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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The end of one dream

It’s amazing to me how someone’s greed, arrogance and blatant disregard for others can have such a far-reaching, devastating effect on people’s lives.

Four years ago this month, the actions of Tom Durkin, president of Cashel Management, destroyed a dream that my husband and I had. I suppose there are those who can find solace in that Tom is currently residing in a federal penitentiary for his crimes. I’ve had to find solace in letting go of dream that wasn’t meant to be.

In February 1999, I was on maternity leave (sort of) as a contract employee and assistant editor of Avenues Magazine. It was one of three city magazines in Cleveland, focusing on arts, education and entertainment. The magazine was housed in dumpy offices in the Knights of Columbus building at the corner of E. 9th and Huron. To my knowledge, the suite remains empty (thought it has been remodeled). My guess is the Knights have yet to invest in an automatic elevator. Instead, you had to ring for Leo, Bill, Jim, Phil or Keith to take you to the third floor.

Certainly Cleveland did not need, nor could it really support three city magazines. But that’s what it had. Avenues had a broad circulation of about 55,000, more than Cleveland Magazine and more than Northern Ohio Live. That’s because our circulation comprised members of WVIZ/PBS.

Danny was working in advertising sales at Advanstar when I received a call from the publisher that February asking if he would be interested in selling advertising for Avenues. Danny followed up and talked about the possibility. We had many conversations with Bob Zack over the weeks and Danny felt good that, although we would be putting all our eggs in one basket, the opportunity also was there to buy into and take over the magazine within five to seven years.

And so we plunged into Avenues with both feet, both hearts and both minds.

People always asked how we could work together but you know—we were good together. For one thing, I worked from home most days and he was in the office. We would attend various community functions together and did a fine job representing the magazine and meeting many people. He and I have great chemistry working a room, making sure everyone feels welcome.

Danny didn’t interfere with editorial and I didn’t interfere with sales. But we both had a keen understanding of the importance of each other’s roles. We saw ourselves eventually as publisher and editor, making the magazine something truly unique in Cleveland, with solid editorial content, featuring strong writing and photography, and plenty of advertising to support the content.

It wasn’t a pipedream. We were on our way. In 2000, the magazine broke records in page-count and ad revenue. We were poised to rap on the doors of our nearest competitor, Northern Ohio Live.

But on a Monday in January, I heard the garage door open as Danny returned home. Something was wrong. He always had sales meetings on Monday mornings. When I came downstairs, he told me we needed to talk. Our jobs were in jeopardy.

Tom Durkin, who owned 50 percent of the magazine (Bob Zack owned the other 50 percent), had been investing his clients’ money, unbeknownst to them, into a failed dot-com known as Rx Remedy. Rx Remedy was owned by one of Tom’s pals, Karamjit Paul. Tom was hoping for a big payoff and invested and lost millions of his clients’ money month after month. The venture went bankrupt and Tom was left answering to his clients, friends and federal prosecutors about why he continued to invest without their permission into something that was clearly failing. To this day, I think he’s arrogant enough to believe that if they could have rode the wave a little longer, everyone would have made millions and been happy.

Instead Tom, who went to St. Ignatius High School with Bob Zack, lost all of his friend’s savings and any chance Bob had to buy out his share of the magazine. Bob, completely devastated by his friend’s betrayal and financial losses, tried his best to regroup and find other investors in the magazine. But it was early 2001 and the economy was tanking. WVIZ was concerned, but waiting to see if Bob could find other investors.

And then, on a Thursday morning, I received a call from one of my friends. She said that police cars were in the driveway of the Brennan’s home across the street. Word on the street was that Tim Brennan, a partner at Cashel and Tom’s roommate at Notre Dame, had killed himself. As it happens, Tim’s wife, Maureen, was Ryan’s first-grade teacher at St. Raphael. Shortly after that call, I received a call from school telling me the news. Tim, in his despondency over the allegations, had pulled his car over on the Hilliard Boulevard bridge in Rocky River and jumped to his death.

This work disaster had now entered our church and school life as well. Word of Tim’s death was too much for WVIZ and we learned they were going to find alternative means for communicating with members. It was the very beginning of ideastream and the possibilities of a multimedia company featuring radio, TV, Web and print vanished as quickly as they arrived, though radio, TV and Web exist.

Within two weeks, the magazine folded. The official news release sent to the media and advertisers was that this was a tough economy and a tough market and we weren’t able to compete. As if WE failed somehow. I was so angry and vowed to Danny that I would never accept the blame for the magazine’s demise. Our advertisers and supporters weren’t fooled. We fielded many calls from them saying that the magazine page count was way up, response to advertising was strong and they demanded to know the REAL reason it folded.

Danny and I lost our jobs that month. We also lost the dream we had of making an impact on the publishing world of Cleveland together. But at least we had each other, and our meager savings. Danny quickly rebounded with a job at Advanstar. And I gave up contract work for the security of a steady paycheck.

Maureen Brennan and her four daughters lost a husband and father. Tim Brennan would have welcomed his first grandchild this year. Bob Zack lost his livelihood, his retirement, his family’s savings and two very close friends. Families throughout Cleveland — both famous and not so famous — lost their savings. St. Ignatius and St. Joseph schools lost some of their endowment. Northeast Ohio readers lost what would have been a terrific publication under our stewardship. And the arts community lost a strong advocate, something it desperately needs today.

I recounted this story once to my counselor. She stopped me at one point and said, “This was the beginning of the snowball that led to your panic attacks.” She was right. I tried so hard, so quickly to just move on. That’s always been my way. But I couldn’t shake the loss and would sit in my home office and cry, wondering what to do next and how it could have all gone so wrong, so fast. It was a lesson in how little of our lives we actually control.

Ironically, Tom Durkin never met Danny and I. He prided himself on keeping a low profile and chose not to meet the people who were running his magazine. That’s his loss — and so was his low profile. Tom’s case made news only for a few weeks and at that never really garnered the coverage it deserved. Few grasped the extent of his destruction. And besides, within a few weeks, Tom’s antics would look like child’s play next to one Frank Gruttadaria. But not to those whose lives he damaged.

1 comment:

Jim Kukral said...

Sadly, another story of a money driven mind. I'm fortunate to have realized at the age of 33 that money is nice to have, but doesn't mean squat in the overall level of happiness in my life.

I too have had experiences, not as bad as yours, with money driven people who are only looking out for themselves. When I was younger and a business owner, I took these betrayals as personal, and they really hurt me. Only after a while did I realize that it's just part of being in business. Now I choose my friends and partners more carefully.

Here's to never getting burned again.