Archive for June 21, 2012

From Omaha to Paris to Omaha, with Love, Anne-Marie Kenny’s Journey in Song and Spirit

June 21, 2012 3 comments

I am drawn to stories of people whose lives are clearly journeys of transformation and discovery and stepping outside comfort zones in pursuit of dreams.  Anne-Marie Kenny’s life story is one such journey.  I tell it here in short form but you can find on this blog a much more extensive profile of her I did.  She’s a cabaret singer and an entrepreneur and a generous soul.

Anne-Marie Kenny



From Omaha to Paris to Omaha, with Love, Anne-Marie Kenny’s Journey in Song and Spirit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine


Before becoming a world citizen, Anne-Marie Kenny made a coming of age trip to Paris, alone, at 21.

“I just knew I needed to spread my wings,” said Kenny, a native Omahan who eventually made her second homes in Paris and Prague. where she forged careers as a cabaret singer and entrepreneur. After years away this once expatriate returned to Omaha in 2001. Her hometown’s now the base of her performing, vocal instruction and corporate consulting work.

She became a Francophile studying French at Mercy High. The City of Lights symbolized romantic possibilities. She recalled, “I was on the train from Marseilles to Paris when an elderly woman asked, ‘What will you do in Paris?’ and for some reason I said, ‘I’m a singer, I’m going to sing.’ That’s the first time I admitted that to myself.”

She and her three older sisters had performed locally as a four-part harmony group. They studied piano. Not all was idyllic,. Their attorney-father drowned when they were young, leaving their mother to raise and support them. To help make ends meet the girls took jobs. Anne-Marie worked at St. James Orphanage.

“I think life might have been a little bit harder had we not had music,” said Kenny. “Music was our outlet.”

Once in Paris she found work as an au pair. Her pluck led her to an Argentine guitarist and the two became street performers on the Champs Elysees.

“I was determined,” she said.

The duo was quickly discovered, landing a gig on a popular radio variety show.

Returning to Omaha, she studied voice and honed her chops at M’s Pub and V Mertz. She then met her late husband, Bozell & Jacobs ad man John Bull. All the while she pined for Paris. Bull did, too, and the couple moved there. She studied voice with Janine Reiss and at the Juilliard and Peabody conservatories and Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. Kenny soon made a name for herself as a cabaret artist at posh spots in Paris and the South of France.

Her repertoire includes American, French and Italian tunes. She’s done some recording. She’s also worked in musical theater and has appeared in three feature films shot on the Riviera. She and John shared an apartment on the Seine’s Ile Saint-Louis. She appreciates France’s “very high regard for artists.”

Life took a turn when a poem-song she wrote for newly elected Czech president Vaclav Havel earned an invitation to perform it at Praugue’s famed Reduta Jazz Club. Caught up in the new free market opportunities there, she put her music career aside to form an employment agency serving international companies. The same engaging presence that works a room wins over clients as well.

Just as business boomed John fell ill and died in 1998. She’s since sold the business and made Omaha home again. She operates her vocal performance studio at her brick ranch dwelling, aka, cultural salon. She said, “I am as passionate about teaching as I am about performing now. It’s so much fun seeing people go from having a good natural voice to being able to technically do things they never thought they could do.” She teaches the Bel Canto method.

Her community work includes leading the Siena Francis House Singers, whose ranks are composed of the homeless and in-treatment residents.

Europe is still her playground. She was back last October. Recent U.S. performing gigs included the Sarasota Yacht Club in Florida and the Omaha Community Playhouse. This summer she’s doing a concert for Alliance Francaise d’Omaha.

On the entrepreneurial side. she’s an intercultural relations consultant. “To put kind of a credential on my experience,” she earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership, with a concentration on cultural studies, from the College of St. Mary. She led the start-up of the college’s Center for Transcultural Leaning.

Whether doing art or business, she said, “I’m being creative in both. “They’re both very risk taking and they’re not marching to the conventional beat.” For her, home is where the heart is. “I am so glad now to be back in Omaha. I’m here because I want to be here. I think Omaha has so much going for it. I feel I can flourish here.”

