Think of Gary Brownstein as lox’s Pied Piper. In his 47-year tenure at Acme Smoked Fish, the Brooklyn, New York-based company that supplies his namesake product to the country, Brownstein has done nearly all of the work.
He sliced more than his share of salmon. You loaded trucks. And in her more public role, she helped organize Fish Friday, a weekly event where the company sells its products directly to consumers at deep discounts. In fact, he became particularly well known for Gary’s Special, dishes he created just for Fish Friday, such as smoked salmon in a Thai sweet chili sauce.
These days, you can still order Gary’s Special, but you probably won’t see Brownstein in action. He retired from Acme in May, concluding his nearly half-century run with a festive edition of Fish Friday. Many of the regulars on hand were shopping for Gary’s special themed t-shirts made for the occasion.
That day, MarketWatch caught up with 69-year-old Brownstein, a member of the Acme-owning family, to learn what ultimately prompted his departure. But just as important, we wanted to know what kept him working in the same place for so long. Of course, family loyalty played a role in Brownstein’s case, but at a time when the average length of work is 5.4 years, the story of the fishmonger as the “life” of the company, as it has been described. offers a lesson in perseverance: an anti-retirement lesson if you will.
Here are six things we learned from Brownstein about what it takes to stay with a company over the years.
You have to love the mission
Yes, Brownstein loves his pie. And his herring. And almost all the products that Acme offers. He talks about eating fish all the time and liked to find new ways to use it in recipes, as his Gary’s Special demonstrates. He might state the obvious, but if Brownstein didn’t have that connection to Acme, he said it might not have been that easy to enjoy the ride.
Be in a place where you can change things
Brownstein may have worked at the same company for 47 years, but he has never held the same position for too long, as evidenced by his duties which in effect ranged from managing the slicing department to working on Fish Friday. “I loved that he was never stagnant,” he said. He even keeps a sense of humor about what may have been his hardest job than him: working in the herring hall, stacking barrel after barrel of fish.
Also, on any given day, Brownstein could end up doing a lot of things. And what was his title? “There were no titles. We just did what we had to do, “he said.
Help work for a winner
Brownstein noted that many of Acme’s competitors have gone out of business in the past few decades. Meanwhile, Acme continued to grow – he said revenues have increased in all but one of his 47 years with the company. Of course, Acme benefited from the loss of competition, but the company also increased its business thanks to the way it innovated.
Brownstein was integral to that innovation – he helped Acme launch products ranging from a whitefish salad to a Hawaiian-inspired poke bowl with smoked salmon. He also played an important role in helping Acme find different ways to package its products, which in turn played an important role in the company’s expansion into stores. The point, Brownstein said, is that being with a thriving company offers an opportunity for employees to thrive.
It also helps to be in a job that keeps you physically active
Much of Brownstein’s work involved being on his feet. He did more than part of him by lifting and moving things or bending over to fix a freezer. He said that labor sometimes took a tool on his body, but, in general, the physical aspect of the job gave him a certain advantage. “You feel good,” he said.
It’s about the people and the benefits
Speaking of his dozen colleagues at Acme’s Brooklyn headquarters, Brownstein said camaraderie was always on the agenda: “They love me, I love them.” And camaraderie matters when you’re with a long-term organization, Brownstein said.
But don’t forget the benefits either. Brownstein certainly not. He recalled how he enjoyed free knish – a Jewish specialty of baked pasta stuffed with potatoes or other ingredients – from a knish maker whose facility was near Acme (Acme shipped the company’s product). Likewise, a nearby bakery often provided the crew of the Acme with free rye bread. When Brownstein recounts these little extras that came with life at Acme, he makes it clear that they also contributed to his happiness in the company.
Know when it’s really time to step down
For Brownstein, the decision to retire was closely tied to his wife’s death last year. Aside from the obvious distress she caused, he said she changed a lot of her routine and made him take on household responsibilities he didn’t have before. “I had a hard time doing it” on my way to work, he told her. Eventually, he instinctively understood that he had to resign. “I woke up (one day) and thought, ‘It’s time’.”
Brownstein, a New Jersey resident, said his retirement will give him more time to play golf, his favorite pastime. His immediate plan is to “take a year and figure it out,” she said of his new life. Also, he doesn’t rule out an occasional visit to Acme, especially on Fish Friday. “They want me to always come back,” he said.