Bankruptcy and Foreclosure—the Beginning of a New and Better Life

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: For many people, bankruptcy and foreclosure would be the worst failure and disappointment one could experience in life. When you speak about the bankruptcy and foreclosure period of your life, I am always struck by how matter-of-fact you are. Can you talk about this period in your life?

JM: After I got out of the army after World War II, I worked on developing and organizing all the photos I took during the war into a book to give to my battalion. After I finished that, I didn’t know what else to do but go back to my old job. So I went back to Mr. Boocock at the Four Winds Nursery, I think it was the spring of 46, and he hired me back, and I was the manager of landscaping. One of the fellows that worked there left and was working for a mail-order company in horticultural products. And he told me the business was for sale. This was in 1947, and I would have been about 30 at that point. I decided I needed to be doing something better and with more income than what I was earning at the nursery, but I wanted to stay in the horticultural world. And so in the fall of 1947, it was about October of 1947, I bought the little business on an accrual basis, I think you’d call it. The business was mail order of flower bulbs of all kinds—standard bulbs like tulips and daffodils from Holland and rare flower bulbs from other places like Africa, South America. It included exclusive rights with the foreign companies. At the time, I was sure I wanted to stay with gardening and horticulture, but I did not realize that my real interest was people. But I had no physical contact with the customer. It was a mail order business so I had thousands of customers—they were all over the United States. So I actually spent a lot of time on the catalogues. And the artistic part of me loved working on the catalogue, the artwork and the typography, and the commercial art aspect of it. They were beautiful catalogues. I came up with the idea of having an artist do paintings for the covers of the catalogues. I was enjoying all of the advertising work, especially designing advertising. And it turned out I was good at building potential customer lists. I was learning a great deal about direct mail. I also loved handling the flower bulbs and horticulture equipment. I loved everything I did there. But in the meantime, I began to realize something was missing and I didn’t know what it was. And I didn’t have a clue even though my wife Thelma kept telling me. During this time, during the five years I had the business from ‘47 to ‘52, Thelma occasionally would say, “I’m not sure this is right for you—you’re a people person.” And I would say, “Uh-uh, I don’t think so,” because even though I was friendly, I had been very introverted in all my years, I was a loner, had very few friends. And so I just said to her, “No, I’m not, I’m not a people person. I don’t know what I am.” I enjoyed the people that worked for me. They were all farm girls out of high school. And Thelma would say, “Look how well you get along with them, and they love working for you.” And I would say, “Well, I’m paying them,” or “Oh, they’re just farm girls, they’re easy to work with.” Because I was in a little town called East Aurora, about sixteen miles outside of Buffalo. It was up in the hills, beautiful little town. So any ways I had the business and did my best until 1952. In October of 1952, we had to close down.

BW: You decided or came to the conclusion that it wasn’t working.

JM: Well, I didn’t make the decision. Other people made it for me. I couldn’t pay my bills. So the growers in Holland wouldn’t ship the bulbs in August like they usually do, so I had no merchandise. So I had to close. Business-wise, we were doing very poorly. And when I closed the business, that day I came home from our warehouse, I found my car had been impounded because I couldn’t pay the monthly payment on the car. And then the next day after that, I heard my mother call from her bedroom—she was living with us. So I went in to see what was going on. She couldn’t breathe, so I sat down next to her to see if I could hold her, and she passed away in five minutes. So I lost my business, my car, and my mother all within two days.

BW: How soon after did the foreclosure occur?

JM: About eleven months later. I closed my business in October of 1952, and the foreclosure occurred in September of 53. I was thirty-five years old.

BW: Can you remember what you were feeling at that time?

JM: A mixture of so many different things. Grief over my mother. As far as my business was concerned, mostly I was feeling very disappointed. I had been working for five years to build the business and thought I had built a good business, but I didn’t know anything about financing. I had built up a mailing list from 3,000 to 60,000 so I thought I was doing exceptionally well. It turns out, I had no sense of financing. Building a mail order business cost a certain amount per customer for marketing, inventory, and so on, and so I was in debt continuously. I learned exciting possibilities don’t necessarily translate into successful businesses if you don’t know how to finance. That became very clear to me. But I think no matter what feelings I had at the time, I just began naturally to think, “OK, now what are the next steps?” And that’s when I began to do these odds and ends of jobs to try to bring in a little cash. I had to scramble to pull together a few dollars to feed the family. Because there was my wife and by then I had three kids. So I went from job to job. Probably three or four different little jobs to pick up a few bucks.

BW: What kind of jobs?