Vic’s Corn Popper Owners Do More Than Make Snacks: They Mentor Young People

June 21, 2012 2 comments

Some Nebraska food brands have loyal followings no matter where their devoted customers live or visit.  If you’re from here and you grew up with Runza meat-cabbage pockets and burgers or Valentino’s pizza or Dorothy Lynch salad dressing or Lithuanian Bakery tortes or Bohemian Cafe kolaches or Omaha Steaks, and you find yourself far away from here but craving that taste of Omaha, well then nothing is going to satisfy you except an overnight fix or order of that very product.  The same goes for Vic’s popcorn.  This is a short profile from a few years ago of the couple that created the brand and the demand for this scrumptious gourmet snacking staple.


Vic’s Corn Popper Owners Do More Than Make Snacks: They Mentor Young People

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in B2B Magazine


Once a teacher always a teacher. The axiom applies to Vic Larson and wife Ruth, retired educators whose Mom and Pop retail food company, Vic’s Corn Popper, integrates lessons from their lives and teaching careers.

Since Vic’s 1980 start the nurturing couple, who raised three children of their own, has employed scores of youths. For many, it’s their first job. The Larsons expect much from their teen brigade, whom they regard as ”our kids,” and get loyal high achievers in return.

“They’re the neatest kids,” said Larson. “Our philosophy, like in teaching, is that people will produce at the level you accept. If you accept mediocrity, that’s what you’ll usually get. But if you have high standards people will produce at that level. We have a high standard and we expect them to work to that. That’s why we give them the keys to the stores. They’re in charge.”

Larson said it’s not unusual for someone to start at 16 and stay until graduation. Even after moving onto college, he said, many Vic’s veterans come back to work summers or holidays. Some continue even after starting careers and families. He and Ruth are adamant high school students in their employ enjoy being kids.

“They’re kids, we want ‘em to have fun. We want ‘em to participate in school activities, go to games on Friday nights, go to prom, go to homecoming, and so we really push that. Instead of working 20-30 hours a week, they work 12 to 15 hours.”

The bonds run deep. “We get invited to their graduations, their weddings,” Ruth said. “We look at them as individuals not just as our Friday night crew or whatever,” she said. “They have their own needs, their own problems, their own families. You take each of those kids separately and think, ‘What does he need for guidance compared to this one, who maybe doesn’t need that.’ As a teacher you do that.” It’s the same with customers. “We make connections,” she said.

“We really work with our employees about treating people with dignity and respect,” added Vic. “You treat them as valuable people. You look ‘em in the eye and you get to know who they are, what they like, especially repeat customers. You want to make them feel like they are somebody special.”

Vic and Ruth say they’ve created a work culture based on “integrity and initiative.” The managers they hire instill a culture of “doing what’s right,” as Larson puts it. These principles were modeled by the couple’s own hard-working parents. His were educators. Hers, farmers. Like any good teachers, the Larsons view the youth in their charge as human resources they must prepare for the future.

“They have to deal with money, they have to make and package a quality product, they have to scrub the floors. I mean, they have to do it all,” he said. “We want to create a positive work environment so that they feel good about their job and they’ll go out and hopefully have good work experience in whatever they do. We want our kids to become good workers for others. That’s our goal.”

The Larsons communicate their business values and entrepreneurial guidelines not only with employees but with students at area elementary schools, high schools and colleges.

He said he tells students, “If you ever want to start a business it better be something you like. I also get into what we look for in hiring — we want good citizens because good citizens become good workers. With older students I get into budgeting and what it really costs to run a business.”

What began as a way for the couple to earn extra income became a passion.

Larson worked in the OPS vocational ed office at the time. The ex-industrial arts teacher supplemented his sparse teaching pay working summers for engineers and home builders. Having a business of his own was his real desire.

Ruth, who’d left teaching to focus on the kids, wanted to work again but not in the classroom. Taking a cue from the Korn Popper store he frequented growing up in his native Lincoln, Neb. he conceived a niche gourmet popcorn store featuring hybrid white corn. The brand long ago expanded into flavored varieties.

