For nearly 35 years, Peter J. Whitmore has managed a successful business career. The summer after he graduated from SUNY Cortland with a degree in history and education, he began working for the popular north country submarine shop, Jreck Subs. He eventually became a multi-unit franchisee and scrapped plans to teach secondary education. Years later, he held a senior leadership role with the company. Today, Mr. Whitmore finds himself riding a new wave as a business consultant, adjunct professor at Jefferson Community College and volunteer for many north country nonprofits, contributing his skills to various boards of directors. This month, we sit down with Mr. Whitmore to learn what’s kept him in the north country and how we can effectively mentor others.
NNYB: You recently took on a project at the Historical Society that, from a mission standpoint, was something you’d not experienced before. How do you evaluate organizations for effectiveness and help them chart a path for future success?
WHITMORE: First thing, I have a background in food service, which is a brutally competitive industry. It was an eye opener to work for nonprofits. They very clearly are a different business model. But at the end of the day, they still have a business model, but I think what some people tend to do is they forget that although nonprofits have these warm, fuzzy things that we’re doing — and I’ve been on many boards — and at the end of the day, they’re still a business. And they do not necessarily need to be run like one, but they need to be cognizant. It’s money in. It’s money out. It’s funding. It’s all those things. At the Jefferson County Historical Society, my first mission was to understand that business. I educated myself as quickly as I could. I did research. Everything comes back to due diligence, which is simply nothing more than homework. I actually went and sat with two other museum directors, who were very gracious. To understand their business model, they shared all kinds of things with me. It was a very, very quick study. But some very clear things came out — I didn’t need to see 10 museums to figure some of this out. So that helped me understand the fiscal business model. That’s the first thing because this is about sustainability. A lot of other things can come with people brighter than me, people that have a passion. As much as I respect the museum and its mission, I didn’t have a passion for that. When I do my consulting, I treat every business like a checkbook; it is money in and money out.
NNYB: At the Historical Society, you reviewed business and financial practices, fundraising, operations, facilities, staffing and strategic plan. When you go into an organization as a consultant, where do you start? What’s most important?
WHITMORE: Financials, absolutely. My analogy is financials are the EKG. If you’re assessing the health of the organization, the financials are exactly the EKG. Is this business healthy? Is it profitable? Many times I’ll inherit or go into something that’s already in crisis management. If we don’t make good financial decisions quickly, it’s about talking about being out of business. If it’s at a break even, we talk about growing sales. And if it is profitable, do we want to talk about being more profitable. It depends, really, the condition, so to speak, I find the patient in. You do a triage assessment and I usually know going in what I’m up against, to some degree. Sometimes it’s drastic measures. I hate to say it, sometimes the answer is it’s DOA. I hate to keep saying these medical analogies. But a lot of people don’t have exit strategies. And what happens to people is they get so emotionally involved. I try to be that guy who blends compassion with that sense of reality, and people’s sense of reality just leaves. They truly believe they can fix it and save it when any group of people who know anything would tell you it can’t be done. I talk about managing the pain. If we’re in that situation, deciding to close a business, it’s a tough thing to do and people don’t want to hear it, but at times it’s absolutely the right thing to do.
NNYB: In any organization, everything comes down to people. People move business. When you’re in an organization, how do you never forget the human factor and balance the mission with the people?
WHITMORE: Never forget what people are going through. It’s a fine line between getting too personal and you can’t make a drama, but there are realities of what people are going through. Might be sickness, might be issues at home, could be all kinds of things. So it’s a refocus and first understanding the people that are there and what their job description is. We need to determine do we really have a gap in skill set, time set or whatever. Is that really part of the problem? Do we just not have the talent that we need? … Those are hard things to do and be objective. Most of my references are to smaller businesses — 25 employees or less. Most of the larger companies have human resources departments and it’s all very kind of clinical and it gets addressed. I’m really talking about what drives this country, and it’s small business. I am a big believer that if you have to terminate people, and it’s a reality, it should never be a surprise to them. You talk to them. It’s managing people. Giving them expectations. This all sounds like something out of a textbook, and it is, but I am amazed how many people simply don’t do it. We get so obsessed with the day to day running of the business we forget the principles. We realize it’s been forever since we’ve had a staff meeting. Simple things like staff meetings. They are like therapy sessions. It’s a great way for you to find out what’s going on, not only in your own company but in people’s lives. It’s basic business practice that people just give up on.
NNYB: You’ve been a Jreck Subs multi-unit franchisee for more than 30 years. What have you learned from your small business experience that has benefited you in other areas in which you’ve become involved?
