Two weeks before Christmas one of my closest friends, Fred, died after a long illness; the death certificate may read suicide, but the real cause of death was his loss to a decades long fight with a chronic disease, depression.
I first met Fred about 30 years ago when he was the managing partner of a large regional accounting firm. We got to know each other very well, as we were both members of a Young Presidents’ Organization Forum where participants learn from each other in a confidential environment by sharing best practices and the challenges in their lives.
Fred had a brilliant business mind, and was well respected by his peers and colleagues. Fred’s journey from Ambridge, a mill town located outside of Pittsburgh, to becoming the head of the accounting firm was indicative of his acumen. Eventually, he left his position with the accounting firm to join a client’s electrical distribution company as president, where he was able to successfully manage the sale of the company to an international buyer.
Fred then joined a regional financial services company where he specialized in mergers and acquisitions. In 2010, he left the finance world to try and enjoy life and devote his time and expertise to the nonprofit community. Fred was appointed to a board position of a large regional bank where he also served as the board’s financial expert.
In 2011, Fred volunteered to help me with a search for a new controller for our company. After several weeks working with us, we came to the conclusion that the company did not need a full-time controller. We were blessed with an office manager whose financial skills were so strong that she performed most duties normally done by a controller. We decided the company needed someone on a higher level to manage finances, banking relationships, investments, and assist in long-range planning; late in 2011, Fred joined us as vice president of finance.
We became very good friends; he was Italian and began his accounting career at a firm with Jewish roots, while I was Jewish starting my produce career on the Pittsburgh Terminal Market, made up of mostly Italian-owned firms. We shared a love of golf; there were few things I enjoyed more on a golf course than finishing a round with a bit of Fred’s cash in my pocket.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates depression causes 200 million lost workdays each year — costing employers as high as $44 billion.
In the two-plus years Fred and I worked together, we accomplished a lot. He was instrumental in the hiring of our chief executive, Greg Cessna, who helped guide the company through a changing business environment. Fred and Greg’s business and financial experience were a tremendous asset during the sale of the business; the three of us were a great team.
But, there was a dark side, too. I knew Fred suffered from depression, but until we worked together, I had never really been close to someone with the disease. He would be fine for a period of time — engaged, sharp as a tack, and a great sense of humor. Then I’d get a text or email telling me he was a bit under the weather and would not be able to make it to the office that day. That “under the weather” condition would last anywhere from a few days to a few months, sometimes requiring hospitalization.
Fred had been feeling great for more than 18 months when the final bout of depression struck in late October. This was the longest he had gone between episodes in many years. He had been doing so well, I think he felt he had finally beaten the disease; in my mind, that’s what made this last episode so devastating. Fred was smart, he fooled his doctors, his caregivers, and his friends. He knew what he wanted; he was released from the hospital on a Wednesday afternoon and took his life on Thursday morning.
Fred had so much support; for example, a brother-in-law who lived nearby and was there for him at a moment’s notice. He had associates at work who covered for him while he was off. Fred had a team of close friends who visited him and took turns taking him out of his house for a walk or a bite of food. He had the best doctors at a world-class university hospital; but in the end, none of that would save him.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates depression causes 200 million lost workdays each year — costing employers as high as $44 billion. Treatment is by trial and error; “let’s see if this drug works, if not, then we’ll try another, or perhaps throw in a bit of electroconvulsive therapy.” It’s time society devotes the same resources to finding a cure for depression as we do to other life-threatening diseases.
Our employees are the lifeblood of our businesses. I’m certain that most have been there for our people when they or a family member experienced a medical crisis that threatened their physical well-being. It’s just as important we’re there for them in a mental health crisis and that our companies offer them access to the best mental health care available.
Fred had everything one could ask for in life, but could not escape what’s been described as a cancer of the mind. Rest well my friend, I hope you found the peace in heaven you couldn’t find here.
Alan Siger is chairman of Siger Group LLC, offering consulting services in business strategy, logistics, and operations to the produce industry. Prior to selling Consumers Produce in 2014, Siger spent more than four decades growing Consumers into a major regional distributor. Active in issues affecting the produce industry throughout his career, Siger is a former president of the United Fresh Produce Association.