By Mary Duggan
Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.
by William Congreve, The Mourning Bride, 1697
As a young woman I entered into a really sick marriage. Well educated, meaningfully employed and facing a red-hot future, I walked head long and innocent into an abyss that derailed me – heart and soul – for over 14 years. I know from abuse. Exposure now to interpersonal toxins registers with me physically: a bitter, metallic taste fills my mouth; my solar plexus swells and painfully tightens. My reaction is visceral, insistent and king-sized. I have successfully healed on many levels from that experience and I have painstakingly steered clear of abusive relationships ever since. I never imagined that business partnerships could so easily replicate the abusive model I had so struggled to overcome. Boy, was I wrong.
In March of 2011 the Duggan Sisters loaded our lifestinks® deodorant products into our first Whole Foods Market, led an inspiring and informative training session for the staff, and filled a kiosk with our treasured products; an environmentally responsible and lymphatically sound deodorant system that represented the combined efforts of the three of us for the better part of a decade. When the kiosk finally looked as perfect as we could possibly make it, I turned to a stunned Clare and said “I have to get out of here NOW. Please, get me out of here!” On what should have been one of the happiest and most fulfilling days of my career, I was having THE REACTION and I was having it strong.
I am so powerfully attuned to abusive energy that I knew in one day what it would take our company collectively 10 months and a lot of anguish to comprehend. Many the bride knows the feelings of doom I was experiencing. They know they are making a terrible mistake; but, for a myriad of reasons, they walk down the aisle anyways. My journey this time was down the grocery aisle; but surviving and recovering from marital abuse gave me the insights and frame of reference I needed to identify the same beast in a new role.
EYES WIDE OPEN
Like a handsome and charismatic groom seducing a plain but accomplished bride, Whole Foods Market (WFM) had the cachet and wow factor that our humble little company so desperately needed. Or so we thought. Faithful fans and followers of our grass root initiative were thrilled for us and this added to our joy. But wise observers and victims from every direction came to us with scary stories about this organization. We listened and believed and sought legal counsel. Powerful, prestigious and practically pro bono, our attorneys reviewed the WFM contract to no avail. With this organization it was their way or the highway – a take it or leave it arrangement that was the first of so many red flags.
Our trusted trademark attorney had done her job well. Our registered trademark arrived so far ahead of schedule that it felt like a blessing, an omen, and a talisman. This grand new partnership inspired us to fulfill a dream and so with borrowed funds we increased and completed our flight of products with multiple strengths in each infusion and marked the achievement with new labels touting internationally recognized (INCI) terminology. Those were heady and busy days, months actually, totaling almost six, as we dutifully prepared for the coming union. Having experienced rigorous sales and passionate launch parties with previous partners, we braced ourselves for the growth that an established chain with a marketing machine could generate. Our production and raw materials schedules honed and re-honed, we had our ducks in a row and had completed the rigorous application process to prove it. The bride was fertile; but the groom proved to be impotent. We soon discovered what an unpleasant fellow an impotent groom can be.
REGIONAL ON THE LINE: STRIKE ONE
It’s not uncommon for abused wives to reflect that there was no honeymoon. Our union certainly afforded none at all. The heady load in of products was squelched almost immediately with a phone call from REGIONAL. The buyer, inspired we thought by our proven and successful track record had purchased too much of our product. WE were never to allow that again. One sample of each item would be sufficient. We pressed our case that years of marketing our product had taught us some valuable tools for presenting it. We were begrudgingly afforded a modified case size – 3 of each item. But the delivery of the message was so harsh that the entire team sat in stunned and pained silence while Clare navigated the ins and outs of the conversation.
