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Matse and Moolah

George Salamon
April 14, 2014
by George Salamon matzo chairThe bread of faith: That’s what matse used to be called, expressing the faith of the Hebrews in God as they rushed out of slavery in Egypt. The fate of the unleavened bread’s largest maker, Manischewitz, now rests in the hands of Sankaty Advisors, an arm of “private equity giant Bain Capital,” the firm that made Mitt Romney millions. That was what we learned in the story in the April 7 New York Times’ New York edition. Those of us outside the Big Apple may not have heard. It’s not really the story of something new. Manischewitz, founded as a small baker of matzos in 1888 by Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz in Cincinnati, was sold by his grandson in 1990 to Kohlberg & Company, a private equity firm. In 2008, after the company’s name had changed to R.A.B. Food Group, it reclaimed the family name, apparently aided by the investment from yet another hedge fund, Harbinger Capital Partners. The unleavened nourishment of Hebrews in the Biblical desert and during Passover in America’s suburbs has been in the hands of financial wheelers and dealers for much of the reign of finance capitalism in America. So what’s special about the latest switch? Sankaty Advisors now owns all of Manischewitz’s equity. We discovered during the 2012 presidential campaign what Republican candidate Mitt Romney did at Sankaty’s parent company with firms it acquired; as Matt Taibbi explained so vividly in Rolling Stone magazine, Bain Capital saddled acquired companies with the debt used to buy them, a burden that forced companies to fire workers and cut their pay and benefits. Taibbi called it “raping and pillaging.” A person briefed on the latest deal anonymously told the Times that Sankaty plans to “act as a steward to the brand,” and that Sankaty wants to help Manischewitz to get its products in grocery aisles beyond the kosher ones. Manischwitz’s own rabbi, Yaakov Y. Horowitz, suggested, “There was always a good feeling in American culture about kosher.” Sure, going back to that wonderful adverting slogan of the 1950s: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Jewish Rye.” Will “You don’t have to be Jewish to savor Manischewitz’s gluten-free Matses” evoke similar “good feelings” in the bread and crackers aisle of Whole Foods or Safeway next year? The choice of stewards does not inspire trust. The newly appointed interim chief executive of Manischewitz is Mark Weinstein, a senior managing director of FTI Consulting and labeled by the Times as a “serial C.E.O.” who has in the past “run a number of other small companies in need of fresh thinking.” The “serial C.E.O.” moniker is delicious, but if I were at Manischewitz I’d be really worried about that “fresh thinking.” FTI Consulting describes itself as a “global business advisory firm that provides multidisciplinary solutions to complex challenges and opportunities” and prides itself as committed to “protecting and enhancing the enterprise value of (its) clients.” With so much gibberish (“multidisciplinary solutions”) and weasel-wording and no mention of money (only that awful euphemism “enterprise value”), I’d be very worried at Manischewitz indeed. George Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, served as staff reporter on the St. Louis Business Journal and senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has contributed articles to The Washington Post and The American Conservative and poetry to New Verse News. For the past five years he has been a regular contributor to the Gateway Journalism Review.