Category Archives: Economy

Toys R Tariffs: The Melissa & Doug Connection

President Trump’s on-again, off-again tariff decisions have rattled the global economy.

Here in the US, sectors ranging from aluminum to footwear have felt whipsawed by decisions made and remade in the White House. The latest industry is a big one: toys.

Earlier this week, the president delayed a new 10 percent tariff on some Chinese imports, from September 1 to December 15. That gives toy manufacturers some breathing room, before and during the make-or-break holiday season.

Melissa and Doug Bernstein

Westport has an important dog in this hunt. Melissa & Doug was founded in 1988 by Doug and Melissa Bernstein, in his parents’ garage on Guyer Road. Over the past 31 years it’s become a highly respected creator, manufacturer and distributor of educational toys, including wooden puzzles, arts and crafts products and more.

Bernstein breathed a sigh of relief at the tariff delay. But, he said yesterday, the larger question is the entire concept of a “trade war.”

“Wars are not good,” he said. “They cause casualties: human, social and economic. Calling this a ‘war’ is not a good thing.” He would prefer to see trade policy discussed “amicably.”

Like most American toy companies, the vast majority — 85 to 90% — of Melissa & Doug’s products are made in China.

This founders did not set out to manufacture overseas. Years ago, Bernstein said, he brought prototypes to factories across in the US. No one wanted the job.

The issue was not price. Rather, it was the “massive amount of handiwork” that goes into each Melissa & Doug item. “They can’t be stamped out” — and American factories could not do it at a price that would be reasonable for consumers.

A small selection of Melissa & Doug toys.

Over the years, Melissa & Doug built strong relationships in China. Today, around 200 or so employees oversee quality and inspection there. “They work for us,” he said. “They’re not 3rd-party contractors.”

While other companies talk about moving production to other parts of the world — Vietnam and India are often mentioned — Melissa & Doug worries about losing quality control.

“We have 3 tenets,” the co-founder says. “We make educational products for children; we make them with the absolute best quality we can, and we price them as affordably as possible. We don’t want them accessible only to kids who grow up in a place like Westport.”

So — even with higher tariffs — Bernstein and his wife are committed to “not passing on higher pricing to consumers. Other companies say that if the tariffs take effect on December 15, they’ll have to raise prices by 10, 20 or 25% in 2020. We’re working very hard not to do that. We would probably absorb most, if not all, of the cost.”

They’ve already been tested. In addition to toys, Melissa & Doug produce items like chalk and markers. They’ve already been hit with several million dollars in tariffs — and have not raised prices.

Bernstein sounds a hopeful note, though. “Honestly, I didn’t think the tariffs would happen on September 1. And I think there’s a high likelihood they won’t happen on December 15. This is a game of chess, and we’re pawns. No one gains from a trade war. I think agreements will be reached.”

Besides chess, Bernstein uses another analogy to describe the last few months.

“We’ve been on a roller coaster,” he says. “It would be one thing if there were transparent discussions. But for us — and everyone in the industry — it’s been up and down, on and off, 10%, 25%, September 1, December 15.”

That’s one game the Westport toy manufacturer has no desire to play.

Charlie Drozdyk: “Job Moron”

If you’re a college graduate looking for a job, you know: It’s tough.

In fact, if you’ve ever looked for a job, you know it’s hard.

As Charlie Drozdyk notes, for decades — centuries? — people have said, “This is a really bad time to be looking for work.” No one ever says, “This year, we have tons of jobs!”

But, Charlie adds — quoting a senior VP of programming at MTV — “There’s always jobs. And there’s never jobs.”

Charlie should know. After graduating from Staples High School in 1983, and then the University of Virginia, he’s worked on Broadway as a theater manager; in Hollywood for CBS and William Morris; in New York and San Francisco in advertising and publicity, and in Austin as COO of a software company.

Right now, he works remotely — as a “digital nomad” — in Central America for a Texas-based firm.

Charlie has also written about careers for Rolling Stone magazine. He had a weekly spot talking about jobs on CNN. HarperCollins and Random House published his books on how to get a job.

Charlie Drozdyk and friend.

He’s just published his 3rd. “Job Moron: Idiot-Proof Strategies for Getting Jobs That  Don’t Suck” offers advice to job-seekers from people who have actually gotten jobs, by doing things “differently and creatively.”

