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When Everybody Loses

The perfect partnership


Craig Underwood (81) is a 4th generation California farmer in Ventura County who was facing headwinds keeping his family farm going. The conventional vegetable farming landscape was changing, profits were less, and he was struggling to survive. A seed supplier mentioned to him a guy pounding the pavement looking for peppers for chili sauce in LA. Underwood wrote a letter to David Tran and asked, “Would you like me to grow some peppers?”


David Tran (78) is a Vietnamese refugee, who started a new life in LA in 1980, who developed sriracha, Huy Fong Foods’ spicy, slightly sweet, good for everything sauce. He wasn’t thinking of selling it mainstream to Americans. “I thought it was going to sell to Chinese or Vietnamese.”


Tran underestimated the market and Huy Fong became the No. 3 hot sauce in America – all as a private company, without selling even the smallest share to the country’s Big Food titans. Tran’s green-tipped bottles could be found in one in 10 American kitchens.


Thus, it was that Tran needed a stable source of fresh, red jalapenos. His supply was inconsistent, and the timing was tricky. Most jalapenos are sold when they are crisp and green. But Tran’s sauce requires the sweeter, less-grassy version of the fruit after it ripens to red – but before it overripens and becomes soft. This makes it a finicky product for farmers to grow and transport. He needed someone to own the entire process of the delivery system. Underwood offered to be that guy.


The partnership flourished. As the sole supplier of juicy red jalapenos for sriracha, Underwood’s empire of peppers spread from a 400-acre family farm to 3,000 acres across two counties outside LA. 100 million pounds of peppers. Tran’s Huy Fong had sales of $131 million in 2020.


And then, it was over. In a day, the relationship ended. It was severed in an afternoon by an argument over payment for next season’s crop. The conversation turned contentious. Things were said that couldn’t be taken back. In a few hours, a 28- year business relationship was over.


Everybody lost. Underwood faced financial ruin. He could not plant the vast swaths of land he had purchased or leased without a buyer. He was locked into 25- year leases on much of the land he and expanded into and he didn’t have the cash on hand to pay his own suppliers.


Tran lacked supply of peppers for his product to be produced by his gleaming 650,000 square foot factory. In the first half of 2023, Huy Fong had no chilies at all. Both businesses lost millions. The two men, who had been friends, became bitter enemies. They offer sharply contrasting accounts of what went wrong. What is clear is trust had been irrevocably lost. And their success was built on that trust.


Huy Fong’s loss was Tabasco’s win. A vacuum for a popular and profitable service is soon filled. What is left is an epic comedown for a great American brand. And an ignoble ending to a storied American business partnership between a hardworking Vietnamese refugee and a salt-of-the- earth California farmer.


There is something very sad about how David Tran and Craig Underwood were willing to walk away from each other, leaving all that they’d built in peril and untold millions on the table.  Once their trust was broken, their enmity grew stronger than their desire to succeed. Respect was lost. There was no going back.

 

Bringing the Lessons Home


What meanings can be illustrated through this story? In introductory comments to my semiannual provider reviews, I offered this analogy.


United Health (Optum) purchased the Oregon Medical group and the Corvallis Clinic. These two Oregon clinic networks added to the insurance giant’s roster of 1,500 clinics nationwide. Never have the titans of capitalism shown such interest in the humble family physician.


The clinic owners hugely benefitted financially. Employed clinic providers not so much. Many physicians have already left, citing unrealistic expectations of production and a detached lack of respect from their new owner. Patients have not benefited at all. Many patients have been fired due to lack of providers. Optum sent out a letter to 10,000 patients of the Oregon Medical Group in Eugene, notifying them there is no longer capacity for them at the clinic.


United Health understands its model of vertical integration controlling insurance coverage, medical groups, medical information technology, and pharmacy. That is a lot of consolidating forces. They profit both ways – whether you receive medical services or not. And it is coming at a time it is difficult for primary care practices to show a profit due to escalating administrative complexities. In 2021, Optum Health reported $4.4 billion in profits on $54 billion in revenues.


For myself, it is a time to appreciate what I have. What we have. Evergreen Family Medicine is physician owned and governed. Those making the decisions which impact your practice also work alongside you according to the same requirements.


We have a partner relationship with Mercy Medical Center, which is owned by Common Spirit. My interactions with corporate are beyond frustrating at times. But Evergreen’s relationship is with our local hospital. We need each other. This community needs an accessible competent primary care system. And this community needs a healthy hospital. All of us who live here understand that.


