Ralph Martin likes to joke about how he has failed at retirement.
Did anyone really expect a busy guy like Martin to succeed at that? Martin retired from his job as general counsel at Northeastern University in February, after an 11-year tenure. But he was soon back in business, handling client investigations and internal audits as a partner at the law firm of Prince Lobel.
Martin might be better known for breaking barriers in Boston as the first elected Black district attorney for Suffolk County and for chairing The Partnership Inc., a networking and training organization for professionals of color, two different times. It’s for this work, and more, that Martin will be feted in front of a crowd of 700 on Wednesday at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, when the Eastern Bank Foundation honors him with its 2022 Social Justice Award.
“Most people would stay in their lane,” said Nancy Huntington Stager, the foundation’s chief executive. “He has stretched himself at various points in his career out of his comfort zone to take on new challenges. There aren’t enough people willing to do that.”
Martin landed in Boston nearly 50 years ago after graduating college at Brandeis. His plan had been to go back home to New York City to be a police officer, just like his father was at one point. But New York was laying off thousands of municipal workers at the time, and it was unclear when a job might open up. So he stayed in Boston instead, attended Northeastern’s law school, and then joined a small firm led by Wayne Budd (who eventually became New England president for Bell Atlantic, now part of Verizon) and Tom Reilly (who later served as Massachusetts attorney general).
While leading the prosecutor’s office from 1992 until 2002, Martin made a deliberate effort to make it more accessible to all Suffolk County residents, not just those who were well connected, and to be more proactive to prevent kids from getting stuck in the criminal justice system. “People of color, in particular, didn’t feel it was as responsive to them as it was to the majority population,” Martin said. “I remember running for office [saying], people in Roxbury want the same thing as people in West Roxbury.”
While the city’s business community has become more diverse over the years, particularly with the arrival of a new generation of corporate leaders, Martin said there’s more work to be done. Toward that end, Martin joined Prince Lobel in part because of its commitment to diversity and being a “positive force” for the city.
Martin’s legal career shows no sign of ending anytime soon, even if he might be slowing things down a bit.
“One of the reasons I failed at retirement is I still like solving problems,” Martin said. “I still like fixing things or finding solutions.”
Swift says our education system needs a boost
The topic of Massachusetts competitiveness is a hot one these days in the local business community, with executives growing increasingly worried about the high cost of living here, especially as companies become more comfortable with remote work coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But former acting governor Jane Swift says there’s something else we should worry about: public education. She made the point at a conference last week held by MassEcon, an economic development nonprofit partnership, at Takeda Pharmaceutical Co.’s Lexington campus. She was speaking during a panel discussion with Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce chief executive Tim Murray (a former lieutenant governor, like Swift) and Greenberg Traurig environmental lawyer Lauren Liss.
Since leaving the State House roughly two decades ago, Swift has been working in the ed-tech industry, helping with the educational sector’s digital transformation. In that regard, Swift said, Massachusetts public schools for the most part have been disappointing. The inadequate efforts for remote learning seen during the pandemic underscored this unfortunate truth, she said.
“We have to get serious about how you effectively utilize . . . technology to deliver the highest quality education to our kids,” said Swift, who is now an operating partner with Vistria Group, an investment firm. “Otherwise, we’re operating with one hand behind our back.”
She cited an earlier comment made that afternoon by Brandon Pyers, a location adviser with Deloitte, who had mentioned that lower-cost states and cities are competing with Massachusetts for biotech and tech companies and employees, with Tampa being one example.
“The head of Tampa General Hospital, you know where he’s from? Boston. The person who has redeveloped . . . the waterfront in Tampa? Boston,” said Swift, making references to hospital chief John Couris and investor Jeffrey Vinik. “We can’t be complacent. We’ll give folks [a reason to go] somewhere more willing to be innovative and adaptive.”
Same initials but new name as TV trade group evolves
It’s a name change that was three years in the making: In recent weeks, the signs were finally switched at NECTA’s Boston office. Formerly the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association, the group is now the New England Connectivity and Telecommunications Association.
The rebrand essentially has been in the works since Tim Wilkerson was promoted to be NECTA’s president in 2019. The goal was to come up with a name that honored the group’s past, while hinting where it is headed. Even its core members of Comcast Corp., Charter Communications, Cox Communications, and Breezeline (formerly Atlantic Broadband) know the future is in Internet connectivity, not necessarily cable TV, Wilkerson said.
“These companies have become Internet providers first, . . . then cable and phone,” Wilkerson said.
NECTA hired communications firm Seven Letter to help with the rebranding, with a goal of having it done by NECTA’s annual conference in Newport, R.I., a week ago. Wilkerson hopes to broaden the appeal to potential members, by making it clear the group isn’t simply a “cable TV” trade association.
Wilkerson was also responsible for moving NECTA’s offices from Braintree to 53 State St., to bring the group close to the center of government and business in Massachusetts.
“The arc of this organization has brought us to the heart of the innovation world,” Wilkerson said. “I thought it was very important from a symbolism standpoint to be downtown.”
Sorting out ‘the family business’ at Babson
Family dynamics can be tough to navigate. Add a multibillion-dollar business to the equation, and it gets even trickier.
Ernesto Bertarelli, a Swiss businessman who took over leadership of the biotech Serono (now part of Merck KGaA) from his father in the 1990s, knows this all too well.
That’s one reason why Bertarelli made a hefty donation to Babson College to support its family entrepreneurship programing. (Babson did not disclose the amount.) In doing so, Bertarelli added his name to Babson’s Bertarelli Institute for Family Entrepreneurship. He visited the campus last week to highlight the name change. During a presentation made with Babson president Stephen Spinelli and institute executive director Lauri Union, Bertarelli pointed to a clash he had with his dad, Fabio Bertarelli, when he was a teenager, as an example of the challenges inherent in a family-owned business.
“He walked into my room [and said], ‘How is it possible I can make all the people in my business work, and I cannot make you work?’” recalled Bertarelli, who graduated from Babson in 1989. “I looked at him and said, ‘Because I’m not one of your managers.’”
Of all the things Bertarelli learned at Babson, here’s the one thing he felt was missing at the time from the curriculum: lessons about the dynamics that can exist between family members. In some ways, Bertarelli had to learn the hard way. But the students who attend his namesake institute will be far more prepared if they face similar challenges.