In a recent issue of The New York Times, writer Jill Eisenstadt reminisces about childhood vacations taken with her family, notably her father, Marvin.
Dad, Eisenstadt recalls, began each vacation by dropping off his brood at the hotel, only to turn around and drive back to the airport so he knew how much time to allot for the return trip at vacations end. The practice was simply his way of settling in, Eisenstadt writes. Only when this chore was over with could he unpack his bulging suitcases.
His idea of relaxation was jogging around the golf course during the heat of the day, knocking off a set of pushups at each hole. He approached complete strangers from behind to tuck in their errant shirt labels. He paid the hotel bill a day in advance and got his family to the airport hours before their flight was scheduled to leave.
Jill Eisenstadt looks back on these outings with genuine affection. Dads generosity and energy outweigh his quirks, she writes. His regard for the natural world makes the scariest insect seem lovely. And while his aggressive sociability might have at times embarrassed us (he always tried to match us with kids our age, give or take ten years), it gave us a constant supply of new friends and pen pals.
Energetic, meticulous, aggressively social all of these characteristics come to mind watching Marv Eisenstadt run his business, Cumberland Packing Corporation, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company whose products include Sweet N Low, the ubiquitous artificial sweetener in the bright pink packets.
It is a dull, drizzly April morning, but Eisenstadt, 66, looks like he just blew in off the golf course. He is compact, deeply tanned, and wears a polo shirt, casual slacks and a baseball cap advertising Sugar in the Raw, another Cumberland product. He moves through the noisy main production room, where workers operate the forty machines that produce nearly two million packets of Sweet N Low every hour, shaking hands, clapping employees on the back, holding brief on-the-fly conferences with managers. He seems to be everywhere at once, but with energy to spare, as if he might suddenly drop and bang out a quick set of pushups before bouncing to his feet to resume his morning rounds.
Eisenstadts energy has gone a long way toward making him a successful businessman, but its his generosity that will be his legacy. Cumberland Packing could slash its work force from four hundred to one hundred by automating its production, but Eisenstadt wont do it he prefers to employ as many people as he can in a community desperately short of jobs. He could pay his workers minimum wage, but he wont; he pays newly hired, unskilled workers $20,000 a year, roughly 40 percent above the going rate for unskilled labor in New York, because he believes his employees should earn a decent living. He could refuse to involve himself in his workers lives away from Cumberland, but he doesnt; he helps them out with loans for school and homes, because he believes its the right thing to do. He doesnt pay himself the mammoth salary favored by corporate CEOs because he thinks the practice is obscene, and he wont sell his company to some giant conglomerate because he cant bear to think of what would happen to the business or his employees if he werent running the show.
I still make decisions with my heart, Eisenstadt says, sitting in his paneled, windowless office. Sometimes they get me into trouble, but at least I can sleep at night.
His business practices may be quaintly anachronistic by modern standards, but part of the reason Eisenstadt sleeps so well though its difficult sometimes to imagine him actually at rest is that Cumberland Packing is a $100 million company, with a roughly 50 percent share of the enormous market for artificial sweeteners. (By comparison, the giant Monsanto, maker of the artificial sweetener Equal, claims about 45 percent of the market.) The company has its own definitions for the business concepts of streamlining and efficiency, and Eisenstadt seems to revel in running an employee-friendly shop in an age of ruthless workforce downsizing.
Eisenstadt learned many of his lifes lessons, including how to run a business, from his father, Ben, who started the company. Cumberland employees still recall Bens compassion, generosity and smarts, and are quick to add that the son picked up where his father left off. His shoes were too big to fill, says Eisenstadt of his father, who died in 1996. What he showed me is that you can run a successful business while youre helping families and helping the community. We employ four hundred people, but the fact that theyre employed and paid a decent wage affects a lot more people than that.
That explains why Cumberland employees are loathe to leave the company once they join it. Part of Eisenstadts routine as he leads visitors through the plant is to grab random workers and ask them how many years theyve been with the company. The answers are astonishing: Twenty years, eleven, twenty-one, thirty-five. Many employees are second-generation Cumberland workers, like Vernon Dorto, who works in accounts payable. Ive been here twenty years, and my father was here for forty-five, he says, above the din of the packing room. My dad and Marvin used to get together for games of pinochle. People stay because Marvin and his father made this place the kind of company you want to work for.
Eisenstadt grew up in the nearby Flatbush section of Brooklyn, in the house where his mother, Betty, 89, still lives. He rarely left Brooklyn, except for summer camps in the Berkshires, but when it came time to choose a college he began looking beyond New York City. I knew that I wanted to get out of town, he recalls. My next door neighbor applied to UVM, and it sounded great it was out in nature, it was out of New York, so I applied, too, and I went. It was wonderful.