WHITMORE: Food service — especially the quick-service restaurants segment — is literally one of the most brutal playing fields there is. If you want to get your feet wet and want training, there’s no better training, simply because of the sheer size and issues that go on with it. … There’s very little room for error in that industry. Many of the lessons — almost all of the lessons — that I have today I clearly learned in that business. And, they can be applied to almost any other business. At the end of the day, it still is money in, money out. We sold a product — it could have been a service — and people pay us for that. I apply those same principles. Why are they coming here? We talk about promoting, and I can apply this to the museum (Historical Society), I can apply it to any business. When you’re promoting and marketing a business, it needs to be one of three things: get new people in, get your existing customer in more often, or somehow enhance your sale and increase your average sale. If you’re not doing that, then it’s a waste of your time.
NNYB: You go into an organization and see the corporate culture is not conducive to success. How do you approach improving corporate culture, making environments that are more conducive to people and businesses succeeding?
WHITMORE: It’s walking the walk. To change culture, there’s no memo I can send. I can change policies all day long, but it starts with the leadership. This can be senior management down — conducting itself to set the example first. Sooner or later, people start doing it.
NNYB: You’re past president and CEO of the Greater Watertown-North Country Chamber of Commerce, serving from 2010 to 2011. What did you learn from that experience and what are you most proud of in terms of organizational leadership and accomplishment?
WHITMORE: I inherited that when it had a very challenging corporate culture. That was one of the hardest things I had to turn around. It had a corporate culture issue, it had a perception issue, it had a branding issue, it had fiscal issues, and obviously the fiscal one is the first one you tackle. I knew the corporate culture issues were just going to take time. It was kind of an ICU patient, and it just needed some care and attention. People have to be patient and realistic about their expectations. I don’t think I ever come and say, “I’m just going to do this and do that” because I don’t know if I can. I have to come in and assess and see what I can do.
NNYB: You are very involved in our communities, serving on several boards. How have you gotten so involved in so many diverse organizations?
WHITMORE: Growing up, as much as I can complain or lament about my being from modest means and all those things, I couldn’t begin to tell you how many people helped me along the way and did it either out of kindness or did it out of just doing the right thing. I was raised in a family that, as humble as we might have been, felt very strongly about always doing the right thing. And while it wasn’t perfect, that line of good and bad was always very clear to me. This isn’t about wealth, but the life that I have been able to have today has been so far beyond what I had hoped for and I just feel strongly that this was a community I was born and raised in. It had a lot to do with my success or failure, whatever you want to call it, and I feel a real obligation to give back. It’s nothing more than that. I was taught to be that way, and a lot of times where maybe I couldn’t do it financially, I felt my time was worth something and maybe that was the way I could give back.
NNYB: You’ve been an adjunct instructor in the business division at Jefferson Community College since 2010. What do you teach? What do you find inspiring about an academic setting?
WHITMORE: I teach a business course — an entrepreneurship course — and business-plan writing. What I love most, very simply is the enthusiasm, the excitement and I’m typically teaching an audience that’s not jaded yet. I love the sense of possibility that comes with teaching. That drives me mostly.
NNYB: Is there a lot to look forward to in terms of the next generation?
WHITMORE: We should be concerned. In any population — this one is no different — there are some incredibly impressive and wonderful people, and they’re there and they’re always going to be there. In general, I have seen a disengaged group, an entitled group, and I will tell you there are times I have been very, very concerned. (They are) lacking in many things. One of the biggest things I see is the social skill set. We have been so busy promoting technology and social media and all those things, we have forgotten how to simply be polite, have etiquette, have a conversation. That scares me because at the end of the day, were still back to that customer service, which drives absolutely everything. I see a lot of these younger people struggling with that skill set. You can’t text your order in; you can’t text everything. And so I’m very concerned about that. I’ve made some changes in my classroom. And back to the entitlement, which I am responsible for, too. I grew up in a modest household, so my answer was to give my children more than I had. These aren’t just a bunch of spoiled kids that somebody else raised. We raised them. My generation helped raise these entitled children because we thought it would make them better and happier and more fulfilled. And it’s backfired, in my opinion, in many ways. I know what motivated me was my lack of things and wanting things and realizing that guess what, the only way I could get it back then was hard work. My parents simply didn’t have the means to do so. My equation was hard work. And the people I know who are very successful, hard work has worked. Many kids nowadays just think it’s magically going to appear. And their social skills, their survival skills, their life skills are lacking.
NNYB: As technology has evolved, how do we get those interpersonal skills back?
WHITMORE: What this technology has brought us is phenomenal. I don’t regret the technology. When I talk about this generation, I don’t want to sweep a whole generation under the rug. As a general rule, the things that I’ve seen … It starts at home, clearly, but it has to extend out into the schools and into the workplace. When I run my organizations, I tell people all cell phones go off. That is a discipline. I cannot tell you how many high-profile meetings that I’ve been in that people of great stature are texting under the table. We’ve become so accustomed that it’s acceptable. But guess what? It’s not acceptable. When we’re sitting here talking about something that’s important, the only thing that matters is you and me. Or that group.
