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Long Island bosses on what they learned from their early jobs

The lessons in their youth included the importance of customer service, planning, and working hard for what you want.

Michael Dowling, head of Northwell Health.

Michael Dowling, head of Northwell Health. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Be kind to the teenager selling you a shirt or office equipment, or volunteering in a hospital: Some day that person might be your boss.

Long Island executives say they learned important business lessons from the jobs they took early in their working lives.

Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, said his modest early jobs — milking cows and working in a ship's engine room and a steel factory — taught him he would need initiative to get ahead in the world.

Scott Rechler, CEO of RXR Realty, was one of several who said his early work in clothing retail taught him the importance of customer service.

Deidre Helberg, CEO of Helberg Electrical Supply, said she learned at age 14 how to handle an inebriated customer who came into her Burger King demanding a Big Mac.

Jim McCann, founder of 1-800-Flowers.com, said he worked as a counselor at a boys group home in Queens that taught him management lessons.

Anne Shybunko-Moore, CEO of GSE Dynamics, learned the importance of teamwork while at Staples. 

And Tracey Edwards, a former Verizon executive who is CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk, learned how to interact with people of different races, economic and social backgrounds while a candy striper at a hospital.

Below, half a dozen Long Island bosses talk about what they learned at their early jobs.

Farm to hospitals

Michael Dowling milked cows at a farm near his home in Ireland, stood on an assembly line at a soda and mineral water bottling plant and worked at a steel factory south of London — all before he turned 18.

The chief executive at Northwell Health said those experiences, along with working in an engine room on the Circle Line in New York City, and fixing toilets as a plumber, shaped him before his career took off.

“My family was dirt poor,” said Dowling, 69, who now leads a workforce of 68,000 at the largest private employer in New York. “I was milking cows for the family next door when I was 9, because then there would be reciprocity and they’d allow my father to use their horse if he needed one for a job.

“My early life lessons taught me that nothing would be given to you. If you want it, earn it,” Dowling added. “It also showed me that the employee in the kitchen or the parking lot should be treated the same way as the C-suite. We all put our pants on the same way.”

Dowling arrived in New York as a teenager and earned money working odd jobs — including construction work — and brought the cash home to help his family. He used some of the money to put himself through University College Cork. 

“There weren’t any jobs in Ireland that paid the way New York did,” he said. “I had to hustle to make enough for the family and college. I didn’t have much of a social life, but I had to do it, I had to work 40 to 50 hours of overtime [a week] .” — David Reich-Hale

Apparel to real estate

Before Scott Rechler, chairman and chief executive of Uniondale-based RXR Realty, oversaw the development of some of the Island’s biggest real estate projects, he was helping teens find the hottest in 1980s fashions.

Rechler, 50, whose company is one of the developers of the proposed $1.5 billion commercial and residential transformation of the Nassau Hub, said that around the age of 15 he worked as a retail salesman at the Annex, a clothing store at the Americana in Manhasset. The shop has since closed.  

“It was a great experience in terms of engaging with people,” said Rechler, who landed the minimum-wage gig after being a customer of the store himself. “At a young age it’s hard to find jobs that give you that specific hands-on experience.”

Speaking directly with customers, learning the ins and outs of inventory management and working alongside a small-business owner after school and during the summer for a few years taught him lasting lessons, he said, such as how to engage in marketing, the importance of communication, and the role of patience and respect in business.

The job came with “a sense of accomplishment” and responsibility, he said.

Rechler went on to design and sell T-shirts at a local bar before joining then Sen. Alfonse D’Amato’s 1986 reelection campaign as a volunteer. The developer also did a “little stint” at a local Häagen-Dazs that “didn’t work out so well,” he said. “I was eating too much of the ice cream, so it wasn’t too good for me or the store.” — Victor Ocasio

Burgers to power supplies

Deidre Helberg, 56, president and chief executive of Helberg Electrical Supply, a Freeport company that sells products related to power generation and distribution, said her first job as a cashier at Burger King, in 1976, shaped her approach to customer service.

She was 14, and the franchise owner told her to remember that the customer is king.

“'We have customers, and we have customers. Some of the customers can be dead wrong, but you have to find a way to make them happy and let them know in a nice way that they were wrong, but resolve their problem,'” she recalled him saying.

Helberg soon put that advice into action when a customer stumbled in and said, “I want a Big Mac,” proceeding to demand items on a McDonald's menu. The woman appeared intoxicated, said Helberg, who answered, “I really can’t help you with that but I can give you a Whopper with cheese.” The woman raised her voice: “'Did you hear what I said? I want a Big Mac.'”

Helberg stayed on message: “I didn’t insult her. I said it in a nice way,” Helberg said. “She ended up taking a Whopper with cheese.” 

