Challenges, Change, Gratitude, and More Challenges

 

December 2005 was a turning point in my life. Up until the end of 2005 I had spent most of my textile career (more than 30 years) with one great family firm (Forté Cashmere Company). During that time, I was lucky enough to have the chance to travel to more than 20 countries, learn a heck of a lot about textiles, and become a world renowned expert in cashmere. The cashmere business, like many others, found its end when it essentially moved lock, stock, and barrel to China. In the case of cashmere, moving to China made a lot of sense since they grow (through their cashmere goat population) about 65% of the raw cashmere in the world. It was a turning point for me. There I was, never having the need to look for a job in over 30 years. Despite the fact that I was 51 years old, I thought finding a new job would be easy since I was so “skilled” in international trade, and why wouldn’t some firm want someone like me who was obviously so loyal? It wasn’t easy! I consulted in textiles for roughly two years, and while I liked the challenge and diversity of consulting, I knew it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I wanted to know where I was going every day and how I could contribute to the effort.

In late December 2005 I was sitting in the office of Karl Spilhaus, who I had known for about 25 years. Karl is the president of the Cashmere & Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute (CCMI) (Forté was one of the founding members in 1984), an organization which I more affectionately refer to as the “cashmere police,” since one of their main jobs is to combat cashmere mislabeling. We were scheduled to do a television interview for a New York station doing a spot about cashmere mislabeling. As it turned out, the TV station mixed up the dates and did not show up, but during the wait the conversation turned to the American Textile History Museum. Karl was (and still is) a long time Trustee of the Museum and he told me about the challenges the Museum was facing at that time. He asked me if I would be interested in taking on the ATHM challenge and, anxious for a job that I could go to every day and put forth my best effort, I said yes.

The Trustees were mostly interested in my business skills. The fact that I had lots of textile knowledge was a great plus, too, but they certainly weren’t hiring me for my museum expertise. Between 2001 and 2005, interest in the Museum began to lessen following a number of successful years after the move to Lowell in 1997. Partly as a result of the lessened interest, the Museum had eroded a significant portion of its endowment, and the Trustees became very concerned about the future of the Museum. They had taken a number of draconian but necessary steps to stabilize the Museum, and, in that same December of 2005, had set a date of June 30, 2006 to come to some important decisions about the future of the Museum. A number of the alternatives were not very appealing. We (we called ourselves the “germs,” short for those responsible for germinating new ideas) formulated a plan to revitalize the Museum and move forward in the great city where the Industrial Revolution exploded: Lowell, MA. The main feature of the plan was to totally rebuild the 25,000 square foot exhibit by bringing it up to date, making it more encompassing of the whole textile industry, and making it highly interactive and fun for all ages, especially families. The Trustees voted to proceed with the plan at the May 2006 Annual Meeting and implementation began immediately. We embarked on a critical $3.9 million (really $4.9 million as it included a $1 million match) fundraising campaign and fulfilled that campaign in May 2008. We began construction in July 2008 and reopened to the public in June 2009.

All of that speaks to the great challenges we faced, and to succeed in overcoming those challenges, plenty of change had to occur. Change is often not a comfortable thing. Most of us feel better if a solid status quo exists, but if we truly dug down deep, we knew the mentality of this Museum had to change. I consider myself an optimistic realist. My optimism helps me motivate myself and others to believe we can achieve a great but very challenging outcome if we all work in harmony and believe in our common goal. The realist in me helps keep me grounded in reality (as has my business career) and hopefully won’t let me move in fanciful directions. The team that achieved our great success in June 2009 did so because we all believed we could achieve our goals and—pardon my French—we worried our derrieres off to do so. Challenges and change!

I have a special gratitude to two people without whom I don’t believe this would all have happened. I don’t mean to slight anyone’s efforts, as we all worked so hard to reach this new beginning. I also don’t mean to undervalue the critical roles the Trustees and Advisors and donors played because without them, too, none of this would have been possible. Having said all that, the two people that are due such gratitude are Diane Fagan Affleck and Linda Carpenter. More so than ever, it is appropriate to recognize them, as both of them announced their desire to retire in 2010. Their desire to retire has nothing to do with a want to leave ATHM. It’s because they are choosing to take on a more full-time role in their family life. There is nothing in life more important than family! While both of them are “leaving” ATHM, we know that they will never really leave since their hearts and souls and their enormous contributions to ATHM and the history of American textiles will live on forever. Like so many others who came before them, they lived and bled textiles.

Diane Fagan Affleck (second from right) with (from left to right) exhibit architect Doug Mund, Curator Karen Herbaugh, and President and CEO Jim Coleman.

Linda Carpenter with her uncle, Bob Caffray, at the President's Dinner.

Diane was the Director of Change and Linda the Director of Challenges. Diane understood this place needed radical change and it would take pretty significant change on her part if change was really going to take place. She carried out enormous change in helping this Museum realize its potential. This is not to say that Linda didn’t carry out tremendous change, too, as she did. Just as Diane took on any challenge put in front of her.

Linda’s challenge was to find a way to raise that $3.9/4.9 million, or all of the change we envisioned would simply be a dream. She also had the challenges of teaching me how to help succeed in that effort. Never in my business career did my job include raising money. I was always the operations guy who preferred to stay behind the scenes. Staying behind the scenes is not exactly the way to get the message out and raise the funds we needed so I/we couldn’t have succeeded without Linda’s tutelage!

I and the organization will miss them both. Their happy smiling faces (it was more difficult to get Diane to smile as much as I would like), their sage advice, and their reeling me in when I might wade in too deep. Their passion, compassion, and dedication made it so much easier for me. I’m sure I could utilize a lot more words ending in “-ion” to describe their contribution, but I’ve already blogged on a bit longer than normal and I still have a few more things to say!

As Linda and Diane well know, while we accomplished a tremendous amount here in the past five years, all we have really accomplished is to give this great place a new chance to succeed. We still have our “structural deficit,” which stands in the way of our long term success. I learned that term in early 2006, and essentially it means our endowment and earned revenues are not big enough to fund the appropriate portion of our annual operating expenses. Consequently, the outcome is to rely too heavily on fundraising. While we have not overcome that fundamental issue, with the new exhibit, new outreach, opportunity, and ability to reach out to new people, foundations, and corporations, we have a new chance to succeed. Linda and Diane helped get us to this point, and I am grateful that we have this new challenge. It will take the hard work of others to help us achieve that future success, but I’m sure with the spirit of Linda and Diane, we have a real chance to succeed!!

Jim Coleman
President and CEO

Leave a Reply