Sometimes you can simply witness someone answering a phone call and know that they are being bullied. I had THE REACTION again, but I had to defer to the wise counsel of my incredibly skillful sister. We can work with this, she assured me. We can make this work. It will be okay. I had seen her work successfully with bigger and more powerful clients. I had seen her negotiate in foreign lands. I had seen her negotiate in multiple languages. I pushed down my gnawing suspicions and followed her lead. In that one phone call, we had met the Midwest Whole Body Regional Representative. I like to give folks code names so let’s just call him Eminem. No reason, I just like the gangster thug sound of it. But I didn’t like the smell of him. I smelled was the beast. That nasty conversation proved to be the most pleasant one received over a period of ten months. Ten months that were to leave us exhausted, stressed, confused, isolated, discouraged, and with little to show for relentless organizational efforts and commitment.
NOT A SPIDER, NOT A STARFISH, IT’S A SCORPION!
Each store within the WFM Chain is a separate and often confusing experience. Some were a rapid fire yes; others required determined salesmanship on our part. Some embraced the training and took an inspired and spirited approach to selling our line.
Some refused training altogether. Others scheduled it months into the future or cancelled at the last minute with little or no explanation. The thought of our very different products being serviced by an untrained staff concerned us deeply. Training sessions ended with a thank you to each staffer for taking part in our training sessions, and a gift of $20 worth of free product. Oftentimes our thank you was met with an expression that we began to hear more and more, “No problem, I’m paid to be here.” It was delivered to us so often as we thanked staff for assistance that it seemed to be their corporate mantra and not at all reassuring to a new partner. And those were the happy times; the honeymoon, so to speak.
Our strategies and projections for ramping up were replaced with a slow down of production as we attuned ourselves to WFM’s idea of acceptable sales and their clear lack of commitment to personal care products. At their peak, 18 of their stores combined did not equal one of our other independent stores! And yet, we were receiving calls from other regions within their chain about our products. They wanted the Duggan Sisters in their stores because they were seeing such wonderful “flow” and hearing great things about our brand from the Midwest buyers. It was all very confusing and exhausting.
We tried to keep our focus on the many wonderful members of the WFM family who enthusiastically embraced our message and sold our products with all the fervor that WFM allows its frequently harried staff. We personally launched store after store, met our WFM customers face-to-face, participated in every WFM event we could manage, even dedicated specific Blog posts to Whole Foods staffers who were embracing our health suggestions. All the while though, almost every start up order and many of the refill orders were botched by their staff and required time-consuming assistance and patience from our team. We stretched ourselves thin and found the time to get into the stores to launch and support with demos, as the buyers and team leaders made it clear that they wanted it to be the sisters themselves. But behind the scenes support required on a daily basis to correct and manage the itsy bitsy and inefficient reorders we were receiving took lots and lots of time and energy.
It even got fun for a brief moment. Duplicate invitations arrived requesting us to appear in the stores as Walter Robb, co-CEO of WFM, was coming to town. Staff made a simple and sensible case for us to be there. It is important that we have a strong showing of local vendors. You really have to meet him, we heard. We just know they are going to take you global, they gushed. And so, of course, we made those appearances as well. And we did meet him and he was gracious and complimentary and so encouraging, saying all the things we had been told would indicate the nod, the subtle kimono opening to become a global brand. And so there was some excitement and the feeling that maybe by opening 300 stores we could actually make some headway with this partnership. But it was not to be. The beast had other plans.
HINDSIGHT IS 20/20 AND OTHER FRUSTRATIONS
With October and the demands of Breast Cancer Awareness month, came the descent into the belly of the beast. We were to learn all that we needed to know, and more than we wanted to know. We should have walked then but we didn’t. Grass roots initiatives like ours are tough. If we were to run from every adversity we would never get anywhere. It is also in the nature of entrepreneurs and we are that, as well, to simply view each problem as it reveals itself as just the next hurdle to jump. We tried to jump; but we should have run.
I was the one most responsible for what came to be known as the October debacle. Months in advance we had committed to participating in a ladies spa night at a West Suburban store. In the intervening months we had learned much about these spa nights and the complete ineptitude of our partners to effectively market their events. I was hoarse and weary from the demands of accepting speaking engagements as a breast health professional during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I asked Clare to contact the store and ask a favor. Could we possibly come on the following Saturday and do our demo then? Clare made our sensible case as best she could. Everything she said was true. I was hoarse and exhausted. I would be rested by Saturday. Didn’t it better serve both of our organizations to be in the store on a Saturday when there would be crowds of people we could sell to than to appear at yet another sleepy spa event? We reminded her that we were not sending a demo person. We were sending the owners of the company. She would have none of it. A curt and demanding email made clear to us that our bid for flexibility had gone unheard.
