2019 Holiday Letter

My Dear Friends,

I love this time of the year. Questions I hear most often such as, “How’s my portfolio?” “How’s the market?” “How’s your golf game?” “How is Martha?” “How are the puppies?” are replaced with a singular “How’s the Christmas Letter coming along?”

How… Indeed.

I spent the morning with Phil Johnstone updating my will and estate plan. It’s a process that requires me to “stop and think” seriously about the people I love, the effect of my life on theirs, my responsibilities, my personal hopes and dreams both fulfilled and unfulfilled. I am confronted with the the reality of my personal mortality. One day… I will be gone. Like… really gone. No more coffee time with Martha. No more times with my clients in the office. No more golf with my kids, grandkids and friends. No more tournaments. No more crystal. No more sunrises or sunsets. I will be gone. I’ve come to realize that whatever I leave behind really matters to me.

For the most part, the will, trusts and overall estate plan have to do with “stuff.” “Stuff” I have accumulated over my lifetime. “Stuff” that I want to pass on. “Stuff” that others can use. “Stuff” that matters to me, and will, hopefully, matter to whomever receives it. “Stuff” that I have responsibility for. “Stuff.”

The Town of Westerly has been celebrating her 350th year anniversary throughout this year. There have been block parties, picnics, dances and celebrations of all sorts. The time capsule from fifty years ago, 1969, was opened and examined. A new time capsule was buried with all kinds of treasures to be discovered during the 400th year celebration, fifty years from now. My great, great grandchildren will be amused by the contribution from Professional Planning Group. The year will be 2069. OMG!

I admit to being an unabashed fan of Lisa Konicki, Executive Director of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce. When Lisa approached me with the idea of helping sponsor a “Pop up” book about Westerly in honor of the 350th celebration, I have to confess to a certain amount of skepticism. It sounded like a fun idea… but a pop up book?? Really??

Really!! What a creative gem this book is. The books arrived a few days ago with a lovely thank you note from Lisa. Truthfully… we need to be thanking her. Page after page of treasures literally do “pop up” as you move through the scenes. Downtown… the Carousel… the Beach… the Theaters… the Babcock Smith House. The history of it all. I was especially intrigued with the myriad of events that began in 1660 when Chief Sosoa, also known as Chief Ninigret, “granted land now known as Westerly to its founders via the Misquamicut Purchase.” That was so interesting to me that I googled “Misquamicut Purchase” and discovered a treasure trove of Rhode Island/Connecticut/Westerly/Stonington history. There were stories of men and women of faith, of vision, of strength and with all of the human frailties that we see in our leaders today. What an awesome journey we find ourselves being a part of.

“God bless America. Land that I love… ” Several of us left our desks late in the morning on Veterans Day to stand on the lawn and listen to the ceremonies at the War Memorial honoring the long list of local men and women who have served our country in the various branches of the military in the long list of wars our country has been a part of. It is a long, distinguished and sobering list of young men and women who willingly put their lives on the line, and in some cases gave their lives, for all of us, in the belief that “we”… our children, our parents, our neighbors… “we”… should be able to live lives of freedom, peace and choice.

I think that the significance to me of the Westerly 350th Celebration, the names listed on the War Memorial and the names memorialized on plaques, walls and pieces of granite throughout our neighborhood is that they symbolize a pattern of giving and service in our community that not only honors the past but gives us hope for our future. It speaks to the building of firm foundations, not just isolated events. It’s not about “stuff.”

One of the bonuses I receive from my job is that people tell me their stories. It is unfortunate that “Profiles in Courage” has already been taken. What a book I could write. I have such pride and respect for so many of you as you have faced your own personal challenges. We keep a box of tissues right next to the table in my office just in case. My sons will tell you that I probably reach for the tissue box as often as any of my clients do. Occupational hazard, I guess.

Recently I met with a remarkable couple whose story I want to share. I am grateful for their willingness to allow me to do that with you. I hope you find it as inspirational and moving as I do. I will refer to them as J and G.

J and G were both born in Lebanon. G was eighteen years old when the civil war broke out in 1975. It was seen as a war between Muslims and Christians but involved a number of religious and political factions such as the PLO, Syria, Israel, the United States and others. G says, “My friends were all being recruited to fight. At eighteen, I was the wrong age, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. My father was very afraid that I would be pulled into it.”

