Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Lessons from a Bakersfield Funeral Home

Its amazing at times to reflect on all the unusual/unexpected/unplanned and unintended sources of learning and inspiration that have been part of my life’s journey!  From errant cabdrivers, fellow airline passengers, an aging “dancer,” and literally the list of unusual sources of inspiration go on and on!  Once again, my list of “sources of inspiration” expanded recently after a “chat” with a Director of a Funeral Home in Bakersfield California.

Over the past eight years, I have travelled extensively to Bakersfield.  As the home of Bolthouse Farms, I started working out of “Bako” late in 2009 and have learned the “ins and outs” of the town over the past few years. I have found my favorite Basque restaurant (Noriega’s for sure), my favorite watering hole (The main bar at The Padre Hotel), and my favorite breakfast spot, the 24th St. Café.  My typical routine is to get up early and check in with my family back in Atlanta (usually around 5am local time.)  After the call, I hit the pavement and get a walk in through the Westchester neighborhood of downtown Bakersfield, and usually hit the 24th St. Café on my way to the Bolthouse Farms plant on the east side of town.  It was earlier this month, that I crossed paths and shared an amazing breakfast with the director of a major funeral home in Bakersfield.

Sitting at the counter on a dark, rainy January morning, I ordered coffee, eggs and sourdough toast, and got caught up on email.  Soon after a small, immaculately dressed older gentleman came into the café and found a stool two places down from me on the counter.  Dressed in a pressed black suit, crisp white shirt and a red tie, he cut quite a figure that rainy morning!  After exchanging pleasantries and a cheery “happy new year,” he introduced himself (first name Ray), describing that he was in his early 90’s and had been in the “mortuary business” since he was a young man.  Asking about my business, I described my work at Bolthouse Farms and we both complained about the amount of rain (too much) and its impact on all the agriculture in the central valley of California (long term great, short term very challenging).  After ordering his breakfast, Wheatena, brown sugar and coffee, he asked if I wanted to know the “three secrets of success” of the funeral home business.  Not your typical question at 6:30 in the morning, at the counter of the 24th St. Café, but not missing a beat I said an emphatic YES!

Leaning in close, almost like he didn't want others to hear, he held up three fingers and shared his “secrets:”

        1) “Be Strong:” Ray said that when people lost a loved one, they have experienced a loss and possibly a tragedy and they were weak and vulnerable and needed someone to “be strong” on their behalf.
        2)  “Be Professional:” he shared that the funeral home process was bewildering, foreign and at times scary, and his clients often don't have a clue what to do, thus they needed his “professional leadership.”
        3)   “Never lose your love of life:” being surrounded by death and loss everyday, you were constantly reminded of the value of every day.  Ray said that even on the very bad days, he reminded his staff how fortunate they all were to have the chance to live another day, enjoy life another day, love those special to them for another day, etc.

Inspiring to say the least!!  As I walked out of the café, I wished Ray well, and thought about those three “secrets” and how deeply they connected to my life today. 

“Be Strong;” working with clients across a number of industries, all dealing with challenges and issues, I was tempted at times to “get sucked into” the problems/issues facing their businesses.  While I need to be empathetic, I need to “be strong” and work hard to help my client’s organizations work hard to find solutions/responses to their problems.

“Be Professional:” again this connected to my current consulting work across a number of clients.  Whether a global pharmaceutical company, a fledgling startup, or my old company, all of my clients need me to bring all of my professional capabilities and experience to bear on their projects/problems.  Not discounting the need and importance of building relationships in professional settings, their primary need and expectation of my work was and is deeply professional.

“Never lose your love for life:” this lesson has resonated all across my life, since I lost my mom to breast cancer when I was a young teenager.  Life is precious and fragile, and we have all lost loved ones who passed too early.  I have written a number of essays of my experiences with an old boss and friend, Bruce Paynter, and his battle with ALS and his passing in the summer of 2009. (See more at http://fylegacy.blogspot.com/2013/11/a-return-to-appleton.html). 

I wonder all the time what Bruce would have given to have just one more day, or one more week, and I remind myself not be casual and cavalier with the possibilities and potential of one more healthy day.  A very important daily reminder!

As I mentioned at the outset, another unusual source for a moment of inspiration!  I hope that Ray’s “three secrets of success” ring true in some way for you and you can find a way to apply them to your day-to-day work and life.  The next time you are in Bakersfield, try the 24th St. café.  You definatetly won't be disappointed by the food and you never know who might be sitting at the counter with you!!

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