Eisenstadt indulged his love of the natural world at UVM, majoring in zoology with a chemistry minor, and after a stint in the army joined his fathers company in 1956. The elder Eisenstadt had just gone through a period of boom and bust and was rebuilding; during World War II hed run a cafeteria called The Cumberland Cafeteria on Flushing Avenue, across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the business had prospered. The steady stream of sailors and navy yard workers dried up at the end of the war, however, and the cafeteria foundered. Desperate, he bought a tea bagging machine to use for filling paper packets with sugar, as an alternative to slow-dissolving cubes. By the time the younger Eisenstadt joined the business, Cumberland was packing sugar, soy sauce, and ketchup.
Anticipating the demand for artificial sweeteners, Eisenstadt used his chemistry background to create a powdered sweetener using cyclamates in 1957. He and his father called it Sweet N Low, after a Tennyson poem Sweet and low, sweet and low / Wind of the western sea, / Low, low, breathe and blow, / Wind of the western sea! and bagged it in little packets just like sugar. The timing of Sweet N Low was exquisite; the sudden vogue of diet sodas in the early 1960s caused demand for the product to soar. When the grocery chain A&P asked to stock Sweet N Low nationwide, Cumberland Packing was off and running.
Which isnt to say its been a smooth, effortless run. In the late 1960s, scientific studies indicated a worrisome correlation between cyclamates and cancer in laboratory rats, and the government began discussing a possible ban on the substance. Instead of waiting to see what the government would do, Eisenstadt went ahead and reformulated Sweet N Low in 1969 using saccharine. Then, in a risky move, he had supermarkets around the country yank the old Sweet N Low and replace it with the new. Cyclamates were banned shortly thereafter. I took out a loan of $1 million to get the old product out and the new product in, and it was a big gamble, he says. But when the ban went into effect, I was already there. I paid off the loan in six months.
He took another hit in 1977 when a much-publicized Canadian study linked saccharine to bladder cancer. The FDA moved to ban saccharine while Eisenstadt, convinced his product was safe and skeptical of the study, launched a one-man PR campaign on local and national media to save saccharine. His protests were part of a larger critique of the Canadian findings; the FDA ban was avoided, though Congress, in a compromise move, voted to require products that used saccharine to include a warning label on their packaging.
I would never put out a product that I thought might be harmful to anyone that just doesnt make sense, Eisenstadt says. Actually, we found that sodium, not saccharine, was the problem. Wed been bonding saccharine to sodium, but with all the research thats come out about the long-term effects of sodium, we decided to switch. Now we bond the saccharine to calcium. He adds that recent studies have cleared saccharine as a human carcinogen, and that hes pushing to have the warning struck from saccharine-sweetened products.
Thanks to the American preoccupation with calories, sales of Cumberlands dozen products, including Sweet N Low, continue to grow. More than thirty million people use Sweet N Low every day, while millions more use other Cumberland products like Sugar in the Raw and Butter Buds, as well as products that Cumberland licenses, including cake mixes, candy, ice cream and chocolate syrup.
To help manage his thriving, privately held enterprise, Eisenstadt relies on a management team that includes his brother, Ira; his wife, Barbara; his sons, Jeff and Steve; and a son-in-law, Michael Drinkard. (Drinkard is married to writer Jill Eisenstadt, whose acclaimed first novel, From Rockaway, was published in 1985 when she was 24. The fourth Eisenstadt child, Debra, is an actress who co-starred, with William Macy, in the film version of David Mamets play Oleanna.)
Family photographs line the walls in Eisenstadts no-frills office, which counts as its only extravagance a large aquarium filled with colorful tropical fish and positioned directly in front of his desk. (I used to love fishing, but I gave it up because I didnt want to kill anything if I could help it, he says.) Travel is one of his great passions, and many of the photographs document trips hes made with Barbara and with various Eisenstadt children: Alaska, Africa, the Galapagos, the Amazon.
Mixed in with the photographs are memorabilia from the various charitable causes supported either by Cumberland Packing or Eisenstadt and his wife. He chairs the Maimonides Research Foundation, begun by his father, and has raised and donated millions of dollars for the Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. Theres also the Leukemia Society of America, the Juvenile Diabetes Society, and others. Cumberland Packing regularly contributes its products to worthy causes, Eisenstadt says. We probably give away a million dollars worth of product every year, he says. We never say no to any group.
Business analysts might argue that Eisenstadt runs his company much like a charity, and that his employees are there only as a result of his ongoing largesse. Rhonda Abrams whose book, Wear Clean Underwear: Business Advice From Mom, includes a lengthy chapter on Eisenstadt and Cumberland Packing argues that, while his business practices to a certain extent ignore the nuts and bolts of the bottom line, Eisenstadts moral basis for running Cumberland the way he does keeps concerns like market share and quarterly earnings in perspective. Is Marv a good businessman? I still shake my head and wonder, Abrams says. But Marvs rewards are so obvious, so real, so much more important than just a big bank account. They just dont happen to be the kind of rewards that are measured on Wall Street. Their value is not in terms of power or money but in terms of personal satisfaction, honor, decency, integrity, making a real difference. Theres a lot more to value than just money.