JM: For a few months, I was trying to sell cars. They gave me a draw, which means they pay you against possible commissions, but I think in those few months, I never sold one. So they kicked me out. I tried working in a grocery store, but that was low pay. I tried getting a job driving a big truck and the owner of the business said, “You’re not a truck driver. Get something that’s more genteel.” So I said, “But I can drive trucks, I’ve been doing it for years.” I drove a truck when I was working at Four Winds Nursery. And he said, “Yeah, but you’re not a truck driver for these big trucks.” So then through a friend, I got a job at a calendar company selling calendars and advertising to businesses. And I didn’t do very well. I didn’t make much in the way of commissions. I got a few bucks. And then one of my customers said, “What the hell are you doing this stuff for? You’re better than selling calendars.” I told him my story. This would have been in ‘53. And incidentally, this was Herman Fisher, the founder of Fisher-Price Toys. And I’m sitting in his beautiful office, and he’s saying, “This isn’t for you to do. You’ve got more talent than that.” And so he introduced me to a small agency and the agency got me a job working for a paper company called Hubbs and Howe. The job was helping them plan paper sales and selling paper goods for motels—paper shoes for the shower, paper towels. I was doing that six or seven months, and I was doing fine, but had no clue how to deal with or cater to the owner’s ego, so I ended up having to leave that job (discussed in the topic Ego.) It was about that time that I said to Thelma, “Ah, let’s get out to the coast somehow and maybe I can get a job as a gardener.” I’m still focused on gardening and landscaping, believe it or not. So this is after all these different jobs, and after what happened with Hubbs and Howe, about that time, we decided to pack up and head for California.

BW: The decision to head to California—did that come before or after the foreclosure?

JM: Right about the same time. And so because I loved the field of landscaping and gardening, but I could only be working at it for nine months in Buffalo, New York because of winter, that’s when Thelma and I decided that the good thing to do is head for California where I could be working in landscaping and the nursery business and greenhouses year round. We, of course, had no money to do that and we had no car, but my brother-in-law who liked to fiddle around with cars, he lived four hundred miles away. He said that if I could get to his home on Long Island, he would give me his old car that he had been working on. So I hitched a ride with my brother and his wife and child who were heading east. Then I stayed with my sister and her husband and the next day headed back to Buffalo, New York with the old car. Near New York City, the car actually broke down. I remember sitting by the side of the road thinking, “Now what do I do?” And then some lady pulled over and said, “I noticed you sitting there looking so sad. I can get you help.” So she knew someone who could look at the car and repair it and so he managed to fix it so that I could make it back to Buffalo, New York. So back in Buffalo, in thinking about California, we were thinking about how to raise some money. We decided to sell our possessions. And we only had a few odds and ends—an old rug, a couple chairs, dining room table, beds for the kids and ourselves. So when they decided to foreclose on the house, I knew we had to be out in a month or so. So we put an ad in the paper and we began to pack boxes. I think we sold everything we had for a few hundred bucks. So we had that much to take us to California. And so then on Thanksgiving day, of 1953, the Moody family headed west. And it was real cold in Buffalo, so we said, “Let’s take the southern route to the west coast,” and so we headed south and on our trip across, we ate a lot of bologna sandwiches. Our idea was to land in San Diego and then work our way up the coast to Seattle and see where we would like to live, but when we came over the mountains and saw the cute little city of San Diego—then it was practically a town—we decided to stay there.

BW: What I am so struck by is that during this time, you lost just about everything. Your business, your mother, your car, your house. You lost job after job after job. You experienced one failure after another. Most people in this situation would feel despair, hopelessness, or they would beat themselves up over failing. Did you experience any kind of despair or depression?

JM: No. It’s not my nature to despair or get depressed. Mostly my nature says, “Well OK, begin to think through how you are going to cope with all of this.” So it’s a way of surviving. And of course, during the twelve years of the Great Depression, basically we learned to survive by doing this. During this time, there was probably a lot of conditioning that went on that was what I call ‘survival living’. Cause once you’ve been through survival living, you know that you can survive anything. When I say, ‘survival living’, an example would be, many times my mother would say, “We don’t have any food for tomorrow except bread and milk.” And we would naturally, my brother and I, would say, “Well, where can we go and earn 25 cents to buy some meat?” So you begin to develop the habit of not reacting so much to the problem as doing something about it. So I was very survival-oriented. Survival-oriented to me means—“OK, what are the steps that I can take? What can I do? What are some options? What are possibilities?” I focus more there. There’s always a way. Always. I can say that’s one lesson I learned in all of my life experiences. No matter what your crisis is, there’s always some things you can do about it. I don’t remember any despair. And, it might have been my natural nature that I was born with, but I would say that during the twelve years of the Depression, I learned a great deal about that. Because the people that despaired during the Depression were stuck. They weren’t doing anything. They said it was hopeless. They felt hopeless and believed the situation was hopeless. They became very passive, despondent. They were immobilized, almost paralyzed by fear. When I think back over my life in general I can’t remember ever having despair. When I had to face different crisis, what kind of feelings and thoughts did I have? I wasn’t just happy-go-lucky. First of all, it was always a shock. It wasn’t despair but a quick shock. Many times, I felt very confused. There were times when I felt blocked. There were times when I felt very sad about what was happening. But I can’t remember despair. I now see clearly that from 1952 until 1958, I went through a great deal of confusion. So confusion is different than despair. Because apparently, confusion triggers me into action.