But you don’t only want to get a job. You’d like to move up! “Job Moron” has plenty of info on that too. (“You don’t have to show you can just do your job,” Charlie says. “You have to prove you can do the job above yours too.”)

He interviewed young professionals with “great jobs at great companies”: Geffen Records, the X-Games, the Whitney Museum, Chiat/Day, and top finance and software firms.

They talk about how to network (without losing your soul and integrity), land interviews, make cold calls, and create cover letters and resumes that get noticed.

They discuss what to say — and not say — in interviews. And how to write a thank-you letter that works.

Charlie weaves his own story in too. At UVa he majored in the infamous, often-mocked subject of history — and had, he says, “no contacts and no internships.”

It sounds easy. But Charlie warns: No one owes you a job. A job is possible because someone else worked hard at his or her job. They want to know how you can help them make more money.

Anyone in a position to offer you a job will do so only if they believe 2 things:

  1. You’re hungry for a job.
  2. You don’t think you’re owed one.

Charlie is a lively author. He writes plainly, clearly and bluntly. He uses salty language. He gets the reader attention.

After reading “Job Moron,” you’ll be ready to get anyone’s attention too.

And once you’ve got your foot in that job door, Charlie Drozdyk will make sure it never closes on you again.

(Click here for more information on “Job Moron.” “06880” readers can access the first 13 chapters for free.)

Paying The Planet’s Price

I like Planet Pizza. Their slices are tasty and big. Service is fast and friendly. They support local organizations whenever they’re asked.

But — like a number of “06880” readers, who have emailed me about this — I’m calling BS on the chain’s recent policy shift.

According to notices and flyers, Planet Pizza now offers a “discount” to customers who pay by cash, rather than credit card.

The other day, I ordered a slice. The price was the usual: $4.25. I asked for my cash discount.

No, they said. The sign just meant I’d have to pay more if I used a credit card.

If the price is the same as before, it’s not a cash discount — despite what the sign says, in 3 places. It’s a credit card surcharge.

Offering a surcharge is illegal in Connecticut. A cash discount is fine. (Click here for the legalese.)

But a discount is “an amount or percentage deducted from the normal selling price of something.”

So if the price has not changed — and Planet Pizza’s pies, calzones and everything else are still listed as the same price as before — they’re not offering a discount.

They’re adding a surcharge.

I’ll keep ordering slices there. I’ll continue to pay cash.

But I won’t kid myself that I’m getting a “discount.”

Local Zoning Makes National News

ProPublica — the non-profit investigative news outlet — has published an in-depth look at the interrelated issues of affordable housing and zoning laws in Connecticut.

Much of the piece — produced in collaboration with the Connecticut Mirror, and headlined “How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing” — focuses on Westport.

It does not paint a pretty picture.

The story begins with the example of the new houses being built on the former Daybreak property, near Merritt Parkway Exit 42:

A dirt field overgrown with weeds is the incongruous entrance to one of America’s wealthiest towns, a short walk to a Rodeo Drive-like stretch replete with upscale stores such as Tiffany & Co.

But this sad patch of land is also the physical manifestation of a broader turf war over what type of housing — and ultimately what type of people — to allow within Westport’s borders.

After a lengthy description of the zoning battles that followed — without mentioning traffic and related issues — the piece notes:

Welcome to Connecticut, a state with more separate — and unequal — housing than nearly everywhere else in the country.

This separation is by design.

In fact, the Daybreak project was never about affordable housing. It was planned as 55-and-over housing.

Construction fence at the Daybreak development.

It talks about Westport’s “affordable housing” stock (as defined by state regulation 8-30g), without mentioning that the statute does not include dwellings built before 1990.

In Westport — where gated residences overlook the Long Island Sound and voters solidly backed Democrats in the most recent state and presidential elections — private developers have been allowed to open just 65 affordable housing units over the last three decades. Public housing rentals operated by the local housing authority have also grown at a snail’s pace, with 71 new units opening in this charming small town of 10,400 homes.

The story implies several times that racism is a factor in local housing decisions.

“I think the vestiges of our racial past are far from over,” said former Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who left office in early 2019 after eight years and regularly butted heads with General Assembly members who wanted local officials to have even more authority over housing decisions. For minority residents striving for safe and affordable housing, the state has “denied the opportunity that we allowed white middle-class aspirants to access,” Malloy said.