The hospital is struggling. Financially and functionally. We see that especially in specialties such as urology, gastroenterology, and cardiology. Evergreen Family Medicine is in a strong position. It has not always been this way. Our growth has been supported by the hospital. It’s our turn to give back.


It’s worth the effort to make this partnership work. I have no interest or intention of selling our group to an insurance conglomerate. Nor will I sell to a hospital system. I like who we are. Who you are. What we are is increasingly rare.


I have learned to be patient. To look past the offence. This partnership isn’t perfect.  I’m investing in our relationship because I have faith it can get better. It must. Because if we walk away, everybody loses.

 

Homemaker


Other inferences from this story are more personal. Where the cost is not financial, yet what is lost is more precious.


Kansas City Chief’s kicker, Harrison Butker, received vicious backlash after a recent commencement speech he gave at Benedictine College, a small Catholic liberal college in Kansas. The focus of his address was extolling traditional Christian values in the home. A firestorm erupted. Petitions demanding he be fired were gathered. Vitriolic social media postings were plentiful.


While I doubt many of his critics read the entire text of his address, their fury was triggered when he spoke appreciatively of his wife living her vocation as a wife and mother, embracing one of the most important titles – homemaker.  Butker also addressed the cost our nation experiences due to absent fathers. A failed partnership. Everybody loses.


His message resonated with me because I am the product of such a home. My mother found pleasure in being a homemaker. I would not be the person I am had I not felt such love and pride from my mother. Home was a safe place where I learned the skills to navigate this world. But there would have been no home without a homemaker.


I understand many women don’t have the option of staying home with their children. But being a homemaker doesn’t mean staying at home. What is required is intentional relationships, setting priorities, and much sacrifice. It’s a choice.  Many affluent parents have the means but not the will to be homemakers. It shows. Some families only look good in pictures. Some of the strongest family units appear from a house of poverty. It’s a different depiction of wealth.


It has always seemed ironic to me that those individuals loudest to demand world peace or justice for a mistreated segment of people rarely have peace in their own home. Peace with their parents and siblings. Peace with their neighbors.


It’s harder to love up close where it matters most. Homemakers know that.  Broken relationships happen when the enmity is more important to us than the relationship. It’s worth considering why that is. Homemakers know how to look in a mirror.

 

 

Mirror on the Wall


Have you not seen that mirror? Perhaps in your grandmother or great grandmother’s home. An elderly aunt. A full-length mirror, passed down through generations, a thick gilt frame of cloud forms, with some of the silver backing beginning to oxidize toward the top leaving a few dark blots.


 Do you, like me, think about the generations of men and women who looked into that same mirror?  Do you strive to make a connection?  Where were they going that day? Were they pleased with what they saw in their reflection? What did they think about?  What were their marriages like? Were they happy?


Many of my relatives were probably too old school to think about happy. Not like so many contemporary figures who demand happiness as a right. Hopefully, they treated each other with respect. They found meaning in family and self-sacrifice. Contentment grew out of purpose. Homemaking.


This is not an exercise of ancestor worship but beginning to see the point of treasuring the past. Until we appreciate those influences in our lives, until we understand why traditional values are important, and we will never understand the power of homemaking.


It also occurred to me as I looked into that mirror that I never set eyes on our own face. I can look in a mirror, but it is a mirror image. Reversed. I can see the face of every single person in the world except my own. It is the same with you.  We never see ourselves directly the way other people do. Perhaps there is a message in that.


The message is we need others, trusted relationships, to be able to truly see ourselves. To be the mirror. Family can do that. Sometimes it is professional help.


A lady spoke of how offended this was by her therapist. This therapist was Russian, who spoke with old world English and a matter-of-fact style that was not ingratiating. After several sessions, she made this comment to her patient,


“Your mother never loved you. Perhaps due to the devastating loss of her own mother.”


This lady was furious. “She said it like it’s Tuesday. It was so matter of fact.” 


“What I heard was I wasn’t worth loving.”


“It took some time before I realized what she was saying was “it’s not your fault. Maybe not even your mother’s.”


With that she also understood she couldn’t change it. It was a condition of life. It was a matter of fact.


Sad, but nobody’s fault. Nothing here I would care to pass on. Time to move on. Time to make a home for my children. Time to be a homemaker.


Because I’m tired of losing.

 

Tim Powell MD

 

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