It is estimated that, during the initial conflict, over 44,000 people died and 180,000 were wounded. The conflict seemed to move in waves and by 1990 it is estimated that the death toll was over 200,000.

At age 20, G was fortunate enough to receive a student visa which allowed him to come to the United States and enroll at the University of Akron where he studied electrical engineering. He married, had three children and saw his marriage end in divorce. He was now single, trying to start a career and was responsible for his three young children of whom he had custody.

“God works in mysterious ways,” as we are told. One afternoon, G’s aunt was shopping in the local department store and recognized a young woman who had been a classmate and friend of G’s sister. They struck up a conversation. And… in a wonderfully unexpected adaptation of the Lebanese version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” G’s Aunt discovered that J was still unmarried and she took on the role of “Matchmaker.”

J and G exchanged letters, and phone calls, and more letters… and more phone calls. “It’s a strange way to fall in love,” G says as, J nods. “But that’s how it all happened. We fell in love long distance.”

In 1987, G traveled to Lebanon to meet his soon-to-be-bride. At this point as I wrote their story, I called G with a question. “I’m not an expert of Middle East history but how in the world could you get to Lebanon?” I asked. “There were bombs exploding all over Beirut and Southern Lebanon. The war was in full force. I remember seeing it night after night on TV. It was horrible. When I googled ‘“Lebanon 1987”’ I saw that there was a travel ban in place during that time. How did you get in?”

“Well,” G conceded, “It was a bit tricky. Beirut airport was too dangerous to get to, and most of the crossing roads were too risky, so I flew into Cyprus. My father and brother met me there and we traveled back to Lebanon in a boat. I needed to see J face to face to be sure. I saw her. I was sure. I remember meeting with her family and asking her father for permission to marry his daughter. I said that she could wait and think about it if she needed. But she… like me… was sure.”

The American Embassy in Lebanon was closed due to the war so it was back on the boat for the ride to Cyprus. They completed the required paperwork and were married in the Town Hall by the Mayor of Cyprus in a civil ceremony. J was issued her green card at the American Embassy in Cyprus which allowed her to travel with her new husband, to her new home, to her new life… with her new family.

G paused and shook his head slightly. He said, “But before we could leave, we again took the boat back to Lebanon to pack up the few things J would take with her and to say our goodbyes to our families. We had wanted a “real” wedding with music and flowers and people we loved. But that would have to wait. We needed to get out as quickly as possible.”

She returned to the United States with her new husband, knowing that he already had three young children, was working two… sometimes three jobs… And it wasn’t just him. By this time, G had brought his mother, his father, his sister and his brother to the United States. Guess where they all lived. With G… of course. And two years later, their daughter was born. She was a sweet, loving, beautiful child with special needs. True to form, J and G decided to keep her at home with the rest of the family and do everything they could to love and care for her and to enrich her life as best they could. Today, she is 31 years old, and loves to read. To quote both J and G, “She is an amazing daughter and a very special young woman.”

When I asked J and G how they were able to handle a large houseful of people at such an early stage in their life together, J smiled and laughed. “I loved him. His family was now my family. It’s what we do.” G just smiled.

“And,” J added with a wonderful smile, “Six years ago I formally adopted all three of my step children. We really are a family.”

J, who speaks fluent Arabic, English and French, took a job working in the dining services area of L + M Hospital. She says, “I did a lot of things there. I flipped a lot of hamburgers.” That experience led to a second shift job at Connecticut College working in the Dining Services department. That led to a series of advancements and promotions. When she retired last year, she was the Coordinator of Benefits and Wellness in the Human Resources Department and had a degree in Hospitality Management which she earned attending classes in night school. She had approximately 110 employees under her supervision.

G recalls, “During those early years, money was scarce and I was responsible for a house full of people I loved. Some days were difficult but my family was safe. We were in the United States. My wife and I became citizens. My children are citizens. We have never been wealthy, but we have been blessed to have so much in this beautiful country. We are citizens. We belong.”