We keep our promises. We went. No one turned out. The event was the dismal failure that we had predicted. Fellow vendors reached out to one another in anger and frustration. Particularly vendors who were owners with crazy busy schedules and entrepreneurial smarts that caused them to recoil at ridiculous events that were doomed to fail. I knew we were in trouble though as the Whole Body Buyer stood across the room and glared at us, failing completely to take the opportunity to strengthen the bonds of partnership that could have and should have informed the event.
THE ONLY PIRATE WE LIKE IS JOHNNY DEPP
Then the night took a terrible turn. The employee responsible for marketing the event came to my display to chat. I did my best to remain convivial and engaged though the stink of the failure was oppressive. She began to tell me how truly blessed the Duggan Sisters were by the Buyer in this particular store and how brilliantly she had presented our product line at an all-store meeting for staff beyond just the personal care staff we had trained. As she described the session, beaming with pride in her friend and colleague, I almost fell off my stool with shock and discouragement. She proceeded to tell me that she had taught them how to pirate our product, bypass our carefully selected decanter, buy our replacement bag and dispense it among salt and pepper shakers to share. I could hardly breathe as she went on and on and on. Finally I found my voice and tried to hold to my calm center as I explained to her how upsetting that was to me on so many levels. She was instantly angry and defensive as I explained how many levels I was horrified on:
- Our product is protected, for God’s sake, by trademark.
- Years had gone into finding the perfect decanter free from deadly aluminum or toxic tin and with just the right size of wire mesh – were they vetting their alternate containers carefully?
- Her defense that the shakers were glass left me dumbfounded. But botanicals can’t be exposed to light or they lose their efficacy, I wailed. They’re damaging our product and our brand!
- She defended her colleagues’ in-house pirating seminars, saying, “Mary, these kids only make $10/hour.” To which I replied hand over mouth, I haven’t drawn a salary in over 5 years to bring this product to market! It sells for $3/month and drops to $1.50/month with a refill. How can she sell it to the public if she can’t sell it to fellow staffers? If she is teaching her fellow employees to pirate our products, how can I trust her that she isn’t doing the same with customers?
I went home as tired as I have ever been. The beast was wearing a bra! I was having THE REACTION big time. I knew we were in trouble just as surely as I’d known when I’d found another woman’s lipstick in my car those many years ago. We called our attorney immediately. He advised us to reach out to Eminem in Regional for a low-key discussion of issues, stressing our shared interest in nipping this in the bud. Before we could dial the phone, fires were burning in other stores.
GRASS ROOTS SCORCHED AND BURNED
Our nephew had gone into a WFM location on the North side. He needed a travel container. There wasn’t one in our display. He approached a team member to see when there would be more arriving. She was terribly rude to him and made some sort of unhelpful response. He completed his shopping and was in the check out line when she popped into view with a refill bag to which she had affixed a TRY ME tag! An $18 ONE-YEAR REFILL given out as a sample! What dispenser was she presuming he would use? He’d been seeking a lavender extra strength traveler. How about offering him a cedarwood extra strength traveler? Now a Try Me label on that would have made sense. Incredulous and confused he took the bag, left the store and called us immediately. Guys, you have real training challenges going on here. A small glitch, but I trust my nephew completely. He was really shaken by how rude she had been to a Duggan Sisters customer and then how stupid. I agreed that while a small problem, little more than an annoyance in the larger scheme of things, it would need to be addressed. I didn’t smell the beast on this one until the next morning.
