For those of you who know Bristol and have followed us over the years, you have likely come to understand that among the many wonderful attributes associated with our amazing company, chief among them is our commitment to our culture. And what forms the foundation of our culture is a relational philosophy we minted a decade ago, known as Connect versus Control ™.
In short, we are passionate about going “next-level” with respect to how we form and manage the multitude of relationships that are part and parcel of our business lives. To achieve our lofty goals of creating a truly differentiated relational experience with whomever we engage, we realized early on that we needed to first look inside ourselves and our own company. Are we sourcing and selecting talent that matches our culture? Do we invest in and foster an environment that breeds the necessary conditions, creativity, and commitment to consistently push us in the direction of being relationally radical? At Bristol, how do we interact with and engage with and relate to one another? While we have come a very long way, we know we still have many miles to go…which more than anything else, excites us!
Getting to that next level requires a comprehensive buy-in from every corner of the company. It’s a constant, minute to minute commitment to the ideals that surround Connect versus Control™. Early on we knew that to have even the slightest chance of success, we first needed to go to the “next-level” when it came to the idea of vulnerability. We decided that transparency was essential and that our respective masks we put on each day before coming to work, needed to be tossed into a garbage bin that also contained our insecurities and fears relative to how we might be perceived. We created the opportunity to share views on the topic of relationships and connecting, as well as allowing our folks to share something deeply personal that helped form the person we see today. Over the course of a few months, a large number of Bristol associates stepped out on that limb and indeed, bravely opened up and shared with others. Needless to say, new connections were made and existing relationships were deepened. To this day, this single event serves as the cornerstone of the cultural foundation that remains an integral component of our success story.
And so it is in this spirit of sharing, of being vulnerable and seeking that next-level relationship, that I have decided to share a bit more about me. All of us experience others in a variety of ways…short bursts of momentary introductions, extended meetings with fellow employees, clients we support, or partners who collaborate and support us. In each instance, a large amount of turf is often covered yet, all too rarely do we allow these engagements to go deep, personally…relationally.
So if you wouldn’t mind, take a few minutes and join me as we walk into your favorite, warm and inviting little coffee shop…let’s grab a comfortable couch in a corner of the shop and as we sip on our seasonally flavored latte or a soothing Chai Tea. Let’s Connect!
I first wrote the below on the 20th anniversary of this amazing adventure. This month (October) is now the 20th anniversary of Bristol, and so I guess it’s fitting that I share this incredibly personal and moving event with all of you. And please, never hesitate to reciprocate and share a little more about you with me!
20 years ago, on a beautiful early fall weekend, I found myself sitting in New York’s JFK airport. I was with my wife, Michelle and my grandfather or, Nonno (grandfather in Italian), as he was called by our family. Michelle and I were just over a year into our marriage and for me, just over a year of having spent the previous three living with one of the greatest men I ever knew – my Nonno.
I had moved in with Nonno after my roommate’s fiancé chose to move in with us, which left me in need of a place to live. My grandmother had recently passed, and though Nonno certainly was not in need of any assistance from a roommate, he asked me if I wanted to move in with him. For decades, as a kid, I would visit Nonno and marvel at his many works…beautiful oil paintings, volumes of original music, and what seemed like a million pages’ worth of books he had authored. Having led an orchestra as a violinist at the prestigious Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia and then later at The Plaza Hotel in The Palm Court in New York City, Nonno had become quite accomplished. He even wrote music for such greats as Nat King Cole, Jerry Vale, and many others…how could I say no?
And so, after squeezing in a lifetime of memories in that 3-year window, we were now about to board a plane that would take us to a land that gave birth to those who gave birth to the people who would later bring me into this world. It was surreal in so many ways. Having heard about Italy my entire life, listening to my grandparents recount their many visits back to see their family, I knew that one day I would get there. The anticipation as we sat in the gate area waiting to board our flight was almost too much to handle! Nonno was acting a bit strange, however…I just chalked it up to the excitement of the moment and the pride he felt in being able to bring his oldest grandchild and spouse, to his homeland.
Eight hours later, the sun was rising as we were making our descent into Rome. I remember looking out of the airplane window and seeing a landscape that in many ways, reminded me of northern California! We soon disembarked and enjoyed a three-day tour of Rome that tourists would never receive! Nonno took us everywhere. We walked everywhere! And of course, he took us to his favorite, out of the way restaurants where taxi drivers would eat – “not the tourists”! I soaked in every second as the experience was more than I had ever imagined.
On the 4th day, after making an early morning visit to a local market to stock up on some amazing panini’s and red wine, we boarded a train for a 5-hour ride north to Chiavari, Nonno’s hometown. The ride was absolutely stunning as we winded our way through mountains filled with granite and then later, twisting along the Mediterranean coast…amazing! However, Nonno continued the odd behavior he earlier displayed at JFK as Michelle later informed me that during the train ride, when I had fallen asleep (actually into a food coma from the panini and red wine!), Nonno began to inform Michelle of certain personal matters… like where he kept a few “things” back at home in Connecticut, “just in case”.