It includes quotes from Planning & Zoning commissioners and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe — though not always with context.

There are descriptions of zoning battles over developments like 1177 Post Road East (which is already built and occupied) and the Hiawatha Lane project (which has been battled over for years).

An artist’s rendering of the 4-story rental property at 1177 Post Road East.

Particularly striking: A photo of the Community Gardens, next to Long Lots Elementary School. The caption implies that the town bought the land and turned it into gardens simply to prevent construction of “multifamily housing for low-income residents in (that) heavily residential single-family section of Westport.”

There’s much more. It’s a long piece — and it will get people talking.

Click here to read the entire story.

“Downtown Future” Forum Set

It’s a hot Westport topic, right alongside the future of Coleytown Middle School, bathrooms at South Beach, and ospreys.

“What’s up with downtown?” we ask.

We jabber about Main Street vacancies, online shopping, high rents and the new Norwalk mall.

We pine for the old mom-and-pop shops — or snort that those days are long gone.

Those were the days. Right?

The Coalition for Westport discusses that too. Members talk about attracting retailers like grocery and hardware stores, book shops and pharmacies; about 2nd-floor apartments; about a movie theater, cafes and other attractions that draw nighttime crowds.

To get a discussion going, the Coalition is sponsoring a forum. “Let’s Talk About Downtown and the  Future of Main Street” is set for next Monday (May 13, 7 p.m., 24 Elm Street — in Bedford Square, next to HSBC Bank 56 Church Lane, the Visual Brand office).

Panelists include Joseph McGee, Business Council of Fairfield County vice president for public policy and programs; David Kooris, deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, and a representative of the downtown business community.

All Westporters — and stakeholders — are invited.

The event is free.

So is the parking.

Arete: The Post Road/Madagascar Connection

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries on earth.

The main economic resources of the beautiful Indian Ocean island, 250 miles off the coast of Africa, are tourism, agriculture, textiles and mining.

Textiles are the most important when it comes to creating much needed jobs quickly. That’s Eugene Havemann’s business. And — from his new base in Westport — the South Africa native is doing all he can to give the nation a boost.

Eugene Havemann inside Arete, his new store at 123 Post Road East.

Years ago at university in Pietermaritzburg, Havemann made money by selling t-shirts on campus. That led to a career in the garment industry. He started a company, and has helped build one of the largest factories in Madagascar.

Three years ago, he focused on the US market. As that business grew, he realized he needed a physical presence here.

He and his wife Debby researched the best places to live. They looked at the West Coast, Colorado, Texas and Georgia.

But Havemann realized it was important to be near New York. With 4 kids though, they did not want to live in the city.

The Princeton area was beautiful. Realtor Janice McGrath took them all over New York state and Connecticut.

When they came to Westport, Eugene and Debby knew they’d found the right spot.

Compo Beach, Longshore and the Saugatuck River were all attractive. But the schools really amazed them. They were particularly intrigued that Staples High sponsors teams in rugby, water polo and field hockey — all sports their children were familiar with from South Africa.

“This is the place,” the couple decided.

In addition to the core business (www.madagarments.com) and his online www.arete-retail.com, the Havemanns opened a brick-and-mortar shop here. Westport, they believe, complements their brand identities.

Inside Arete.

Arete — the Greek word means “excellence of any kind” — just popped up at 123 Post Road East, across from Bank of America. It’s filled with intriguing baskets, bags, smock dresses and hats. Towels, home decor and leather belts will be added soon. Most bags and hats are made of raffia, a strong, malleable and high-end palm tree leaf indigenous to Madagascar.

In that country of 26 millions, Havemann says, only 550,000 people are formally employed. Arete provides a platform for women artisans to market their goods in the US.

Every basket sold provides enough money for a woman to feed a family of 6 for a week.

Response to the Westport store has been excellent. At least half of the people who walk in buy something. Most don’t even know that their purchase supports people halfway around the globe.

The Havemanns have only been here a few months. But they’re building a business. The schools are wonderful. The family has met other South Africans in town, and people from all over the world.

Plus, Havemann — who has lived in two gorgeous countries — says of his new home town, “Westport is one of the most beautiful places on earth.”