Korn Popper helped the Larsons launch the first Vic’s store in mid-town Omaha. Vic’s soon caught on. More sites followed, including the downtown Brandeis food court. In ‘84 the couple sold most of it to investors, remaining part-owners. Vic’s went national. The couple got out in ‘85. But the hunger to guide the business bearing his name compelled Larson to buy the Harvey Oaks store in ‘91. He’s since added the Oak View Mall store and reacquired the Brandeis site. A new addition is a production-distribution center set-up to handle Vic’s growing Internet orders.

What began as a moonlighting venture is a well-established family enterprise and mentoring outlet for the couple. It shows what’s possible with hard work and imagination, a message Larson tries conveying to kids. “I want to really engage them in that, to spark some interest in them. I always ask, ‘What do you really like to do?  You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t have any plans or goals.’ We try to get ‘em thinking about what they want to do when they get out of school.”

The couple’s children have all worked at Vic’s. The grandkids are too young to work there just yet but Ruth said they’re already “staking out” which stores they want to run one day. The kernel doesn’t pop far from the kettle.

Cousins Bruce and Todd Simon Continue the Omaha Steaks Tradition

June 21, 2012 1 comment

The name Omaha obviously doesn’t pop up in national media stories, online blogs, movies and television shows or songs the way, say, Chicago or L.A. or New York does, though it appears more often than you’d think.  But it’s appearance is still rare enough that it’s a cause, if not for celebration exactly, than consideration.  Aside from Warren Buffett and Alexander Payne, you’d be hard-pressed to immediately identify any contemporary figure from Omaha unless of course you’re from here yourself.  Other than the College World Series and perhaps the Henry Doorly Zoo you’d likely come up empty thinking of events or placces that Omaha is known for unless again you’re a native or a resident or a frequent visitor.  For better or worse the city’s image, if it has one at all in the minds of the general public, is forever fixed as a vaguely Western, agricultural, meatpacking center, which is to say it’s associated with corn and beef.  One locally-based company with a national and international reach has rather perfectly combined product with perception – Omaha Steaks.  It’s a brand that gives people what they expect, sort of the way the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers brand does.  The following piece I wrote four years ago or so for B2B Magazine profiles the two men, first cousins Bruce and Todd Simon, who now run the multi-generational family business that’s grown to meet customers where they are, whether through physical stores, mail order catalogues, or electronic social media.


Cousins Bruce and Todd Simon Continue the Omaha Steaks Tradition

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in B2B Magazine


First cousins Bruce and Todd Simon are the fifth generation in family-owned Omaha Steaks. Their knack for brokering deals, managing people and anticipating the next big thing has the company’s annual sales nearing a half-billion dollars.

Each apprenticed under his dad and after working together 20 years each holds fast to cherished lessons passed down from above.

For 91 years the company’s found innovative ways to market fine meat and other foods to residential and commercial customers around the nation and the world. Along the way the Omaha Steaks name has become such an icon synonymous with quality beef that its hometown enjoys crossover brand recognition.

Bruce is president/COO and Todd is senior vice president, but their bond supersedes titles or labels. They’re family. Two in a long line to lead the business.

“You know what we have? We have an entire company of people who we trust — that we feel like we’re family with,” Bruce said. “That blood bond is really a family bond and it traverses not only the Simon family, it includes our executive committee, all the way down. There are guys I know in the plant that were there the day I started and I feel the same bond with them as I do to my cousin Todd. We all feel a responsibility to each other to make this place successful.”

“Well, I think it starts with the fact we’re a family business that allows us to really take those kind of family values into the whole business,” Todd said. “And it shows in the benefits we provide for our team in terms of family leave benefits or vacation benefits or day care. Scholarships.”

Legacy is never far removed from the Simons’ thoughts, as their fathers still take an active part in the company. Bruce’s father, Alan Simon, is chairman of the board/CEO. Todd’s dad, Fred Simon, is executive vice president. The cousins’ late uncle, Steve Simon, served as senior VP and GM.

“My dad was and is pretty much the operational guy. He’s the guy who ran the meatpacking plant and who was the bean counter,” Bruce said. “And Todd’s dad was the real marketing guy and Steve (Simon) was the sales guy.”

