt so bad I wanted to do something, but what?

I would call Isabel nightly to talk. She only let a 2 or 3 people into her life at that time and shut all others out, but why me? Why a total stranger? Let’s just put that in the “shit happens” category. We would talk all night on the phone until 4 in the morning sometimes. I even spent a night with Isabel and the family priest talking and drinking at her home.

Do you know priests drink??? Can you imagine? That evening we polished off three bottles of wine and called it a night at 6 AM! I had to get up and make dough in a few hours and he had to give a sermon! As you can see, it was… what ever it took to get the family back on track!

A few years of this could kill a man. Indeed a few years had passed and Isabel needed to get back to work. My then current Office Manager and childhood friend I grew up with, Debbie, was leaving WE Inc. to venture off with her husband on a new family business and I needed a replacement. Isabel stepped up and offered to take Deb’s place. I thought it would be a great idea. However, Roberto Sr. leaned over at that moment and whispered, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you!” I probably should have listened. After all, he had more experience with Isabel than I.

It was a struggle. It wasn’t “our” office. She tried to claim it and all its contents for herself and I would protest saying, “Dammit Isabel!” If I had a dollar for every time I said that! She had a very hard time understanding who the boss was. We soon learned that being in the office at the same time wasn’t the best idea. So, she often avoided the office when I was there. Her job didn’t require set hours. As long as the work was done, I was happy.

I took my first personal vacation in over 10 years of owning WE Inc. and she was left in charge. I could have strangled her when she would call me with problems she should have managed alone! There were enough arguments over the years I think some of the employees thought we were married. We still don’t fully get along to this day, but we both know we are in each other’s lives for a reason. After all, shit happens! Perhaps it was balance, I let her know when I’m right AND I let her know when she’s wrong. Get it?

In 1995 I became deathly ill. I was given 3 months to live and Isabel would say, “Don’t you leave me with all this crap to handle by myself!” Life has always centered around that woman in her mind, even if YOU are the one dying! I wasn’t going to leave her with it, but I would devise a good compromise in the future!

After 4 months I was still alive and growing stronger. The doctors were wrong, imagine that, and I still had a little more time on this grand planet. Isabel was doing her best with some occasional help from Deb and even my dear friend, Joy stepping in to help with some of my personal things.

What do you do when you’ve been told you will die and you outlive your expiration date? P-A-R-T-Y!!! That year we threw one hell of a Company Christmas bash, Tens of Thousands of Dollars on a party, a block long Jacuzzi limo, and outrageous gifts! Hey, I was dying and I couldn’t take it with me!

Joy and I flew to Vegas and booked the best suite high atop the Mirage Hotel on the strip. We did the town and more money poured out of my pockets. This is what you do when you’re dying, right??? Though I’d do it all again in a heart beat, I wish I had some of that cash today!

I grew stronger and continued running the company, removing myself from some of the other obligations I had created over the years. I would concentrate solely on the restaurants and the Easter Seal Telethons that had become a WE Inc. family tradition.


Many years would pass and I found it time to move on. I was tired, my body drained to the point of exhaustion. Illness had stolen my work ethic. My heart was no longer in it. I hated coming to work emotionally and physically drained. I just needed time to put life into perspective. My grand business career that I had begun at such a young age was coming to an early end. So, at the young age of 38, I planned an early retirement. The Gonzolas family offered to buy WE Inc. and keep it alive to honor our friendship and their son Roberto. Well… and to make a shitload of money too, let’s be honest!

Eight years would pass and in 2007 retirement wasn’t so bad, but once again I became ill with oral cancer. I sought the best doctors in the Bay Area. I zeroed in on UCSF with the reassurance of Warren Buffett, who's wife Susan was treated for her oral cancer, by the same team of doctors that delivered my horrific news. I was going to lose my tongue and I didn't like what I was hearing. I needed a second opinion for this rare cancer.