Ray Dalio’s Dollars

Ray Dalio is the highest-earning hedge fund manager on the planet.

Institutional Investor estimates that the founder of Westport-based Bridgewater Associates — often called the biggest hedge fund in the world — earned $2 billion last year.

That’s close to double his 2017 take of $1.3 billion — good for only 4th on the hedge fund manager earning list.

Let’s hope he shops locally.

(For the full New York Times story, click here. Hat tip: Gil Ghitelman.)

Ray Dalio, at Bridgewater’s Weston Road office.

Post Road Real Estate: 2 Years Later

Alert “06880” reader Bob Weingarten writes:

In June 2017 I drove along the Post Road from the eastern border, near Bulkley Avenue, to the western end, near Whole Foods. I counted the number of buildings — including individual offices or retail space — for lease or sale. I spotted 50 signs, just on the Post Road.

These figures were the basis of an “06880” story: “This Space For Lease.” It drew 57 comments.

Because we have been told that the economy is “so strong,” I decided to drive the same route, and again count how many buildings or individual offices were for lease or sale.

This time I spotted over 65 for lease or sale. That does not include all the new residential construction on the Post Road, such as the 94 apartments at 1177 Post Road East, or the 2 mixed-use buildings with a total of 28 apartments (some in townhouses) at 793 Post Road East.

The former A&J’s Market on Post Road East is available …

While counting, I realized that this mix of for lease or sale buildings and offices was extremely different from 2017.

This time I spotted 2 bank buildings, a gas station, a farm market, a classic car dealer, and several large commercial buildings and retail outlets for lease or sale.

… as is the old Mobil Self-Serve near Barnes & Noble …

During the past 2 years many of the former for-lease buildings have been occupied. But it appears to me there is a larger inventory of space available now, with larger properties.

I have my own opinion as to the reasons — for example, higher rental rates or the economy — but other readers may have better knowledge.

… and the nearby bank, at the corner of Morningside Drive.

The 2017 Post Road story noted that there were “10 or so others on Main Street.” I just drove from the Post Road to Avery Place on Main Street, and counted 10 buildings or retail spaces for lease.

From Avery Place to Kings Highway North I saw an additional 3 more “for lease signs.”

The same questions posed in 2017 are still relevant today: “Is something wrong with Westport’s commercial real estate market? If so, are there solutions?”

Click “Comments” below to offer answers.

Or more questions.

[OPINION] Transit Directors Seek Budget Restoration

Last month, the Board of Finance cut the Westport Transit District’s funding request. The WTD is preparing a restoration request for the Representative Town Meeting. Today, directors Marty Fox and Patsy Cimarosa lay out their case.

The Westport Transit District provides bus service with minibuses operated under subcontract with the Norwalk Transit District. It operates 7 commuter shuttle routes to and from the Saugatuck and Greens Farms rail stations, and provides daytime Door-to-Door transportation for seniors and residents with disabilities. (Information on these services, including routes, schedules and fares, can be found here: WestportTransit.org.)

Westport Transit budgeted about $575,000 in state funding for the commuter shuttles for the 2020 fiscal year starting in July. We requested an additional $238,000 from Westport to cover the remaining cost of the commuter shuttles not covered by fares.

A Westport Transit District shuttle rider.

On March 12, Westport’s Board of Finance cut the Town’s financial support for the commuter shuttles by $115,000, approximately half the Westport support necessary to operate the current shuttle routes for the coming fiscal year. (No changes were made to the Door-to-Door component of the WTD’s FY20 budget.)  The Board of Finance affirmed its decision to cut the commuter shuttle funding at its April 3 meeting.

Consistent with the provisions of the Town Charter, the Westport Transit District will ask the Representative Town Meeting to restore the $115,000 in town funding at the RTM’s May 6 meeting. Should the cut not be restored, it’s likely that most or all of the town’s commuter shuttle service would be eliminated by the end of the calendar year – and Westport would lose over $500,000 of state support for the commuter shuttles. (Door-to-Door services will not be affected.)

The Transit District’s April 3rd presentation to the Board of Finance sets out why we asked the Board of Finance to restore the $115,000 it cut from Westport’s funding of the commuter shuttles.