The three brothers — Alan, Fred and Steve — learned the business from their father Lester Simon, who in turn learned it from his father B.A. Simon. It all began when B.A. and his father J.J. Simon, both butchers, left Latvia for America in 1898 to escape religious persecution. With the meat business in their blood, J.J. and B.A. settled in Omaha, a meatpacking center, and worked in several area markets. In 1917 father and son opened their own meat shop, Table Supply Meat Company, downtown. Their niche was to process and sell beef to restaurants and grocers.

Table Supply responded to the growing food service sector by supplying meat to Union Pacific Railroad for its large dining car services as well as restaurants. Cruise lines, airlines, hotels and resorts became major customers. Lester Simon first took Table Supply retail via mail order ads. Then came a mail order catalog. Shipping-packaging advances improved efficiency, helping widen the company’s reach.

By 1966 all this growth warranted an expansion in the form of a new plant and headquarters on South 96th Street. With the new facilities came a new name, Omaha Steaks International.

The 1970s saw Omaha Steaks take new steps in customer convenience by adding inbound and outbound call centers and a mail order industry-first toll-free customer service line. An automated order entry system was installed in 1987.

The first of its retail stores opened in 1976. Visioning the online explosion to follow, Omaha Steaks helped pioneer electronic marketing back in became the banner web site for the company’s fastest growing business segment. A new web site, promotes the company’s convenience meals brand, A La Zing, which offers a line of complete frozen prepared meals.

Omaha Steaks underwent another expansion phase in the ‘80 and ‘90s, consolidating administration and marketing in two new multi-story glass and steel buildings whose sleek interiors abound with examples from the Simons’ extensive art collections. Todd’s an elected member of the Board of United States Artists and board president of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

Todd and Bruce help oversee a company with two million-plus customers and 2,000 employees. Guiding the pair in family-business dealings are the principles they picked up from their elders. By living those principles they fulfill their obligation.

“Our parents taught us to do the right thing. That’s really the only responsibility we have — just do the right thing. Do it all the time. Try to produce every single box of product perfectly. Try to satisfy every single customer perfectly,” Bruce said. “It’s all about being honest. Everybody in our family has been impeccably honest. We don’t take advantage of people. We sleep good.

“I mean, if you’ve got building blocks and you set them up properly you’re going to have a very strong building. And that’s what we have and it’s because of every single block…and the values that J.J., B.A., Lester, Alan, Fred, Steve and now Todd and I hold dear. It’s our whole corporate culture.”

Todd said, “I think in a lot of ways we’ve both sort of followed in our fathers’ footsteps. Bruce is very strong operationally, purchasing, finance…All the sort of back-office stuff is his forte. And mine is the out-front stuff — the marketing, sales. Managing the customer service aspect of that, motivating the front-line people to be people-people. I think Bruce and I really complement each other well. When we both come up with ideas I’ll see one side of the picture and he’ll see the other side. And since we’re both open too each other’s perspective on it, it really helps us balance it out.”

With two father-son teams comprising the ownership-executive ranks, the potential exists for family disputes that upset the company’s inner workings. The Simons diffuse those bombs with open dialogue and transparent dealings.

“For as long as I can remember the way we operate as a family is we get our ideas out,” Todd said. “We don’t bulldoze over each other. We’re all forceful about our ideas and our opinions, and we’ll raise our voices and we’ll do whatever we need to do to get our point across. But we basically come to consensus and we don’t leave the room unless everyone’s comfortable with the direction we’re moving in.”

“Right,” Bruce said. “We don’t fight about things. If there’s a reason to do something we discuss it and we figure it out. Because, hell, we’re all on the same page. What’s good for one is good for all.”

Vision is important in any organization and each year Omaha Steaks holds an off-site brainstorm session with its top managers. Ideas and initiatives fly. “A lot of times those come not from me or Bruce but from the people out there in the trenches dealing with our customers every day,” Todd said. In the end, Bruce said, “Todd and I decide with our fathers where we’re going” as a company.

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