I found myself at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston being sliced, diced, micro-waved and poisoned and there was Isabel selflessly by my side as they ripped out my cancerous tongue and replaced it with my forearm and forced to survive through a feeding tube. (see past blog posts!) She was my caregiver and patient advocate during those hardest moments. Many of my Little Caesar friends stepped up including an ex-franchisee Pasty, who used to own franchises in Hawaii. Patsy flew from Illinois, leaving work and stayed with me during my chemo and radiation treatments when Isabel had to return to California to take back the helm of WE Inc.

For some reason I’m still here. Why? Shit happens! After being subjected to a feeding tube for over 2 years and learning to speak, swallow, and eat all over again, I live. I beat the odds yet again and I'm enjoying every breath.

Now here we are in 2009 celebrating a life of synergy: a 10 year anniversary for the Gonzolas family, 25 year anniversary of Walin Enterprises, Inc., a 50 year anniversary of Little Caesars itself, friendship, love, life, death, and everything in between. Life just couldn’t get any better even with the tragedy within! Or could it? Remember: "There will never be a rainbow without a torrid rain."ME
And this is the short version!!!!

Now if you haven’t figured out the meaning of life yet from all of this…well… you’re an idiot. Go back and read this again!
SEASONS EATINGS!
Peace B

9 comments:

Anastasia said...

Wow, sounds like quite a journey! I'm glad you are doing well these days!

Dr. Swill said...

Anastasia,

Thank you for your love. I stopped by your MySpace and LOVE "Edge of My Love" You're very talented my dear!

Perhaps someday we could put our heads together and collaborate on some music!

I wish you good health and peace!

B

Cabo said...

That was a treat to read. Thank you for sharing. What a life you're leading!

Anonymous said...

MY FRIEND DR. SWILL,

ALL I CAN SAY I'M SORRY FOR ALL MY PITY PARTIES. IF YOU GET THE PICTURE. I TOLD YOU I THOUGHT YOU WERE AN ANGEL, NOW I KNOW YOU ARE ONE. EDWARDS' ANGEL AND MINE. SOMETIMES GOD PUTS PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE FOR A REASON. I KNOW WHY I FELL INTO YOUR BLOG.THANKS.

BY THE WAY, HOW IS YOUR MOM? DOES SHE LIVE IN THE BRANDON AREA?

I LOVED EVERY WORD OF YOUR STORY YOU JUST WROTE HERE. I'M GOING TO PASS IT ON TO MY GIRLS.

MY HUBBY WILL BE 80 ON THE 17TH. I'M GLAD HE MARRIED A YOUNGER WOMEN.[ME]WE'VE BEEN MARRIED 51 YEARS. LOL

TG GRANNY

Maureen said...

I think I got it...SHIT HAPPENS! Did I get it? Did I win? LOL!

I am so glad to see you writing and to see you looking so well.

Ya know, I still never managed to find a yak burger!!

Thanks for sharing another part of you with us.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS to you my friend.

{{hugs}}

Sharifah Rashidah bt. Syed Ahmad said...

Brian,

That was a brilliant piece of writing. Really enjoyed reading every word of it. You really look good, my friend.

Thanks for sharing your experience.

Dr. Swill said...

Cabo!
Thank you for your kindness. I stopped at your blog and found you to be very insightful and interesting to read.

Have a Happy Holiday!

TG Granny
Thank you for your kind words and taking the time to read and to pass them along to others.

Mom is in the Tampa area and is not well. She will be spending ANOTHER Christmas in the rehab center it seems.

Congrats on 51 years. I can't image that! You must be one hell of a sweet woman!

***************************

WE HAVE A WINNER!!!
DING DING DING!
CONGRATULATIONS MAUREEN!
YOU HAVE WON THE GRAND PRIZE!

Behind door number one is your very own pile of SHIT HAPPENS!

SMALL PRINT: Use sparingly, spread evenly, and share often! Use at your own risk. Do not use near water. May cause drowsiness. May cause nausea. All sales are final. No returns.

*****************************

PEACE TO ALL!
B

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Thanks, See You Around.

Anonymous said...

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Words To Live By:

"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service to others." -Mahatma Gandhi