BW: So no despair. No beating yourself up? You were never down on yourself?

JM: No. Never. And partly because my nature again is to learn, so from all that I had done over the past five years, I spent a lot of time thinking about it and learned a great deal from it, particularly the problems of financing a business which I knew nothing about before. And I also learned a lot about what it is like to start and manage a business, which helped a lot when working with clients in the future. My business failure was part of the reason for my success in consulting.

BW: What I sense was a strong point in your favor was a lack of pride. For example, many people, especially these days, don’t have the humility to look for or take whatever odd job that comes along. They want a job that matches their degree or whatever. You were very blessed to be born with a down-to-earth personality. You seem to have a natural humility that many people struggle to obtain.

JM: Yeah that’s possible. I think my upbringing was a big part of it. And it helps to have loving support. My parents were loving. They loved me—I could feel it. And my wife was also very loving and helped a lot. When the business failed, Thelma was was just so calm and relaxed about it. I said to her, “You seem very relaxed,” and she said, “You’re a people person. You’re going to find the right pathway now.” I was amazed by her calmness. I almost couldn’t believe it.

BW: You did have a family to support. Were you stressed out in any way?

JM: No. I did have concerns. Concerns are different than feeling stressed or depressed or hopeless. Because concerns kind of motivate you to get in action, take the next steps.

BW: Were you scared?

JM: No. What is there to be scared of? I remember one day turning to Thelma and I said to her, “You have never said anything about me working so hard on this business day and night and having it go under and we have nothing, but you seem very peaceful.” And she said something like, “Well, it’s a great adventure and stop and think, we don’t have anything to lose.” She was a wonderful scout, wonderful team member, wonderful companion. She was right with me all the way. She never complained or criticized me because of what I had done to the family. And of course, the kids saw it as a great adventure, because when we headed west, they were excited. We were going to all these different states, into Native American country. So it was a big adventure for them. It was a big adventure for all of us.

BW: So you were never worried?

JM: I can’t remember being worried. I just kept moving forward. And if one thing I did didn’t work out, I did something else. So when we got to San Diego, there was a family there that Thelma had known in Buffalo at the Buffalo Museum of Science where Thelma worked. Thelma loved biology and nature and had a small job there, and so we looked them up. We really loved San Diego. In those days, it was kind of a small city, not a big metropolis like it is now. They helped us make some contacts. I told them I needed a job. They gave us a newspaper so I could run down the ads. And I found a job selling fences. And I also got a job selling door to door with Fuller Brush. We rented a small, furnished house for a few months, up in the mountains, but it was seventeen miles up the mountain, so we found an apartment closer to town—it was sixty-five dollars a month and unfurnished. Because San Diego was a Navy town—the battleships came and went—you could rent all kinds of stuff for a few bucks. So we rented bunk beds for the kids and I think we rented a pullout sofa for Thelma and me. And so we rented everything. For a period of time we couldn’t find a refrigerator for a very low cost, so we worked out of a big container with ice in it. Thelma was quite a pioneer. So you can see that we just did things step by step. Things weren’t easy, but it was the beginning of a change in a better direction. So when the bankruptcy and foreclosure happened, it shifted my life totally. Because once I was bankrupt, and they had taken my car and my house, all I had left was Thelma and my three kids. And that turned out to be a good thing. In the end, the disaster and failure led to the profession where I really blossomed and was able to help so many people. More so than I ever could in a mail-order business. I didn’t see it at the time, but losing everything turned out to be a blessing. And Thelma was right. The whole time I had the mail order business, I had a sensing and feeling that it was not enough. But I did not have a clue of any kind. I thought to myself, “Oh I don’t know, I can’t figure it out mentally. It must not be anything. I’ve got an interesting business I’m building up. I’m real good at direct mail. I’ve been to a lot of direct mail conferences, I love the work.” I began to be fascinated when I went to the direct mail conferences. But looking back on it, what I was really fascinated by, what I was primarily interested in was the human relations aspect of it.