NNYB: After you graduated from SUNY Cortland, what drew you back to the area and why have you chosen to be a lifelong north country resident?
WHITMORE: Interesting. This is the thing I teach. I tell people take those blinders off. Your destiny can be made in a second or a moment. Literally, one of the principals of Jreck was killed in a car accident, I happened to be coming home from college, and I had had some history and background with the ownership and I had actually worked in Jreck Subs– just coincidentally. Those things came together; nothing more than timing. I thought I’ll spend a summer here. I’m out of college. There were no teaching jobs at the time. If you had told me I would spend 30 years in the food service, I would have told you you were nuts in the head. Simply, in almost one unfortunate tragedy, my whole life got defined. To some degree, it started with that. That’s how unrelated it was.
NNYB: You are chairman of the Jefferson County Workforce Development Board, and a member of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Committee. What economic development strategy should the county or region employ to increase its chances of success?
WHITMORE: There are a lot of very smart people working very hard to crack this same code, and I don’t have any wonderful, quick, quaint answer. What I see, which I think is a bit misguided, is that we seem to want to go get these big, big deals — these being things, these multimillion dollar things, got to be 300, 500 jobs — and those are nice when you get them. I think there’s a ton of low-hanging fruit that we ignore. The small- or medium-sized business that could expand or shore up. Maybe employ a few more people or if nothing else, keep them from going out of business with either business counseling, better funding. The small business guy still has a lot of challenges but if you look at the core of this country, it’s people who have gone out by the seat of their pants, started things, muscled through it. I just think if we gave them more attention, you would see there’s millions of businesses out there that people could either expand or start up if there was someone there trying to guide them.
NNYB: Is entrepreneurship a constant evolution or a fixed model?
WHITMORE: Constant evolution. It never stops.
NNYB: You’re very involved in issues and matters that impact Fort Drum, our soldiers and the military. Do you have a particular interest in supporting such causes? What draws you to that kind of work?
WHITMORE: When I first got involved, I’ll be quite candid, it was strictly a business decision. I thought it was significant — the single largest demographic that we have, and quite honestly, I didn’t understand it. I sat back and educated myself. I said I’ll get involved in some way to try to understand this better. I found that I really enjoyed the people that I worked with in the groups I got involved with. That has made it really a 20-year passion, if you will. I also have some very personal reasons, just simply the sacrifices that are made, so I feel as a citizenof this country, it’s one way to return it.
NNYB: You recently helped lead the fundraising effort for North Country Honors the Mountain, which installed a monument in Thompson Park. How challenging is it to fundraise in the north country and what made this effort successful?
WHITMORE: There is a very general and generous support for Fort Drum, which is not the case at many installations. In many communities, it’s a very adversarial relationship. Here, it’s a combination of a very good message and very generous people. It was difficult but it certainly wasn’t impossible. If you had asked me, ‘Could we raise more than $500,000?’ I’d have told you that I had real reservations. I’ve got to be honest. I was as pessimistic as anybody, and to this day, I’m still amazed
and proud that the community did support that.
NNYB: What do you find particularly
inspiring about the generosity of north
country residents when it comes to projects like the monument?
WHITMORE: Just the depth which they go to. We have asked so much from — and it tends to be the same group — these people and I am continually impressed and amazed. We’ve gone to that well so many times. I don’t know how they do it. They get asked a lot. I am amazed of people who give and give and give that they just continue giving. I guess it shows the love of the area and to a degree a love of the military.
NNYB: What is an effective way to lure people back to the north country who were raised here and went away for schooling or to start their careers?
WHITMORE: At the end of the day, the jobs have got to be here. Ones who want this quality of life will come back and find a way. I’m not as worried about them because they’ll get back here.
NNYB: Talk about staff and managing people. When you are successful, do you think it’s important to celebrate that success?
WHITMORE: It’s everything. I own sub shops, which is not glamorous. I have what you’d call entry level employees. We do little things like every single employee gets a birthday present. We close our stores twice a year, which is a big expense to our franchises. We do a big party in the summer at Westcott Beach. We have bingo games. We give bonuses. We give them a new jacket or whatever. And we do that same thing at Christmas. That may not sound like much to you, but for people who’ve not had great experiences, maybe are at the lower economic level, it simply says, “You matter.” We have put things in place that says at least three, four, five times a year we’re reminding them how much they matter.
NNYB: What advice would you give to someone getting into business?
WHITMORE: Do your homework. Do your due diligence. And make sure the people around you are on board.
NNYB: What is most important for a leader when considering a new challenge?
WHITMORE: I learned it the hard way, and I’d like to emphasize the hard way. Time. At the end of the day, if we don’t have time to do it, none of it will matter.
— Interview by Ken Eysaman. Edited
for length and clarity to fit this space.