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Brilliant Assistant: Fran Gruskin Retires

We like to think we control our lives and, to some extent, we surely do, but life is serendipitous at times and sometimes in the most important ways.

We had been reflecting on such thoughts when LinkedIn published an article by Richard Branson, founder at the Virgin Group. The article is part of a series LinkedIn does asking prominent people what “things they carry.”  Richard Branson had an unusual take. He responded: Things I Carry: Smart phone? I Prefer a Brilliant Assistant:

I couldn’t get through the workday without my assistant, Helen. While gadgets like smartphones and tablets certainly do have a huge positive impact upon my working life, it is the people around me who really make the difference.

Helen is my memory. She travels the world with me, is delightful to have around, and is extremely adaptable and sociable wherever we find ourselves. With so much going on with my mind, having an extra memory is important. Before I ask her to do something, she can read my mind and know what it is I am thinking before I ask.

There are some people who seem to be able to do everything themselves. I am a great believer in the art of delegation and in sharing the load to make everyone more productive. Having an assistant who is completely in the loop with our activities means we can keep up with everything. People often ask how I am able to keep on top of businesses in dozens of different countries and industries. Well, having an assistant who is on the ball 24/7 is one of the main ways it is possible.

We are a moving office. I don’t believe in sitting in an office all day, so there is no reason for one’s assistant to have to sit in an office either. This makes Helen’s job a lot more fun too. I find dictating emails is an excellent time-saving method, and by dictating she also knows what is going on and can be 100% in touch. We do an awful lot of traveling and my assistant can smooth the journeys through, helping with the nitty-gritty details and logistics that would otherwise be a distraction. This frees up time for me to think about the bigger picture.

We confess that we are definitively on the people side of the “people vs technology” debate. Sure we can’t imagine life without our gadgets, but the value added of an incisive mind and loyal friend is not to be surpassed. We — so far at least! — are not the size of the Virgin Group, so we haven’t had as many personal assistants as Richard Branson. We usually have to give those we have had additional jobs to make the numbers work, but we have been very blessed to always work with people who believed in the mission and who believed in me personally and, in the end, that has made all the difference.

This week, Fran Gruskin, who for the past quarter century has been my Executive Assistant, is retiring. We have been living on borrowed time for years, and we persuaded Fran to stay a half decade longer than she once intended. Now, vibrant and healthy, she turns to devote 100% of her time to the truly important things… to her children and her grandchildren, her broader family and many friends.

She might have stayed longer still, but Fran’s mother had Alzheimer’s and we watched as that horrid disease stole from her the enjoyment of the last years of her life. An experience such as this reminds us, as they reminded Fran, that as the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote: “The best-laid plans of mice and men/ Often go awry.” So it is wise to seize the moment and accomplish what you hope to accomplish while you know you can.”

We met Fran through a serendipitous moment. She worked for the Magazine Publishers of America (MPA), where Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, was a member. We were relocating to Boca Raton, Florida, and had sent in a change of address. As Assistant to the Executive VP of MPA, Fran processed that change and, coincidentally, she was moving to Boca Raton as her husband, a NYC police detective, was ready to retire. Fran wasn’t interested in retiring and sent us a resume. Her boss had written a reference letter and he told us that if we hired Fran, not only would her work be excellent but she would fill our lives with a kind of joy, and so she has.

Back in those days, I was still in my twenties, had no family in Florida, and Fran opened her home to me. Thanksgiving or Passover, a hundred other times she would cook “soup to nuts” and always had a chair for me.

In work, it became effortless as she came to know exactly how I would respond to every situation, as Richard Branson said: Before I ask her to do something, she can read my mind and know what it is I am thinking before I ask. She knew my values and my priorities and she knew me.

It takes a certain personality to be a great assistant, as one is always a little bit in the shadow, but Fran sought no personal glory. I think she was proud to work for me and with me, and when she would go to trade shows or conferences or speak on the phone to industry members, she felt that a word of praise for this Pundit was a word of praise for her. What more could one want in an assistant or a friend?

How much do I owe Fran? How about my whole life? It was Fran’s daughter who arranged a blind date on which I met my wife! Without my wife, I wouldn’t have my children, so if I had never met Fran the trajectory of my entire life would have been very different.

Fran won’t be totally gone from the business. She is off right now for a lifetime goal, a trip to the Holy Land, to Israel, and when she returns she will fill her days playing Canasta and Mah-Jong with friends, visiting family, and she will fill the lives of all those she loves with joy. Her grandchildren are so excited they just can’t wait.

Fran has promised, though, to come back to help us with The New York Produce Show and Conference and will do a few special projects for us throughout the year. Her e-mail works so, if you want to send her a note wishing her a happy retirement, you can do so here.

We are going to throw a nice dinner for her, and I am sincerely happy that working with us all these years helped make it possible for her to go enjoy life at its most meaningful.

Fran didn’t go to Harvard and she never became a CEO. She isn’t super-rich and never became famous, but her quarter-century association with me and this company serves as an impressive reminder of the impact all of us can have on the lives of those we care about. Fran has, indeed, filled the lives of many with joy, but she has also taught me, and all who wish to see it, an important lesson about our ability to make all the difference for those we love.

In high school, they teach children a poem by Robert Herrick, titled, To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time:

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying :
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer ;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry :
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.

We cannot know what life holds for any of us, but Fran has never tarried. She has always enjoyed living. Some may bemoan the work they have to do, but Fran always enjoyed the work she had. She never lacked for friends or company and she shared what she had generously. She was always on the go and always making things happen.

There is a long tradition in western civilization that we speak nothing but good only of those who have passed, and Fran is very much alive, so I will tell you that she has been on a continuous diet for a quarter century and yet weighs the exact same as when I first met her!  It is not surprising, though; she eats up life and that includes enjoying food and friendship and a cocktail or two.

Bon Voyage, Fran. Thanks for the work well done, the love and friendship and the titanic influence you’ve had on my life. May all your voyages be smooth and may all your dreams come true. 

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