A Hunger for Efficiency

Former Marine Brigadier General Michael Mulqueen brought organizational skills to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, transforming it -- and himself

After 30 years in the Marine Corps, former Brigadier General Michael Mulqueen shifted gears and took command of the Greater Chicago Food Depository 14 years ago. He has turned it into a spit-and-polish outfit that other food banks around the country -- and other nonprofits -- try to emulate. With his businesslike approach, he is a pioneer of the trend toward professionalization in the nonprofit world. (For more on this subject, see BW, 5/16/05, "Waging War on Hunger?".)

Mulqueen, 67 and a year from retirement at the depository, brought quite a history with him. Born in Newburgh, N.Y., and raised in tiny Walden, N.Y., he graduated from Fordham University, where he studied history and philosophy. He joined the Corps and served at Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban missile crisis and then in Vietnam at the height of the conflict. His decorations include a Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, a Bronze Star with a Combat 'V' and the Navy Achievement Medal.

He talked with BusinessWeek Chicago Bureau Manager Joseph Weber. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: Did you grow up in a comfortable place or a rough one?

A:

We were probably lower middle class. We had a large Irish-Catholic family and I was one of six kids, the oldest of six kids. We didn't have a lot, but we didn't lack. We didn't have a lot of extras in life, but we certainly always had enough to eat well.

Q: Have you ever known hunger personally?

A:

No, except with six kids, I had a boardinghouse reach.

Q: What had you planned to do with your life?

A:

I just didn't know. I was a ballplayer in high school -- football, basketball, baseball, golf. I played in my freshman year at Fordham. I was captain of the golf team in my senior year. I grew up as a caddy, working on golf courses. I still play. My handicap is an 11 now.

Q: How did you come to go into the Marine Corps?

A:

I was drafted when I graduated from college. In those days [1960] everyone was drafted.… I was actively involved during the Cuban missile crisis. I was at Guantanamo Bay in a small radar team. We operated for six weeks.

I really liked the Marine Corps -- it was an exciting time. It was a pretty uplifting experience being involved with that, on the ground looking at Russian artillery pieces across the bay zeroed in on your post. We thought we were going to go to war.

Q: Any life-changing events in the Corps?

A:

Just a lot of professional growth and development over the years. One of the more interesting tours of duty I had was during the Reagan Administration, when I was the Marine aide to Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. We traveled all around the world. It was kind of exciting, it was fun, and we were involved in all the issues of the day, from 1984-87.

Probably the biggest thing for me was being selected brigadier general in 1986. That was a big deal, since I was the first guy in my field, in air command and control, to be selected for general officer.

By the time I was a brigadier general, I commanded the support group on Okinawa. My last job was as commander of the Military Entrance Processing Command, the command that qualifies all young men and women going into all branches serving in this country. My headquarters was in Great Lakes, but we had processing centers all around the country. There were 68 of them.

Q: What about Vietnam?

A:

I was in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, for 13 months. I was involved with Marine air command and control, in a couple different units. We were controlling aircraft. We weren't in close combat with anybody.

Q: How did the Corps affect you?

A:

I was very fortunate to be around some of the best and brightest for 30 years. I was around people who were great leaders and was able to learn from them. The one thing I took away from the Marine Corps, along with organization, was taking care of the troops.

Obviously, there are certain disciplines and values. We will risk lives to take the dead off the battlefield. Some people would say that that's not very smart, to risk people's lives, but when you go into combat, it's comforting to know that no matter what, somebody will bring you back.

Q: Why did you come to the Food Depository?

A:

I had spent my whole career in an organization that was an avocation. When I got to the Food Depository, in the first three weeks I heard two or three people say, "that's not my job." So I got the whole organization together and I said, "Your job is to feed hungry people. I don't care whether you're a forklift driver or in administration or a truck driver. We're all in this business to feed hungry people."

What's ingrained in you in the Marine Corps is that the focus is on the mission. Whatever it takes to get the mission done is your job. Unless you succeed at your mission, everybody fails.

One of the things I had to learn was that in the not-for-profit world, even though we have a calling and it's a mission, for some people it's a job. It's a means to put bread on the table. You would like to think everybody is here because they're really drawn to the mission. [Fortunately,] the vast majority of employees are here because of the compelling mission.

Q: What kind of shape was the organization in when you arrived?

A:

It was getting a fair amount of food out to feed hungry people. But there was a lot of disorganization. There were a lot of good people, but they didn't have a clue how to run the department, or how to lead people or how to work within a structure.

Q: Do you deal differently now with disadvantaged people after seeing them in your work?

A:

I'm a pretty sympathetic guy. I don't care what type of mental capacity someone has, as long as they try, they've got a good attitude, and they want to work. We have the earn-fare program here, where we've got welfare-to-work individuals who spend six months at the Food Depository, working 80 hours a month.

It's designed to provide basic work skills and interpersonal skills for people who have in many cases never worked or been living on welfare for far too long…. If somebody is down and out and wants to make something of their lives, we give them every opportunity.

Q: Has your experience changed any of your views?

A:

It definitely opened my mind. When I came out of the Marine Corps, I had views [against] homosexuality within the Corps, and that has changed. I just look at the individual and I don't care about their sexual persuasion, as long as they do a good job and they produce.

Q: What about poverty?

A:

Before I got into this job, I really didn't have a clue as to the extent of hunger and poverty in this country, and the effects of it. We see people who are really good people, who work hard and have paid their dues, and yet they still, for a host of reasons, have to go to a kitchen to get food. I don't try to judge anybody.

Q: Do you volunteer?

A:

We all have to spend a day at one of our agencies each year, to serve in a pantry or soup kitchen for a day. When you're in your nice office here, it's easy to forget why you're doing what you're doing. If you spend a day out you get to see how the volunteer agencies are doing a terrific job. And you get to see the face of hunger up close and personal. It really energizes you. It's always good experience.

Q: What's the solution to hunger in the U.S.?

A:

We have to end poverty. We're always going to have hunger as long as we have poverty. It's through education and through jobs. I would like to see the day when food pantries exist to provide supplemental food to low-income families. That would be the ideal.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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