Reflecting on that day, Helberg said, “Customer service is key. At a young age, that is the lesson I learned.” — Carrie Mason-Draffen

Boys home to flowers

In the 1970s, before Jim McCann founded 1-800-Flowers, he split his time, going to  John Jay College of Criminal Justice during the day and working as a night counselor at a boys group home in Rockaway, Queens.

The lessons learned in that job, where he worked and lived with 10 at-risk teens from challenging backgrounds, helped prepare him to be an entrepreneur and leader at 1-800-Flowers.com Inc., a flower and gift basket delivery company with $1.15 billion in revenue in fiscal 2018.

“I learned more about myself, people and management,” McCann, 67, said of his work at St. John’s Residence for Boys.

He had small jobs before working at the group home. Growing up in South Ozone Park, Queens, he worked during the summer and weekends for his father, Jim, a painting contractor, getting coffee and cleaning up after the crew.

“My dad believed if you’re old enough to walk, you’re old enough to work,” said McCann, who is the oldest of five siblings. He also worked part-time at Dadson’s, a men’s and boy’s clothing store in Richmond Hill, Queens.

But the work at St. John’s had the most impact on his life, he said.

When he began as a night counselor in 1971, McCann struggled to relate to the teens, and he wanted to quit.

But a member of the ministry that ran the home took him aside and pointed out that the counselors who were succeeding came to work with a plan, instead of reacting to daily stresses.

He remembers vividly when some boys at the St. John’s home asked McCann to take them camping in Bear Mountain State Park in Rockland County. McCann told them they would have to earn it by having no school disciplinary problems for a certain period of time.

They succeeded.

“I discovered that you have to come to work with a plan . . . set rewards, and you have to make it fun,” said McCann, who said he applied  those principles at 1-800-Flowers.com.

McCann eventually became an administrator for all of St. John's boys homes while running a floral business on the side, before leaving to run his business full-time in 1985.

In 2016 McCann stepped down as chairman and chief executive of 1-800-Flowers.com and became the executive chairman. — Tory N. Parrish

Office supplies to defense work

Anne Shybunko-Moore, CEO for nearly two decades of defense manufacturer GSE Dynamics in Hauppauge, said it feels as if it was just "a blink of an eye ago" when she wore a red polo shirt and black slacks day in and day out as an employee at Staples.

"Staples was one of my very first paying jobs," Shybunko-Moore, 47, said of the national Massachusetts-based office supply retailer.

"It may sound funny," she said. "But I learned so much during my time at Staples that I still find useful today."

Shybunko-Moore, who worked for a year at Staples while attending graduate school at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, said she gained experience performing tasks such as restocking shelves, material and inventory control, handling transactions, and shipping and receiving.

"All of which, for the most part, form a big part of the work flow in manufacturing," she said. "And then, of course, there was customer service and a strong sense of responsibility, work ethic and teamwork."

Her main take-away: "Every single employee was integral to the store operating successfully. That's exactly how I feel now about each of my employees at GSE," which has 71 employees.

She said her Staples shirts are still in her closet, and she'd be thrilled if one of her four sons — 17, 15, 14, and 10 — took an after-school job there.

"In fact, I may just pull out one of my shirts and see if it fits my eldest," she joked. "He'd learn a lot." — Daysi Calavia-Robertson

Hospital to Habitat

Tracey A. Edwards’ career has come full circle, from volunteering in a hospital as a teenager to becoming CEO and executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk, a housing nonprofit.

In between, Edwards spent 37 years at Verizon Inc., rising to become a regional president. She oversaw more than 4,000 employees who built and maintained the telephone company’s network on Long Island, in Westchester County and upstate. She also served as a Huntington Town councilwoman.

Edwards, 57, credited her first job as a candy striper — a teenage volunteer — at Huntington Hospital with putting her on the road to success.

“You learn people skills because you are dealing with many types of people: all different races, all different income levels, all different geographies,” she said. “That job really set me on a path to be able to interact with people, to provide the best customer service.”

Edwards’ mother, Dolores Thompson, encouraged her 14-year-old daughter to become a candy striper. Edwards' duties included bringing magazines and beverages to patients, walking them to the bathroom, stocking shelves and talking with those who didn’t have many visitors.

Edwards later joined Verizon, then called New York Telephone Co. She retired from the company two years ago.

In October, Edwards was hired by Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk, which builds eight to 10 homes a year for low-income residents. The nonprofit in Middle Island has 30 employees and about 3,000 volunteers.

As a candy striper or Habitat executive, she said, “the mission is really the same: it’s all about helping people and helping families when they need it the most.” — James T. Madore

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