Marc Perlman: “I know it when I see it”

I think heroes have the ability to recognize a problem exists, assemble resources to address the problem, and most importantly they take action. As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marc Perlman, co-founder and CEO of Ocean State Job […]

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I think heroes have the ability to recognize a problem exists, assemble resources to address the problem, and most importantly they take action.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marc Perlman, co-founder and CEO of Ocean State Job Lot (OSJL), a closeout retailer based in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Marc was born in New York City, grew up on Long Island, graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1969, and co-founded OSJL with his brother Alan and a college friend in 1977. He has led OSJL to great success through entrepreneurial passion and creativity. Today, OSJL generates over 750 million dollars in annual sales across 140 stores in nine states. Marc is also a serial entrepreneur and angel investor, involved in a broad range of businesses and industries, both domestically and internationally, including high-tech water purification, restaurants, auto dealerships, soap manufacturing, pet supplies, fitness and wellness, food distribution, real estate, and more. He is also a very active philanthropist, supporting a wide variety of both world-renowned and grass-roots organizations. Marc and OSJL donated millions of dollars worth of face masks, sanitizers, disinfectants, and other critical PPE to first responders, medical professionals, and members of the community during the crisis. OSJL donated truckloads of food, and thousands of ready-to-eat meals, to organizations throughout the Northeast. And their stores remained open as essential retail locations, providing customers with access to food, supplies, and general merchandise at a time that many other stores were forced to close.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I was born in New York City, grew up on Long Island, NY, and I attended college at the University of Rhode Island. When I got out of school I ended up doing a little bit of graduate work, but I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go. I worked as a cab driver; I worked in a drug clinic; I worked in real estate; and what I found out about myself was that I was frequently doing things that were kind of independent instead of working for other people. I became interested in an incredibly busy retail store in lower Manhattan, and I used to hang out down there and try to understand what it was that they were doing, why they were able to offer merchandise at half or a third of the price that you would frequently find in a more traditional store. I became convinced that I could operate a similar business, and Ocean State Job Lot was born.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin is a brilliant book. It resonates with me because it speaks to the harsh reality of what we are capable of doing to each other as human beings, and at the same time, it provides a great example of what we can all aspire to be.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

This isn’t so much a quote as it is a personal motto of mine. “Work hard. Behave Ethically. Embrace Risk.” As you go through life, things change and different things resonate. I love problem-solving. Some problems are simple; some are extremely complicated. But if you work hard, behave ethically, and embrace risk associated with taking action, I have found things generally turn out well.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Philanthropy is an important part of our corporate culture, and the COVID-19 pandemic galvanized a number of forces that are unique to our organization, which allowed us to participate at a significant level. By combining our own money, the generosity of our customers, and our 40-year experience in the supply chain, we felt we could acquire necessary supplies quickly and at the right price, and get them into the hands of people that needed them. We had early access to face masks, hand sanitizer, face shields, thermometers, masks, disinfectants, wipes, and other PPE. We’ve distributed enormous quantities, worth millions of dollars, to veterans, hospitals, first responders, nursing homes, and police and fire departments in the 140 cities and towns where we operate. We’ve worked with schools and universities, and we’ve donated enormous amounts of food to appropriate nonprofits to address food insecurity. And the restaurants we own and operate have delivered approximately 20,000 meals to hospital workers, nursing home staff, first responders, and others in need. We’ve donated 20,000 gallons of hand sanitizer to veterans’ hospitals from Maine to Pennsylvania. We’ve donated millions of surgical and KN95 face masks, and we gave away enough free fabric for our customers to make approximately 1.8 million cloth masks.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

I don’t think of this behavior as heroic. Giving back is an important part of what our company is involved in every day. First and foremost, we are fortunate we have the capacity to do this. Our associates, our customers, and our executive team all enjoy the opportunity to create a more level playing field whenever we can. We are very good at buying at very low prices; we are very frugal; we can maximize the impact of a dollar. It’s pretty clear what the needs are and who needs it. Anybody who is willing to take action and help can be a hero, though clearly health care workers who risk their lives are in another league from us. Our customers like participating in our fundraising efforts because we treat their money with care and we solve problems. In the case of COVID-19, our infrastructure was already in place to help. We feel comfortable working in chaos — we took action, understanding there was a risk.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