That’s when Try Me Tallulah, let’s just call her that for convenience, called us. You people is generally not one of my favorite ways for a sentence to begin and there she was saying you people have a labeling problem. Of course Try Me Tallulah was having an employment problem and so Clare patiently explained to her how her own system worked and offered to take back the products she had ordered in error and replace them. While she had her on the line, Clare attempted to build on the good will of having just taught Try Me Tallulah a bit more about her job and having bailed her out of her problem with no expenses incurred. She wanted to softly correct her giving out refill bags as samples. But there was to be none of that. Try Me Tallulah went on the attack. Attacking our nephew, insulting our nephew, defending her right to do as she pleased in her own store and then wrapping up with the oh so popular, and while I have you on the phone. She wanted to make sure that Clare knew that she was quite the unpopular figure among Try Me Tallulah’s colleagues and that she might want to tone it down a bit as was becoming known as someone who was quite harsh to do business with. I don’t even remember how the conversation (which I witnessed) ended, as I was overwhelmed with nausea and dread. Another beast in a bra and the stench was unbearable.
REGIONAL CALLS AGAIN: STRIKE TWO
Try Me Tallulah took action immediately and triggered number 2 of the 3 calls that were to solidify and ultimately end our WFM experience. Eminem was on the line and he was spitting mad. How dare you abuse my staff! You people (there it is again) are impossible! That was the good part of the one-way conversation. It went down from there. In fact the threatening, bullying, and belittling went on for close to 45 minutes. At one point Clare even asked him to stop so she could catch her breath. It was that brutal. When it was over she cried in front of our staff. For weeks, I could see that she had sustained a real blow. She told me later that in 20 years of work in over 18 countries for some of the biggest brands on the planet, no one had ever reduced her to tears. Her attempts to tell our side of the “story” was met with I don’t care what you have to say. No, I don’t want to meet you. No, I don’t want to discuss this. You need to back off and stop bullying my staff.
And that’s when we learned about Empowerment. WFM places real importance on the empowerment of their employees. We were to be told about this core value frequently from Eminem; well, as frequently as 3 one-way conversations allows. His staff’s integrity was infallible and we were abusive, intense and there on borrowed time. Okay, I added in the last three words; I was educated by nuns and that was a threat I was used to. “Miss Duggan, you are here on borrowed time.” Eminem I was not used to. Eminem I couldn’t believe. I felt like somehow I had been assigned a parole officer, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember my crime.
GIRL POWER GONE SOUR
Now empowerment is one of those catch words that sounds great on the surface. When we donate to Organizations like KIVA we are trying desperately to empower women to make real strides to heal the lives of their families and their communities. But this empowerment was proving to be really different. This was the kind of empowerment more closely related to scape-goating. This was the kind of empowerment you use when you’ve screwed up really bad and taught folks how to pirate a product you’ve been paid to sell. Yeah, this is the cover your butt kind of interpretation of empowerment that healthy organizations see through in a hot second. This is the “who do these ladies think they are with their little product and their self-employment and how rich are they” kind of empowerment. This is the danger of all dangers. This is power without wisdom, dialogue, or discernment; hell, basic fairness was out the window. This was the kind of power that made me think of the movie “Shawshank Redemption” where frustrated, angry inmates with ruined lives brutalized and tortured an innocent man.
Yikes, what a horrible way to have the inner dynamics of your business described. But, that is the best description I can provide. That was THE REACTION that flooded through me the day of our first load in. It raced up my spine to the base of my skull. We are not safe here. I could feel the jealous stares from the lifers (I mean staffers.) The resentment from day one was palpable. And nothing we would ever do in the way of training, or service or demo would ever change that. It was endemic to the organization and enforced by Eminem. In the vernacular, we were screwed.
WE LIKE YOUR PRODUCTS, BUT WE DON’T LIKE YOU
Remember the spa girl with the ethics of a pirate? Well, she also reached out to Eminem with a characterization of us that confirmed my worst fears and that defied belief. We were not supporting our brand. We were refusing to participate in events with other vendors present. Our display had been dismantled as a punishment. Remember, with a legal mishap like pirating a brand protected by Federal Trademarking laws she had a pretty big ass to cover and cover it she did.
