When This Woman's Business Partner Passed Away, She Learned She Didn't Have to Carry on His Legacy Alone
Five years after her partner's passing, Ethel Rubinstein reflects on his absence, while channeling his optimism and creativity.
In the Women Entrepreneur series My Worst Moment, female founders provide a firsthand account of the most difficult, gut-wrenching, almost-made-them-give-up experience they’ve had while building their business -- and how they recovered.
Back in 1992 when John Palestrini invited Ethel Rubinstein to run Lively, his creative studio, the male-dominated Mad Men era wasn’t far behind. Still, he saw the potential in Rubinstein to take what would soon become their company to the next level, turning Lively into a group of specialized subsidiaries to deliver projects for clients such as IBM, Toyota and L'Oréal. When Palestrini passed away after a battle with cancer in 2013, Rubinstein lost a dear friend, a business partner of more than 20 years and a voice that amplified hers when it came to running and growing Lively. In the past five years, Rubinstein has balanced grieving with the tall order of filling Palestrini’s shoes, and she’s slowly discovered that she isn’t alone.
What follows is a firsthand account of this person’s experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
"We talk a lot about loss -- of loved ones, of jobs beloved or not, of objects that meant something to us. But for reasons I've yet to understand, we rarely discuss the loss of a business partner.
When John Palestrini asked me to join forces in 1992, I had no idea that it would be the start of a 20-year relationship -- one of the most important of not just my career, but also of my life. I boasted a resume as head of production at an advertising agency and executive producer at Ridley Scott Associates. John was my film editor of choice, and after a series of collaborations (and a few well-placed comments about seeking a new opportunity), he asked if I would join, run and scale his business.
We were a great team from the beginning. He was an incredibly supportive boss who understood that I always had the long game in mind. Whenever I met resistance making internal changes, he trusted my instincts and helped me achieve my goals.
John passed away after a battle with cancer, and even though he hadn’t been in the office for close to a year, very few of our employees knew how sick he really was. However, I was kept apprised of John’s condition and was able to spend time with him in his final days. It was my responsibility to notify our staff and clients of his passing, and to also reassure them that the company would carry on without him.
It was a tremendous loss, and I felt it both personally and professionally. We had been in business together for 20 years and business associates for more than 30. Together, we pioneered the concept of vertical integration, creating a number of interconnected companies under the Lively Group umbrella. It became my responsibility to look to the future, figure out where we needed to be in five years and shape our approach for getting there.
At the time of John’s passing, we had been equal partners in the company for 10 years, and I was running the company day to day. It was less about taking over his duties and more about making major business decisions without John’s wise counsel and reassuring presence. He was the great optimist foil to my realist nature. We balanced each other so perfectly, and I immediately missed having him there to see the promise in everything and everyone.
Lively is a creative company, and John was our creative leader. Fulfilling John’s duties meant that I had to identify a new creative voice for the company. I did this by tapping into the creative talent already under our roof as well as seeking out additional creative leadership.
I knew that building a system of support would be key to the continued success of the company, so I promoted key individual contributors and gave them a stake in the agency. I relied on select talent already in place as well as sought out new creative talent who had a vision and an understanding of how to be successful. As I’ve devoted more time to establishing a long-term strategy, they have taken on more responsibility for the day-to-day running of the company. It’s pretty similar to what happened with John and me at first -- a passing of the torch.
With no other choice but to jump in head first, I learned quickly that I would need to share decision-making for certain elements of the organization -- including day-to-day operations, personnel and technical issues -- with other people. I had to learn how to rely more heavily on my colleagues.
Five years later, the company continues to thrive by constantly reinventing itself. It has become clear that there is a new internal alignment that speaks to how people think and function in the new media world, and we have adjusted accordingly. Lively is 90 people strong, and we are charting our own course with new branding and an exciting launch planned for the fall.
There really isn’t much you can do or change; you can only work hard. To absorb the loss of John in my life, I had to create something different but equally successful using our work together as a foundation. We are facing the future with open arms."