About Peanut Butter and Jelly, and Other Weighty Matters

When Mike Bloom, COO for Family Dollar Stores, was six years old, he had the first opportunity of his life to manage a project and he botched it.

Mike’s father was mowing the grass in the back yard. Mike stepped out the back door and screamed, “Hey, Dad. Can I make me a peanut butter samich?”

Stuart saw him, cut off the lawn mower and yelled, “What?

Mike ran across the yard to his dad. “I’m really hungry, Dad,” he panted.

“All right. Give me a minute and I’ll make you a sandwich.”

“I can do it, Dad.”

“You sure about that.”

Mike sighed.

“All right, then. But if you make it, you’re going to eat it.”

Mike’s shoulders lifted and dropped with a world-weary sigh. “Daayad. I plan on eatin’ it. That’s why I wanta make it.”

“Well go on, then.”

Mike swiveled and ran back toward the house.

“Don’t make a mess,” Stuart shouted at the back screen door as it clapped shut.

Mike worked fast, his small wrist twisting as he dug into the peanut butter, pulling up thick curls of it to wipe on his Wonder Bread. With a sigh of deep satisfaction, he reached next for the grape jelly. In went the bread knife, thick with peanut butter. But the jelly kept wobbling off the knife, so Mike impatiently turned the jar upside down over his sandwich. Fully half the jelly in the jar plopped out. Mike slapped a piece of white bread on top and flattened it with the whole of one small hand, squeezing brown and purple out all four sides. Clutching his prize with both hands, he opened his mouth wide and closed his baby teeth through it.

Mike moved the gluey mass around in his mouth, trying to chew. His bloated jaws revolved slowly, with difficulty. He could not actually chew, and he couldn’t swallow. The happiness in his eyes faded to doubt. Then his cheeks turned pink and his eyes bulged. With convulsive swallowing motions, he threw himself on tiptoe over the kitchen sink choking and spitting. Slowly, one by one, he unclenched his peanut butter and jelly fingers from the mangled remains of his sandwich.

Mike was now confronted with making the first strategic decision of his life. Clearly, he had to dispose of the evidence. If he put it in the kitchen garbage, his mother would find it. She always found everything. The only option left was the garbage outside. (Fortunately, he didn’t think of the toilet.) He would have to get it out there without his dad seeing him do it.

With one arm twisted behind his back, Mike eased out the back door. He stood for a moment, watching his dad walking behind the mower. Gradually, he moved toward the garbage can where his dad had been dumping grass clippings.

Stuart saw him, but gave no sign. With his peripheral vision, he saw the boy standing, one arm twisted behind his back, in front of the garbage can. He kept on pushing the mower. When he turned again, Mike was walking quickly back toward the house. Stuart finished his mowing, detached the basket from the mower and walked to the garbage. Before he dumped the grass, he peered in.

“Mike,” he called, stepping inside the kitchen door.

Nonchalance stepped cautiously into the kitchen

“Did you eat your sandwich?”

“Sure.”

“All of it?”

“Yep.”

“You sure?”

Mike hesitated for the space of a heartbeat. “Yep.”

Stuart slowly brought degradation and shame from behind his back. “Then what’s this?”

Panic-stricken, his eyes scanning the grassy goo for an answer, Mike bravely lifted his chin. “I have no idea.”

Stuart gazed down at his son.

“I have no idea.”

His father looked at him.

Mike lifted his shoulders. “It must be somebody else’s.” His shoulders plunged. He sighed.

I had been laughing at least halfway through this story, the kind of laughing you do with your elbows on the table and your face in your hands. I laughed for most of my hour-long interview with our new President and Chief Operating Officer, Mike Bloom. And while I’m laughing, he’s sitting there grinning at me. Unfortunately, I can’t share most of his stories.

If you haven’t met Mike yet, I would like to try to convey to you the essence of the man as I see him. Come here. Stand beside me for a moment on the beach. It’s the hottest part of the day. Shield your eyes and look out at the far horizon of the ocean. We’re looking at sunlight on water. It shimmers with a million dazzling points of light. Makes your eyes smart, doesn’t it?

That’s what he’s like.

Grinning, he leaned toward me across the gleaming conference table. “Peanut butter sandwiches are still my favorite food. I can make them a hundred different ways.”

I just sobbed.