Now bullying children is evil. But the same dynamic applied to innocent adults is also pretty harrowing. The stakes, namely a brand you have mortgaged your home, your health and your life to build is being libeled. And it’s being libeled within an organization that allows you no recourse, no ombudsman, no voice whatsoever. You are being slandered by an organization that is publicly invoking local and artisan and all sorts of other popular buzz words when privately they are threatening you that you had better put a distributor, and a sales rep and demo teams in place PRONTO because while their team likes your product they “don’t like you.”
Like me? What does that mean? Like me? Rarely one to wave a flag of sexism, I have to wonder if they have ever summarily dismissed a male owned and operated company by telling the owners that “we don’t like you!” Tell me that my products have arrived improperly packaged. Tell me that I can’t maintain high enough volumes. Tell me that my product is failing to capture the imagination of shoppers and is sitting on the shelves. Tell me that my labels are crooked or my mother wears army boots. But, you don’t like me? What in the world is a responsible, tested, creative, respected and professional business owner supposed to do with that? People, someone needs to be called to the principal’s office and they need to be called there now.
Our bra-wearing pirate made her move and Eminem played right into her hands. Her butt was covered and nicely so. Now the threats were on steroids. We were being instructed on how to run our business by Eminem himself. We had broken the rules again. We were defying him. We were abusing his staff. We needed to put people in place immediately so that his victimized staff (who didn’t like us) would no longer suffer at our hands.
That Whole Foods Market had recruited us didn’t matter. That we had never been presented with a set of rules was irrelevant. This was not going to be a dialogue. That small artisan shops can’t afford sales reps and demo teams to support sleepy little toxic accounts didn’t matter. That we had encountered lots of team members who expressed enthusiasm and support and genuine excitement about our products being carried was an illusion. We were told that we were so abusive towards the staff that they were afraid to speak the truth to us. The truth was saved for Monday morning meetings and elicited only by his Eminence Eminem who made multiple references to just pulling our product right then and right there. God, I wish he had done that and saved us the final futile efforts to save our doomed endeavor.
VALENTINE’S DAY AT WFM: NO HEARTS ALLOWED
Instead, we interviewed Sales Reps and demo staff. We sought Venture Capital to pay their salaries. We trained a current employee to be our first demo lady and spent untold hours scheduling six weeks of aggressive in-store demos. We got lots of great feed back on her skills and orders started getting bigger. We were invited to participate in events at other stores, including a panel discussion on International Women’s Day. It seemed that things were looking up when an innocent call to a far-flung store to schedule a demo shift was met with an angry staffer threatening to pull our products. We asked for a meeting to hear their grievances and see if we could remedy the situation. We were selling strong in a neighboring store, but we wanted to maintain as stellar a performance as possible so that we could win the coveted global prize. And we just didn’t like anyone to be unhappy with our product presence in any store.
The meeting went, we thought, quite well. The buyer had never met us and knew absolutely nothing about our brand. The Team Leader had met with Clare, been fully trained on our products and our story, but somehow had not felt inclined to share any of the selling techniques she had been taught with her staff of five. She had cancelled training with a day’s notice and was relentless in reaming us for not having “harassed” her about a reschedule the way all the other vendors do. I’m thinking, is that the key? Were we supposed to be harassing instead of abusing? I was super confused and really sick and tired of the entire joyless, barren and time-wasting endeavor; but I did my best to inspire and left with newly scheduled training and the begrudging respect of the buyer who recognized middle aged entrepreneurial exhaustion when she saw it on my face. I really respect you ladies was her parting comment.
She and the Team Leader relayed an entirely different description of the meeting to Eminem. So now I want to nickname them Squirrely and No-go, but I don’t have the heart anymore to play this schoolyard game. Suffice it to say that they quoted us as saying Regional had characterized their store as the Red Headed Step Child. Actually it was one of our customers who lived in the area but I can’t blame them for getting it all wrong. The store was ice cold and pretty much empty and they were having cookies for breakfast and they must have been feeling really bad about themselves because they felt the need to be relentlessly arrogant and suspicious in their interactions with us. In retrospect I can see all of the innocent remarks I made about wanting to become a global brand and the like being so easily twisted and used against me. The stink of the beast in a bra was so bad that I only got five minutes from the store when I asked my sister to get me to the nearest bathroom as I was going to be really sick really quick. And I was.