In addition to working full time at Pfizer as a porter, G washed dishes at L + M Hospital and frequently worked part-time at the nearby Sears outlet. He began his career at Pfizer as a porter for the first three years, then gradually worked his way through several key roles in Pfizer’s shipping and receiving department. When he retired last month, he was Manager of the department. It was interesting to learn that he and his team were scheduled to be terminated under a separation agreement in 2005. As Pfizer continued to downsize their activities in Groton, it was not unusual for entire Departments to be offered a “package.” One week before Christmas his superiors changed their minds and did not want him, or the members of his team, to leave. He not only kept his job… he was promoted to Project Manager.

I joked with them about their successful careers. J went from flipping burgers to Human Resources Supervisor of the Dining Resources department. G went from sweeping floors to being Project Manager for one of the largest companies in the world.

“This is one of many reasons that we love this country. Our homeland has been in and out of civil war for decades. People die… they are killed… all of the time. There is no such thing as feeling safe. Or actually being safe. The United States really is a land of opportunity. This country has given us so much and we have tried to give back in return. We have always been involved in our community and especially our church. Even today, J serves as Director of Religious Education for our church.”

“God has blessed us in so many ways,” G said softly, as he reached reached across the table to take J’s hand.

The more I think about their life and their journey, the more I am brought back to the reminder that, with few exceptions, we are here because our parents, or grandparents, or great grand “someone’s” left their homeland to search for a better life. Our Statute of Liberty, a gift from France, is an elegant reflection of thousands… perhaps hundreds of thousands… of the hopes and dreams of people we never really knew, but somehow knew of us and wanted something better. And with that almost prayerful image, we are faced with the reality that our history book has some pretty ugly chapters in it. Many of us have ancestors who were kidnapped from their homelands, abused and mistreated. The United States was not their land of opportunity. It became their land of oppression. And some of us have distant connections to the men and women who actually were here first. True native-Americans who, in many cases were pushed aside or taken advantage of.

We are a nation of immigrants. We are a nation with a multiple and complex diversity. We are a nation of opportunity and a nation with a profound responsibility. The writer and philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

We cannot change what is past. But we can learn. We can improve. We can do better. We can look forward to the day when “we” are the ancestors and our children of the future will look back and judge us on how we did. In the meantime, Rodney King may have said it best with the plea that is etched on his gravestone, “Can’t we all get along?”

So far I’ve managed to avoid the “I” word. “Impeachment.” What a mess.

I realize that many of you reading this are staunch supporters of our President. And many of you are just the opposite. I am constantly struck with the intensity of emotion on both sides. If there is anyone in the middle… I haven’t seen them. I’ve told many of you that I’m not a big fan of President Trump’s tweets, his nasty personal comments or his lack of civility to people he doesn’t like or respect. My Mom used to say, “Malcolm, if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.” Perhaps President Trump’s Mom had a different point of view. Or perhaps she is rolling over in her grave. Either way…
it’s embarrassing.

But I will confess to being a huge fan of our current economy. Just yesterday, news coverage proclaimed that the U.S. added 266,000 jobs in November with an unemployment rate of 3.5%. For many areas, there are more jobs than there are skilled workers available to fill them. You may remember me writing about Amy Grzbowsky and the work she is doing as Executive Director of the Westerly Education Center. WEC is involved with a number of business and community organizations providing high-level educational programs to teach current and potential workers the skills needed to participate in our region’s growing workforce. I remember my first visit to WEC and finding a full size section of a submarine in the center of one of the main rooms. “This is what we use to teach and to learn,” Amy said. “It’s the real thing with a total hands on experience.”

I think that what bothers me the most in all of this, is the drama, the posturing and the sanctimonious “holier than thou” attitude of people who claim to be pursuing what is best for our country but are really doing what they think is best for themselves, their political party and their own biased point of view. And what makes it even worse is the reality that these aren’t a bunch of unsophisticated knuckleheads. These are our leaders. Our lawmakers. These are the people we entrust with the future of our country, our children and our grandchildren.

I don’t ever remember a time when so much seemed to matter to so few. Whether you are “thrilled or chilled” (to quote myself) I am appalled with the amount of time, energy and resources that have gone into the current impeachment proceedings. I don’t think it has been good for our country. The divisions only seem deeper. Whatever happened to the time when we would have an election, we would vote and then both sides would work together to accomplish good things for our country. What’s wrong with us?