Floating

Mike was transplanted from Columbus, Ohio, where he grew up, to the white sands of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, when he was fifteen. What better time in life to find yourself standing on a beach? And not just any beach, but the annual, spring-break mecca of the Atlantic for thousands of turbo-charged college kids. They descend upon Ft. Lauderdale in six waves of frolicsome frivolities that should be policed by the National Guard. Mike enjoyed each wave. His spring breaks went on for weeks.

He grinned. I groaned

Growing up in Ft. Lauderdale made him “a water rat. Swimming, boating, fishing, water skiing, jet skiing, scuba-diving, I do it all.” We can add floating to this list. On his last vacation, Mike spent six hours a day for five days lying on a float upon the rolling ocean.

How does a man who carries upon his shoulders the responsibility for the merchandising, marketing, global sourcing, supply chain and store operations of a multi-billion dollar, intra-continental retail chain lie unmoving on water for five days? I couldn’t do it, and my only responsibility is to get this article finished last week. I imagine, though, that while he was floating, he was thinking. Or maybe not.

Make no mistake. He works hard. You don’t get a C-suite office unless you do, and then the work really begins. He is the first to arrive at the corporate offices and the last to leave the building at night, and while he is here he is putting the same energy into growing the Company that he put into building that lethal peanut butter and jelly samich when he was six; but when he leaves for the night or the weekend, the office light goes off and the home light goes on. How does he do this?

Control. He manages his energy. When he works, he works like a son-of-a-gun. But he knows how to stop working and rest and have fun.

He was not always in control. We know that to this day, he is probably not to be trusted with peanut butter and jelly and certainly at fifteen, when he was transplanted to Florida, he was not in control of his life, but three years later, he would be.

Through grade and middle school, Mike knew “in my heart that I was going to be a big league ball player.” His parents, friends and coaches knew it. Mike was their star pitcher, a lefty, the most valuable pitcher a team can have. Mike was headed straight for the big leagues. Mike Bloom was a baseball player, pure and simple.

Then one night, the summer before Mike started high school, his dad announced that the family was leaving Columbus. They were moving to Florida. Mike was stunned. He would have to start all over again. He would have to prove himself all over again. Florida? You gotta be kiddin’ me. What about baseball next year? What about the team? What about his girlfriend? How was he supposed to just leave? He might as well be dead. His life was finished, over.

“It wasn’t just the baseball,” Mike said. “I was madly in love.” Mike was frowning at the carpet in his office, shaking his head. “It was a mess.”

Mike’s dad was an apparel salesman who came up with the then unique idea of buying and selling closeouts over the phone, without ever touching the merchandise. To launch this new business venture, they would have to move to Ft. Lauderdale.

Mike sat shaking his head. “I was miserable. My parents made me join this youth group that first summer so I’d meet people. And that’s where I met my wife. That’s where I met Lori.”

His face glows when he speaks of her, and of their two daughters. His favorite sound in the world is the sound of their voices. “We were fifteen. We’ve been together ever since. She is my best friend, my confidante, my love, my everything.”

Courtney’s wedding day. Mike, daughters Courtney & Britni & wife, Lori.

But he came close to losing her. Three years after they moved to Ft. Lauderdale, the Bloom family found themselves in financial difficulty and Mike’s parents decided to move back to Baltimore, where Mike was born.

Mike had been uprooted once. He would not be again, and leaving Lori was not up for discussion. He stood, and at eighteen, took control of his life. “I can’t go with you, Dad.”

As the family car backed down the drive of their house, Mike walked with it. Mike’s mother, Phyllis, and his two sisters waved and called goodbye as Stuart shifted out of reverse and drove slowly away. Mike walked into the street and watched until the car was out of sight.

Mike became like a son to Lori’s parents. They converted their garage to an apartment for him and he lived there with them as he worked his way over the next four years through Broward College. At the same time, so he would be a burden to no one, he went into management training at Woolco, a division of Woolworth. Lori went off to the University of South Florida in Tampa.

At twenty-one, when they had graduated, Mike and Lori were married. And then, as if on cue, the door to Mike’s future opened.

A guy he worked with at Woolco had gone to work for Canadian-based Shoppers Drug Mart. Mike’s friend (one of the future founders of Blockbuster) called him. “You gotta come work here. It’s unbelievable. You gotta come over here.” So Mike went.

“I sat for my final interview in the back room of the drugstore. I’ll never forget it. I was wearing a three-piece suit and the VP walked in smelling like grass. He’d been mowing the lawn. He had on shorts and had grass stains on his legs and his sneakers. We talked and finally, at the end of the interview, he said, ‘Well, Mike, we’d really like you to join us. We think you’d make a great addition to the company. But tell me, how much were you thinking of making?’”

