By John G. Fornaro
There are lessons we learn from people we know and love…ideas and thoughts that motivate us, that inspire us and that become totally relevant in our everyday lives. This is my story of one life lesson and my friend Marco Abdi.
In my lifetime many people have influenced me. . . my thoughts, my likes, dislikes, as has happened with all of us. They have influenced not only my writing but also other BoardRoom ventures such as the Distinguished Clubs program from BoardRoom magazine.
Often we can point to one particular person who has had a greater influence, and often we don’t realize it until after their death. For me, that’s been the death of one of my best friends…a friend for more than 30 years. His recent death has given me pause to stop and think about why he had so much influence on my life.
My friend Marco Abdi died February 15 at the age of 59. . . three and half weeks after he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.
As many of you know, I arrived in California many years ago from Calgary, Alberta – Canada’s oil capital.
I had met my friend, Marco, affectionately known as the Italian-Somalian, in Calgary. He left his home of humble beginnings in Somalia in the late 1970s to work in Rome, Italy as a caretaker in a restaurant. Later in 1980, Adbi made his way to Calgary and worked as a janitor in a professional medical building. At that time, he was making $800 a month and thought “it a big deal.”
Marco had greater ambitions. Across the street from where he worked sat a small house, in an area of Calgary that has continually faced redevelopment. Marco set his eyes on that building, and when finally able to get his hands on it, Marco opened an Italian restaurant, La Brezza, an enticing establishment he owned and operated for 30 years.
An Italian restaurant?? Well, Marco’s wife, Filomena, comes from an Italian family. That’s part of the story. Convincing Filomena’s dad that he’d be the right suitor for his daughter was quite another. As it has turned out, many of La Brezza’s recipes over the years came from Filamena‘s mom, who also helped as a chef.
La Brezza consistently has been rated as one of the best restaurants in Canada. Customers have included politicians, Diana Ross, Rod Stewart, famous and popular athletes, and hundreds of other entertainers and prominent people from all over the world who happen by Calgary.
Marco, during his early travels, lived off and on in the United Arab Emirates, before settling in Calgary. Marco’s death gives me pause for reflection.
Whenever I met Marco, during our many visits at his restaurants, when we socialized, when he visited California or when we traveled on holidays together, he always offered guidance, advice about the meaning of life…he was very caring, very giving.
You see, whenever I had a business meeting or just dinner with friends, I usually ended up at Marco’s restaurant. Why?
I knew, from experience, my guests would be treated ‘special’, and my business clients would be impressed with the way Marco and his staff treated us. It would make me look even better.
A New York Times reporter, writing about Marco during a visit to Calgary related some thoughts that ring true. The first time the reporter visited La Brezza in 2005, Calgary was in recession.
“Everyone in the restaurant looked a little glum. All of a sudden, this tall black man comes out of the kitchen with this huge smile and yells out, ‘Merry Christmas.’ It’s July. Everyone in the room instantly had a smile on their face. He talked to everyone, joking about everything,” the Times report said.
It’s just as Marco said, so often: “For me, every day is Merry Christmas. My father told me that you are born with nothing and you die with nothing and every day in between is Christmas. When you die you’re not going to take anything with you. My gift to you is happiness.”
He made everyone in his restaurant feel special, just like it was Christmas morning – that was Marco’s trademark.
But the fact is, Marco, a Muslim from Somali, as he explained to me, loved the unique feeling everyone could sense on Christmas morning… people seemed friendlier, happier; people were sharing.
“It wasn’t about me, it’s about others,” Marco would say. And it certainly was about others, because many charities benefited from Marco’s generosity and kindness, and not only during the Christmas season but everyday of the year. Marco wanted everyone to have that ‘happy feeling’ every day.
Marco was never trained in the restaurant business. He didn’t cook, but he could find out what people wanted…what they wanted their experience to be at his restaurant. He said, “I don’t need to read a book to find out what people want.” He knew his customers were there for the culinary experience…the Marco experience, like what we in the private club industry call the member experience.
What I didn’t realize until now, after his death, is that Marco’s actions and advice guided me to better understand the private club industry, private clubs and the member experience.
Our members want the same thing as Marco was able to offer his many patrons for 30 years…a special experience. So, what can we offer our members that the best, most famous restaurants do not?
We can give our members what they can’t just buy – it’s the DNA of a private club, and what makes private clubs so important in our members’ lives. . .a meaningful, memorable, fun, unusual and unexpected experience.
What Marco did in his restaurant didn’t cost him a cent. Yet the experience he offered was worth more than the meal…far more! He was one of a kind.
Recently I wrote about a private club board president in Florida, who, while the general manager was showing me all the club’s improvements, pulled me aside and said, ‘let’s go for a walk.’
We talked that day about how much he pays his GM, and why so much. This club president had worked for 40 years looking after his family and 1,000 employees in the firm.
Once retired, he wanted someone to look after him and his family for the last 20 or so years of his life. He wants to feel special, important; he wants to impress his friends and family and be happy – the meaning of ‘member experience’ at our private clubs.
My friend Marco was able to do all that seemingly without effort or expense, but in order for our industry to remain relevant in the future, it’s this ‘looking after…the member experience’ that we need to ensure happens for members.
Marco’s passing has had a great impact on both my wife Denise and me, as it has the thousands who showed up for his memorial service in Calgary, a tribute from everyone he made feel so special.
In Calgary, a city of 1.2 million, people paid tribute to my friend Marco, a simple man from Somali.
Today Calgary, Alberta with fewer than three percent Muslims has Naheed Nenshi as the first Muslim mayor in a major North American city, a mayor who easily won a second four-year in the most recent mayoral race and enjoys an 80 percent approval rating.
I believe Marco, a black Somalian-Italian Muslim, who showed so much kindness, and not the extremist views you see in the news every day, changed the misconceptions and ignorance of many people, including me, during his shortened lifetime.
So thank you for taking the time to read something that means so much to me, and its relevance in my life and our industry, and letting me share my friend Marco with you. . .
At least that’s the way I see it!
John G. Fornaro, publisher
If you have comments on this article or suggestions for other topics, please contact John Fornaro at (949) 376-8889 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org