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HOW I DID IT

We'll Never Forget This Colleague

Jay Deutsch, CEO of Seattle-based BDA, explains how his company faced a tragic loss--and now has a new mission.
With Love The morning after her death, Susan Brocket's co-workers—her work family—made this memorial for her.
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Jay Deutsch is the CEO and co-founder, with Eric Bensussen, of Woodinville, Washington-based BDA, a $315 million maker of branded promotional merchandise for large companies and sports leagues. As told to Leigh Buchanan.

Susan Brockert was the kind of employee who gets what your business stands for better than you do. She joined BDA in 1996, first as Eric's assistant and then as mine. So she knew us both really well, and we came to depend on her. She became a key member of our consumer-products operation, and the only thing she considered impossible was breaking a promise to a customer. She was kind, too: always there for you with comfort or a cupcake.

Last year marked Susan's 15th anniversary with the company. So she came on our annual Owners' Trip, along with our best performers in all departments and others celebrating major milestones. On May 22, 68 BDA employees and family members descended on a resort in Hawaii. The second night there, we took over a wonderful little restaurant, and all of us ate and danced together. The sunset was incredible. It was paradise, made more so because we were with the people we loved.

I got back to my room at 11 p.m. Fifteen minutes after I changed into my pajamas, Eric called. He told me about a disturbance in Susan's room. I went immediately.

For legal reasons, I can't say much about the next bit. I can say that Susan's companion, who was traveling with her, will stand trial in August. The charges against him include second-degree murder.

At 3:30 a.m., I woke up my vice president of human resources back in Washington. She and a colleague were at Susan's mother's doorstep by 7 a.m. and arranged for a pastor to join her. Susan's children, 10 and 16, were off to school, and we had to keep things quiet until they got home and could talk to their grandmother. I'm proud that our people didn't send a single e-mail or post a single message that might have let the news leak.

I called everyone who was with us on the trip and asked them to gather early that morning. Telling them of the tragedy was the worst thing I've ever had to do. Then I arranged a massive conference call including all 550 of our employees in 33 offices across the country. And I did the worst thing I've ever had to do all over again.

Later, we gathered hundreds of white coral rocks and used them to write Susan's name in letters 6 feet high on a black lava field. I have never felt so broken, or so close to a group of people in my life.

You want to back away from something like this. It's easier to run away from it. But Eric and I have what we call a run-into-it philosophy. You face the difficult things and figure out how to make them better. So we created a foundation to benefit domestic-abuse prevention and education programs and launched a series of events under the banner Susan's Rock. For the first one, in January, our employees got people to sponsor them to climb the Space Needle in Seattle. So far, we've raised more than $200,000.

Over the past year, I've learned a lot about domestic abuse. It's unbelievably common, affecting 1 in 4 U.S. women. So, my neighbors, my friends, my employees? And it's cyclical: Boys raised in abusive homes become abusers themselves. Our job is to break the cycle.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of Susan's death. We're having a companywide ice cream social--to remember her, not to mourn her. I'm grateful I'll be with my BDA family. But it's going to be a tough day.

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: Jun 28, 2012

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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