January is National Mentoring Month. Enjoy this column from ATR International co-founder Jerry Brenholz.
When I think of who helped me to succeed in my career, who helped me to successfully co-found ATR International, I can’t help but think of my parents, my wife of 45 years Maria, and my daughter Andrea. It is amazing how much you can learn from the young! Certainly, though, my parents were a primary and lifelong influence.
Parents are so much more than mentors but it’s certainly one role they fill. And my parents were absolutely inspirational to me. They are the people that taught me the values of hard work, integrity, and the will to succeed. Their example is why I was willing to have faith in myself and my abilities and take the risk of starting a family business. They laid the foundation for all my achievement.
My mother was from Poland and my father from Lithuania. They met when my mother and her sister fled Poland for safety in Russia, fleeing Warsaw when the Nazis invaded. After the war they returned to Poland searching for surviving family members and rebuilding their broken lives. They raised my sister and me while trying to establish a prosperous business. They made and sold men’s winter hats, a thriving business in the cold winters of Poland!
My dad was a master cap maker who took great pride in his work. To him there was no substitute for perfection. He was honest, modest, lived below his means and was much respected. He always delivered on his promises. My mom was a smart and a very unpretentious business woman. She understood that making a deal that benefitted both buyer and seller was not only possible; it was the best way to do business. The object was not for one to cheat the other, to sell an inferior product, or get an inflated price. It isn’t about getting one over on the other person but for a mutually beneficial deal to be made.
Running a business in a socialist/communist system was always a challenge. You were constantly scrutinized by the government, almost always suspected of illegal activities, threatened and intimidated with potential criminal action, and corruption existed at all levels. My parents were thrilled to be able to leave that behind and immigrate to the United States when a chance to leave was possible. They left behind a successful business and moved to a new country where they didn’t speak the language because escaping the oppression and giving our family the opportunity to live and work in freedom was worth it.
After coming to the U.S. and settling in Detroit, Michigan, we encountered new challenges such as language difficulties, cultural barriers, and finding jobs. After months of searching, my father found a job making minimum wage cutting templates for car seats. He worked there for eight years until he died. My mom was also a very talented dress designer for which she was professionally trained during her youth in Warsaw. After arriving in the US initially, however, she worked for a drapery company. After my dad’s passing, she moved to Manhattan where she returned to a job that she always cherished with the well-known designer Emanuel Ungaro, and later at Bergdorf Goodman, a prestigious upscale department store in New York. She retired from Bergdorf’s a few years before she passed. My parent’s commitment, dedication, loyalty and willingness to work hard, no matter what, never wavered.
They set an example by working hard, treating people fairly, and delivering good service for a good price. Watching them as I was growing up, although never a perfect kid, I absorbed these same values. I understood that success is not given to you, it is earned. It is the result of long hours, determination, and commitment to getting things right. Whether I was a student, an employee, or a business owner, I have tried to live by these values.
What was most inspirational to me though was their desire to live in freedom and their commitment to securing a more promising future for my sister and me. To change their lives so drastically, give up a thriving business, and start over completely is astounding, in a way. I do understand why they would do it, and feel the same commitment to my family, but I don’t want to undersell what a big change it was all the same. Their sacrifice should not be discounted. For me, it is not – it is inspirational.
When I told my mother that my wife and I were planning to open ATR, she was supportive and skeptical. Why would I leave a perfectly good career as an engineer, one that I had a good level of respect and achievement in? Why take the risk? And yet that is exactly what she and my dad had taught me to do. To believe in myself and my abilities. To understand that with hard work, any dream is possible. And perhaps more importantly, to know that not all success is monetary and that sometimes it is worth sacrificing familiarity and security to achieve something better.
I am so pleased that my mother lived to see the early success of the company and know that she need not worry about her son. His risk, like theirs, was successful. The values that my parents taught me and the example of how they lived their lives have been integral to my success as a businessman and as a person. I’m so grateful for their mentoring, their example of how to live. I hope that I made them proud. I continue to try and do so every day and to pass these values to my next generation.
In need of career guidance, or looking for a role that can help you grow? Reach out to an ATR office near you.
What Mentorship Means to Me by ATR CEO/President Andrea Brenholz