IT’S THREE STRIKES YOU’RE OUT AT WFM!
And that was Tuesday, Valentine’s Day, and not my lucky day in recent years as last Valentine’s Day my dog died. But I bought my sisters roses and chocolates, nonetheless, from the Red-Headed-Step-child’s store and headed home. By 10:38 AM the following day Eminem had sent an email that it was over. Seventeen months of exhaustive focus and work for a really small local company to engage in. The phenomenal expense of really costly insurance that WFM required for sure wasn’t going to protect us. All 18 accounts were closed effective immediately, even brand new accounts in other states. To put that loss in perspective, you need to realize that our entire business that day was comprised of 26 accounts!
And the shock and hurt and grief (yes, we grieved) were compounded by relentless abuse by Eminem that continued even after we’d been dumped. It was all too much. And so we called our lawyer and cancelled the table full of orders going out that day to various Whole Foods and assured our employees that we would be okay. Only to have our employees, who fully understood that their salaries were now in jeopardy, tell us how thrilled they were that they would not have to deal with all the rudeness and ineptitude that personified their Whole Foods experiences. Let’s get on with the real work was their clarion call and I have never felt more loved or proud at any job EVER.
We followed the chain of command and of course were never afforded the courtesy of a response or explanation. All that was available to us was more abuse from the delusional Eminem who finally made me laugh when he explained that some of our materials might go mysteriously missing and not get returned to us but that we should just take that in stride because of all the support the Midwest Region had given us in getting “our line off and running.” It was good to laugh at the absurdity of it all because mostly we did not laugh.
R.I.P – W.F.M.
Mostly we anguished. Anguished that we had let our followers down. Anguished that somehow we had made some sort of terrible mistake. Our post-mortem was excruciating and thorough and then finally and gratefully we put an end to it. There was business to be done. We had lost time and momentum – both as precious as cash to a start-up. We absolutely had to survive and to do that we had to work around the clock for weeks and weeks and weeks. And so we all got sick and that was to be expected, as well.
The recovery period too reminded me of the journey to heal following a heartbreaking divorce. Coming to painful terms with how other women always seem to be available to partner with creepy guys in taking down decent, hard-working, loving, committed women. Trying to figure out what kind of jealousy or ignorance or rewards system makes women hurt other women. And then realizing that the counselors are right; you aren’t grieving the end of the marriage. The marriage was sick and had to end. You are grieving the end of your dream for the marriage.
Here’s what we finally came to know. We can’t let a handful of women obtuse about the unbelievable sacrifice, effort and commitment we’ve made, and the cynical corporate phony baloneys they work for, get in the way of our life work. Our product and our message in 300 Whole Foods Markets nationwide would have been a wonderful starting point. Combined with three Ma and Pa stores for each WFM, as was our plan, would have really gotten our message somewhere. We’ll never know. What we believe is that we’re better off in the long run without the greedy groom.
IN CONCLUSION, A FEW QUESTIONS
What angers me in all of this is the senselessness. Why damage a young business at the very time our nation is calling for small businesses to hang on? If small business is the backbone of the nation and the backbone is broken, why in the world would a corporation create this bitter scenario? We are being called upon to manufacture (done), export (on the verge) and build jobs (done.) To continue in that vein, we need funding. Why damage the public face of a small business actively engaged in that process? We are being challenged by the likes of Whole Foods to take responsibility for our health by cleaning up our food and product purchases. Then why deprive consumers ready access to a local company doing that and doing it well? Only a cynical or delusional jerk could claim, as Eminem did, to have gotten us “off and running.” Unless Whole Foods has some other agenda entirely in the offing. Time will tell.
Until then, see you at the farm stand, if that’s what it takes.
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