Waging War On Hunger

How ex-Marine Mike Mulqueen got a Chicago food bank in fighting trim

When Brigadier General Michael P. Mulqueen left the Marine Corps to take command of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, one of the nation's biggest hunger- relief outfits, he ran into a lot of skeptics. Wouldn't someone accustomed to barking out orders clash with the nonprofit world's consensus-oriented culture? And what value could a Vietnam veteran bristling with medals bring to the fight against hunger? "There were a couple of people on the board who were actually offended by the idea," recalls William A. Rudnick, a former general counsel at the Chicago depository. "A lot of people in the social-service world don't view the military as a breeding ground for people who want to do good in society."

Now, nearly 14 years after the genial Mulqueen signed on, his operation has emerged as a model of efficiency for the country's food-assistance industry, which helps more than 23 million Americans every year. And Mulqueen, to the surprise of some, never barks out orders and insists on being called Mike. But to no one's surprise, the ex-Marine runs the depository more like a business than a nonprofit. He recruited heavily from the private sector: His chief financial officer is a certified public accountant from Arthur Andersen, the felled accounting giant; the operations director has a PhD in aeronautical engineering and ran logistics for the Chicago Sun-Times; and the director of food resources was an engineer at a local utility. Mulqueen also established competitive bids on every purchase over $500 and set performance standards and rewards for his staff, to whom he pays for-profit market salaries ranging up to $150,000 a year (he himself earns about $200,000).

The result is a spit-and-polish operation that attracts food bank officials from around the country eager to learn how the depository does it. Among its successes: a training program in which welfare moms learn restaurant cooking while feeding hungry children through a chain of Kids Cafés; Pantry University, which teaches hundreds of volunteers to run food pantries efficiently; and the depository's new $29 million warehouse in southwest Chicago, built with the guidance of corporate logistics experts to serve some 600 local pantries and soup kitchens. "He's a leader and always willing to share ideas that make us all better," says Lynn Brantley, chief executive of the Capital Area Food Bank of Washington.

Mulqueen and his team reflect a growing trend toward professionalization in the nonprofit world. Many groups were founded or headed by idealists ill-prepared to motivate staffs, adhere to budgets, and meet timetables. Now they increasingly embrace leaders from the outside, and résumés heavy with professional degrees and executive experience are becoming de rigueur. "I would not qualify for the job I have now," says William J. Walczak, CEO of the Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester, Mass., a $15 million-a-year nonprofit he co-founded as a 20-year-old community activist more than 30 years ago. "The management expectations are much higher in the nonprofit sector today."


Mulqueen, who once commanded some 7,000 Marines and sailors in a provisioning group on Okinawa, is as demanding as any no-nonsense CEO. To keep his people in touch with the depository's mission, he insists they spend at least one day a year working at a food pantry or soup kitchen. He did his latest stint in December, helping volunteers repackage and distribute food in a mixed-income suburb near the Indiana border. "When you're in your nice office here, it's easy to forget why you're doing what you're doing," says Mulqueen.

His secret is combining cordiality and efficiency. Even in the military, he says, leaders don't get troops to rally around them by dictating. Leaving room for autonomy works better than simply issuing orders. And recognition matters, whether it's another stripe on a uniform or a simple "attaboy." "He's never intimidating and doesn't use his 'general' status to bully his way around," says Jaynee K. Day, CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee.

Mulqueen also won over the critics by setting up innovative programs. Mindful of the charge that food banks amount to Band-Aids on America's poverty problems, he and his team work to get some of the hungry off the food lines. Chicago's Community Kitchens is a rigorous 12-week program that trains scores of unemployed or underemployed people, often welfare moms who have never held jobs before, to work in restaurants and institutional kitchens. Almost all the 295 graduates since 1998 found jobs soon after leaving. Some 63% stayed in their posts for at least a year, a big number in the usually high-turnover food industry.

While they learn, Community Kitchens trainees support another big depository program. They prepare hundreds of meals each day for Kids Cafés, an after-school hot-meal, mentoring, and fitness program for poor children in 26 sites around Chicago. The cafés, an idea pioneered at another food bank, are designed to give children refuge from gangs and troubled homes. They have attracted support from the likes of computer tycoon Michael S. Dell, whose family foundation just contributed $210,000 to the depository to back them. Such programs are aimed at "the cause of the problem, not just the symptom," says Lori Fey, a grant officer at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.

With his businesslike approach and an array of military decorations, Mulqueen has won support from Corporate America, too. When he and his staff designed the new warehouse, they got pointers from top executives at CDW Corp. (CDWC ), a $5 billion-a-year electronics distribution outfit that knows how to move goods. The depository's board includes top execs from McDonald's (MCD ), Sodexho, Credit Suisse First Boston (CSR ), and Citigroup (C ), along with local grocery-store officials and religious leaders. Mulqueen "is open, and he's honest, which is what any businessperson wants," says Peter L. Schaefer, a McDonald's vice-president on the depository board.

Behind the scenes, Mulqueen has also become a powerful voice in the national fight against hunger. He led the search committee that four years ago recruited Robert H. Forney, former head of the Chicago Stock Exchange, to become CEO of America's Second Harvest, the national umbrella organization for food banks. The Chicago-based outfit had been hobbled by tensions between it and member food banks, directors say, and Forney worked with board members on a reorganization plan that eased the problems.

Having made his mark in both the military and charitable worlds, Mulqueen, at 67, is still figuring out what to do with the rest of his life. He plans to stay at the depository for another year. Afterward, there will be time for golf, mysteries, historical books, and tending to six grandchildren. Oh, and he'll probably find some time for volunteering.

By Joseph Weber in Chicago

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