A father can hope. But he never knows if his son will follow in his footsteps until it actually happens. And now that’s where I sit.
Justin returned to Michigan in June, sprightly and eager to step into the role created expressly for him of Vice-President of my family company. And when he did, I stepped back, leaning on my hands to watch my son whom I remember in so many incarnations, behave as the man I dreamed he would become.
My son is preparing to take over my company so that one day, I will sail in the sun and marvel at all the possibilities. But first, we will work together, filling in the nuances of detail that vary between personalities. He brings characteristics that I lack and I bring a lifetime of experience and insight that he is too young yet to own. For a while, we will be like the team we once were when he was small and I was a new father, both of us delighting in his leaps in rain puddles after a storm.
Justin is the eldest of my three boys and the most like his late grandfather. My father, Sid Hiller, had his hands in everything. His favorite days were spent in the stores, touching products, positioning muffins into veritable sculptures, adjusting and securing and overseeing until every single item and display met his satisfaction. I see my father in my son – his genuine interest in the details, a visible joy in immersing himself in every step of this company. Justin is as much a part of the process as any other person in the company. As was my father. And so the circle closes.
Where I am right now, it’s a glorious place to be. I came into the grocery business after nearly 20 years of practicing law. Finding the perfect food products for shoppers was my father’s dream and he built this business to a certain point, guided by vision and very specific goals.
And then I stepped in, careful not to trample on the dreams of the man I revered but infusing my perspective, philosophy and approach to the tasks at hand. In time, my father handed the reins to me – though he never stopped greeting customers, shaking hands, rearranging fruit.
Like chess, I am strategic in business, deliberate, applying careful thought and whole attention. I concern myself with macro as much as micro – answering shopper emails at 3 a.m. and then at dawn welcoming each of my departmental experts to run his own fiefdom. I have truly gathered eagles.
Every businessman has his way. It is a path and a perspective merged, a way of doing things built over time and inspired by that individual’s personality. The way I approach the grocery business is 180 degrees different from my father and probably from the way my son will run it. And it’s all good.
We are a unique family, the Hillers. The men in my family have always had a passion for unusual and bizarre foods – we search out new flavors, seeking to share experiences and discover the world through food. It is over and about food that we connect, that we lead, that we set pace.
One spring many years ago, with the Passover holiday approaching, we sold whitefish for $3.99 per pound. A woman approached my father and said, “Why is your whitefish so expensive? At Farmer Jack, it costs $2.99 a pound.”
“So go there and buy it,” my father said.
“They’re out of it,” the shopper replied.
“Well, when we’re out of it, I only charge $1.99 a pound,” my father retorted.
In so many ways, my son reminds me of my father. Justin loves the buzz and draw of the stores, he loves the organic part of the action. He follows the shoppers’ pace, the employees’ drive, the amalgam of talents and tastes.
The similarities between Justin and my father are uncanny. Justin is exactly the same size and demeanor of my father and like his grandfather, my son cuts a wide swath with a compelling presence and authoritative glance. There is a gravitational pull when Justin walks into a room; he is easy to be around but clearly confident. He is physical in every step: fingers touching texture and grain of every item we sell. It’s as if he takes each detail into himself through all five senses, making the business part of his being. And it is readily apparent that he loves this business to the core of his being.
I’ve watched him walk through our stores. He saunters and glides along the aisles, whisking into back rooms, his glance skirting roof lines and shelf tops for misplaced miscellany. He is authoritatively collegial, establishing his position with firm kindness but an easy-to-see mastery over the littlest and most important details. People like to talk to him, they warm to him but are cautious in his presence. I think he likes that – the mystery, the uncertainty, knowing he could lower the boom but is selective in choosing when. That is how he leads. In his hands, my company will walk the line with ease.
In time, I will proudly hand my mantle to a new generation, although I feel as if I am handing the task BACK to someone who already knows it well. Every generation exists beyond its ending – my father may have died in 2005, but he remains here – in memory and in my son. I have not felt so close to my father in a long, long time.
It is the responsibility of one generation to pave the path for the next so that they can walk a less arduous route, reaching farther into the jungle that is life. Every night now, Justin and I pour glasses of red wine and sit outside, discussing the details of our shared days. I listen more than I speak, as my son reveals how my company appears to him, taking in his assessment of people I have known well and long. He is astute beyond his years. And in some ways, he is exactly his age.
Things are not easy and the future is far from clear in these tough times. But I feel a sort of satisfaction about where we’re headed now that Justin’s here. We have more talent at the helm of this company than ever before and at least I know that all the stops will be pulled during the march ahead.
Like John Wayne said: “We do exactly what we started out to do.”