We eventually arrived at a tiny and oh so quaint train station in Chiavari. Greeted by Nonno’s (my) family, the hugs and kisses belied the fact that we had never previously met. It was as if we had known one another forever. Such warmth and love. Chiavari is one of those tiny postcard-worthy seaside towns of no more than 10,000 people, nestled at the foot of a large mountain range along the Mediterranean ocean. Roughly 20 miles south of Portofino from the gorgeous Chiavari boardwalk, you can see the glittering lights of Portofino just to the north.
After we walked to the hotel to check-in, we rested for a short hour or so and then walked over to Nonno’s sister’s home. As we made a turn down a short, winding little street, we heard the beautiful sound of a woman calling “Giorgio!”, “Giorgio!” We looked up to see Maria, calling from a window in her home to her older brother she clearly loved so much.
Maria hosted quite a party that evening. Filled with the entire family and though none of them could speak English and our Italian was less than fluent, it turned out to be an incredibly wonderful and FUN evening! After dinner, Nonno, his brother-in-law Pietro, Michelle and I, took a stroll along the boardwalk. It was a perfect way to cap an amazing day. A day that for years I had dreamed would one day come true. We finally said our good-bye’s and “Buona Sera’s” to everyone and walked back to the hotel to call it a day. We planned to meet in the hotel lobby at 9 am the next morning.
It was hard to fall asleep that night as the excitement from the thrills of the trip would not allow for it. I added a few passages to the diary Michelle, and I were keeping since we first landed in Rome four days prior. We eventually slipped into a much needed deep, peaceful sleep. Morning arrived and brought immense anticipation as we were to spend another day with family, as well as touring some of the local and nearby sights. At 9 am Michelle, and I walked down to the lobby and were a little surprised to see that Nonno had not been first. One of the many things I had come to respect about Nonno was his strong desire to always, ALWAYS be prompt. “Being tardy was rude,” he would steadily drill into my head. Each morning during our time together as roommates, he was always first to awake. And by the time I had gotten up, showered and dressed, he would have breakfast on the table, clothes in the washing machine and a list of the day’s to-do’s scratched out on a piece of paper.
9 am soon turned into 9:15 and still Nonno had not come down to the lobby. I called his room and received no answer. 9:30 came, and I knew something wasn’t right. The lobby clerk was a young girl who spoke no English. However, with the help of my translation book, I was able to convince her that something was wrong and we needed to get into my Nonno’s room. She retrieved a hotel worker and together, we walked up the stairs and knocked on the door…no answer. The man tried to use the master key to unlock the door. However, Nonno’s key was in the door from inside the room and turned, preventing the master key from being able to unlock the door. There was no other option but to take the door down. My mind was racing, and I didn’t want to believe that something so terrible had happened that would prevent Nonno from coming to the door. I was hoping beyond all hope that the room would be empty and that perhaps, Nonno had gone for a lengthy walk, maybe encountered some old friends and got lost in the conversation. Together, the man and I took the hinges off and gently moved the door to the side. There, on the floor cloaked only in a towel and sitting on the floor leaning against his bed, was Nonno…dead. He died of heart failure that morning.
It is impossible to accurately describe the thoughts rushing through my mind. Of course, being in a land, a town where nobody speaks English…losing our guide, our protector…I immediately stepped into survival mode. It wasn’t until later that evening, after joining Nonno’s nephew to pick out the casket and later, the clothes that Nonno would wear, now forever…after a meal with family, I had never known and that somehow, some way involved more love and laughter than tears…later that night as Michelle and I were lying in bed, the full gravity of it all finally overwhelmed me. I cried. A lot. In fact, I don’t believe I have cried like that since.
The American Embassy mandated Nonno’s body remain in Italy for ten days. Upon learning of this, Francesca, a distant cousin uttered in her best attempt at English, “I show you Italy?” And so Francesca, Michelle and I, traveled to Florence, Siena, Parma, Monte Carlo and Nice. Upon our return to Chiavari, we were informed of a service being held that evening for Nonno.
The service was held in a beautiful, centuries-old church perched atop a bluff that overlooked the town and the sea. Among the many works Nonno had produced were a series of oil paintings. Virtually all of them contained a very similar theme..majestic mountains gently caressing a white-capped sea, with a setting sun in the distance eclipsed by a few, colorful sails. I often wondered where he received this inspiration as this scene would never unfold in Connecticut. Since we were family, the priest allowed us the chance to have our own, special last moment with Nonno before the start of the memorial service. We were escorted up an exterior, stone staircase in the back of the church and as we made our way up the steps, Michelle tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to turn around. Suddenly, there before my eyes, was the sunset Nonno must have witnessed a thousand times. The scene that remained with him all his life and the scene he would paint over and over again…an indescribably beautiful site that was no longer residing in Nonno’s mind as he had now, in dramatic fashion, gifted me with the memory that remains as vivid today as when I first saw the scene unfold, 20 years ago.
I will always feel endlessly blessed by this experience. A tragedy yes, but an experience that has continued to strengthen my family connections and me in the most beautiful ways.