Telling the story, Mike huffed himself up and deepened his voice. “Well, Mr. Webber, I said—Lori and I had talked it over the night before and figured what we’d need to get by—well, Mr. Webber, I can’t possibly come over for less than $16,200.”

“Mr. Webber was quiet for a minute, then he said ‘Well, son, then this is going to be a real problem,’ and I thought, I blew it, I blew it!” Mike’s smacking his forehead with the heel of his palm. “I was miserable, and then he said, ‘because we start at $18,500.’” Mike threw himself back in his chair, grinning from ear to ear. “We were dancing around the kitchen that night screaming, ‘We’re rich! We’re rich!’”

First executive photo, age 30

“Of all the companies I’ve worked for, Shoppers was the best. They gave the best training and had the best culture. I credit them for all my success. They taught me that the most important thing I would ever learn about business is that people are more important than anything else.”

Mike was with Shoppers a long time, but then ensued a period of years in which Shoppers and People’s and Eckerd’s were swapping out stores in Florida and, like a big league ball player, Mike got swapped with them. With Shoppers, Mike had been an associate owner of his own store; for the next ten years with People’s and then with Eckerd’s, he would be a store manager, taking orders from someone else. “I am not good at taking orders,” said little Mr. independent-peanut-butter-samich-maker. He was “miserable.”

And then one day the phone rang and when Mike answered it, he was talking to David Bloom (no relation), the president of Shoppers Drug Mart. “Can you fly up to Washington, D.C. for a talk?”

Shoppers had bought out all of People’s Virginia stores and David Bloom wanted Mike back in a role he had designed expressly for him. Mike would be the director of special projects, reporting directly to the president of the company.

Mike was with Shoppers until the company withdrew from the U.S., selling its stores back to People’s. When CVS bought out People’s, Mike went with the deal and was with CVS for the next twenty years.

 

In April 2011, Mike Bloom, executive vice president of merchandising, supply chain, marketing and advertising for CVS Pharmacy, received a phone call from a recruiter for Family Dollar. Over the next four months, Mike and CEO Howard Levine would meet eight times. In late August, Howard made his offer.

Mike and Lori talked it over and on a Monday evening in late September, Mike resigned from CVS and by 3:00 p.m. of the following day he was in his office at Family Dollar. Howard was impressed.

 

In our second, hour-long interview, I asked Mike what other profession he might have enjoyed. I thought he would say “baseball player” but he said, “A pilot.” No, not a commercial airline pilot. Not a small aircraft pilot. A fighter pilot. As in “Top Gun.”

“I always wanted to fly a plane. When I was a kid I used to ride my bike to Columbus International Airport and watch the planes take off and land. I played all the flight simulator games. I was obsessed with it.” He’s fully charged now, almost levitating from his chair. “Top Gun is my favorite movie of all time. That’s real flying. Dog-fighting, air combat. Now that’s cool flying. I don’t want a war or anything, but that’s the kind of flying I’d like to do.

“Hey. Have you heard about the new water jet pack? It costs $100,000. You strap yourself into this pack and hold on like this and there’s this long tube that goes down into the water and the water shoots up the hose and launches you right out of the water fifty feet in the air…” Fists up, face beaming, he is launched.

And I’ve got my elbows on the table and my face in my hands, groaning.

“You know what one of the best jobs in the world is?’

“No,” I groaned.

“A corporate jet pilot. While the CEO’s sitting in meetings all day, you’re out playing golf or fishing. When we flew around for CVS, the pilots always had their golf clubs or fishing poles aboard. Always. Now that’s a great life.”

I wipe the tears from my eyes. Take a breath. “Okay, what profession would you least like to have?”

Mike looked as if a stench had wafted into his office. “A dentist. Everybody hates dentists. Dentists have the second highest suicide rate in the medical profession. Did you know that? Because everybody hates them.”

He waits patiently for the next question. It’s really hard to keep a straight face around Mike.

“What one person in history would you most like to meet? “

“Martin Luther King. Because he changed the world.”

Well now. I was suitably impressed.

Then he glanced at his watch. I know I’ve got to hurry. People are waiting for him.

“What would you most like to have people say of you when you are gone?”

He responds without hesitation. “That I was fair, that I was a great family man and a great leader.”

They say that life has a way of giving you what you want, only sometimes disguised as something else. Mike was sure in his heart that someday he would be a pitcher in the major leagues.

He was right. He is.

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