One cold, windy morning a couple of weeks ago while I was working in my office at home, I saw a beautiful bald eagle hovering in the wind as it watched something in the water below. I have never seen an eagle hover over a particular spot like this one did. I was surprised to see a hawk fly across my lawn and seemingly challenge the eagle by diving and darting at him. The eagle held his position. Then, four crows went after him but to no avail. The eagle held his position. And when I thought it couldn’t get any better, a small flock of seagulls came swooping in, trying to convince this noble bird to go someplace else. The eagle held his position.

The obvious symbolism did not go unnoticed. We need leaders who can remain strong and determined. We need leaders who have focus. We need leaders who will have the courage to hold their ground when under attack. We need leaders who fill us with pride.

We have some new faces at PPG. Breck Masterson joined us in February as our Director of Research. Breck has over 25 years of institutional experience working with both Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi and most recently, J.P. Morgan in Boston. Maise Jones, a senior at Elon University, worked with Chris over the summer as an intern. Andrea Spieth and Melissa Silva joined us in January, 2019. Both ladies have added significantly to the depth of our client service group. Andrea has over twenty years experience in the financial services industry. Melissa was with us for over ten years and is returning after a four year hiatus following the births of her two daughters. Stephanie Gelinas is our newest team member coming all the way from North Carolina. Stephanie has over six years of banking experience working directly with customers of the bank. Patrick Connelly joined us in August as a Financial Advisor. Patrick is not new to PPG. While in college, he did two summer internships, then, following graduation from the University of New Hampshire, he worked with an investment firm in Providence for about five years, gaining the experience that he needed. But, what really brings a smile to my face is the framed picture he has in his office of his Grandmother, Catherine Algiere. Many of you will remember that Catherine was my assistant in the mid 1970s. She was my very first employee and worked with me until her retirement in 1995. Those years seem like so long ago. But… in some ways… not so long. Time has a way of recalling events so that they not only connect, they blend together as a tapestry.

And… speaking of time. I had a big birthday on November 1. The standing joke in my family was that my mother had spent October 31st sitting upright in a chair with her legs crossed so that her first born son would not be born on Halloween. I’m not sure if that was really true but… “Thank you, Mom. Much

Anyway… I walked into my office on Friday morning and assumed that someone would have a card, or a cake or something but… my doors were closed. It was very quiet. (Very bad sign.) I calmly slid the pocket doors open, held my breath, and my office was transformed. First of all, my entire staff were there singing Happy Birthday. My grandson, Max, was there singing. (School was closed unexpectedly.) Everyone was singing except for Joanna who was filming. And my office room was a treasure trove of old… some very old… pictures of my life from early childhood to the present. Helium birthday balloons rose from my desk, credenza and table. Metallic tinsel covered just about everything. Colorful swirls hung from pictures. And confetti… metallic, shiny, sparkling confetti, was everywhere. The conference table was piled high with gifts, all of which had a “1944” message. And a huge, impossible to miss, banner was strung over the fireplace from one end of the wall to the other. “CHEERS TO 75 YEARS.” OMG!!!

Yes, it has been an amazing year. It has been rewarding in so many ways. I don’t think that I can truly express the gratitude and appreciation I feel for the confidence and trust that so many of you have placed in me and our staff over the years. We have shared joys. We have shared sorrows. We have shared pieces of our lives. I have laughed with many of you. I have wept with many of you. And I remember each of you in my prayers. I said earlier that I realize very clearly that what I leave behind really matters to me. Now, don’t misunderstand. I feel great. Dr. Schwindt says I’m in excellent health. I have no plans to go anywhere for a very long time. I think I’m just more aware of the awesome gift that simply having life is… the joy it can bring… and the responsibility it carries. So much more than “stuff.”

So, “Thank you” for these many years. I look forward to spending many more with all of you.

All of us at PPG; Joanna, Lee-Ann, Jennifer, Eileen, Diane, Nadine, Tina, Melissa, Andrea, Stephanie, Mike, Chris, Peter, Dan, Jonathan, Breck, Patrick, our families, my wife Martha and, of course, Reddington and Annabelle join me is wishing you and your family a blessed and spirit filled holiday and New Year.

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah

Additional information, including management fees and expenses, is provided on Professional Planning Group’s Form ADV Part 2, available upon request or at the SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Disclosure site