It’s hard for me to provide a list of five characteristics — heroism comes in many forms, in a variety of circumstances. It’s similar to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it” comment. I think I’ve provided some examples in my earlier answers. To summarize, I think heroes have the ability to recognize a problem exists, assemble resources to address the problem, and most importantly they take action.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

I think most people learn what’s right and what’s wrong from their parents and their mentors. The vast majority of people understand the difference between right and wrong. Some people, however, have the ability to not only recognize right from wrong but also have the ability to stand up to injustice when they see it. Those who do so even when it places them in personal or financial peril are truly courageous and I consider them heroes.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

Our organization is always focused on philanthropic efforts. With the pandemic upon us, we simply pivoted to deal with this issue.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

In my mind, there are two types of heroes. The first type is the ones we all recognize as people who spend their lives fighting for our freedom or for people’s dignity. People like Martin Luther King, Jr., Elie Wiesel, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela. The second type is the people we encounter in our daily lives who run toward problems instead of running away or acting as a bystander. Firefighters running up the stairs at the World Trade Center. Nurses who get in their cars and drive to the epicenter of the virus because they want to help. They don’t talk — they act in response to problems. These types of heroes are all around us, and they never get the recognition they deserve. They’re the ones who make the country work.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

It’s very difficult to watch the suffering of people (both from a health and economic perspective) who have done nothing wrong, and yet they are being impacted by this outside force over which they have no control. We have no control over this, but its devastating impact can destroy people, while others benefit extraordinarily.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

So many smart people on our planet are working on a solution. The combination of their desire to solve this problem, along with the spectacular technology that keeps assisting them with greater and faster tools, gives me hope. There is no doubt that we will solve this problem. We can already see positive results from preliminary vaccine trials all over the world. We will get through this. But we are paying a heavy price in the meantime.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

Many of us are spending more time in an isolated fashion because of underlying health issues, age, or working in an environment that would put loved ones at risk if you spent time with them. These are difficult situations. Human contact is so important, and we didn’t recognize it until it was taken away. We can be highly efficient with a phone and a computer, but we’re missing something without human interaction.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

Since the beginning of time, the world has had people who do good, and people who are evil. Ultimately, each of us has to pick a side. The vast majority of people make the right choice. There have been pandemics before, and world wars, holocausts, floods, and hurricanes. There are constantly events outside of our control that challenge us. This is a big one, but it’s not unique, and we will overcome it.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

I’m a proponent of a free enterprise system — a marketplace economy. However, the quality of the government leading a marketplace economy should be willing to be judged by the status of the most vulnerable — those who are on the bottom need to be rising faster than those on the top or in the middle. We need to all work together to increase the size of the pie, so we all get more. But those on the bottom should get more at a faster rate than those at the top.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

It will make you feel good. Try it. If it doesn’t work, try again. If it doesn’t work, try it one more time. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you help someone.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The best thing that you can be is a good example. One tries to understand what they are capable of doing. I’m a CEO who has a responsibility to oversee a 6,000-person organization. To embed inside the organization the concept that the business of business is no longer simply generating a profit — we have to believe that an enlightened organization is not only one that rewards the risk-takers with a return on their capital funding, but rewards their associates for creating profitability, rewards the customers that support the organization, cares for the communities where it operates and tries to keep the planet healthy at the same time. This is what we aspire to — to be a great organization defined by the fact that it’s OK to make a profit, but we also take care of our associates, our communities, our customers, and the planet. We want to be a good example that others can follow.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Honestly, this is a hard question for me to answer. In this time of isolation, I’d probably pick from a list of my nearest and dearest friends, who I haven’t been able to see in person for a long time.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m not personally active on social media, but I would encourage you to connect with Ocean State Job Lot and our Charitable Foundation.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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