These are also the basis for the WTD’s request to the RTM to restore the full town funding of this community service. Among the reasons is the strong support for fully funding the commuter shuttles expressed by Westport residents in the 2018 townwide survey on Westport’s bus services, completed by 1,700 residents.

More detailed information about the Westport Transit District’s operations, current initiatives, and findings of the 2018 Town-wide survey can be found in the WTD’s March 12 presentation to the Board of Finance.

The RTM Transit Committee meets this Wednesday (April 24). The RTM Finance Committee meeting — when the budget restoration request will be discussed — is this Thursday (April 25).

Westport residents can make their opinion about the future of the commuter shuttles known by contacting RTM members at RTMMailingList@westportct.gov, and speaking at the May 6 RTM meeting.

 

Financial Reality Comes To Staples

A few years ago this month, I got a panicked text from a soccer player I’d coached at Staples High School.

He graduated from college the previous year. Now — less than a year into his first job — he said, “I owe thousands of dollars to the IRS. How come no one ever taught me about taxes at Staples??!!”

Sarah White

The chances I’ll receive a similar text are a lot lower today. Two-thirds of seniors take Personal Finance — a math department elective taught lovingly but toughly by Stacey Delmhorst, Jen Giudice, Lenny Klein and Sarah White.

And a couple of weeks ago, every senior took part in Staples’ first-ever Financial Reality Fair. They gave it high marks.

The event was part of a larger 4-hour “Real World” event. Students learned about substance abuse, sexual assault and reproductive health.

But the money shot involved money.

The idea came from the classes’ regular visits to Financial Reality Fairs at other schools. White and Klein asked each other, Why not do one at Staples?

White took the lead. Principal James D’Amico and the school’s Collaborative Team gave their blessings. But making it a reality took a ton of work.

Connecticut’s Credit Unions were the sponsors. They provided the curriculum, materials and a number of experts.

The Staples PTA provided a $4,000 Wrecker Mini-Grant. They also put out a call for (financially literate) volunteers. The response was tremendous — including members of Westport’s Board of Finance and Education. Students who had previously been to a Financial Reality Fair also volunteered.

Staples parent Margie Adler and senior Vaughan Picirillo-Sealey: volunteers at the Financial Reality Fair.

Students began the day by choosing a career. They could pick anything — business executive, doctor, lawyer, actor, financial analyst, pilot, military member, writer, teacher, whatever.

They were then given the starting salary (in Connecticut) for that job. Each student was also saddled with student loan debt. The amount owed depended on the years of education required for that profession. The longer they were in school, the higher their debt.

They were also assigned — randomly — a credit score.

Tables in the gym were marked with various real-life expenditures: Housing, Transportation, Food, Clothing.

Wait — food costs money?!

Those were mandatory. Others were optional: Nightlife, Fitness & Gym, Hair/Nails/Spa, Cell Phone, Cable/Internet, Pets, Travel.

By themselves, or — if they wished — with a “roommate,” students visited tables. There were many options. How often would they eat out? Did they want basic cable, or the platinum package? What kind of vacations would they take?

Staples seniors Ben Schwartz and Lefty Pendarakis discuss options with Financial Reality Fair volunteers.

They could choose one-off expenses too, like buying an Xbox. If they wanted to buy a car, fine — but they had to take out a credit union loan. (Hey, they were the sponsors!)

There was also a mandatory “wheel” to spin. It saddled them with unexpected costs (lost cell phone, broken leg) or extra funds (overtime pay, birthday gift).

The wheel of fortune. Or misfortune.

Each choice carried consequences. As the students quickly learned, each consequence led to others.

When they were done with their budget, each teenager met with a volunteer financial counselor. They had undergone training, to ask questions like, “Why did you make that decision?”

The final step: meeting with a financial counselor.

It was a very engaging — and educational — day.

The students were surprised at the effect of student debt on their budgets. They were even more amazed at the impact of credit scores.

“I had to pay more than my friend for the same truck!” one boy said, astonished.

Feedback was excellent. The soon-to-go-off-to-college-and-then-become-adults began seeing finances not as something provided by the Bank of Mom and Dad, but as actual living, changing realities.

It was a reality check for some. A wake-up call for others.

And for one — well, who knows?

“I realize I’m not ready for life,” the student said.

But he or she is a lot more ready than that former soccer player who texted me — panic-stricken — after his first encounter with the IRS.